As a new school year begins, a number of district leaders are scrambling to address concerns from parents and staff that their chosen online learning platform features content that is racist, sexist or inappropriate for children.
Deann Ragsdale, assistant superintendent of educational services at La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools, located outside of San Diego, first heard about the issues with Acellus on Aug. 25, two days before her district’s first day of school.
La Mesa-Spring Valley had been using the 18-year-old online curriculum provider in a limited capacity—with fewer than 50 kids per year, through its homeschool program—for the last two years and had experienced no issues. But for remote learning this fall, the district planned to introduce the video-based instructional program to another 11,000 K-8 students as a component of its online instruction. So when Ragsdale heard about the racist, sexual and otherwise offensive content that students in Hawaii had already encountered on Acellus, she had to make a quick calculation.
Less than two hours after Ragsdale learned about the complaints in Hawaii, she was on the phone with someone at Acellus. And she was not impressed with what she heard.
“It was a conversation that went somewhere along the lines of, ‘If people were offended, we removed it. We understand people find things offensive, so we remove that content,’” Ragsdale recalls. “It didn’t sit well with us.”
She goes on: “They were more reactive than proactive. They didn’t feel what we thought was the severity of that, which we felt to be glaring.”
The content in question includes a first-grade language arts video lesson that shows an Acellus instructor teaching about the letter “G.” As she pulls something from the box in front of her, she says, “Watch out! Ooh, it’s a gun,” and removes a silver toy gun.
“That was completely inappropriate to us: age-inappropriate, child-inappropriate,” Ragsdale says.
Another lesson involves an exchange between an animated bear, a duck and a pig. The pig is called “Sweetie Lips,” and the bear asks, “Where did you get that name?” Sweetie Lips, a female pig, visibly blushes and responds, “Don’t ask. We’re not even going there.”
One of Ragsdale’s biggest concerns is that Acellus, which claims to be used in over 6,000 schools nationwide, didn’t make any effort or commitment to scan its 985,000 lessons for other questionable content that students may come across throughout the semester.
“Could there be something else? We don’t know. We don’t have time to vet every video now, and we don’t trust that it’s been vetted [by them], so we’re out,” Ragsdale says of her district’s decision to discontinue the program.
Alameda Unified School District, outside of Oakland, Calif., has been using Acellus for the last seven years for credit recovery and, after a review that began in June, decided to expand its use to students who would be fully remote this fall (Alameda is offering two reopening models to its families: a full-time remote option and a flexible/hybrid model). In total, about 1,000 students in the district were expected to use Acellus this fall.
Sara Stone, Alameda Unified’s chief academic officer, says she received an email about the complaints against Acellus three days before her district’s first day of school, from a college professor who had spoken to Alameda staff about anti-racism. She immediately contacted Acellus and, like Ragsdale, was not satisfied with the response she got. It was an “easy decision” to release Acellus from their district offerings, she says.
The incident, Stone says, also prompted the district staff to create a process for reviewing their curriculum choices through an equity lens moving forward. That means evaluating the curriculum’s illustrations, questioning the story lines, looking at the narratives laid out and the lifestyles depicted to scan for bias. “Who are the heroes? What does that look like? Is it accurate? Is it empowering?” Those are questions Stone says the district is now asking.
Though no one at Alameda saw first-hand the content in question, Stone says that as her staff went through their own review of Acellus content, “we ourselves did see some concerning things. On the surface, it’s a little bit subtle, but not subtle at the same time: images of family life, who is being discussed as the hero in historical contexts. It’s concerning and not inclusive. It’s more stereotypical, more obviously Euro-centric in nature.”
In a statement posted Aug. 25 on the personal website of Roger Billings, the founder and chairman of Acellus, the company’s courseware development team writes that “about a dozen Acellus lessons have been tagged as racist or as having sexist content. Each tagged lesson has been reviewed and revised to reflect current attitudes and usage.” The post details five instances of items being removed, then adds that “there are no tagged lessons reported to Acellus that have not already been revised.”
Acellus did not respond to EdSurge’s requests for comment.
In Hawaii, where the inappropriate content seems to have been identified first, the state department of education wrote in a statement on its website that, as of Aug. 19, 176 public schools in the state and 12 public charter schools have Acellus licenses. Together, those schools serve nearly 80,000 students.
The Hawaii Department of Education writes in the same statement that it “has been using Acellus for the last 10 years and did not receive any complaints until a recent social media campaign,” but goes on to note that “out of an abundance of caution, the Department has been working to identify any questionable content and will work directly with the vendor to address any content deemed inappropriate. As with any distance learning program, teachers at the school level are also reviewing content before they are assigned, similarly to how textbooks are used for instruction.” Staff at the Hawaii DOE declined to comment for this story.
Still, decisions about distance learning programs in Hawaii are made at the school level. A number of schools have already discontinued use of the program, “based on the inappropriate and racist content” that is present “across course subjects and grade levels,” as one principal put it in a letter to the Aliamanu Elementary School community.
Change.org petitions have been circulated opposing the use of Acellus in Hawaii Department of Education schools and at Alameda Unified. In them, other examples of the troubling curriculum content are laid out. A multiple-choice question asks students to name the terrorist group Osama bin Laden led, and one answer option is “Towelban.” Another question asks students to select the image that “in your opinion best depicts Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery to freedom in Philadelphia? A or B.” Option A includes what appears to be a robber running away with a bag of goods, and Option B depicts a woman with brown skin carrying a bindle—a stick with a blanket tied at the end to carry belongings.
In Peoria Public Schools in Illinois, the parent of a kindergartener noticed a question that asked, “What is a family?” then asked students to choose either an image of a Black mother and son or a white mother and father with their white son, according to reporting from the local news outlet 25 News.
The superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, provided this statement to 25 News:
“What was presented in that lesson was totally out of touch. My own family would not have been selected because it was just my mom and us kids growing up. There are many make-ups to families—one mom, one dad, two moms, two dads, grandparents, foster parents. The good news is that, as soon as this was brought to our attention, we contacted the vendor's coursework development team, and in five minutes they responded and were able to adjust it.”
In a statement provided to EdSurge, Desmoulin-Kherat said that Peoria Public Schools had been piloting Acellus since January 2019 and would continue to use the platform as a virtual option through the 2020-21 school year.
“The screenshot posted on social media was lacking the proper context,” Desmoulin-Kherat writes in the statement, adding that there were several audio-based questions included that were not part of the screenshot circulating online. “As is the case with any instructional or curriculum materials our educators use, we do an academic review of any instance that may be deemed as inappropriate or failing to meet our standards.”
The district declined to share any more details about the situation.
The revelation about offensive content on Acellus’s platform follows two relevant events: The pandemic that forced millions of children into remote learning and onto online learning platforms for the very first time, and a reckoning over the systemic racism that persists in the U.S. following multiple police killings of Black people this year.
Stone, the chief academic officer at Alameda Unified, says that both of these events dovetailed as school districts were reevaluating Acellus.
“I think families are seeing more and more about what happens at school,” she says. “I think people are seeing all of those things in a different light right now because they’re getting a window into a classroom.”
At the same time, Stone says, “People are waking up to 400 years-plus of systemic oppression and racism. More people are noticing it, but I also would say that it’s good. I’m glad. As hard as it’s been, I’m glad this came to light because it’s forcing us as a school district, as a community, to be more careful in terms of every decision we make.”