The legislation authorizing independent study was enacted in 1976, and originally was designed to serve child actors, aspiring Olympic athletes, and other students whose schedules precluded regular classroom attendance. Over the years, independent study has evolved to serve a wide range of students.
Independent study (California Education Code [EC] sections 51745–51749.3) is provided as an alternative instructional strategy, not an alternative curriculum. Independent study students work independently, according to a written agreement and under the general supervision of a credentialed teacher or teachers. While independent study students follow the district-adopted curriculum and meet the district graduation requirements, independent study offers flexibility to meet individual student needs, interests, and styles of learning.
- Independent study is only available as a voluntary option chosen by students and parents–students cannot be assigned to independent study.
- Districts and county offices of education are not required to provide independent study, so this alternative instructional strategy is not always available in a local school.
- Independent study can be used on a short-term or long-term basis, and on a full-time basis or in conjunction with courses taken in a classroom setting. Classroom-based students may take some classes using independent study—often to solve scheduling problems.
- Districts can operate independent study as a program within a school or as a stand-alone alternative school of choice or charter school.
- State law provides that the education students receive using independent study should be at least equal in quality and quantity to that offered in the classroom.
- For kindergarten through grade twelve, the ratio of independent study students to independent study teachers cannot exceed the ratio of classroom-based students to classroom-based teachers, calculated in terms of average daily attendance (a.d.a.).
- Adult education students may take courses in a high school diploma program using independent study.
General Fund apportionment based on a.d.a.
Districts, county offices of education, and charter schools reported more than 128,140 students, kindergarten through grade twelve, who were enrolled as full-time independent study students in 2008–09.
An additional but unknown number of students use independent study on a part-time basis in conjunction with classroom-based instruction or on a short-term basis. An additional but unknown number of students also use independent study in adult education high school diploma programs.
Because students in independent study work closely with their teachers, in one-on-one meetings or small group instruction, independent study can be a highly personalized form of instruction. Independent study also offers a high degree of flexibility and individualization, so it can serve a wide range of students including:
- Highly gifted students who are not challenged in their regular classrooms and wish to accelerate.
- Students who face particular challenges—such as health issues or the need to work—that make classroom attendance difficult.
- Students who, for a variety of reasons, have fallen behind in their studies and need an individualized approach to fill in gaps in their learning or make up credits.
- Students who want an individualized approach that allows them to delve more deeply into areas of special interest.
- Students who are at risk of dropping out of school. Some districts use independent study as a dropout prevention or recovery mechanism–they have found that for a subset of discouraged students who have very little connection with high school, independent study can sometimes facilitate a turn around in student engagement. This can happen when students develop close relationships with teachers in one-on-one and small group settings, and when they are able to take charge of their own learning through an individualized approach.
Independent study is not for all students—especially at the high school level. Independent study requires basic academic skills and a level of commitment, motivation, organizational skills, and self-direction not unlike the level required by college students.