As part of his May Revision, Governor Newsom is proposing a rewrite of Independent Study (IS) law that upends the program for next school year (and beyond), and effectively removes a public-school option for many at-risk students the law was originally intended to serve.
The Governor’s proposal is well-intentioned and reflects an effort to address concerns amongst policymakers that Distance Learning did not work well for many students, and that students should be back in classrooms. Everyone seems to agree that in-person instruction should be the default for students next year, absent a change in COVID-19. However, the current proposal is not nuanced enough and will unintentionally harm some students.
Following is a summary of the Governor’s proposed changes to Independent Study:
- Requires daily participation – Requires each LEA to “document daily participation for each pupil on each school day, in whole or in part, for which independent study is provided. A pupil who does not participate in independent study on a school day shall be documented as absent for that school day.” The proposal defines ‘daily participation’ to include but is not limited to: “evidence of participation in at least one of the following: online activities, completion of regular assignments, completion of assessments, and contacts between employees of the LEA and pupils or parents/guardians.”
- Requires weekly synchronous instruction – Requires written agreements to include a plan to provide both daily live interaction and synchronous instruction for all pupils at least once per week throughout the school year.
- New requirements for board policies – Requires local IS board policies to include new elements related to the quality of the program, procedures for tiered reengagement, plan for both daily live interaction and synchronous instruction for all pupils at least once per week, and a plan to transition pupil out of IS expeditiously, if requested
- New requirements for written agreements – Requires written agreements to contain provisions addressing communicating academic progress with parents/guardians, provision of connectivity/devices adequate to participate in the educational program, and a statement detailing academic and other supports for students not performing at grade-level.
- Digital Signatures – Allows written agreements to be signed electronically by parents.
- No SBE waivers – Does not allow State Board of Education to waive IS requirements.
- New reporting for daily participation – Requires CDE to create a digital form for LEAs to report daily participation and weekly engagement by September 1, 2021.
These changes would affect school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools.
The problem with the proposal is that has unintended consequences as it appears to look at Independent Study solely through the lens of Distance Learning.
Removes Public School Option for At-Risk Students
The proposed changes ignore the original purpose of the Independent Study law, which was to provide an alternative to daily in-person instruction while maintaining a public-school option for students that are:
- Working full-time to support their family.
- Avoiding classroom settings due to bullying/social/emotional needs
- Medically fragile (chemotherapy, life impacting illness, addiction recovery, etc.)
- Pregnant or parenting
- Enrolled in Community College courses concurrently.
- Traveling for competitive sports or work in the entertainment industry
Students in these circumstances are often unable to participate in regular daily instruction and need flexibility. The IS law was originally created to meet their needs by allowing teachers to assign work, let the student complete that work in accordance with their time needs, and then equate the completed work into a seat time equivalency. That has been an option for students for over 40 years.
Under the proposed new requirements for Independent Study, many of these students would be unable to meet the new program requirements and would not have an alternative public-school option – leading many to seek out private schools, if they have the means.
Timing of Change is Unworkable
In addition to effectively removing a public-school option for many students, the proposed changes also upend many locally negotiated master schedules and the instructional options already provided to parents for the next school year. In many, if not most cases, parents have also already signed an IS master agreement for next year.
The introduction of this proposal creates significant uncertainty for these families and if the changes are enacted sometime between June 15 and July 1, it will create an unworkable timeline for revisions to master schedules and staffing, subsequent board-approval of revisions to the required policies, and a redo of the master agreements with parents (if the new policy is even compatible with the family’s needs). This work would need to be completed during the summer months, when school site-staffing will be greatly diminished, and families could be difficult to communicate with. Under existing law, schools may not claim attendance for IS pupils prior to receiving a master agreement signed by the parent/guardian.
Unreasonable Workload for Teachers
The requirement that teachers of Independent Study courses connect with students daily is not reasonable, nor would it yield the intended result. Consider a high school math teacher with several periods totaling 80 pupils, with some portion as Independent Study. Under this proposal, that teacher would teach normal coursework in-person and then juggle student and adult schedules to Zoom/phone/check-in with the students participating via Independent Study each day. It’s not physically possible for them to connect with more than a handful of students each day under this scenario and the quality of that contact would certainly not be high. The contact would become an exercise in compliance and would not ensure any quality of instruction. Additionally, given the scenarios we outlined above, some students might not be available every day to communicate with their teacher.
Short-Term Independent Study Also in Jeopardy
The proposal also effectively removes an option for short-term IS when students are gone for a shorter period of time and cannot participate in daily instruction (traveling internationally for family funeral, for example).
Virtual Academies and Course-Based Independent Study
We have received a lot of questions from clients about creating “virtual academies” to provide an option for families next year. Virtual academies are a distinction without a difference. LEAs must still comply with the requirements of IS in order to claim attendance through a victual academy.
There have also been inquiries about using a relatively untested provision of the Education Code that allows for “course-based independent study.” However, representatives from the CDE and organizations like the California Consortium for Independent Study (CCIS) have cautioned LEAs about this option because it lacks clarity and audit guidance, potentially subjecting LEAs to significant audit exceptions for perceived compliance failures. Since its inception, few LEAs have claimed attendance under this option and that is partly why the Legislature is debating eliminating the option in legislation this year. For these reasons, LEAs should proceed with caution if expanding the use of course-based IS in 2021-22.
Time is short and the potential impact of this late change to Independent Study is significant in both the short- and long-term.
A coalition of education groups, including labor and management, have raised these issues with the Governor’s Administration, Legislators, and senior legislative staff in hopes of reaching some resolution. The Governor and Legislators need to hear from local school leaders about how this change would affect the instructional options that schools can provide to students and families next year. If you have stories of how this will affect your students, please share with your representatives and us.
Please let us know if we can provide any additional information. We will keep you updated.
- Posted by Russ Miller
- On June 7, 2021