New data reveals a unique picture of school innovation in a challenging year


Sep 28, 2020

Across the country, redefining the status quo has become the status quo for K–12 schools. Wide-scale remote and hybrid learning, mask-wearing culture, and “pods” all fall outside the bounds of what most of us imagined as mainstream schooling before this year.

But despite how schools all face a similar set of challenges, innovation towards new solutions—especially student-centered ones—can be a surprisingly lonely endeavor. Many of the leaders and educators responsible for designing and implementing new approaches are left asking: hasn’t anyone done this before? And how do I find out?

The Canopy project aims to make those questions easier to answer. Last year, the project focused on surfacing a diverse set of innovative schools and documenting the practices they were implementing. 

Now, the Christensen Institute and Transcend have teamed up, along with dozens of other Canopy project contributors, to ensure that up-to-date knowledge about school innovation is accessible and useful to the people who need it most this year: school leaders and design teams. 

What’s new in the Canopy project this year

  • New and updated data: Recognizing that knowledge about how schools are innovating is more scarce—and more necessary—than usual this year, the project conducted a rapid-cycle round of crowdsourcing among Canopy nominating organizations, resulting in new data from August and September. The Canopy dataset now features recent information from 130 schools in total, including 78 schools that had not been included previously. All data, including last year’s, can still be downloaded freely.
  • New innovative practices: Like last year, Canopy data about each school includes the full set of practices that school leaders report implementing, using consistent terminology and definitions. This year, we added new practices to the mix, including some that describe the logistics of learning during COVID-19, like fully remote, hybrid, and fully in-person modalities, as well as a few other important additions suggested by schools and advisors. Each school’s profile also displays up to five practices that leaders reported as “core” to the school’s model, and how long the school has been implementing each one. 
  • Interactive data portal with individual school profiles: The interactive portal makes it easy to search for schools based on characteristics like geography, demographics, and innovative practices. Visitors can also navigate to an individual profile page for each school that participated in the project this fall. Each profile displays a public contact for the school, allowing visitors to reach out directly. 
  • Detailed implementation resources: Transcend is leading the charge to connect Canopy schools’ profiles to more robust, detailed resources showing how the school implements its innovative model. 

What we’re learning from the data so far

In addition to making it easier to find schools and learn about their unique models, the Canopy project also offers another advantage for leaders, researchers, funders, and advocates for school innovation: insight into patterns and trends across the whole “forest” of Canopy schools. 

For example, when examining the “general approaches” that school leaders reported implementing most frequently in their schools this fall, we can see that almost all school leaders cite social-emotional learning (89% of schools). Blended learning and project-based learning are the next most commonly cited. Culture of anti-racist action was added as a new practice this year, allowing school leaders to report that the school is building a culture of taking direct action to counter and dismantle racist policies. Although it was least-often cited among the general approaches, a clear majority—60%—of schools nevertheless reported it. 

It’s also possible to get a view of how schools in the Canopy are handling the logistics of learning during COVID-19. For example, 78% of schools report offering remote accommodations for students with disabilities, and a large majority (69%) report offering virtual enrichment activities. Fully remote learning options are most common among all schools in the Canopy data (64%), followed by hybrid (46%) and full in-person options (20%). (Note that schools could select multiple of these options if they offer them.)

Many of these initial findings necessarily raise questions about how patterns change based on school context, demographics, and other factors. In the coming months, we’ll be diving deeper into the updated dataset, and sharing what we learn along the way. 

In the meantime, we hope educators and school leaders will take advantage of the new information and resources in the Canopy data portal. By learning from and with the schools featured there, we can ensure that no school feels isolated when working to develop innovative new approaches this year.

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.