NAIS Research: 2021 Survey of Independent School Innovation Leaders

By Margaret Anne Rowe
NAIS Research Analyst

Executive Summary

Education is one of the oldest professional fields, yet while society has grown and shifted over the centuries, there have been few changes to the traditional methods underlying much of schooling. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, innovation in education is critical for ensuring healthy school communities and engaging learners during a period of mass disruption. At the same time, innovation can feel more difficult than ever, with exhausted school leaders up against tight budgets, time constraints, and tinderbox politics. With this in mind, NAIS set out to learn more about the role administrators in independent schools play in innovation, the challenges these leaders face, and the innovative programs they have implemented on their campuses.

Independent school leaders play multiple roles in innovation. More than nine out of 10 of survey respondents encourage teachers and administrators to try new ideas and themselves collect and share information on interesting new practices in other schools. Over 70% host or invite professional development opportunities at school and personally develop new activities and programs for students. When thinking about what drives change at their school or in their division, three-quarters of respondents report that change is driven by the goal of increasing student agency, as well as increasing student achievement (69%), promoting equity (60%), and standing out among competitor schools (59%).

Most respondents agree to some degree that faculty and administrators communicate clearly and trust each other when implementing new ideas, as well as share responsibility for implementing and assessing novel ideas. However, there is room for improvement: fewer than a third agree strongly that their school’s faculty are interested in innovation, regularly learn about new approaches, and have access to the resources and collaborative support needed to try new things. By and large, the greatest barrier to innovation encountered has been a lack of time (85%), followed by resistance from teachers (56%) and a lack of funds (41%).

When it comes to what innovative programs schools are offering, a majority of schools offer regular courses on computer science and global education, while some also offer one-on-one mentoring, independent study, and student entrepreneurship. Even among schools without regular classes in these subjects, many offer them as extracurriculars or one-time programs. Few schools with these programs mandate them for all students, and about half of the schools report that only “some” students participate in independent study, one-to-one mentoring, and student entrepreneurship. Similarly, high school-level programs like international travel, off-campus internships and research, and gap year programming are offered by a majority of schools, but over half said that just “some” students participated.

When it comes to innovative use of technology and spaces, most schools said “many” teachers work with one-to-one devices, and at least “some” teachers use makerspaces. Less common tools, like innovation centers, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, are also used only by “some” teachers. Additionally, schools report using a variety of teaching methods, particularly among lower grade levels, with project-based, social-emotional, and interdisciplinary learning used in at least some classrooms at over 90% of respondents’ schools.

Though most schools have added to their offerings, few have moved away from traditional school structures. About one-third of schools do not use traditional report cards or plan to stop using them. Just 11% do not use grade levels or plan to stop using them, 6% have moved away from a traditional academic calendar, and 4% do not use any classroom technology. At the high school level, 93% of schools are not using International Baccalaureate exams (largely because they had never used them), while 41% are no longer using or are moving away from Advanced Placement exams and traditional bell schedules. Just 11% are doing the same for traditional transcripts. Overall, fewer schools reported encountering time, financial, or leadership barriers when sunsetting programs than they did when implementing new ones; however, more schools faced resistance from parents.


NAIS surveyed innovation officers, division heads, heads of small schools, and other curriculum leaders at member schools to learn more about innovative practices at their schools. Respondents to the survey included 459 people from 422 different schools, representing a 25% completion rate. The survey was open from November 8 to 22, 2021.

This report was written by Margaret Anne Rowe, research analyst at NAIS. Jacqueline Wolking, director of innovation programs, provided invaluable input and feedback on the survey. Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding. Note that due to self-selection among survey recipients, results are not representative of independent school leaders as a whole.

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