Education Week - January 10, 2018 - 13
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
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
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
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
We help school leaders express their priorities through the
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
Is this all computer-based, or is there a human on your end
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 handscheduling. 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
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. n
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
10 Big Ideas / www.edweek.org/go/bigideas