Under new Calfiornia law, public schools must offer independent study, and individual districts will have flexibility in developing programs. (Shutterstock)

Under new Calfiornia law, public schools must offer independent study, and individual districts will have flexibility in developing programs. (Shutterstock)

Quick guide: What is independent study in California?

Schools must offer it as an alternative to in-person instruction in 2021-22

By John Fensterwald and Sydney Johnson


What is independent study?

Independent study is an alternative education program that addresses individual student needs and learning styles. The model allows students to complete their academics outside the traditional classroom setting.

How does it work?

All independent study courses are required to be taught under the supervision of a teacher with a relevant subject-matter credential. They must also follow the district-adopted curriculum, and work is governed by a written agreement signed by the student, the supervising teacher and parent.

Independent study does not measure attendance by “seat time,” the number of instructional minutes per day, week and year that students are required to be at school. In California, the typical minimum number of instructional minutes per day varies by grade: 200 for kindergarten, 280 for grades one to three; 300 for grades four to eight, and 360 for high school.

Instead, in California, traditional independent study programs count attendance based on how long it would take to complete a lesson or assignment — and not by daily contact with a teacher. The state also offers course-based independent study; it counts attendance based on whether students make satisfactory progress in those courses.

Because it is an individualized learning plan for specific students, the program has fewer accountability metrics than in-person instruction has; supporters say independent study also enables students to master subjects at their own pace.

Who qualifies for independent study?

Independent study is open to any student in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. Independent study programs traditionally have served child actors in the TV or film industry, aspiring Olympic athletes, exceptional students who want to accelerate faster than their districts can provide, or students who have been bullied. Students continuing their studies while traveling have also used independent study for credit.

To accommodate immune-compromised parents and students in fragile health, the Legislature added a category in Assembly Bill 130, the trailer bill detailing the 2021-22 budget: “individualized study for a pupil whose health would be put at risk by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian of the pupil.” Students are not required to provide a medical statement. Some parents are citing their opposition to requiring their children to wear masks in schools as a reason to pursue independent study.

Why did the Legislature rewrite the independent study statute for 2021-22?

Expecting that a full return in-person instruction in the fall following school closures resulting from COVID-19, the Legislature let the one-year statute establishing funding and requirements for distance learning to expire on June 30.

That left independent study as the fallback for districts to provide an education outside of in-person instruction. However, because independent study requires little supervision, state lawmakers added new requirements to provide more accountability and contact with teachers under Assembly Bill 130, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on July 9. It requires some live instruction time for remote students but did not specify a minimum amount. Aware that some districts failed to track chronically absent students last year, AB 130 requires districts to more extensively document student work and progress.

How much interaction and instruction must students receive under independent study?

Some student advocates argue that medically vulnerable students should be entitled to a remote program with live instruction comparable to what students in school receive. Imposing a duplicative structure, when many districts are already having difficulty hiring teachers for in-person instruction, would be implausible for most districts on short notice.

AB 130’s wording is intentionally broad, recognizing that the youngest students in independent study must receive more teacher interaction than older students.

For transitional kindergarten to third grade, students must receive daily synchronous or live instruction. For students in grades four to eight, there must be “an opportunity” for daily interaction and weekly live instruction. For high school students, there must be some form of synchronous instruction. “Opportunity” is not defined, leaving school administrators to wonder if they’ll be held responsible if students decline the offer.

What is the difference between live interaction and live instruction?

Live interaction refers to contact made between a student and a teacher, but this does not necessarily have to include teaching. It could consist of wellness checks, phone communication or in-person or online check-ins.

Synchronous instruction refers to two-way communication between a student and teacher, whether in-person, by phone or online. It can take place in a classroom-style setting, in small groups or one-on-one.

What’s the student-teacher ratio for independent study?

Under state law, the number of students that an independent study teacher can supervise cannot exceed the average teacher-to-student ratio for instruction in a district’s other programs. For TK-three, the maximum number to receive state funding is 24-to-1.

How can a parent find out what a district plans to offer for independent study?

A district must post on its website its plan for independent study, updated to comply with AB 130. If it’s not there, ask why.

