Hawaii Superintendent Says Acellus Online Curriculum Will Be Phased Out

This photo provided by Adrienne Robillard shows her daughter doing school work at home in Kailua, Hawaii, last month. Parents spotting questionable content on a program called Acellus is forcing some school districts across the country to reconsider the program or stop using it.
This photo provided by Adrienne Robillard shows her daughter doing school work at home in Kailua, Hawaii, last month. Parents spotting questionable content on a program called Acellus is forcing some school districts across the country to reconsider the program or stop using it.
—Adrienne Robillard via AP
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An in-depth review of the Acellus Learning Accelerator has concluded the program should be discontinued as an option for full distance learning in Hawaii’s public schools.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto sent a letter to parents today informing them of the results of her department’s instructional review and saying a transition is in the works.

“This review was prompted by numerous parent, school and community complaints around issues of questionable and inappropriate content, rigor and alignment to standards,” Kishimoto wrote.

“Based on its analysis, the review team recommended the program should be discontinued as a primary curriculum resource due to its inconsistency in quality and rigor,” she wrote. “The department is finalizing a transition plan for Acellus users.”

“It is clear this issue has caused disruption, and for that we apologize,” Kishimoto added.

The Board of Education is also scheduled to take action Thursday on a proposal by its chairwoman, Catherine Payne, to phase out the Acellus Learning Accelerator by the end of the academic year.

The kindergarten-to-12th grade curriculum was developed by the unaccredited International Academy of Science in Kansas City, Mo., and is used by thousands of schools nationally as well as homeschoolers. Acellus online courses had previously been used for credit recovery in Hawaii to help secondary students who failed a course.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the department offered three curricular options to schools for use by families who chose full distance learning this fall. They were Acellus, Arizona State University Prep Digital and Florida Virtual School Global. But the department only had time for what it called a “cursory review” of the programs.

More than 60% of Hawaii’s public schools chose Acellus. Altogether they purchased about 80,000 student licenses for this academic year, at prices from $25 to $100 per student, according to Nanea Kalani, communications director for the department.

Schools negotiated individually with the company and used school-level funds, so she did not have a total expenditure figure available yet. At a minimum, based on the $25 rate, the total would be $2 million for 80,000 licenses. Schools that bought licenses for summer school could continue using them during the regular academic year at no extra cost.

The department’s risk assessment staff is looking at the master contracts for the schools to see what recourse they might have to recover funds, Kalani said.

In early August, parents and teachers at the elementary level began raising concerns about what they saw as outdated, sexist or racist content as well as factual errors and lack of rigor in the video-based Acellus curriculum, which relies heavily on multiple-choice questions.

In addition to the full distance learning option, Acellus is also being used as a supplement to local teachers’ instruction. Some secondary students are taking Acellus courses for credits needed for graduation and Kishimoto said the department does not want to jeopardize their progress, so schools will collaborate with concerned parents.

“For elementary students, we are working to provide options schools can offer as supplementary learning opportunities to families whose children are in distance learning,” she wrote.

Kishimoto said that Acellus does have some content that aligns to Hawaii standards, and the department “will be working with schools that use Acellus to identify and leverage such content, as appropriate.”

Payne had proposed in a memo, posted online Friday with the board meeting agenda, to give parents a chance to switch to another curriculum right away and to phase out Acellus by the end of the school year.

Acellus has made some changes to lessons in response to complaints about specific content “to reflect current attitudes and usage,” its chairman, Roger Billings, said on his Facebook page in August. In a video he posted last month he said the curriculum has been in use for 20 years and had not been accused of being racist or sexist until this summer.

“All of a sudden it changed and our content was bad,” he said, blaming the shift on his support of President Donald Trump.

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