Jean-Claude Brizard on a Career of Transformation and the League of Innovative Schools

Key Points

  • Digital Promise emphasizes community-centered solutions that drive progressive school districts and foster educational advancements.

  • The pathways outlined by Digital Promise advocate for the seamless integration of digital credentials into high school education.

On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, Tom Vander Ark talks with Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Digital Promise. Together, they talk about the organization’s unique congressional mandate and its role in educational innovation. 

Brizard discusses the power networks like the League of Innovative Schools have in credentialing and micro-credentials for teachers, and the concept of ‘powerful learning’ that includes student agency and advanced pedagogies. They explore inclusive innovation processes that integrate voices from all community stakeholders, and reflect on Brizard’s past work on transforming New York City’s high schools. This conversation highlights Digital Promise’s commitment to advancing education through research, technology, and innovative practices.

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Tom Vander Ark: Digital Promise is an independent bipartisan non-profit, with an unusual congressional, mandate. It was signed into law by President Bush in 2008 and launched by, President Obama and Secretary Duncan in September, 2011. I remember being, at the White House for that launch and I’ve been An excited fan of Digital Promise ever since.

I’m Tom Vander Ark. You’re listening to getting smart podcasts. We’re joined today by, the CEO of Digital Promise Jean-Claude Brizard. JC, it’s great to have you on the show.

Jean-Claude Brizard: Tom, it’s great to see you. 

Jean-Claude Brizard’s Journey

Tom Vander Ark: Do you remember when Digital Promise was launched? 

Jean-Claude Brizard: No, in 2008 I was in Rochester, New York. I actually learned more about Digital Promise when I got to Chicago.

Tom Vander Ark: You’ve been there three years now?

Jean-Claude Brizard: A little bit over three years. Yes.

Tom Vander Ark: At Getting Smart, we’re really interested in the future of learning, building the future of learning, helping ed leaders, find and develop the path forward. And, I don’t know, there’s nobody that, is doing that better than digital promise.

You must’ve been excited when Karen Cator returned to Apple. And, uh, did she, or did the board reach out to you how did you make that connection?

Jean-Claude Brizard: Yeah. So I tell people I was in the room when Karen was appointed president, and CEO, Jim Shelton made the announcement at A-S-U-G-S-V, a convening in Arizona. Um, so I was in line, with the headhunter looking at the Council of Great City Schools. Again, being at the Gates Foundation and the pandemic.

Forced me to rethink my travel schedule. So when I heard digital promise was open, from the headhunter and she asked me, would you be interested? Absolutely. Uh, because for me, it was a natural next step for me, my career, my life.

Tom Vander Ark: How unusual is it for a nonprofit to have this sort of, congressional mandate? You are an independent nonprofit, but. Is that just an interesting origin story or is there more to it than that?

Jean-Claude Brizard: It’s a fantastic origin story, which, gives us access to the agencies in the U.S. Government. That is, somewhat unique. For example, we work with the FCC. We work with, the Department of Education. We’re well connected to NSF. Yes, we are connected to the White House. We Talk to folks in the Senate regularly.

So we have a level of access because we are nonpartisan, right? Because we work both sides of the aisle. And frankly, the work we produce, we think can really inform the ways in which both, agencies execute on policy and practitioners, execute on the work on the ground.

So we have a unique perspective, I think, to the world, about education.

Tom Vander Ark: It seems to give you a particular entrée to a little bit of federal funding. You have a good relationship with NSF and other departments of the federal government. Is that fair?

Jean-Claude Brizard: It is. I would only say though that we apply for funding with IES or NSF the way anybody else does. because we are a unicorn, because we check so many boxes, we tend to do better than most, frankly, in getting funding from NSF and IES. This is not about hubris, but the work product we produce is of quality that often is a great measure before NSF and IES.

Transforming New York City Schools

Tom Vander Ark: We met about 25 years ago. You had been leading, some high schools in New York City. And then, Joel Klein invited you, to take on, high schools in New York City. That’s just a huge, extraordinary challenge. Because it was right. It’s a system with, some of the worst high schools in America and many of the best high schools in America and a lot of high schools.

So an extraordinary portfolio. I remember meeting you, was it at Tweed or was it at City Hall? 

Jean-Claude Brizard: Tweed, you know, when David Banks became chancellor of New York City schools, I was part of his transition team in conversations. And one thing we told him was that the biggest asset you have in New York City is variability. I said, I guess you’re the best and the worst in the world right here.

And that quickly, I think, is an asset. When we met, at Tweed, we did have an amazing meeting at City Hall, about the future of high schools in New York City.

Tom Vander Ark: I remember back in 1999, you said, Tom, I want to work On the hardest thing that nobody else will take on. And I said, well, we should work on high school because it’s a big, gnarly problem. And and Joel Klein, you had some early help from Jim Shelton, to develop the Children’s First Initiative.

I think about that all the time, JC, the combination of the courage to close some of the worst, dropout factories in America and to stand up within the system. Hundreds of really good new schools, and to do it at speed and scale, is really, I don’t know. I think it’s the most important work that’s been done in America in the last, 30 years, certainly when it comes to high schools, maybe the Texas high school project a close second but you really were deeply involved in what I think was one of the most successful, one of the largest, one of the most difficult and complicated transformations in history.

And I’ll always appreciate your leadership there. That must’ve been a crazy, wonderful, complicated, leadership experience for you.

Jean-Claude Brizard: That time was an amazing learning experience for me as well, when you’re looking at that kind of a system, for folks who may not understand, these were 400 high schools across New York City. I did a presentation once for the Department of Education, we had more dropouts than most systems had kids across the country.

So it was a monumental task. There was an amazing set of people who did this work. Michelle Cahill being one, Kristen Kane, Garth Harris, and a lot of amazing folks, including some deans of high school principals across New York City who understood what this work was. So it really was, a large set of people.

But people may not also notice about me. I was a high school principal in New York City. We took on the dysfunction of vocational education, and that was the front end of the shift to career and technical education. The story of my high school is still on the web. 23 years later, Chief Information Officer Magazine, CIO Magazine published an article on the transformation.

I was, a 30-something, slim, kid, basically trying to take on a bunch of adults, I had an amazing asset, in the teacher’s union. The UFT was a big part of our effort and partner in the work. But to your point, I would say the work that was done in New York City under Joel, was not only seminal work, but I think we educated the world, not just the U.S., on what it meant to change and look at high schools and early college, high schools, career technical education, and looking at small schools.

You know, a lot of effort. At the same time, too, we also began to really understand the migrations of kids across the city, because you close a school in the Bronx, you don’t necessarily impact kids in the Bronx, you impact kids in Brooklyn as well. So these kinds of, lines that we saw and the work we did with Parthenon, frankly was absolutely amazing in the high school work

Tom Vander Ark: Actually, I was just thinking that JC, there are so many subchapters to this. One is you talked about dropouts. New York City has a network called transfer schools. And do you remember Kosmo was leading at the time and did the study. That really uncovered challenges in the transfer schools and helped us, both see that Michelle Cahill really was pivotal to this work, but developed a plan for dramatically improving transfer schools.

In about 24 months, we saw a huge jump in completion rates, because of that work. So one of the exciting chapters there

Jean-Claude Brizard: That work was difficult in the sense that, historically those schools were used in, forgive the expression as dumping grounds, right? For the regular high schools, pushing kids to those places because they didn’t know how to serve them.

So changing that, bringing rigor, into those schools, removing this pathway to dumping was critical. And we also had to battle the accountability system under NCLB, right? Because those schools were concentrated with kids who had been dropouts, etc. And how you stayed accountable against that system was another challenge that Michelle and team really met.

Let me give you one beacon. I know when you were at Gates, you funded this effort at South Brooklyn Community High School. That school, was co-run by the Department of Education in New York City and by a bunch of nuns. Catholic nuns It was actually groundbreaking. And I was the head of that particular network for a short time.

 They would go to surrounding high schools and would ask, give me a list of all the kids who have not been in school in two months. And then they took that list and were searching for those kids. To bring them back to school, they initially had a 70-80 percent completion rate.

You go to their graduation, it was a tear-jerker. these kids who were pregnant, who had kids themselves found an amazing way of getting supported, by a combination of the social-emotional And the academic. And frankly, we provided amazing outcomes. I know Gates helped codify the model.

Don’t know if they’re still on the web, but the actual documents were still there. But that South Brooklyn School became an amazing beacon for New York City.

 It was Good Shepherd and the Department of Education. 

Tom Vander Ark: She went on to found, Springpoint. I remember the day that, Michelle Cahill introduced me to Joellen Lynch, and, I just knew immediately that I was in the presence of a really thoughtful, caring person. Insightful, individual and there are such a cloud of them. JC. It was also a place that I really learned about the power of networks.

Most of the work in New York was done in networks spearheaded by Bob Hughes, who was running new visions for public schools in partnership with the DOE. You think about urban assembly and, the, EL schools, in New York, they’re, outward bound, just a number of really good networks that developed, a number of new schools across the city, what other networks would you give a shout-out to?

Jean-Claude Brizard: First of all, let me just say that we lost Joellen way too early in her career. She was a powerhouse, frankly, in the work. I miss her dearly. But, in the creation of these new schools and these networks, we’ve learned a ton. Right now I’m on the Board of EL Education.

I can tell you the ELOB, in those days, it was a combination of Outward Bound and EL and how EL has grown and, their market share in literacy instruction, the way they look at holistic education has just been paramount in the work they actually do. I think the lessons from New visions, have been fantastic They gave birth to initially this thing called, supporting dedication.

And now this data system that supports the understanding. of data. And in our head, frankly, even at Digital Promise, there’s a lot of lessons we’ve learned around network health, and network design, to really create these amazing, powerful communities of practice. Urban Assembly is still doing amazing work.

And Saskia Levy Thompson, if you know Saskia, of course, is now at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, you know, that work continues through our funding. constructs. So if you think about the cascading impact of this work in New York City, and, of course, what we do today, there is a throughline that many of us are learning from including the works we do here at Digital Promise in networks.

Innovative Networks and Powerful Learning

Tom Vander Ark: Well, speaking of networks, talk about the great work that digital promise is doing to create the future of learning. And really for me at the centerpiece of. The last 15 years has been the League of Innovative Schools. This is now 150 most innovative, public school districts in America.

There’s a couple of chartered networks in there, but the most innovative school systems in America in a collaborative, really a community of practice, and it seems to be going strong and still an important organization, right? 

Jean-Claude Brizard: I would even argue it’s stronger than ever. So quick history. You know, when Arne, Secretary Duncan created the League of Innovative Schools, there were maybe a dozen districts from around the country. And these folks, many of them, while we are still members of the League, they had unfettered access to the Secretary’s office, to the White House.

So there’s a bit of, reminiscing of that kind of access. But I can tell you now with 150, 160 plus very progressive leaders, it continues to be really, really strong. Their connection to research and development, which is again, one of our criteria to enter the league, is that you’ve got to be forward thinking, you’ve got to want to push innovation, you have to be willing to engage in R&D, continues.

Right now, we’re beginning to combine our Global Cities Network, a structure we took from the Asia Society. And with the league, I’ll give a couple of examples, Uh, we’re going to start in the fall a cohort leaders, both international and us looking at the future of ed-tech enabled education, we’re going to start in Uruguay and we’re going to travel the world with this group of amazing leaders.

So think about 17 to 20 leaders from the U.S. and international. Again, studying together, facilitated conversations, and artifacts will come out of that. The league grows strong. We were in New York, back in late March, early April. We visited, with the school district on Long Island with Mike Nagler on Long Island, New York.

Mike may only have 2,600 kids in his district, but I can tell you his impact is global. Everyone in New York State knows what is happening in that particular district. And there are many others, frankly. Next spring we’re going to be in Lindsay Unified, in California. But when you look at these places, and by the way, we also just had a meeting in Pittsburgh with about 15 league members, with Forge Futures, looking at the future of education.

We had AASA there as well too, and they’re learning 2025. So even though it is somewhat closed network, what they aim to do is to really inform the work of 14,000 districts across the country. That is their goal. And of course, now they are mushrooming beyond the U.S.

Tom Vander Ark: You mentioned Asia Society. They got their start, in New York City. We helped them become a network of schools. And then one of their partners, the Internationals, which is a school for newcomers, which just did extraordinary work, with high school English language learners. the power of networks.

