Classroom Technology

Complaints Over Offensive Content Lead Schools to Drop Online Learning Provider

By Benjamin Herold — August 31, 2020 7 min read
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Schools in at least two states have cut ties with online education provider Acellus Learning Accelerator over concerns about offensive curricular material, raising questions about how districts vet digital content and respond to social-media criticism.

Among the content prompting complaints from parents was an activity from a kindergarten social studies lesson in which children were asked a series of questions about families based on a pair of photos, one showing a black woman and child and the other showing a white man, woman, and child. In Peoria, Ill., a screen shot from the activity went viral; absent context, the image appeared to suggest that only one of the photos represented a family, leading the district’s superintendent to complain to Acellus.

Another lesson highlighted in a report by Hawaiian news organization Civil Beat showed an animated video of a bear and a duck dressed as schoolchildren, asking a female classmate where she got the nickname “Sweetie Lips.” The classmate, an animated pig wearing lipstick, blushes and responds, “Don’t ask, we’re not even going there.”

“Effective immediately, Aliamanu Elementary School is cancelling all student accounts with Acellus,” Principal Sandra Yoshimi of Aliamanu Elementary School in Oahu wrote to parents on Aug. 23. “The safety of our students will remain our first priority, and we will not take any chances by allowing students further access to this program.”

State superintendent Christina Kishimoto followed that announcement several days later, however, with an FAQ document and multiple letters to Hawaii parents in which she praised Acellus as offering “quality distance learning instructional materials” that are used by 70 percent of the state’s schools. Kishimoto also cautioned against “broad internet searches for controversial content” that may be “outdated or manipulated.”

In addition to a handful of schools in Hawaii, multiple school districts in California have dropped the Acellus curricular materials in recent days over concerns about offensive and inappropriate content.

Acellus was founded by Roger Billings, an engineer and computer scientist who later founded his own church and whom critics derided as a “preacher of polygamy with bogus academic credentials” in media reports dating back to 2004.

In a Facebook post last week, Acellus said that “about a dozen” of its lessons had been flagged as racist or sexist and had since “been reviewed and revised to reflect current attitudes and usage.” The group also indicated that some lessons drawing outrage on social media had already been removed from their offerings. The provider says its 985,000 lessons are used by more than 6,000 schools nationwide. Acellus content is created by “teachers from all over the country” and approved by a review board before being made available to schools, Billings told Education Week before abruptly terminating a telephone interview.

Experts said the flap highlights the ways in which the country’s sudden shift to remote and online learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic has worsened districts’ long-standing struggles when it comes to reviewing curricula, especially the thousands of supplemental digital materials now on the market.

“Districts were already struggling with putting together a [good] vetting process” said Lauren Weisskirk, the chief strategy officer for nonprofit curriculum reviewer EdReports. “Given the real challenges of figuring out how to shift modes of instruction, finding high-quality content to meet the new reality is a really tough job.”

‘Vectored Instruction’

Acellus Academy was created in 2001 by Billings, a self-proclaimed “science and technology innovator” with a long history of research and inventions involving the use of hydrogen as a fuel source. The school is affiliated with the nonprofit International Academy of Science, which Billings told Education Week he helped found and currently works for part-time, without an official title and while drawing “a very small amount” of compensation. After leaving the Mormon church, Billings also founded his own church, the now-defunct Church of Jesus Christ in Zion, which regarded him as its “patriarch and prophet.”

“In my opinion, I no longer believe (the LDS Church) to be true and divine,” Billings told the Deseret News, owned by a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in 2004. “Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught that it was the will of God that men should have more than one wife.”

The International Academy of Science owns and operates Acellus Academy, a full-time private online K-12 school that was established in 2013, according to the group’s website. Through its Acellus Learning Accelerator, the group also offers public K-12 schools and districts a wide range of roughly 300 courses used by Acellus Academy, covering everything from Advanced Placement subjects to social-emotional learning to credit-recovery programs.

Acellus Academy is accredited by the Western Association for Schools and Colleges, and its courses are generally accepted by such groups as the College Board and the NCAA. But the private school’s accreditation does not extend to the Learning Accelerator materials used in places like Hawaii.

On its website, Acellus describes those materials as mostly video-based lessons that schools can use to “accelerate learning, elevate standardized test scores, reduce dropout rates, and transition more students into careers and college.” The “secret sauce” that makes Acellus “work like magic,” the organization claims, is its study of learning science and use of technology. The group says its approach to “vectored instruction,” for example, allows students to catch up on remedial skills while still working at grade level.

The schools that have cut ties with the Acellus Learning Accelerator appear to have been using the group’s curricular materials in a variety of ways. California’s Spring Valley-La Mesa district, for example, described Acellus to San Diego-area public radio station KPBS as a “supplemental component” of its online-only plan for the start of the school year. Elsewhere in the state, however, officials from the Chico Unified School District said they were “doing a pilot” with Acellus as a primary curricular option for parents who wanted a full-time asynchronous independent learning option amid the pandemic. But the district dropped it after hearing complaints and news reports about the offensive content.

“We’re shifting to a different program that we feel is a lot more up-to-date and more in-sync with where learning expectations are now,” Ted Sullivan, the Chico district’s director of elementary education, told the Chico Enterprise-Record.

Media reports peg the cost of the group’s content from between $25 per student for summer school licenses in Hawaii to $100 per student in Peoria, Ill.

Difficulty Vetting Materials

Problems with racial bias, misogyny, and historical inaccuracies in curricula used by K-12 public schools are nothing new. Last year, for example, Education Week reported on an internal review of the popular Studies Weekly social studies curriculum, which found more than 400 examples of troubling content, including a reading passage in which a white girl directs a black boy to pick cotton to appease a plantation overseer..

In its statement posted to Facebook, Acellus acknowledged a handful of examples of recent posts that users had tagged as problematic, including a kindergarten social studies lesson that included a video clip of Walt Disney referring to Grumpy from “Snow White” as the dwarf “that hates women.” Any such examples brought to the group’s attention “will be reviewed and revised, usually within one business day,” according to the statement.

It’s not realistic to expect schools, districts, and states to review every single lesson offered by providers with whom they contract, said Weisskirk of EdReports. But publishers should absolutely be held accountable for regularly reviewing and updating the content they produce, she said, and there are things K-12 officials can do to improve the curricular vetting processes they do use.

For one, she said, districts need to be aware of changes in how products are being marketed amid the pandemic. A growing number of providers appear to be taking materials intended for supplemental use, which were already evaluated poorly, if at all; recasting them as core instructional offerings; then offering them directly to schools, which have less capacity to do thorough vetting than states and districts.

It’s also crucial to investigate providers’ marketing claims, especially when it comes to things like “accreditation” and “approval,” and to ask about their internal review processes.

And when it comes to screening for racist and sexist content, Weisskirk said, the most proactive K-12 buyers put in place review processes that involve not just teachers and administrators, but local community members as well.

“Leading districts don’t just try to catch what’s overtly racist,” she said. “They look for what’s high-quality and inclusive.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.