A distance learning program used by tens of thousands of Hawaii public school students for instruction this year received poor reviews from the state’s education curriculum specialists before the program was rubber-stamped for use across the islands.

Acellus Learning Accelerator is used by nearly two-thirds of Hawaii public schools, or 188 schools, reaching nearly 80,000 students out of a total 179,000 public school students, according to the Hawaii Department of Education.

Sometime between the fourth quarter of last school year and the start of the new school year Aug. 17, DOE curriculum specialists reviewed the Accelerator, saying it was remedial and non-rigorous, with sampled lessons described as “very simple” or “very, very questionable.”

Kawananakoa Middle School electronic sign asks about Chromebook pickup during COVID-19 pandemic. August 13, 2020
DOE says 188 public schools have turned to Acellus, which covers close to 80,000 students statewide. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The lessons are drill and kill, equating science to vocabulary memorization that we are desperately trying to get away from,” wrote one specialist who sampled second and fifth grade science lessons.

“I have tried to be very pragmatic about the ‘sometimes something is better than nothing’ approach when it comes to curriculum quality, but I can’t say that here.”

The comments are included in an internal DOE document entitled “HIDOE Online Content Review” that was shared in a Facebook post Sunday by state Rep. Amy Perruso, a longtime educator.

“It seems to me, as someone who has participated in curriculum and standards review processes, that this is not a thorough vetting (the specialists only look at a few select lessons in specific elementary courses) AND that the feedback provided to the superintendent in no way recommended adoption,” Perruso stated in the post.

Although the Google document came under password protection at some point Monday, a saved copy is available here.

In a comment provided to Civil Beat Monday, DOE Communications Director Nanea Kalani said the document was “for internal purposes, to collect feedback as schools quickly shifted to full distance learning across the state.”

The document is one of the few insights into the extent to which DOE vetted Acellus before it green-lit the curriculum as the predominant distance learning platform for Hawaii schools after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to rely on remote learning.

It’s unclear how DOE administrators incorporated the negative feedback into final decisions or what exact criteria the specialists were given to judge the quality of online teaching tools.

The document merely states the feedback “will help to provide valuable insight into the alignment of the curriculum to standards.”

The DOE did not respond to Civil Beat’s follow-up questions on Monday.

Accellus’ pre-packaged video lessons have been publicly slammed by many Hawaii parents as being outdated or simplistic, as well as sexist, racist and age-inappropriate.

Other school districts around the U.S. have removed Acellus Learning Accelerator altogether, including Chico Unified School District and La Mesa-Spring Valley School District in California. But the Hawaii DOE has so far refused to pull the plug, saying principals “may adjust and modify distance learning plans based on the needs and feedback of their school community.”

A handful of individual DOE schools in the last week have pulled the program from their schools or offered families the option to withdraw their students from the curriculum, including Aliamanu Elementary, Kailua Intermediate and Hickam Elementary.

But other schools have resisted, defending the content of the program in updates posted to their school websites or in emails to parents, including Sunset Beach Elementary, Mililani Uka Elementary and Mauka Lani Elementary.

That means many parents who want out of Acellus are left hanging, since their kids are not allowed to rejoin their regular, remote-taught class. Some parents as a result are relying on outside curricula they have purchased, even though Acellus is how some schools are tracking students’ daily attendance.

“I have a full time job and cannot spend the time watching each lesson with my phone ready to record something inappropriate for approximately three hours a day,” said Cheri Souza, a Mililani Uka Elementary parent.

“What makes it even more bizarre is that you cannot go back and review lessons, so once you watch something that is concerning, there is no way to document it. It becomes your word against the company.”

In an FAQ posted to its website last week, the DOE said it reviewed Acellus in May. It defended the program, saying it was used in the summer for credit recovery and that many schools turned to it for distance learning because of “its ease of integration” and “positive feedback received from other HIDOE schools and teachers with first-hand experience in using the program.”

Hawaii schools are in distance learning until at least Oct. 2. Many students are receiving direct remote instruction from their regular teachers while other families are “locked” into the Acellus platform. Ethan Porter

It’s unclear whether the DOE document shared over the weekend comprises the same review the DOE says took place in May.

