Timtim’s daughter is Native Hawaiian and speaks Hawaiian fluently, “so to see that inaccuracy with the Hawaiian history side was really upsetting,” she said.
Even before the school year started, Timtim said she heard from other parents about racist, sexist and other concerning content on Acellus, an online program some students use to learn from home.
Parents have called out “towelban” as a multiple-choice answer for a question about a terrorist group and Grumpy from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” described as a “woman hater.” Some also say the program isn’t as rigorous as it should be.
As parents help their children navigate remote classes, they’re more aware of what’s being taught, and it’s often not simply coming from an educator on Zoom.
Some schools have turned to programs like Acellus to supplement online classes by teachers, while others use it for students who choose to learn from home as campuses reopen.
And because of the scramble to keep classes running during a health crisis, vetting the curriculum may not have been as thorough as it should have been, experts say.
Thousands of schools nationwide use Acellus, according to the company, and parents’ complaints are leading some districts to reconsider or stop using the program.
“We wouldn’t have had this visibility if it weren’t for all of us at home, often sitting side by side and making sure: ‘Is this working for you?'” said Adrienne Robillard, who withdrew her seventh-grade daughter from Kailua Intermediate School after concluding Acellus lacked substance and featured racist content.
When school officials said her daughter could do distance learning without Acellus, Robillard reenrolled her.
Acellus officials didn’t respond to multiple calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. In an online message to parents, founder Roger Billings called the controversy “an organized attack” and said “they have not found anything in our content that is really racist or sexist.” An automated closed-captioning system misinterpreted some words, he said.
Kansas City, Missouri-based Acellus was created in 2001, according to its website, which says it “delivers online instruction, compliant with the latest standards, through high-definition video lessons made more engaging with multimedia and animation.”
In a video on his website, Billings responds to criticism about his credentials by saying he earned a bachelor’s degree in “composite fields” of chemistry, physics, engineering and other subjects from a university he doesn’t name.
He says he started a company focused on hydrogen energy technology and that he later earned a “doctor of research and innovation” degree at the International Academy of Science, the nonprofit that develops Acellus courses.
Hawaii selected Acellus based on an “implementation timeline” as well as “cost effectiveness” and other factors, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a memo.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that price was the main factor,” said Charles Lang, visiting assistant professor of learning analytics at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City.
“And to some extent, you do get what you pay for in terms of content.”
Vetting educational programs takes time, but with the pandemic, districts needed to quickly to find remote learning platforms, said Eric Hirsch, executive director of EdReports, which helps schools review instructional materials.
“So this spring, we saw a scramble, a dash,” he said.
And evaluating curriculum is like the “Wild West” — it varies across school systems, Lang said.
“We were in some serious situations with the pandemic, and we had to figure something out,” Hawaii school board member Kili Namau?u said at a recent meeting.
“And I think schools made some pretty quick decisions. Maybe they weren’t the most accurate decisions.” She later said in an interview that it would be more problematic to pull Acellus in the middle of the quarter.
But as a Native Hawaiian, she wants to ensure Acellus has corrected “appalling” and inaccurate information about Hawaiian history: “I’m particularly dismayed with that particular module.”
Seeing the queen’s name misspelled and information that the Hawaiian islands were “discovered” by Europeans were enough for Timtim and her husband to decide their daughter should join Waipahu Intermediate School’s hybrid remote and in-person program despite their concerns about Covid-19.
Then most of Hawaii’s public schools, which began virtually on Aug. 17, extended remote learning until mid-October.
“I just pray we figure out what to do if she does have to go to school once or twice a week,” Timtim said.