I love going to the league meeting because it’s just alive, with leadership and innovation. sometime in the last two years, you bundled a couple of your initiatives into a new heading called powerful learning, which I absolutely love. But what’s to you, what is powerful learning? What does that include? What are you working on there? 

Jean-Claude Brizard: Tom, so we’re going to do a little bit of a refresh in the definition of powerful learning and that’s what we are adding. So one, the, structure talks about deeper learning. It talks about all the things we know around, for example, What great pedagogy, what great learning looks like, and of course, as technologies evolve, we talk about powerful technology supporting powerful learning, right?

We think about, for example, the issues or the competencies about computational thinking, which would transcend technology. We get kids to be able to manage machines. It is becoming part of the definition, but more importantly, we’re thinking about student agency in learning, which is now beginning to be part of the new construct that we’re about to publish.

So what is the role of a child in his or her own learning? And how does she or he define that? Because if they don’t define it as powerful learning from their own vantage point, then it’s not powerful learning. Perhaps the example I can use is I’m a commercial pilot, and I’m thinking about my experience learning to fly as powerful learning only because in aviation, you know, we don’t accept failure.

So when you think about that kind of an orientation where there is an instructor as a facilitator, and I’m dealing with powerful technology, and I’m dealing with computational thinking because I have to manage the machines. I’m thinking about my own agency and control in what I do for me is the way in which I think about powerful learning.

So this definition really is looking to encompass so much of what we talk about around learning on agency, non-academic development, the whole issue of the science of learning and development is going to show up in this definition. What we are looking at in terms of what is now permeating this country around the portrait of a graduate.

The profile of a graduate, those competencies that we see in many districts, how that is implemented, for us, fits into powerful learning. By the way, what we talk about very simply is not just a conceptual framework, but yes, that, and what does that look like Monday morning, 9 a.m., in history class, in science class, in ELA, in mathematics, right?

So that needs to be part of The full template of effort that really centers the learner 

Tom Vander Ark: JC, in the early days of generative AI, I see examples that appear to, accelerate and empower, this idea of powerful learning and agentic learning that’s community connected.

Jean-Claude Brizard: It becomes really relevant. I mean, you go back to the three R’s, right? The relevancy is there. and as a former science teacher, teacher chemistry and physics, I have to tell you, that’s the best way to learn, to these kinds of problems.

Realistic, student driven kinds of, and community benefited challenges, frankly. And to your point, if you can embed the formative assessments within that, then the learning continues, 

Future of Credentialing and Inclusive Innovation

Tom Vander Ark: That’s beautiful, speaking of challenge based learning with embedded assessments, digital promise is a leader In credentialing, particularly for teachers, you’re the leading, host and provider of micro credentials for teachers. For me, that’s a new way to think about human growth, to create a library of opportunities, growth.

Teachers have voice and choice in terms of what they learn. They have a voice and choice in terms of how they demonstrate their growth. what’s new on the teacher micro credentialing front and do you see a larger role for digital promise as the field of credentialing grows in importance as we try to move courses and grades into the background and surface new signals?

What role is digital promise going to play?

Jean-Claude Brizard: Absolutely. So we’ve been working with districts in making sure that is a part of the teacher ladder, uh, conversation as folks talk about the rethinking of the mental model for teachers and for the educators, right? We include parents in that particular milieu. Then how do microcredentials support that development?

For example, we’ve talked to Lakeisha Young with Oakland REACH about how you credential your parents. and being great partners in the work. and because of Walton Foundation, we’re now beginning to build a structure for K 12 as well to really change the way in which we actually recognize learning.

So there’s a lot happening on that front, all done against the backdrop of the learning and employment record. how do we think of a learner record from grade school to grave and give agency to individuals and looking at how to cobble different credentials? How do we help adults understand, or even young people understand how you grow with a job?

As a career shifts and changes, how do you think about that? One quick example for you. When you look at the average airline, many of them are putting these wingtips. On, the airlines, right? So, an effort mechanic, when you see the handwriting on the wall, seeing the emerging move in that job, we’ll get a micro credential to say, look what I can do, and perhaps get a massive promotion and a raise in doing that.