What is clear is that even with a cursory review of lessons, the content specialists who took a look at Acellus were not impressed.

The document instructs the specialists to log into the online program and review one to two courses in four different content areas: language arts and reading, math, science and social studies.

Acellus Learning Accelerator offers over 300 courses in grades K-12. The lessons they reviewed included second grade language arts and reading, fourth grade language arts, kindergarten math, second and fifth grade science and second grade social studies.

One reviewer praised the second grade language arts videos as “engaging and informative” and said it featured a lesson progression that was “easy to follow.”

But most of the comments skewed toward the unfavorable.

One comment of fourth grade language arts asked whether the lesson was “the remedial edition,” said the skills “are below grade level” and that the program was best used not as a stand-alone program but “a supplemental resource along with direct teaching from an instructor.”

“It is not rigorous and does not address grade level standards,” the reviewer wrote.

Another person reviewing kindergarten-level math lessons pointed out that closed captioning “does not actually reflect the words being shared,” creating a disadvantage for English language learners and those with learning disabilities and also used awkward phrasing like “adding makes bigger” and “bigger is best.”

Another specialist reviewing second grade and fifth grade social studies questioned the selection and depth of material covered in some lessons.

Citing a Civil War lesson for second graders, the DOE specialist wrote that the lesson was “very, very questionable and leaves out the major reasons we were fighting the war.”

“The explanation of slaves failed to say anything about the condition of slaves,” the specialist wrote.

And when it came to a fifth grade lesson on the Middle East, a reviewer pointed out the Middle East conflicts in Iran and Iraq are “very simplistically explained in less than 3 minutes!”

“This is very low level,” the comment reads. “The depth is 1/8 inch deep but the breadth is 10 miles wide. The Civil War does not belong in Grade 2. I don’t know any state that does that. (Maybe SC or GA?),” referring to South Carolina and Georgia.

Some comments recommend specific programs over Acellus, including Florida Virtual School, Khan Academy Kids, Imagine Learning and Literacy and Achieve 3000.

One Hawaii parent, discussing in an interview her child’s experience with Acellus, had an even simpler solution.

“The Department of Education would have been better off spending that money getting everyone a Netflix account,” Angelina Geaney said wryly, pointing to children’s programming like “The Magic School Bus” and “StoryBots” as being more educational.

The DOE has stood by Acellus Learning Accelerator in its official messaging, pointing out that in the 10 years that platform has been used in Hawaii schools, the department “did not receive any complaints until a recent social media campaign.”

DOE added that it takes “parent concerns seriously” and “has been working to identify any questionable content and will work directly with the vendor to address any content deemed inappropriate.”

Acellus Academy, a separate K-12 online school, has accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges. WASC President Barry Groves said via email he was “not familiar” with Acellus Learning Accelerator since WASC does not accredit those kinds of programs.

“We accredit schools and programs not specific curriculum,” he said.

Acellus Learning Accelerator and Acellus Academy, created in 2001, are both run by the Missouri-based nonprofit, International Academy of Science, founded by a scientist, Roger Billings.

According to the DOE’s updated tally, Accelerator reaches 77,557 students in 176 Hawaii DOE schools and 2,025 kids in 12 charter schools.

Before all DOE schools switched to all distance learning to start the school year, Hawaii families were forced to choose between sending their kids back into the classroom through hybrid learning models, homeschooling or using an online tool like Acellus which meant their child could still be enrolled at school.

Acellus is largely self-paced, with minimal involvement by a teacher, unless it’s to help out in extreme cases.

Schools are using their own budgets to pay for Acellus, which has ranged in price from $25 up to $100 per student license.

One charter school principal said his school was offered $35 per license for the entire school or $100 for individual students.

Publicly available 990 tax forms show Acellus’ parent organization, International Academy of Science, raked in $9.8 million in total revenue in 2018. Just four years prior to that, the organization drew in just under $2 million, with revenue consistently going up each year.

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