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Innovation Limitation

New ideas may not show up in classroom, especially in underserved schools

A new report this fall spells out some of the newest trends in education, but also shows that innovative thinking does not take shape in the classroom as often as we may think and suggests that even when it does implementation tends to be inequitable.

It also finds that educators don’t adequately and accurately gather information about new ideas, which skews the results and the thinking about them.

The Christensen Institute’s extensive new approach to analyzing how well concepts such as blended, maker-centered or social/emotional learning, for instance, are being implemented in schools unevenly. It shows that there are variations in the way each is used, especially in rural, low income and minority schools, and that often they don’t reach many students.

But it also indicates that frequently the research about these approaches doesn’t gather information from a wide range of schools, which changes how data is used.

“Too often in education, we turn to the same school exemplars time and again to uncover insights about K-12 school innovation,” the report says. “This limited sampling is often circulated via word-of-mouth, creating an echo chamber that distorts and diminishes the larger landscape of schools innovating toward student-centered learning.”

It notes that good information about how schools are addressing student needs “remains deeply fragmented and woefully insufficient”, making it difficult to know what is working and what should be supported and used in the classroom.

“One of the main messages we're hoping to promote is that with the current state of data on school innovation, we have no ways of reliably surfacing these trends and have potential blind spots in how innovative approaches are taking root, and for whom,” Chelsea Waite, one of the authors of the report, said in an interview.

She says educators should be looking at a broader range of information from more schools, and consider how data is handled by researchers, funders, and school officials. Better data, she says, could lead to better new ideas and more effective and widespread use of those that are working

Her report, The Canopy Project, looked at 235 schools to get a realistic view of how much they were adopting a dozen approaches, which it described in phrases that it called “tags”:

  • blended learning
  • competency/ mastery-based education
  • designing for equity
  • experiential, work-based & place-based learning
  • flexible staffing & infrastructure
  • learner agency
  • maker/design-centered learning
  • project-based learning
  • redefining measures of success
  • social-emotional learning and school culture
  • universal design for learning
  • wraparound services & integrated student supports

The list itself is informative since it describes the innovative practices that Waite and her team found to be most prominent.

She said that the results of gathering deeper data show that leaders in schools often discuss and promote “learner agency and social emotional learning, for example, but those approaches frequently aren’t realized in the classroom. They implementation of them “may lag behind a general commitment to those approaches – or the practices aren’t being codified and documented”, Waite says.

She also notes that students in rural schools, in predominately black schools and in low income regions are less likely to be exposed to social emotional learning or initiatives such as competency based or experiential learning.

“Efforts to redefine student success could be playing out differently depending on whether school models are designed to serve marginalized students,” she says.

Beyond that, the report suggests, some work in these areas isn’t recorded.

“Promising but under-the-radar models get ignored,” she reports. “Studies and articles often point to the same bright spots in school innovation, over and over, artificially limiting the diversity of schools held up as exemplars. This risks calcifying perceptions of what is innovative and dismissing promising new ideas that don’t fit into mental models that are shaped by a limited number of well-known schools.

She says that without a mechanism for gathering a more diverse set of examples, “it is difficult for school leaders and intermediaries to identify and learn from other schools on innovation journeys in similar contexts”. It can affect funding to schools with innovative practices.

The study highlights include findings that:

  • Rural schools may be facing barriers to innovation or innovating in ways that don’t reflect national trends and could benefit from targeted support and investment.
  • Students in predominantly Black schools may not be getting the same opportunities for learner agency and social-emotional learning as in other schools.
  • Experiential learning and competency-based models may be facing barriers to scale in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
  • Efforts to redefine student success could be playing out differently depending on whether school models are designed to serve marginalized students.
  • Lower-poverty schools and those serving predominantly White students may not be attending to the needs of marginalized students as deliberately as other schools.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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