Summary of LAO Findings and Recommendations on the 2013-14 Budget

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 Go Back  Independent Study and Technology-Based Instruction Rules for K-12 independent study (IS) and technology-based instruction. Adopt Governor’s January proposal to remove various IS requirements but modify to: (1) require students enrolled in an asynchronous course to be part of an IS program, (2) explicitly link funding rates to achieving student learning outcomes, (3) require measures of satisfactory educational progress be aligned with the state content standards, and (4) implement the proposal more gradually. 3-18-13

Detailed Narrative


Independent Study (IS) Provides an Alternative to Classroom-Based Instruction. The IS programs allow students to earn credit for academic work they complete under a written learning contract with little or no time in a traditional classroom setting. State law requires IS programs to follow the same curriculum as classroom-based programs but allows flexibility to adapt activities and assignments to individual student needs. Programs may be offered by school districts, county offices of education (COEs), and charter schools. In all cases, an IS student is supervised by a credentialed teacher who assigns and evaluates the student’s work products. Although students participate in IS programs for a variety of reasons, they frequently enroll to gain flexibility in their schedules, recover missed credits, or study in an individualized setting.

IS Funding Linked to Time Value of Academic Work Products. The IS funding is based on the time value of the students’ academic work products. The supervising teacher equates each assignment to an equivalent number of classroom instructional hours. Students who submit weekly work equivalent to 20 or more instructional hours generate funding equivalent to one week of classroom attendance. (Students whose work does not meet this threshold generate a prorated share of funding.)

IS Programs Have Student-Teacher Ratio Cap. To receive state funding for IS students, the student-teacher ratio in school district IS programs cannot exceed the ratio for all other educational programs operated by the district. (The IS programs can enroll students beyond their cap but receive no funding for these students.) For COEs, the cap is linked to the student-teacher ratio of the largest unified school district in the county. The charter school cap is 25 to 1 or the ratio of the largest unified school district in the county, whichever is greater.

IS Contracts Must Define Each Student’s Work Plan in Extensive Detail. Every student participating in IS works under a written, individualized learning contract. This document must explicitly describe (1) the time, place, manner, and frequency in which students will submit assignments; (2) the methods of study for the pupil’s work and the methods for evaluating that work; (3) the materials and staff resources that will be available to the student; and (4) the number of missed assignments that may occur before the school reevaluates the student’s participation in IS. An IS contract is valid for up to one semester and a written copy of the contract must be signed by the student, the student’s parent, and the supervising teacher. In addition, IS programs must maintain records that include (1) the date each work product was assigned, completed, and assessed; (2) representative samples of the student’s work with evidence that the work was individually evaluated by the supervising teacher; and (3) written evidence that all state and local policies pertaining to IS have been observed. The IS programs are audited annually for compliance with these requirements.

Participation in IS Concentrated in High Schools and Charter Schools. Approximately 117,000 students took at least half of their coursework through IS in 2011-12. An additional 29,000 students took at least one but less than half of their courses through IS. Collectively, these 146,000 students represented 2.3 percent of the state’s total K-12 enrollment. About one-third of total IS students attended grades 9-12 in a district or COE program, while the remaining roughly two-thirds were K-12 students attending a charter school. (School districts and COEs may offer IS to grades K-8 but rarely do so.)

IS Programs Sometimes Use Technology-Based Instruction. One commonly used format for IS programs is technology-based instruction, whereby students access course materials and complete their assignments using a computer. Technology-based instruction can include synchronous learning, in which a student and a teacher interact over the internet in real time. (Legislation adopted in 2012 provides special authorization for this type of study separately from the rules for IS beginning in 2014-15.) It may also include asynchronous instruction, in which students and teachers interact online but not necessarily at the same time. Under asynchronous instruction, for example, students might view a pre-recorded video lecture from their homes and then submit assignments to their teacher electronically. Although the state does not collect comprehensive information about the instructional format used by IS programs, it has recently begun requiring schools to report the number of IS students whose coursework is delivered online. Data collected in 2011-12 suggest at least 25 percent of students in IS were taking one or more online courses.

