As children prepare for online learning to continue being part of their life for at least another 6 months to a year (ultimately, it will depend on when a vaccine can be distributed), embarrassing stories of incompetence by the companies who are running these programs have whipped up a firestorm of controversy in the media.
Complaints about the Acellus Learning Accelerator, the program picked by the Alameda School District in California, and many others around the country, have piled up in local press reports.
Earlier this month, the controversy was sparked by "racist" or "sexist" questions, including one that asked young students what's the proper definition of a "family", before showing several options, including a black single mother, and a traditional white family with a mom and a father.
The answer was 'the white family'. California's liberals were apoplectic, and Alameda's school district immediately severed its relationship with the program's owner. One couple who said they paid the massively inflated home prices in Alameda in part for the schools. The fact that the district is spending money on programs with such obvious flaws is "frankly depressing".
"We bought a home here so our kids could enroll in these schools and to have them roll out something like that," Eckman said. "It's very disappointing."
Now, WSJ is reporting on more examples of the Acellus software's egregious mistakes, including this error: 'that Rosa Parks was arrested because she didn’t sit in the Blacks only section on a bus, instead of the correct answer, which is 'she refused to give up her seat to a white ma'.
Teachers have at times rebelled, telling supervisors that the content simply "isn't suitable" and ceasing to use it in their classes.
Over the past few weeks, Hawaii has emerged as a locus of complaints about the software, as thousands of parents signed a petition condemning the company's content as racist, sexist and low quality. This fall, Acellus, which had previously only been used by some home schooled students in the state, had become the primary remote learning tool for 80k students across the state.
While school districts in Hawaii confessed that they didn't thoroughly vet the product, one school district in Ohio rejected the software after finding several examples of "racially insensitive" content. The Delaware City School District in Ohio told parents it reviewed Acellus in greater depth after receiving complaints, and that the “racially and culturally insensitive material" had been evident.
In one particularly startling example, a history lesson the southern plantations said that slavery was "important" to keep them going.
As it turns out, while Acellus's founders tout the software as "magical" and unlike anything else on the market, WSJ has discovered that three of the "PhDs" in charge of the company got their degrees from non-accredited institutions.
Later on in the story, Acellus's biggest backers admitted that the software's main competitive advantage was its price: It cost just $100 per student for the school year, compared with $300 or $400 for competing products. Previously, districts mostly used it sparingly for kids who needed to catch up on course credits. The WSJ story also hinted at strange "religious" ties in the founder's "background".
It's almost hard to believe that America's schools would make the mistake of contracting an "education" company run by three pseudo-"PhDs" who got their credentials from what's effectively a diploma mill. But with the fiscal pinch and general chaos of the pandemic, school districts are finding it difficult to adapt.