By mid-August, the school board should have approved its independent study program for 2021-22. It should include information and reassurances on the following elements:

— How long from the date of an assignment to when a student must complete it;

— Level of satisfactory educational progress and number of missed assignments before conducting an evaluation of the student;

— Content is aligned to grade-level standards and will be taught by credentialed employees;

— For high schools, pupils will have access to all courses required for graduation and for meeting admissions criteria to the University of California and California State University, the A-G course sequence;

— Reengagement strategies for students not in attendance for more than three days in any week.

What might independent study look like this fall?

It will differ significantly across the state. Districts will have the flexibility to expand instruction and daily contact required under the law. Some districts, such as Davis Joint Unified and Pajaro Valley Unified, have created virtual academies with live instruction and off-line learning. In districts with fewer resources or those that have not had an independent study program, independent study could be much different from what distance learning looked like last year.

Some districts may choose to use flexibility in the revised independent study statute to fashion a distance learning program on a block schedule approximating what students receive in school, and opportunities to work with peers in small groups. But most districts won’t. Instead, there will be daily or weekly check-in times, with expectations of completing coursework, perhaps with instructional videos and online lessons comparable to in-person instruction. In Los Angeles Unified, all students who want remote learning will be directed to a central online option.

Is an individual or a class of students entitled to temporary independent study if quarantined for COVID?

Yes, although some of the comprehensive requirements will not kick in until 15 days in independent study. Districts will have to pivot quickly, and the logistics of obtaining contracts from parents and hiring extra credentialed staff, if needed, could prove very challenging. Students in schools closed by wildfires are also entitled to independent study, although emergency waivers under other state laws may also apply, said Barrett Snider, who represents independent studies programs as a partner with Capitol Advisors, a Sacramento school consulting firm.

What should a parent do who is interested in independent study?

After learning about a district’s program, a parent’s next step would be to request a meeting with the teacher or teachers who’d be supervising the child. If a child is an English learner or student with a disability, ask about the services to be provided. A student with special needs can participate in independent study only if an individualized education plan allows it.

A contract, signed by a parent, student and supervising teacher, would include the following elements:

— A plan for submitting assignments and reporting academic progress;

— Objectives and methods of study;

— Available resources, including textbooks and access to computers and internet connectivity;

— The number of course credits or other measures of academic accomplishment for elementary-age students.

What can a parent do if independent study is not working out?

AB 130 was written to accommodate families that want to exit independent study. Families may choose to leave for any reason, and many may do so if the threat of delta transmission subsides or after the federal government allows vaccinations for children under 12. Districts are anticipating fluctuating numbers and must arrange for a student’s return to in-person instruction within five days of a request.

What can parents do if dissatisfied with a district’s offering for independent study?

Families can choose private schools if they can afford one, home schooling or one of several online charter schools, such as California Connections Academy or K12, although the Legislature has imposed a three-year moratorium on new online charters.

Families can also request to transfer to another district’s independent study program or virtual learning academy or, if offered, their local county office of education’s independent study program. A number of districts and the Los Angeles County Office of Education have indicated they’ll accept students from other districts. Districts shouldn’t complain if parents look elsewhere. Under the state budget, districts will be held harmless this year for a loss of revenue from a drop in enrollment.

Do districts have to offer independent study this year?

Yes, but they can seek a waiver from their county office if they can meet two conditions: They must prove that offering independent study will impose an unreasonable financial burden and that they are unable to enter into an interdistrict transfer agreement or contract with a county office of education. County surveys indicate only a few districts, mostly small or rural, plan to ask for a waiver.

Do charter schools have to offer independent study this year?

No, although Rocketship Public Schools is one charter school organization that plans to create a virtual school to serve medically vulnerable families from its 13 Bay Area schools. Most solo-operated charter schools don’t have the capacity for a parallel independent study program, and existing restrictions, which the Legislature didn’t waive, would make it difficult for many to try.

How does a parent decide if independent study is the right choice?

Under the best of circumstances, independent study isn’t for every student. Some students may not thrive working independently; it’s well suited for self-starters who can work without much monitoring and who don’t need a lot of peer camaraderie. Elementary students will require adult supervision.

With COVID, parents must weigh the benefits of personal interactions versus the risks of infection; the quality of the independent study program may tip the scale one way or the other.

Suggestions and further information from the California Department of Education on determining if independent study is right for your child can be found at the California Department of Education website and at the Alameda County Office of Education.

EdSource is a nonprofit newsroom that reports on state and local education issues.


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