Special Report
Teaching Opinion

A Silicon Valley Entrepreneur Takes on the Master Schedule

New technology can help school leaders create a more equitable class schedule
By Liana Loewus — January 10, 2018 6 min read
Adam Pisoni is the Founder & CEO of Abl Schools. Based in San Francisco, he co-founded the communication software company Yammer in 2008, which Microsoft bought for $1.2 billion in 2012.
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Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

A school’s master schedule—as anyone who’s worked in a K-12 building knows—dictates much more than just bell times. It’s the framework for everything that happens in a school, such as determining which students get which courses, how paraprofessionals are assigned, and whether teachers have time to collaborate and with whom.

Crafting the master schedule—a job that generally falls to the principal or assistant principal—is a Herculean task. The final product has to account for union rules, district initiatives, graduation requirements, individualized education plans, and physical spaces available. Putting it together takes time—many months. And once the school year begins, even the slightest change to the master schedule can send ripple effects, reaching all students and staff members.

Adam Pisoni isn’t exactly a natural fit for fixing how schools approach the master schedule. His success as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur has nothing to do with his own schooling. In fact, he dropped out of high school in 11th grade and to this day does not hold a high school diploma or a higher education degree. In 2008, he co-founded a technology company—Yammer, a social network for businesses—and within four years sold it to Microsoft for about $1.2 billion.

Instead of sitting on a beach somewhere, he turned his sights to education, with the goal of reducing inequities that make it easier for some students to succeed than others.

About Adam Pisoni

Adam Pisoni is the founder & CEO of Abl Schools. Based in San Francisco, he co-founded the communication software company Yammer in 2008, which Microsoft bought for $1.2 billion in 2012.

“I’m a middle-class white guy with two educated parents,” Pisoni says, “I think about people [with fewer advantages] for whom education fails them. They have a longer road.” He believes the master schedule is the key to that kind of change.

Pisoni’s new company, Abl, which launched in 2015, has 17 employees and has raised $12 million in venture-capital funding. The group is currently piloting its computer-based platform, which lets school-based personnel input and shift the schedule quickly, highlighting conflicts and imbalances as they go, in a dozen schools. The program will cost $3 to $7 per student, and Pisoni is aiming to have it in about 30 schools, mainly in California, New York, and Texas, by the end of this summer. Education Week spoke with Pisoni about why he’s targeting the master schedule and how he hopes doing so will level the playing field for students.

You refer to yourself as an educational outsider. Why do you think the insiders should listen to you?

I spent a year talking to people across education—teachers, principals, assistant principals, district leaders, philanthropists, ed-tech founders, investors, researchers, policymakers—hundreds of people.

I began asking, what is it that will accelerate traditional schools moving in new directions? What is it that prevents them from doing so? How do we lower the risk, cost, complexity, and friction of doing so? It was about understanding what holds traditional schools back.

So much of it kept coming back to the master schedule. This is the blueprint of the school. Some people call it a moral document because if you want to understand who gets what, which programs we are prioritizing, what students and teachers we are prioritizing—you look at the master schedule.

By the time a student is sitting in a particular course or classroom, a lot of decisions have been made that determine that student’s opportunities.

What does creating the master schedule generally look like in schools?

School leaders are spending hundreds of hours on the master schedule—six to nine months [from about winter break to the end of the summer]. It’s here where policies, programs, and resources come together. It’s a giant Jenga game.

Typically, the way people are trained to do master scheduling because it’s so complex is to start with students who have the most constrained schedules—and those tend to be the honors students.

If you start there, you end up having the fewest options for students who need the most help. You can end up in these situations where none of your English-language learners [has] electives. Or what you see a lot in California is students have classes every period, but they don’t have the courses they need to go to college.

Most of this process is done on whiteboards, on magnet boards, with stickies. It begs for a data-rich solution but it’s mostly done in a data-poor way. You’re making decisions but you can’t see the consequences of those decisions before it’s too late.

If this is such a big deal, why aren’t more people focused on making it easier?

I can’t tell you how many times I explain this problem to people, and they can’t understand it. I talk to education researchers who’ve never heard of the master schedule. I talk to funders with a lot of experience in education and I’m telling them there’s a problem in every single school today that needs addressing, and you’ve never heard of it. And they get mad at me, because what does that say about them?

The way I ended up getting money is I said, “Don’t take my word. Call any principal in the country—it doesn’t matter where. Just mention the master schedule, and ask them about it, and they’ll talk to you for an hour.”

So you’ve created a platform that gathers information on staff availability and individual student needs and requests and helps people see in real-time the effects of making changes to the schedule. Explain why this is helpful for schools.

We help school leaders express their priorities through the master schedule.

If they want to increase teacher collaboration or increase special education inclusion, we’ll help them do that and see the trade-off they’re making.

We focus heavily on equity. We’re giving visibility into which students are getting what.

We saw a school where we were analyzing course requests, and it happened to be that all the boys in the grade were taking math and science, and all the girls were taking humanities. No one intended to do that, but the school didn’t know about it, either. The classes were going to be gender imbalanced. [We] make that visible.

During the process of scheduling, you change a lot of what students requested. That’s a big thing, too. Who’s getting what they asked for? Who is being pushed to take rigorous courses and who isn’t? Who is getting senior teachers and junior teachers?

Is this all computer-based, or is there a human on your end helping?

Even though it sounds like this is an automated computer process, it’s not very automated. That’s on purpose. We do have algorithms that aid the scheduler; they help you figure out how to put the puzzle together. But at the end of the day, it’s about a series of trade-offs.

It’s not like you hit a button. There’s a fair amount of hand-scheduling. It’s a very interactive process.

There’s a lot of skepticism about education fixes coming from the business world. What makes your company, and idea, different?

A lot of Silicon Valley education companies are approaching schools with the idea that schools are doing something wrong and they have the solution. We’re focusing on traditional schools and saying, “You know your goals, your students.” Your school may be a wealthy suburban school that’s trying to figure out how to get kids in more honors classes, and another school may be dealing with mental health and violence and attendance, and they have really different goals. We want to help you achieve your goals.

Our primary user and contact is the principal, which is also pretty unique. It’s not the teacher. So much focus is being put on teachers and classrooms, and we’re leaving a lot untouched out there, unfixed. There’s just as much work to do outside the classroom as there is inside it.

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The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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