March 4, 2021 | By Erica Lawton Weinschenk
For more than 35 years, Jean-Claude Brizard has worked in education as a teacher, school leader, superintendent, chief executive, funder, and education advocate. He brings that deep experience to his new role as President and CEO of Digital Promise, at a time when the need for innovation in education is especially critical.
During his first official week, Brizard connected with me via Zoom to discuss his thoughts on the future of education, how issues of equity and racial justice shape his work, and how he envisions Digital Promise improving opportunities and outcomes for learners, particularly those who have been historically marginalized.
The following is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Erica Lawton Weinschenk (ELW): There was already a considerable amount at stake in education prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; now, the stakes are even higher. What do you consider to be the most critical areas in the future of education?
Jean-Claude Brizard (JCB): When we’re talking about the future of education, there’s a lot that needs to be done. Education, frankly, has failed to fulfill its promise. Not to say that the promise was always to teach all kids—the system was designed to do exactly what it’s doing right now. One thing we can do fundamentally for the future of education is to make sure we have the level of equity play that gives every young person access to an amazing education that’s not just focused on academic development, but on the whole child.
Another thing we can all do is to not have a myopic view of success, meaning that we don’t just look at students reaching math and reading proficiency by the end of high school. That is a means to an end. In many schools, especially in those overpopulated with Black and Brown students, proficiency is the North Star; you don’t hear that often in predominantly white schools. The education system needs to consider a grander vision of success that includes economic stability and positive life outcomes. There are many places in this country where this is happening. However, it is not happening for the masses.
Related to that, we often think of education as a narrow pathway from Pre-K through post-secondary education. We need to better understand the full life cycle of a child. When you look at all of the learning environments in which a child lives—the home, the school, the community—we have to figure out ways to stitch those together and capture the concept of everywhere learning. Technology has an amazing role in that, especially when we couple it with what we know about the science of learning and development.
— Digital Promise (@DigitalPromise) March 2, 2021
ELW: I’m glad you brought up the need to connect technology with learning sciences research, since we often talk about how Digital Promise works at the intersection of educators, researchers, and developers. How do you envision Digital Promise putting research to work to improve opportunities for students moving forward?
JCB: One of the great things about Digital Promise is the connection it makes between research and practice and the two-way bridge we’re creating between the many efforts happening right now in the field. We can teach researchers about the tension points in education, where the issues are from practitioners and what they need. At the same time, we can help practitioners lean on those experts to really inform the kind of work that needs to happen in our classrooms, the way we’re designing our schools, and how we can facilitate greater equity.
ELW: Across the country, school districts are about to mark one full year of distance learning. What do you consider to be their most important needs, and how is Digital Promise equipped to support them?
JCB: Enough is enough when it comes to the Digital Learning Gap—we have to close that immediately. We can’t just drop boxes of technology on kids’ doorsteps and walk away. What we’ve all discovered through the pandemic is that access to technology is a fundamental prerequisite for our work, but by itself it’s insufficient. The Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative is a great model for what closing the gap can look like. There are also great practices happening within the League of Innovative Schools and our other networks that can be codified, not just in the United States but around the world, to transform the education system.
Since last March, nearly three million kids are unaccounted for by schools across the country. Young people around the world stand to lose $10 trillion in earned income. Nearly 25 percent of freshmen didn’t show up this year to community colleges. All of these are major tension points. I think Digital Promise is well-positioned to partner with others to help close the gaps we know exist. We need to leverage this opportunity to demonstrate what’s possible, both in the short and long term.
ELW: You’ve highlighted the acute impact of the pandemic on those who have already been historically marginalized. How does equity and racial justice shape your work?
JCB: I often explain to people that I grew up in Haiti for the first 11 years of my life. My heroes and leaders, my teachers, and my president all looked like me. I did not, for those years, experience the psychological warfare that I often see played on African American people in this country, and others around the world. As someone who’s lived in America for over 40 years now, though, I’ve also come to internalize some of the microaggressions you see happening to people of color in this country. So I bring a kind of Afro-Caribbean view where I’m able to pull myself away from this traumatic experience and say, “No, this can be different.”
What I bring to Digital Promise is a commitment to leapfrogging inequality and a commitment to not being shy about having difficult conversations about the systems in which we live.
ELW: I’m curious what you mean by “leapfrogging inequality.” What does that look like in practice?
JCB: I borrowed that phrase from Rebecca Winthrop at the Brookings Institution, who has a great book on the topic. What I mean is that, without avoiding or minimizing the difficult work of the equity journey, all of us need to look at both the individual and the systems in which we live. We tend to play “whack-a-mole” equity and have become reactive as a sector. Take the pandemic—many people have been focused solely on addressing devices and hotspots. Those are obviously important, but how do we think beyond the immediate needs and consider how we can get ahead of an issue?
An analogy I like to use is based on my experience as a commercial pilot. When we take off from the runway, we often have a destination in mind. You have to think tactically about how to get there—constantly correcting and adjusting along the way—but you’re not married to the plan because you generally know where to go. I think that’s the work we often don’t do well in education: We tend to have a goal that’s myopic, and we tend to get married to our plan. Very simply, we can’t afford to do that anymore.
It goes back to the idea of defining a broader notion of success. We need to move all students further down the pathway from early learning through economic mobility, making sure the poorest kids and students of color have access to great programs of study and great jobs. We as a people, as a country, as a society—we’re not going to be successful unless we look out for those kids.