IS Programs Subject to Various Other Requirements. State law establishes a number of other requirements to ensure that IS programs are used only for appropriate K-12 purposes. For example, IS programs (1) may not enroll adults over age 21, (2) may only serve students from the county where the school is located or an adjacent county, and (3) must offer the same resources and services to IS students as students in traditional classroom programs. These requirements apply to all school districts, COEs, and charter schools offering an IS program.


Replaces Time Value Requirement With “Satisfactory Educational Progress.” The Governor proposes to provide IS programs with substantially more flexibility than they receive under current law. Most notably, the Governor proposes to eliminate the requirement that supervising teachers equate student work products to an equivalent time value. Instead, teachers would determine if students are making satisfactory educational progress toward a set of locally defined educational outcomes. Satisfactory progress would be measured by factors such as the student’s performance on statewide tests, completion of assignments, participation in required activities, and other indicators determined by the supervising teacher. An IS program would be required to reevaluate the participation of any student who does not make satisfactory progress. The Governor’s proposal, however, does not delineate how student participation or student outcomes would translate into funding rates. As under current law, IS programs would be required to offer the same curriculum as offered in classroom-based programs.

Removes Student-Teacher Ratio Requirement. The Governor also proposes to remove the student-teacher ratio requirement for IS programs. The IS students, however, still would be required to work under the general supervision of a credentialed teacher.

Simplifies Rules for Independent Study Contracts. The Governor also proposes several changes to simplify the student contracts that govern participation in IS programs. Specifically, his proposal eliminates the requirement that IS contracts explicitly describe the procedure for submitting assignments, the method of evaluating work, the resources available to the student, and the number of allowable missed assignments. Instead, IS contracts would be required to include provisions for “periodic contact” between the teacher and the student and to describe the accountability measures and assessments used to evaluate the student. An IS contract could last up to one year (rather than one semester) and could be stored electronically (rather than in written form).

Authorizes Asynchronous Instruction Separately From IS. Separate from his other proposed changes to IS, the Governor would create a set of rules authorizing “technology-based, asynchronous instruction” for grades 9-12. Although the Governor would treat this type of coursework separately from IS, the structure of IS and asynchronous instruction would be very similar. For example, asynchronous instruction would require students to have individual learning contracts that contain provisions for periodic contact between teachers and students, as well as requirements for students to make satisfactory educational progress. Similar to his proposal for traditional IS, the Governor would include no time value or student-teacher ratio requirement. As with IS, a specific funding mechanism is not provided. Unlike IS programs, however, asynchronous instruction would not be subject to the various other requirements established for IS (including age and geographic limitations).


We think the Governor’s proposal to eliminate most IS process-based requirements and shift focus to outcome measures is a positive step. Such an approach places more state and local attention on student learning, provides greater flexibility for instructional programs, and avoids overly burdensome administrative requirements. We do, however, have several concerns with the proposal. The Governor’s approach does not incorporate many of the requirements established for IS into his proposal for asynchronous instruction, and does not clearly specify how funding would be generated for IS and asynchronous programs. We also are concerned that the Governor's proposal does not directly link student funding with outcomes and has a vague definition of satisfactory educational progress. These problems could result in less rigorous IS and asynchronous programs. We discuss these concerns in more detail below.

Lacks Clear Funding Mechanism. The Governor’s proposal does clearly define how IS and asynchronous programs would generate state funding for the students they serve. Under current law, funding for classroom-based programs is tied to daily student attendance, and IS programs borrow from this framework by equating work products to hours of classroom instruction. The Governor’s proposal indicates that students participating in IS or asynchronous instruction “shall be included” in computing average daily attendance, provided the students make satisfactory academic progress. There is no specific mechanism, however, for determining a per-pupil funding rate or equating participation to days of attendance. This could create ambiguous funding rules for IS and asynchronous programs. For example, it is not clear how the state would fund students who take part of their classes through IS or asynchronous programs and their remaining coursework through classroom-based instruction.

Does Not Make Funding Contingent on Educational Progress. The Governor’s proposal would require IS programs to develop student outcomes and reconsider the participation of students who are not making satisfactory educational progress towards meeting those outcomes. The proposal does not, however, explicitly link funding to student performance. Until the student was removed from the program, an IS student not achieving satisfactory academic progress still would generate funding. By not tying funding explicitly to outcomes, the proposal misses an opportunity to create stronger incentives for IS programs to focus on student learning.

