Technology has been a part of teaching and learning in some capacity for nearly 30 years, and been infused in the classroom since the late 1990s. And now, a number of school districts have figured out what it takes to help students learn better through blended learning. 

Six school districts stood out for their purpose-driven leadership in an April series of studies from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and the Evergreen Education Group. Their blended learning programs combined small group instruction with online course components to help more students graduate, earn higher test scores and receive individual attention.

What stands out most about these school districts is that they clearly identified a problem with the way things were going, said Michael B. Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and executive director of its education program. The three high schools in Salt Lake City School District saw 10 percent of their students drop out every year. Spokane Public Schools in Washington had a 60 percent graduation rate for its high schools. And Spring-Ford Area School District in Royersford, Penn., routinely saw elementary school students score in the 60 percent range on state tests.

Once they identified problems, the school districts committed to addressing them with the help of blended learning. In Salt Lake City, the district created a blended school three years ago called Innovations Early College High School, where students learn at their own pace and receive individual attention.

"I was just blown away by what a disruptive model they've created of blended learning and how different it is from a traditional high school," Horn said.

Spokane infused blended learning into 15 schools, with two programs called ICAN and On Track Academy serving larger numbers of at-risk students. And the Pennsylvania district moved to a blended model for Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School. In this model, students rotate through different activity stations and spend more individual and small group time with their teachers.

But to truly address these problems, strong district leaders helped create and drive blended learning programs. "Why" was the big question that motivated these dedicated leaders, and that helped them design programs that got results.

Researchers struggled to find school districts that produced measurable outcomes from their blended learning programs, Horn said. That's because not many school districts prioritize the problem they're trying to solve, envision what success will look like and identify ways to track the results.

But these school districts did produce measurable outcomes.

In 2014, Innovations Early College High School saw 89 percent of students graduate — a number that surpassed graduation rates in the district and state. Two of the Spokane programs helped increase the district's graduation rate from 60 percent in 2007 to 83 percent in 2014. And Spring City Elementary saw student state test scores rise across the board between 2013 and 2014, with 90 percent of student science scores reaching the proficient or advanced level, and reading and math rising above the 80th percentile.

While school districts don't typically change much when things are going well, that's actually the best time to look for potential problem areas and identify ways to solve them, Horn said. In those times, school districts have more resources and capacity to thoughtfully consider how to change.

"The time to respond to disruptive innovations is when you're at your best," Horn said. "That's the most counterintuitive time to start thinking about doing something different: When things are going good."