So this idea of using those digital credentials to inform the pathway, of a learner, I think is important. We also now doing a ton of work in ethnographic studies, looking at the true pathway of an individual. Uh, how do we better understand that system to support what I call the informed or the controlled meandering of a learner?

again, using digital credential as a way of doing that.

Tom Vander Ark: When and how will, credentialing, particularly skills credentialing move into high schools? How do you see that happening?

Jean-Claude Brizard: Yeah, I would argue it’s moving, we’re building for that right now to looking at age 13 plus. what I hope happens in the medium term is that we completely revamp the high school transcript to be one that Perhaps a line with the early art learning and employment record. I know the Carnegie Foundation for Advacing Teaching and ETS working on this as well, to a number of states are jumping on that bandwagon, we’re hoping to get a broader consortium around this kind of work.

Tom Vander Ark: I’m a board member of the Master Transcript Consortium, which just became part of ETS. I’m excited about this movement where I do think we’ll see a learner record that incorporates credentials sort of move into the foreground and. The traditional list of courses and grades begin to move into the background.

I want to give a big shout out to Christina Luna on your team for her leadership on this front and pathways and credentials. She is, a terrific resource for the sector. We talk to her frequently when we’re trying to figure out what’s happening in the credentialing space.

Jean-Claude Brizard: I would also add quickly. So I think there’s a potential here with this new transcript of honoring all learning, not just what happens within the four walls of the school, not just what happens within the academic realm. 

Tom Vander Ark: I question about that yesterday from, I think it was after school alliance asking about how to recognize out-of-school learning for 20 years, going all the way back to the transfer schools. We’ve been thinking about how can we give credit to those experiences so that it fits into graduation requirements.

Credentialing is a different strategy. it values that experience for what it is, names it, frames it. and I think a learner record is going to be a new way that it becomes recognized. I think we’ll find new ways to describe graduation requirements that value those. in fact, I think the new Indiana diploma is going to be an example of a diploma pathway that recognizes credentials.

I think we’re finally moving into this vision that we started talking about 30 years ago of anywhere, anytime learning, uh, that can be credentialed and, valued that learner records will help kids tell their story and make it secure and portable and verifiable.

Jean-Claude Brizard: Yes, yes, yes. And that’s, I mean, I’m watching, frankly, Tom, not just these places like Indiana and the U. S. I’m watching countries like Rwanda, How do we leapfrog? how do we bring that to bear very quickly? So there is an international interest, especially in more developing countries and figuring out how to leapfrog.

we think it’s exciting.

We became Digital Promise Global in 2019. So we have a presence in about 70 countries, but deeper presence in about 27. this group is going to go from Uruguay to Finland, to look at the work, but we now have a presence in everywhere from Shanghai to Melbourne,  South Virgin Islands. you know, we’re hoping to get Latin America in Peru on board. We’re talking to folks in Johannesburg. again, We’re still going to be primarily U. S. Based organization, but we now fully understand that we’re more like than different internationally and digital promise needs to have that kind of footprint in many parts of the world as we develop in our global strategy.

Tom Vander Ark: pathways we’re leading a new pathways campaign, trying to sort of reimagine what that word means and how we can connect more learners to opportunity, how do you think about pathways and what are you working on in that front?

Jean-Claude Brizard: Yeah. when you think about That for us, it goes against one of our 10 year goals, which is how do we put 30 million learners in America on a path to economic mobility agency and well being? So it means both reducing the gap between bureaucracies, right? So early learning K 12 to higher ed to post secondary.

It goes back to our discussion on credentialing value, digital credentials, making that seamless, portable and, of course, owned by the individual. we’ve been talking to folks in San Diego, Orange County, Alabama about how we think about that kind of seamless connection, both at the more macro level systems designed by Dallas County is another place where you’re looking at.

Regional data systems, the LER, right? how do you connect post secondary to secondary? We also are thinking about the internal programming, which is that if you want kids to be successful in STEM, what are the gateway courses in higher ed or high school that we need to quickly change? We’ve done a ton of work thanks to the Gates Foundation on post secondary course completion, leveraging adaptive technologies and the results have been phenomenal. We’ve learned, for example, that Chemistry 101 is not just a gateway course, it is a door shutter for STEM majors, right? So all of that is part of the internal programming of work as we work internally and with partners in redesigning, coursework, again, mostly at high school level and post secondary level.