Satisfactory Educational Progress Too Broadly Defined. The Governor’s proposal encourages IS and asynchronous programs to focus on student learning, but leaves schools to define what constitutes satisfactory educational progress. We are concerned that without clear state guidance on the definition of satisfactory educational progress, the state would find it virtually impossible to ensure IS and asynchronous programs maintain high-quality, academically rigorous expectations for all students. Existing provisions of state law require IS coursework to be as rigorous as classroom-based instruction, but few mechanisms currently exist to enforce this standard. The removal of most input-based requirements makes the absence of these enforcement mechanisms of even greater concern.

Missing Requirements for Asynchronous Instruction. We are concerned that certain restrictions currently applicable to IS programs would not apply to asynchronous instruction. The Governor’s proposal, for example, includes no age limitations for asynchronous instruction. The proposal also permits schools to enroll any students who are California residents for asynchronous instruction, regardless of their county of residence. Given the similarity between these two programs, we see no rationale for applying certain restrictions to IS but not to asynchronous instruction.

Additional Time May Be Needed for Implementation. The Governor’s proposal would require major changes at the state and local level. The state would need to develop new rules for counting students in IS and asynchronous programs and auditing compliance with those rules. In addition, schools offering IS programs would need to revise their programs to focus on locally determined academic outcomes rather than the time value of a student’s work. Given both the state and local IS programs would need to make substantial changes, it likely would not be feasible to implement all of the Governor’s proposed changes by the start of the 2013-14 school year.


We believe the Governor’s proposals to remove many of the input-based requirements (including the student-teacher ratio, time value rules, and high-level of detail in IS contracts) are reasonable, especially when coupled with a stronger emphasis on student outcomes. We recommend adopting the Governor’s basic framework. We do, however, recommend the Legislature modify the proposal to (1) require students enrolled in an asynchronous course to be part of an IS program, (2) explicitly link funding rates to achieving student learning outcomes, (3) require measures of satisfactory educational progress be aligned with the state content standards, (4) delay implementation of the proposed changes until 2014-15, and (5) retain the option for programs to use existing IS rules for the next few years.

Require Students Enrolled in an Asynchronous Course Be Part of an IS Program. The Governor’s proposal for asynchronous instruction has many similarities to his IS proposal but lacks the age limit and other requirements that currently apply to IS. To address this issue, we recommend the Legislature require students enrolled in an asynchronous course also be part of an IS program. This would provide a consistent set of rules across both types of programs and simplify the procedures for tracking student attendance. By making asynchronous instruction a part of IS, our remaining IS recommendations also would apply to asynchronous instruction.

Explicitly Link Funding to Student Learning Outcomes. We recommend the Legislature explicitly link IS funding to student success by making IS funding contingent on students meeting the educational outcomes established for each course. For example, the state could establish a per-course funding rate and provide funding when students successfully complete a summative examination associated with each course. This change both would establish a clear funding mechanism and make funding contingent on students making educational progress.

Require Rigorous Content-Aligned Measures and External Review of Outcome Measures. To ensure IS programs are rigorous, we recommend the Legislature require locally determined outcome measures be directly linked to the state’s content standards. We further recommend the Legislature establish a process for the external review of these measures. For example, the state could require all IS measures of satisfactory progress be approved by COEs or the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Alternatively, the state could establish basic statutory criteria for IS programs to use when selecting outcome measures and require compliance with those criteria be part of the annual audit process. (The administration indicates that it intends to adopt some provisions for auditing through procedural changes to the state audit guide, but we recommend the Legislature be explicit and place basic guidelines for auditing or other external review in statute.)

Delay Full Implementation Until 2014-15 and Retain Option to Use Existing IS Rules During the Next Few Years. Given the number of changes contained in the Governor’s proposal, we recommend delaying full implementation of the new IS rules until 2014-15. We recommend using 2013-14 as a planning year to develop associated regulations and disseminate information to schools. We also recommend allowing schools to continue operating under the existing IS structure for the next few years. This would allow IS programs to gain some experience with the new outcome-based approach. Allowing a period in which both input-based and outcome-based IS programs could operate also would allow the Legislature to assess and compare the two models. After a few years of implementation, the Legislature could determine whether the new IS approach was successful and could replace existing input-based IS programs.