School & District Management

Researchers Spot Exotic New School Species in California

By Debra Viadero — June 25, 2009 3 min read
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Researchers at the WestEd research group have apparently discovered a new species of schools in California: independent-study high schools.

According to BethAnn Berliner, a senior research associate at WestEd, independent-study high schools are schools in which 75 percent or more of students in grades 9-12 are earning most of their course credits through independent projects.

After stumbling across some of these schools in the Golden State, Berliner and her colleagues approached state school officials with the idea of studying the schools in greater depth. What they learned was that, while state administrators were aware of the schools, no codes in state law seemed to define them—primarily because independent study was considered more of an instructional strategy than a type of school. Likewise, a review of the research literature produced no relevant studies. The researchers also checked with other states and found no information on independent-study entities other than virtual schools.

“We were like, `Wow, this is a unique thing,’ ” Berliner says. “States honestly don’t know if they have this kind of school type.”

But in California, at least, such schools appear to be alive and doing well. The researchers from WestEd, which is one of the federal regional education laboratories, learned that nearly 4 percent of the state’s 2 million high school students—84,348 students—were enrolled full-time in independent study. Most of those students attended 231 independent-study high schools spread across the state.

What’s more, the population of students pursuing independent study had grown 44 percent since the 2001-02 school year, rising from 66,000 to 84,348 in 2006-07, the most recent year for which researchers had data.

“I think these schools were largely created out of a need to respond to a wide range of student learning needs,” says Berliner. “Some are for kids who are passionate about something, whether it’s motocross or ballet, or the stage.” Even surfing, she says.

“We also talked with principals and they said a lot of kids didn’t feel safe or comfortable in big traditional high schools,” she adds. “Some of it is flight from bullying, drugs, alcohol, or gangs. There are also kids who want to accelerate and kids who failed every other public school option.” The schools also serve kids who need a more flexible schedule so they can earn money to support their families or who have care-taking responsibilities.

In form, they run the gamut from expanded home-study operations to for-profit charters.

The researchers also found that 44.4 percent of the independent-study high school students were white, compared with 32.9 percent of the students in traditional schools and 25.3 percent of other nontraditional schools. More than half of the students were female, a higher percentage than is found in California’s traditional public schools.

And, somewhat surprisingly, the percentage of teachers who held a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential—at 94.3 percent for independent-study high schools—is higher than it is for traditional schools or other kinds of alternative schools. Nearly half of the independent-study high school teachers, though, have multiple-subject or elementary credentials, reflecting the fact that many of the schools also serve lower grades.

As Berliner points out, there’s still lots more to learn about these schools. For instance, why do they exist in some California communities but not others? Are students graduating on time and going on to college? The researchers hope to find out.

In the meantime, you can read a newly published foundational study on the schools by Berliner and her colleague Vanessa X. Barrat on the WestEd Web site.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.