A big thank you to the wonderful folks at EdSource for originally posting this commentary.

We often talk about the “core curriculum” as the center of our education system, the most essential content for students to master in order to be prepared for their futures. For most, it includes English, math, science and social science. Many support the inclusion of multilingualism, the arts and career-technical education.

With the advances of the past century, isn’t it time to re-evaluate what is “core”? What competencies do young people need to face future challenges? How can they be the drivers of their own learning? Why is it so difficult to change legacy thinking?

Our education system is separated into, and organized around, these discreet “core” subject areas. They are the basis for students’ class schedules, schools’ departmental structures, teachers’ credentials, and universities’ admissions requirements. They are the focus of student report cards, state standards, standardized tests, tutoring programs and accountability measures.

Yet, over the past decade, when more than 75 school districts across California have engaged their communities to develop a “graduate profile” or “portrait of a graduate” by asking their community members what skills, competencies and mindsets are most essential for young people to be successful, the core subject areas are not ranked at the top. Rather, respondents (or community members) say that students should be creative and critical thinkers, effective communicators and collaborators, self-directed lifelong learners, culturally competent and globally aware citizens, technically and financially literate, adaptable and resilient, and kind and curious. This represents a more holistic and integrated approach to teaching and learning. In fact, a recent WestEd report verified that these competencies are most frequently cited in districts’ graduate profiles; the academic content areas fell further down the list.

For decades, employers have identified a similar set of competencies as critical for success in the workplace. While colleges and universities tend to default to core content requirements, when pressed they agree that the same competencies are critical for a young person’s success in postsecondary education. And, wouldn’t we all want informed and productive citizens to embrace these skills? Are they not core?

These ideas are not new. Nearly 20 years ago, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills created the P21 Framework, often simplified by practitioners to “the 4Cs” —  collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.

My goal is not to establish an either/or argument, but rather to suggest a rebalancing for current and future generations. Granted, much of our society still stands behind “the three R’s” — reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmatic — and will argue until blue in the face that these skills are most essential. They are! Yet, in this day and age, when information is available at our fingertips 24/7 and artificial intelligence can organize that information in coherent ways, what should we consider as core?

Content will always be central to our schools. If we were to formally elevate the importance of the 4Cs, and even organize around them, students still would have to think critically about something, collaborate around something, and communicate something. That “something” is the content, and teachers can be creative about how to integrate key standards. But, what would it look like if we were to rebalance the priorities?

We wouldn’t have to look far to find examples of small but significant shifts. Several school districts (such as Davis and Novato) have modified their elementary report cards to reflect their graduate profile outcomes. Anaheim Union High School District employs “5Cs coaches” at each of their 20 school sites to help teachers integrate the 5C skills into everyday lessons and projects (5Cs = 4Cs + compassion). In order to graduate, some districts (including Pasadena and Anaheim) require students to demonstrate their graduate profile outcomes through senior projects, portfolio defenses or capstone interviews.

District efforts to rebalance the priorities of our education system — by creating a graduate profile and working to operationalize it — have been underway for well over a decade, but progress has been slow because the state (the Department of Education, State Board of Education, Legislature, and Governor’s Office) has been slow to incentivize, encourage, and/or support local efforts through funding and policy. Many other states have done so.

What might it look like if formal structures existed to intentionally prioritize a new core set of competencies? For example, what if students could earn digital badges for their demonstration of the 4Cs, to be used as portable credentials for college admission and employment? What if teachers could earn micro credentials for the effective teaching of the 4Cs? What if the state’s data and accountability systems captured student progress on the 4Cs? In more creative and less formalized applications, what if field trips, after-school and summer programs centered on 4C skill development? What if administrators selected the teacher-of-the-month based on impressive 4C instruction? What if foundations awarded scholarships and/or (like in Petaluma) students voted on the homecoming court based on student demonstration of the 4Cs?

Recently, I facilitated a team of educators and community members working to implement their graduate profile. When I asked the father of a Latina 12th grader whether he thought the traditional transcript or the graduate profile most reflected what his daughter needed for her future success, he pointed to the graduate profile.