Tom Vander Ark: You brought back some bad memories, JC. my organic chemistry prof said, Vanderrick, you’re not smart enough to be an engineer. He was, very nearly a door shutter to my Engineering career. So I hear you, right? These have to be door openers, not door closers.

Jean-Claude Brizard: And as a chemistry major, he said, filtering mechanism. Um, and even in mathematics, we assume every kid’s going to be a mathematician. the fact is mathematics, you think about courses, like data science, I mean, that’s critical for learning, in a digital world, for example, right? You can’t shut kids out of those courses.

Let’s make them, to your point, enablers and not door shutters.

Tom Vander Ark: I would love to have you close with some thoughts on, inclusive innovation, this, our friend Kim Smith is, led, some of your work there, but what does that term mean to you? And. Why is it an important part of, who Digital Promise is as an organization?

Jean-Claude Brizard: Yeah. So when we think about, for example, R and D. Research and development. Too often these tier one research institutions do in two. Or giving schools. This is what the answer should be versus really centering the voices off those closest to the assets and challenges. Would it be a parent? Would it be teachers, etcetera?

So the whole model of inclusive innovation Focuses on a set of tenets and ways of doing business. that learn has come from the Tamarack Institute. It’s come from DARPA, lots of amazingly successful constructs brought together to really understand what this work really means. it gets more process in terms of centering the voice.

It’s having parents in our community, you know, teachers, the co designers of the research agenda that needs to be done, and we find the stickiness of the work is much more pronounced. right now we have 16 school districts in the league involved in a chronic absenteeism, inclusive innovation process.

So again, it’s a fundamental challenge in the country right now with chronic absenteeism. The process of inclusive innovation is centering the voices of the key protagonists in the community school districts. You just named the folks who were involved in this in designing and finding solutions, understanding the data, first of all, right now, thanks to Gates, we may be adding, for example, the learning management systems that these systems are actually using.

To make sure that they’re getting just in time information to identify what cause and begin to address the issue. We’re trying to prove you can solve this through this process of inclusive innovation.

Tom Vander Ark: That’s beautiful. We’ve talked about powerful learning experiences for kids. We’ve talked about the power of networks. We’ve talked about working together, on inclusive innovation. We’ve talked about new forms of assessment, new signaling mechanisms that connect young people to opportunity.

 Jean Claude, we really appreciate. You and the digital promise contribution to building the future of learning. any parting thoughts for ed leaders? what do you want them to be thinking about or what resources that digital promise you on them to take a look at

Jean-Claude Brizard: we are a global nonprofit, nonpartisan, and everything we produce is for public consumption and in the public good. Please mind our website, email us. 

Tom Vander Ark: Sean Claude Broussard is the CEO of digital promise. Check them out at digital promise. org. we also appreciate Mason Pashia, our producer, the whole getting smart team that makes this possible along with our sponsors and partners till next week.

Keep learning, keep leading and keep innovating for equity.

Jean-Claude Brizard

Jean-Claude Brizard has dedicated his life to transforming educational systems and empowering students to reach their full potential. Born in Haiti, Brizard and his siblings were left in the care of his grandmother after his parents, fearing imprisonment under the regime of President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, were forced to flee the country. It would be six years before the family would be reunited in the United States. In an interview, Brizard recalled that his parents “sacrificed to get us to America and I will always work to honor their legacy and the gift of opportunity that they afforded me. It is my fondest hope that someday every child in America will grow up with that same sense of hope.”

Brizard’s journey in education began as a teacher in the public school system of New York City, where he witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by students and the critical role that educators play in their lives. He would go on to hold multiple senior leadership roles in public education, including serving as chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, superintendent of schools for the Rochester (NY) City School District, and senior advisor and deputy director in U.S. Programs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today, Brizard is president and CEO of Digital Promise, a global nonpartisan nonprofit organization focusing on accelerating innovation in education. For his work, he has been named a fellow of the Broad Center at Yale School of Management, a fellow of the Pahara Institute, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Driven by a passion to make a difference, Brizard continues to work tirelessly to improve educational outcomes for all children.

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