School & District Management Opinion

Trajectory Optimization: Building Better Pathways for Our Students

By Contributing Blogger — August 24, 2015 7 min read
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This post is by Susan Fairchild, chief knowledge officer at New Visions for Public Schools.

Every year or so The Global Trajectory Optimization competition takes place--challenging some of the best and brightest aerospace engineers and mathematicians from across the world to tackle the problem of “interplanetary trajectory design.” They liken “the global optimal of an interplanetary trajectory” to a “‘sailing challenge,’ with our galaxy as the racing waters and mathematical tools as the competing boats.” The quest for “best trajectory” inspires not just aerospace engineers, but educators--though the vehicle we are launching into the world is a child and our ultimate goal is to unlock her maximum potential.

In the simplest terms, trajectory optimization is the process of finding the best trajectory. When we appropriate this idea for educational purposes, we are talking about finding each student’s best trajectory so that they graduate high school on time and with the skills that make them career and college ready. But unlike aerospace engineers who exploit their mathematical tools to determine best trajectory, many of us in the field of education are simply unaware of the full range of tools available that help us shape student trajectories. As a consequence, we often limit ourselves to the necessary but insufficient curricular and instructional tools (see Mark Dunetz’s blog post). At New Visions, we are working hard to put a wider array of tools in the hands of our frontline educators (visit CloudLab), deepen the capacity of future educators and leaders (visit UTR and CLASS) while simultaneously building the case that practitioner-driven value-add is the most potent mechanism that shapes and accelerates the arc of student and school performance (see Design and Data In Balance report).


1. Designing the Landscape

An object’s trajectory has to travel through some sort of space. When applied to education, we are talking about the curricular landscape upon which a student will travel. The nature of learning is cumulative. Learning in later years builds upon the fundamentals acquired in earlier years. A student who does not master division and multiplication will not master Integrated Algebra. The landscape has to be designed to support this basic concept of learning. This also means that the curriculum has to be designed to slow students down at strategic checkpoints. For example, spending more time developing literacy skills reinforces a student’s foundational core that eventually builds the momentum necessary to advance.

Moreover, the curricular landscape has to be designed so that it motivates and inspires curiosity and exploration. Our charter schools take the position that engagement is a prerequisite to learning and they have infused challenged based learning within the curriculum. Creating real-world challenges requires community partnerships. Kami Lewis Levin explains (here and here) that if you want students to experience authentic challenges, then you have to “bring in real-world professionals to help kids crack these challenges.” In so doing, the charter teams are “tearing down the walls between school and life that have been erected by the traditional public system of education.”

2. Building Pathways

Indeed, curricular landscapes yearn to be explored. The course is the vehicle. And let’s face it, if you don’t have skilled teachers piloting the craft, the landscape encapsulated within a course won’t be well traveled. While our focus on the individual teacher matters, trajectory optimization requires that we step back and also consider the bigger picture--the pathway. The strategic sequencing of the courses represent the pathway. Students enter school with different levels of skill and master new challenges at different speeds. Trajectory optimization takes variable starting points and rates of learning into consideration and requires thoughtful and well executed scheduling and programming decisions.

The scheduling and programming systems in a school determines where students are on the path to graduation, schedules them into courses that enable them to move to advanced levels, ensures the courses and materials are aligned to exit exams, and maximizes proximal testing dates. Think of it like a subway system. As soon as a student reaches one destination, the next course has to be right there. Students who wait on the platform for the next course to arrive are victims of poor programming and scheduling; and, these delays are not without consequence.

3. Minimizing the Turbulence

Trajectory optimization also requires that our educators manage the travel conditions that can cause delays and result in undesired detours. Different forms of turbulence exist within a school: the external policy and reform ecosystem that a school must navigate; constantly changing teacher and student schedules that delay the semester; disruptive student behaviors within the classroom and across the school that impact school safety and draw attention from learning; academic and socio-emotional behaviors that can disrupt individual student progress. Managing turbulence effectively is the result of two design decisions: 1) how educators are organized into teams in the first place and 2) how the function of these teams are shaped by specific purpose and tools (e.g., real-time data reports) that enable effective core school systems.

Team Structures

Schools must organize educators wisely to minimize the day-to-day turbulence in a school. School teams fall along two broad dimensions, Instructional and Operational Supports, with the leadership team straddling both. The primary instructional supports (e.g., the leadership, department, and grade teams) are the teams that allow teachers to hone their craft and develop their teaching expertise. The primary operational supports (e.g., the leadership team, the grade advisors, the guidance counselors, the dean’s office, the programming team) work to create stability by minimizing different forms of turbulence that might otherwise disrupt the school and classroom environments.

The leadership team, the programming office, the dean’s office, the guidance counselors, and the grade advisors, through their respective roles, minimize turbulence and build the stability that allows the instructional side of the coin to work efficiently. For example, the leadership team implements external policies within the school with the least amount of disruption to the pre-existing school culture. The programming office ensures that the physical space, the teacher workforce, and the students’ needs all line up. This team creates the programming structure within a narrow window so that the teachers and students know where to go at the start of a semester. The dean’s office manages serious student behavior and misconduct--creating order within and across the school. The grade advisors and guidance counselors are the first line of defense, working with individual students--helping to maintain their stability, which translates to classroom stability.

Core Systems

But ultimately, the effectiveness of these human structures is dependent upon 1) how teams use data and 2) on workflows that are sufficiently specific to support consistent and immediate action (see recent blog post on systems). The combined effect of relevant, just-in-time data, workflows that organize the adults, and feedback that informs next steps are necessary elements that transform a conventional team into a core school system. Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes’ work around chronic absenteeism offers compelling reasons why core systems are so critical for schools. For instance, many of the gains we have made in improved curriculum and instruction are for naught if the systems that surround classrooms are weak, ineffective, or nonexistent.

4. Supporting the Steps

Core systems not only minimize the turbulence that disrupt school order and efficiency, they simultaneously reinforce and correct constantly changing and incredibly fragile student pathways. Effective core systems are highly sensitive and once triggered allow the adults in the building to spring into action.

By attending to the granular details of a student’s day-to-day routines (attendance, homework assignments, participation), educators are able to prevent small errors and missteps from accumulating. But managing the steps can only happen if educators are aware of what is unfolding in the immediate while also holding the long view of every student’s maximum potential. When we combine the granular detail of the day from various vantage points across a school, we create a continuous present--or a rich unfolding of events in which students are at the center.

This convergence of new tools and new mindsets represents an emerging opportunity that educators and those who back them up can either miss or seize. It’s that moment when we replace the mystery that surrounds the arc of student success with the powerful realization that our kids’ trajectories are collectively created by what we do today. And every day.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.