A revealing look at innovation in urban and suburban schools


Jul 28, 2020

This post is the third 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.

In my previous post, I shared insights and hypotheses about rural school innovation stemming from our deeper dive into data from the Canopy project. Because the Canopy dataset offers detailed information about where and how schools are working to realize student-centered learning, it’s possible to spot compelling patterns in the design of school models in different geographies.

To investigate patterns in suburban and urban schools, first we filtered out data from rural schools. Then we identified the biggest gaps between the “tags,” or keywords and phrases representing innovative practices, used by suburban and urban schools to describe their school models. Here’s what we learned about the unique focuses of urban and suburban school innovation:

Urban schools: a focus on social-emotional learning and equity

Many of the practices appearing more often in urban than suburban schools are those related to a category of practice focused on equitable supports for marginalized students and social-emotional learning. Urban schools’ rate for citing restorative practices in their models, for example, is 22 percentage points higher than suburban schools’ rate. Other related practices that are more common in urban schools include design at the margins, supports for immigrant and refugee students, culturally-relevant instruction, dialogue circles, hiring practices in support of student success, SEL integrated into academics, and advisories. 

Tags with the greatest difference between suburban and urban schools begin on the left.

On average, urban schools in the Canopy dataset serve a higher proportion of students of color and low-income students than suburban schools, so the choice to prioritize innovations that support those students makes sense. However, it’s worth noting that these demographics are present in plenty of suburban and rural schools too, even if they’re lower on average. Canopy data simply suggests that urban schools may have particular expertise to offer their peers in how they evolved innovative designs to serve marginalized students.

Several other practices that came up more commonly in urban schools were community-connected and career-related practices, such as community and business partnerships, measures for career-readiness, and focus on local knowledge, heritage, and culture

Rooted School in New Orleans offers one example of some of these designs in action. The charter high school’s goal is for every student to graduate “with a college acceptance in one hand and a full-time job offer in the other.” Serving predominantly Black students, the school was founded to combat the wealth gap between Black and White families, and focuses on preparing students to enter high-wage jobs in the technology sector. The school’s design optimizes for personalized learning pathways that integrate industry certifications, wraparound student supports such as mental health services, and career exposure through internships with local technology businesses.

Suburban schools: a focus on competency-based, experiential learning

When it comes to the practices reported more commonly in suburban schools than urban ones, competency-based education and some of its related practices, such as multiple ways to demonstrate mastery and multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, are strongly featured. Experiential learning and measures for deeper learning are also more commonly indicated in suburban schools than urban ones. (And it’s worth noting that many of these same practices were documented at even lower rates in rural schools compared to suburban and urban ones.)

Flipped classroom, a model of blended learning, is the practice that suburban schools cite at the highest rates compared to urban schools (leading urban schools by 24 percentage points). This approach requires students to have access to a device and the internet, which may be more easily attainable in suburban schools in the Canopy, which on average serve fewer students in poverty. While policies allowing students to take home school-issued devices can bridge that barrier, take-home devices also appears to be a practice more common in suburban schools. It makes sense, then, that urban schools are less likely to indicate flipped classroom as a school-wide practice. 

At Mill Creek Middle School in Dexter, MI, some of this data comes to life. Mill Creek’s model focuses on mastery-based learning, where students work at their own pace and have choice in their learning pathways. The school’s flexible schedule allows for self-pacing and real-world, project-based learning as a primary method of instruction, as well as service learning. According to Mill Creek’s principal, blended learning (primarily the flipped classroom model) is one of the mechanisms that enables the school’s mastery-based model, and the school also places a strong focus on positive school culture and deep mentorships that students access through advisories. 

What do we learn from this closer look at the practices most often at play in urban, suburban, and rural schools? Canopy data illuminates the ways that innovative schools prioritize different design choices in smart ways based on their circumstances, including factors like resources available (or not), demographics, and geographic context. At the same time, it’s helpful to notice which practices are not widespread in each context—and where urban, suburban, and rural schools might benefit by learning from innovative peers outside their circumstances.

Chelsea is a research fellow at the Institute, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the evolution of student-centered learning and the advancement of student agency. As part of this work, she leads the Canopy project, a collaborative effort to build better collective knowledge about school innovation.