There’s no shortage of opinions and ideas about how nontraditional practices are taking off in K-12 schools, but often scant data to back up those ideas—let alone data that can surface patterns and blind spots where we may not be paying attention. 

The Canopy project, a collaborative initiative led by the Christensen Institute that reimagines how school innovation data is sourced and structured, shows how building better collective knowledge enables a view into student-centered learning trends that may be difficult to detect from outside of individual schools’ four walls. 

In an initial phase of the project this year, we invited a broad group of nominating organizations across different states to identify schools on their radars that are reimagining the learning experience for students; we then verified that information with schools. The resulting data shares information about school design from a diverse set of schools not commonly referenced on typical school lists, which we’ve analyzed and shared in a new public report.

Whether you’re deeply familiar with school innovation trends or just starting to learn more, here are a few insights you may not know about revealed by the newly-released Canopy report.

Big-picture trends

1. Learner agency, social-emotional learning, and project-based learning may be some of the most common innovative approaches in schools today.

The Canopy project uses a set of 88 “tags,” or keywords and phrases representing aspects of school design, that nominators and school leaders applied to each school’s nomination to describe elements of the school’s design. Using consistent tags across the dataset means it can be sorted, filtered, and analyzed, making it much more than just a list of schools. This chart shows how 12 of the tags representing more general innovative approaches were distributed across the dataset, with learner agency at the top of the pack. 

2. Public district schools—not just charters—are reimagining teaching and learning models. 

Charter schools often receive much of the spotlight when it comes to education innovation and reform. It can seem like charters’ autonomy is the only way to break the factory-model mold, while public district schools remain woefully stuck in the past. However, the public district schools representing 67% of the Canopy dataset are a good reminder that schools of many types are finding opportunities to work towards student-centered learning regardless of governance model or circumstance. 

3. There are many innovative schools out there that are innovating under the radar.

Knowledge about K-12 school innovation is often trapped in a word-of-mouth echo chamber. This initial Canopy process is a proof point for how transparently pooling knowledge from a diverse set of nominators can surface many schools that are currently working “under the radar” of the national conversation. After comparing the schools nominated in the Canopy process with 11 other well-known lists and databases on school innovation, we found that 72% of Canopy schools were not named elsewhere, showing how crowdsourcing can help create a broader, more diversified picture of schools that are innovating. 

Key geographic and demographic trends

4. Rural schools may face barriers to innovation, or are focusing their efforts more narrowly.

Rural schools were less commonly tagged for all approaches, often significantly so. The exceptions to this were blended learning and wraparound services, where tagging rates for rural schools were closer to the rates for suburban and urban schools. This suggests that we should better understand how rural schools are trying to innovate, including targeted support for their efforts. 

5. Experiential learning and competency-based models appear to be less common in schools serving low-income students and students of color.

Experiential learning and competency education were more frequently indicated in schools in more suburban contexts, those with lower rates of free and reduced-priced lunch, and those with mostly White student populations. However, researchers and experts have argued that both experiential and competency-based models hold great potential for advancing equity. This brings important questions to mind about what barriers schools serving higher-poverty populations and students of color may face in implementing these models—or perhaps why they are opting to pursue different models to meet their students’ needs instead.

6. Efforts to design for equity appear to be breaking down along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Designing for equity is defined by putting the needs of historically marginalized students at the center. With that in mind, it’s encouraging that the designing for equity tag appeared in the vast majority of schools serving predominantly Black students, as well as more often in higher-poverty schools. But designing for equity was dramatically less often tagged in predominantly White schools, and somewhat less often in lower-poverty schools. Given that virtually all schools serve some number of students whose experiences and identities (including and beyond race) are historically marginalized, this pattern raises questions about whether these schools are at risk of failing to meet the needs of marginalized students who may be in the minority. 

While the Canopy findings are not nationally representative, they offer a glimpse into important questions about how school innovation is evolving. Download the full Canopy report to learn more about the Canopy’s methodology and about hypotheses that the education field should investigate further to ensure that student-centered approaches take root and grow effectively and equitably.

This piece originally published on The 74 Million here.


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite