Classroom Technology

Gates Foundation Gives $2.2M to For-Profit Company Tackling School Schedules

By Benjamin Herold — July 20, 2018 4 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this week gave a $2.2 million grant to for-profit ed-tech company Abl to encourage school leaders to rethink how they organize time during the school day.

The “Unlocking Time” initiative, announced by Abl on Thursday, will feature a self-assessment tool intended to yield extensive data on how schools structure time during the school day, as well as free online resources and strategies for school leaders and an “accelerator program” that will partially subsidize the purchase of Abl’s master-scheduling software by a small number of schools.

In an interview, Abl founder and CEO Adam Pisoni said the new initiative is not specifically designed to promote his company’s software, which was used last year by about 25 schools.

“It is advantageous to our business, but also to schools in general,” Pisoni said. “The larger goal is creating awareness.”

Kai Kung, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said a relatively small portion of the group’s grants go to for-profit companies. In the case of Abl, the grant is structured so that it cannot be used to fund the company’s core business or technology. The Gates foundation will not take an equity stake in the company or gain a seat on its board.

“We’re not trying to create a market for [Abl’s] product,” Kung said.

“It’s an investment in the issue. We’re trying to bring visibility to the issue of time as a lever to try to improve equity and achievement across student populations.”

Calling Attention to the Master Schedule

Earlier this year, Pisoni talked with Education Week

about why he believes changing the ways schools structure their time, particularly via their master-scheduling process, is so important.

“When you start working with schools on the master-schedule level, it’s like seeing into the Matrix,” Pisoni said in an interview Friday. “At least half of an individual student’s outcomes is determined by decisions made outside the classroom, and that really come together in the master schedule.”

That figure is an anecdotal estimate, Pisoni said. But he offered some examples to illustrate his point: such decisions as who gets assigned to what classes and which teachers, what programs get implemented, and whether teachers have time to collaboratively plan are all made during the master-scheduling process, he said.

While the school schedule has started to receive fresh scrutiny from think tanks and researchers, school leaders often feel “hamstrung” in dealing with the challenges, Pisoni said.

“My theory is that the majority of [the country’s educational leadership] is made up of people who spent nearly two decades sitting in classrooms becoming ‘experts in school’ without knowing how schools work,” Pisoni said.

“It’s like saying you know how to improve an airline because you’ve sat inside an airplane.”

Public or Private Benefit?

Prior to founding his first ed-tech company, Pisoni co-founded enterprise-messaging service Yammer, which Microsoft bought for $1.2 billion in 2012.

In just over two years, Abl has raised over $12 million in venture capital, including a $7.5 million Series A round led by Rethink Education in 2017.

The company’s new Unlocking Time work will be led by an internal “impact team” that will not be beholden to Abl’s core commercial concerns, Pisoni said. The work will be overseen by an advisory board that includes educators such as former Coachella Valley Unified superintendent Darryl Adams and Baltimore principal Crystal Harden, as well as long-time education researchers and commentators such as Karin Chenoweth of EdTrust and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

The key element of the initiative will be the new “School Time Assessment,” described in a press release as “a survey tool for principals and staff to assess how their school uses time today, spark dialogue about the alignment of time structures with school values and priorities, and explore new time strategies.”

Pisoni said the surveys will focus heavily on educators’ attitudes about time during the school day. The resulting data will be turned into presentations that school leaders can use to generate conversation with their staff. It will also be provided in a locally aggregated form to district, state, and charter-network leaders so they can look for patterns across the schools for which they’re responsible. And Pisoni said nationally aggregated data will be provided to researchers and other ed-tech companies.

“We hope other people join this coalition, even competitors,” he said.

The new Gates grant will also give Abl a boost, however, partially subsidizing about two dozen schools a year to implement the company’s software and receive related consulting help as a way to generate “proof points” and lessons for the field.

And Abl will be the entity behind the new online hub, expected to house research on how schools use time, case studies highlighting innovative school-scheduling practices, and other free resources.

“We’re directing the bulk of our funds to the public-resource site,” said Kung, the Gates program officer.

“It’s a field-building project.”

Photo courtesy of Adam Pisoni.

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that the Gates Foundation did not originally announce the grant to Abl.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.