Straight Up Conversation: Abl CEO Adam Pisoni & Impact Guru Chris Walsh
I had the chance to sit down last week with Adam Pisoni and Chris Walsh of Abl, a new San Francisco-based venture seeking to help schools rethink how they use time. Abl's first big product is a dynamic school-scheduling platform intended to help principals wrestle more effectively with that bane of their existence: the master schedule. Now available, you can find out more about the Abl Master Scheduler by going to their site, here. They promise that future products will help schools manage staff schedules, coordinate school activities, and make it easier to maximize the use of student and teacher time. All of this struck an obvious chord with me, given that I wrote at length in Cage-Busting Leadership about the importance of using time wisely and well—and about how and why that's often harder than it should be. Adam is Abl's founder and CEO, and Chris is the head of growth and impact. I asked them about what they're up to, how they came to this, and what they're hoping to accomplish.
Rick Hess: Can you say a little bit about just what Abl is? How do you explain to regular people what it is you guys are seeking to provide?
Chris Walsh: Abl provides online tools to help design and manage the daily life of a school. We've created a modern, easy-to-use scheduling platform that streamlines the entire master scheduling process—from student requests to course placement to student assignments—to help middle school and high school leaders build schedules much faster and make the process more transparent for teachers. Centralizing the process with a cloud-based platform means administrators can ditch all the paper forms, post-it notes, magnet boards, spreadsheets, and calendars that they usually use during the planning process, and makes it super easy to tinker with different scenarios as they work on the master schedule. Our platform sits alongside a school's existing student-information system, and we do all the heavy lifting to integrate the systems so that schools never have to enter anything in twice.
RH: Adam, you had substantial success with Yammer, a previous tech venture that you founded in 2008. If I understand correctly, Yammer, which you eventually sold to Microsoft, is a communication and collaboration platform for businesses. Could you just say a bit about how you made your way from that world to this one?
Adam Pisoni: As a child, I was curious and loved to learn, but didn't feel like school was aimed at people like me. I couldn't see how rote memorization would help me in the future. I also saw how different public schools in different neighborhoods greatly varied in quality. A guidance counselor at my school recommended I drop out of high school after my junior year to go to college because there was no way to test out. After achieving some success in business, I looked back realizing how lucky I had been to have role models and opportunity despite the failure of my schools. After Yammer I wanted to do something that would have a meaningful impact on improving equity, decreasing generational poverty, and increasing access to opportunity. Education felt the most logical place to start for me.
RH: How did you wind up focusing Abl on this whole question of how schools use time and how administrators organize instruction?
AP: I spent over a year interviewing teachers and school leaders with the goal of identifying and understanding the sorts of real-world challenges that they were grappling with. Throughout that year, I realized that master scheduling was both a massive pain point—and a profound opportunity. I had the chance to observe schools that were experimenting with new strategies—such as project-based learning, competency-based education, linked and professional learning—and saw that the school leaders were working often required changes in how schools allocated time and staffing.
I was surprised that there was so little emphasis in the world of education technology on developing tools for school leaders and principals that could help them design and manage their schools. I learned that the master schedule is really the blueprint of a school. And I discovered that schools can't and won't change their models dramatically until they have better tools to implement those models in their master schedule.
RH: Why start with the master schedule? Why did you think that this was the obvious starting point? Put another way: does this actually matter for students and learning, or is this really mostly a matter of administrative convenience?
CW: Well, it wasn't obvious at first. Master scheduling often flies under the radar, because it's usually handled by a small group of people: principals, assistant principals, and counselors. Teachers, students, and parents rarely see how complex and messy it is. School leaders around the country told us two things: that master scheduling is a huge existing problem that principals want help with, and that it's an incredible opportunity to impact teaching and learning. As one of our design partners recently put, "Show me your master schedule, and I'll tell you what you value." So, we see this as a tremendous opportunity to impact how schools achieve critical goals like getting every student the courses they need to graduate or improving instruction through increased teacher-collaboration time. Of course, streamlining the planning process also saves admins a ton of time—freeing them up to spend more time on instructional leadership, parent communication, and student support.
RH: How far along is this effort? I believe you partnered with some schools as you worked on all this—how many schools were involved, and how did that design process actually work?
CW: Master Scheduler, our first web app, will roll out this fall for use in the 2017-18 school year. Over the last year we've designed the tool with feedback from more than 40 schools and experts, and this spring we built the beta version in collaboration with a dozen middle schools and high schools from around the country. We purposely chose schools that were very different (big/small, urban/rural, traditional/progressive, district/charter) so we could be certain we were designing a solution that worked for everyone. Our partners were amazing. They'd tell us what worked, what didn't work, and what we were missing. And in many cases, we'd turn around and build new features on the fly to solve their needs. It takes a lot more time to build a product this way, but it's really the only way we could be certain that we were mapping to the school's existing processes and, at the same time, making huge leaps forward.
RH: As you worked with schools on this, what surprised you? What did you guys realize or learn that you might not have anticipated?
AP: There have been a few surprises. We continue to be impressed by how much the master schedule drives everything in the school: instructional quality, equity, and student agency are driven by the design of the master schedule. There is this misconception that schools haven't changed in 100 years. In reality, schools have been increasing in complexity for decades as they offer more class options and implement more programs meant to provide special support. Principals have to take into account 504s, IEPs, SSTs, SPED, EL, GATE, IB, AP and a range of other considerations. Despite the diversity, we were surprised to learn how similar the master-scheduling process is from school to school. During our work with district, charter, and private schools—large, small, urban, rural, as well as progressive and traditional—the master scheduling process tends to be more alike than different.
RH: So, let's talk nuts and bolts for a moment. How much time will this actually save schools? What are schools actually paying for, and how much will it cost them?
AP: I think it's important to understand that although the tool creates massive efficiencies for school leaders, the real goal is to help principals express their school's priorities and make sure every student and teacher is getting what they need. Our platform is designed to automate tasks they would have had to do manually before, and anecdotally, school leaders tell us that they're saving time by eliminating a lot of the manual data entry, paper shuffling, and Excel wrangling.
CW: As a new company, we know we need to earn the trust of schools and their districts, so no payment is required until all setup/training is done and everyone is happy with our platform. Annual subscriptions to Abl Master Scheduler range between $3-7 per student/per year with tiered discounts based on total student enrollment. For example, a single high school with 1,000 students will pay $7 per student, or $7,000 a year, while a district with 10,000 students across five schools will pay closer to $5 per student, or $50,000 a year. This gives a school full, unlimited access to Abl Master Scheduler, ongoing upgrades throughout the year, and personalized support. There's also a one-time setup fee of $3,000 to $5,000 per school to cover setup and testing, technology integrations, and professional development.
RH: How many schools do you expect to use the scheduling system in 2017-18? The year after that? How big do you hope to be in five years, say?
CW: We only plan to bring on 150 secondary schools this school year. And that's simply because we want to get everything right before we expand. There's nothing worse than overpromising and under delivering, especially when you're working on mission-critical pieces for schools. This school year is all about making sure we can provide exceptional service to a small subset of schools, earn their trust, and demonstrate impact. Once we have that right, we'll start to scale up so we can serve more schools over the coming years. We expect to reach 1,000 schools in 2018-19.
RH: What are you all hoping to tackle next? What else is in the pipeline?
AP: Master Scheduler is just the first of a number of applications we plan on releasing in the future. We believe there is a whole missing category of software designed to help school leaders manage time and resources within schools and districts. We refer to this category as Dynamic School Scheduling. These tools aren't just designed to digitize old workflows. It's about giving schools the flexibility to play with time in dynamic and innovative ways. For example, one of our next products will be School Live, which takes the concept of master scheduling—usually an annual task—and makes it daily and real-time. Everything from scheduling observations, managing specialists and substitutes, to moving students based on progress or need.
RH: What have you found easiest and toughest in explaining what you're doing to school or system leaders? What are the major obstacles you've encountered?
AP: This is such a great question because it's been one of the more interesting aspects of building Abl. On one hand, if we merely say the words "Master Scheduling" to a principal, AP, or superintendent, they will immediately throw their arms up in exasperation, talking our ear off about how difficult it is and how much it helps or hinders them. On the other, the vast majority of people inside and outside of education will simply stare back at us blankly. People in this latter group often assume that if master scheduling was as important for driving student outcomes as we're claiming, they'd have heard more about it. There is clearly a need to educate people on the importance of the principal, school structures, and master schedules in evolving school models and improving student outcomes.
RH: How will you judge the effectiveness of what you're doing? At least to me, it seems like it'd be tough to evaluate with reading and math scores. Is that fair? If so, what are the ways that you're thinking about gauging the benefits?
CW: Another great question. As a mission-driven company we're always thinking about our impact. We'll spend much of this next year gathering lots of data—everything from how much time we save admins during the master scheduling process to how schools better balance their classes. We have a former teacher turned data scientist on our team who's tracking a variety of metrics and looking for ways to surface insights and recommendations as school leaders build schedules. Having worked in education for 25 years, I think it's very difficult to correlate these sort of student outcomes to any tech platform. We're far more interested in understanding how our tools can impact the underlying conditions that fuel school success. For example, we can track changes to the amount of instructional time dedicated to math, increases in common prep time for teacher teams, or implementation of flex time blocks to increase student agency. Ultimately, we think that data like this can not only prove the value of our tool, but it can also enable school leaders to share promising strategies with their peers and colleagues.
RH: Last question. You guys have convinced a handful of prominent investors—including Owl Ventures, Rethink Education, Reach Capital, First Round, and Sinovation Ventures—to pony up more than $10 million in initial funding. Given that it can be a challenge to convince investors to support education ventures—especially ones that seek to sell to schools rather than parents—what did you say that sold them on the idea?
AP: It's true—investors didn't believe us when we told them how universal and large this problem was. Each time I would tell them, "Don't believe me. Go find principals and ask them about 'Master Scheduling' and see what happens." The VCs that reached out to principals all came back with similar stories. You can't find a principal who won't say this is a huge pain for them as well as a big opportunity to have an impact on students and teachers. We're incredibly lucky to have found a set of investors that believe in our mission.
Again, if you'd like to learn more about Abl and their new platform, the Abl Master Scheduler, you can check it all out here.