This post is the second in a series of four sharing new insights from the Canopy project using data published in fall 2019. While the findings reflect trends in school design before the COVID-19 pandemic, they nevertheless suggest patterns that may prove informative as schools nationwide reconsider elements of their designs.

Look out your window. What do you see? Is it open space with a few scattered buildings? Tall buildings, packed densely along narrow streets? Broad, open streets with large parking lots? Now what would you imagine seeing in a student-centered school in each of these scenes?

The Canopy project, a collaborative initiative led by the Christensen Institute, offers insight into how rural, suburban, and urban schools are innovating. The project uncovered a set of schools, many of which have not received widespread recognition, and revealed the practices these schools are adopting in pursuit of student-centered learning. The Canopy uses a set of “tags,” a common lexicon of keywords and phrases, to indicate the presence of innovative approaches and practices in each school. (The entire set of 88 tags and their descriptions can be found by downloading the dataset on the Canopy website.) 

In this post, we’ll dig into the innovative practices at play in rural schools. 

Rural schools appear to prioritize flexibility and student supports

In our initial analysis of Canopy data, which focused on the 12 tags representing “general approaches,” we noticed a clear trend that rural schools were tagged less often than suburban and urban schools. In a few cases, rural schools were tagged at roughly even rates with those in other geographies. This raised questions about the particular barriers to innovation that rural schools may face compared to their suburban and urban peers.

Digging deeper into the whole set of 88 tags, however, there are several practices that rural schools report more often than their counterparts. This chart shows nine tags for which rural school tagging rates exceeded the average of non-rural tagging rates:

Tags with the greatest difference between rural and the average of non-rural schools begin on the left.

As the chart shows, rural schools appear to prioritize blended learning and many of its associated models more often, on average, than non-rural schools. And rural schools outpace both suburban and urban schools in implementing four particular blended-learning models: a la carte, flex, and enriched virtual—particularly flexible models where online learning is the backbone of instruction—and lab rotation, where students rotate through learning activities on a fixed schedule in a computer lab. Rural schools also report implementing makerspaces at higher rates than their counterparts.

To further investigate how rural schools approach innovation in their particular circumstances, next we looked at the practices that rural schools cited at roughly similar rates to their suburban and urban peers. This chart shows where the gaps between rural and other schools’ tagging rates were minimal: 

Several themes emerge from this analysis. One is resource flexibility: rural schools commonly tagged practices like flexible staffing, expanded open hours, and multi-age classrooms, all of which suggest an ability to creatively manage the resources at hand. Blended learning, which we already saw tends to be more commonly cited in rural schools, likewise enables both greater access to learning opportunities that are hard to come by in remote communities, and customization of learning pace and pathways. 

A second theme is supports for students’ non-academic needs, as seen by how rural schools appear to be integrating the academic functions of school with wraparound services like physical health services

Shawnee High School, one of the schools in the Canopy data, brings these latter practices to life. A Title I school in Shawnee, Oklahoma with over 80% of students eligible for free & reduced price lunch, the school serves many students who are struggling with homelessness and poverty. The school has worked hard to integrate wraparound services to support students’ needs, especially healthcare. By partnering with TEAM Clinics, the school now provides remote medical visits to diagnose and treat minor health issues so that students and families don’t lose valuable instructional and work time. The school is working to expand their offerings to cover mental health services, too. 

Shawnee offers an example of the kinds of innovative practices that rural schools could model for their suburban and urban peers. While the school’s particular context made providing physical health services a top priority, many schools (in all geographies) face similar challenges with students who lack healthcare, or who miss class frequently to get care for minor health issues. In this area of innovation and others like blended learning, urban and suburban schools may have plenty to learn from their peers in rural areas. 

Competency-based and experiential learning may be less common in rural schools

Several themes also arise when looking at the practices least often employed in rural schools. One pattern that jumped out is that implementing supports for immigrants and refugees appears to be least common in rural schools, and most common in urban schools. While Canopy data does not track immigrant or refugee status, we do see that the proportion of English Language Learners is lower in rural schools (3.1%) and higher in urban schools (16.2%). This could suggest that rural schools, on the whole, see immigrant and refugee student supports as a less critical area of innovation due to the demographics they serve. 

Additionally, certain practices related to competency-based education (multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, multiple ways to demonstrate mastery) and experiential learning (real-world problem-solving) were cited much less commonly in rural schools compared to their peers in other locales. 

It’s worth investigating how these trends play out in the real world. Anecdotally, we know that it’s possible for rural schools to pursue competency-based and experiential learning. Lindsay High School, on the edge of California’s Central Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is well known for its competency-based model. And in two recent interviews, school leaders from Shawnee High School and Winterboro High School (Alpine, Alabama) shared that their schools are working to spread real-world problem solving throughout students’ learning experiences. Lastly, the Rural Schools Collaborative supports a network of schools pursuing experiential and place-based learning to support the sustainability and revitalization of rural communities. 

Nevertheless, on the whole, Canopy data suggests that rural schools across the board may not be implementing these practices—and further research can investigate why. What might cause rural schools to prioritize competency-based practices less often? Are rural schools struggling to identify real-world, applied learning opportunities in more geographically dispersed areas, or choosing to prioritize other approaches? If rural schools struggle to learn meaningful lessons from urban and suburban schools implementing these practices, could they learn more effectively from other rural peers who are trailblazers in these areas?

In my next post, I’ll focus on the trends we saw from Canopy data among suburban and urban schools. Stay tuned!


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite