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The extremely weird story of a remote-learning company that’s making parents livid

Schools embraced an online learning program called Acellus because it promised convenience. Now, parents are cleaning up the mess.

The extremely weird story of a remote-learning company that’s making parents livid
[Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash; rawpixel]

“MC” suspected something was amiss with the online learning platform Acellus Learning Accelerator long before parents accused it of providing racist and sexist content. When her school announced that it would use the program in the fall, the only reviews she could find on a popular homeschooling forum were a couple of threads insinuating that the program couldn’t be mentioned by name because of legal threats. 

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That discovery led MC down a rabbit hole of research into Acellus, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2001 and whose software is used by schools around the country. (Acellus claims that it’s used by 6,000 schools.) A 2004 profile of Roger Billings, Acellus’s founder, said that he had left the Mormon Church years earlier in part because it abandoned polygamy. He then founded a new church whose former website referred to him as a “prophet,” and he set up a college through which he awarded himself a doctorate, according to a 1994 Los Angeles Times story. That same college also gave doctorates to several of Billings’s close associates, who now serve as Acellus instructors despite having no other teaching degrees.

Those findings, among others, were enough for MC—a pseudonym she is using for fear of retribution—to begin sounding the alarms to the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District in San Diego, where her daughter was set to attend first grade. But after raising her concerns with the district’s administrators on the phone and via email in early August, she was rebuffed.

“Despite all the research I had, despite all the organized information I provided to the school district, they did nothing,” she says.

MC is finally feeling vindicated now. Over the past few weeks, La Mesa-Spring Valley and several other school districts around the country dropped Acellus after parents began discovering inappropriate content on the platform. One lesson showed an image of a bank robber while depicting Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery. Another asked students which terrorist group was led by Osama Bin Laden and listed “Towelban” as a possible answer. One instructional video seemed to minimize the role of slavery in the South before the Civil War, and another whitewashed the history of Hawaii’s overthrow by U.S.-backed forces. Another video for young children introduces the letter G with a gun.

Roger Billings [Photo: International Academy of Science/Wikimedia Commons]
Acellus has said that it has removed the offending content, and Billings has claimed that parents were only attacking him because of his support of President Donald Trump. (The organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But the controversy around a handful of Acellus lessons only tells part of the story. Some parents whose schools are using Acellus describe a sloppily built platform with technical issues, unprofessional content, and lessons that seem out of touch with standard curricula. An internal review by Hawaii’s Department of Education also gave Acellus poor marks before the department deployed the program statewide, and one school administrator in California, whose district used Acellus for years as a way for students to earn back credit after falling behind, now says it should have done more due diligence.

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The real story, then, is not merely about Acellus’s content, but about schools that failed to fully vet and understand the remote-learning platforms they were deploying as they raced to bring school online. Faced with extraordinarily difficult circumstances, some schools inevitably made some bad calls. And parents have been sorting through the mess ever since.

“Sweetie Lips,” as seen in an Acellus video [Screenshot via Acellus]

‘It’s just thrown together’

Nataliya Peck, a Hawaii resident whose second-grade son had been getting all of his instruction through Acellus this year, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she encountered “Sweetie Lips.”

The lipstick-wearing cartoon pig appears in some of Acellus’s online instructions, including one that got the organization in trouble last month: When a couple of other characters ask Sweetie Lips where her name came from, she blushes. “Don’t ask, we’re not even going there,” she says.

While Acellus has removed that particular video, Peck notes that other videos featuring Sweetie Lips and her friends are still available. And even if they don’t contain any innuendo, she and her son still find them off-putting. (One video for first graders, posted online by another parent, shows a cartoon duck reacting to police sirens by fleeing the scene.)

“They didn’t remove the characters,” Peck says. “They’re still there, which is so cringey. My son is like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.'”

The cartoons, Peck says, are indicative of a larger problem: Some of the content just seems unprofessional. She describes audio cutting in and out of question-and-answer videos, sidebar menus that cover up text on the screen, overly repetitive lessons, and instructors that stumble over their words.

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Worst of all, some of the lessons have seemed too basic for her son’s grade level, making Peck worry that he’d fall behind his peers by using it. In his first-grade class last year, he was learning fractions and equations, yet his math lessons in Acellus were teaching simple addition and subtraction for numbers under 10. (Acellus’s website indeed lists a video on subtracting four from nine as a sample lesson for second graders.)

A teacher demonstrates that g is for gun [Screenshot via Acellus]
“The [Department of Education] tried to sell it to us that this program has been around for so long, and it’s well researched. It’s not. It’s just thrown together. It doesn’t feel like it belongs in school,” Peck says. “It’s boring. It’s redundant . . . It’s just one big frustration.”

The state of Hawaii had its own reservations about using Acellus. As Honolulu Civil Beat‘s Suevon Lee reported earlier this month, the Department of Education conducted an internal review of the program at some point before the start of the school year and had concerns about quality. A group of curriculum specialists derided its lessons as “very simple” and “very, very, questionable,” with an emphasis on “drill and kill” memorization.

It’s just thrown together. It doesn’t feel like it belongs in school.”

Nataliya Peck

Hawaii hasn’t explained why it ultimately looked past that review. And as parents began turning up examples of inappropriate content, the state has stood by the program, pointing to positive feedback from some schools and teachers who’ve used it. A posting on Hawaii’s Department of Education website says that 176 of its schools and 12 public charter schools are using the program now, and while the state has allowed individual schools to drop Acellus, only a handful have.

Peck’s school isn’t among those that have opted out. Although the school had offered a “blended learning” option that would involve some in-person instruction, she had selected Acellus as a fully remote alternative on the promise that the school’s teachers would provide lots of support. Instead, she feels like she’s on her own—a feeling other parents have expressed as well—and the school would not let her son rejoin the blended-learning option it had offered as an alternative to fully remote Acellus courses. Now, she’s transferring her son to another public school, which will still use Acellus, but in a diminished role.

“It’s still a crappy choice, but it’s better than this system stand-alone,” she says.

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The allure of Acellus

How did so many schools around the country end up relying on Acellus for remote learning to begin with? One explanation is that it promises the exact thing schools are desperate to get right now, which is simplicity. Setting lesson quality aside, Acellus does teach a wide variety of subjects through a single portal.

Deann Ragsdale, the assistant superintendent for La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, says the district was drawn to that one-stop shop approach because it addressed a major complaint from parents, who were exasperated by the patchwork of websites their kids had to navigate last spring.

“What we were trying to do is streamline the number of platforms that our families needed to access, and so one of the things that was appealing about Acellus was it had all the different content areas,” she says.

It’s also possible that Acellus isn’t as bad as some of its detractors claim. While several schools around the country have now dropped Acellus, others have stuck by it, including the state of Hawaii and the Peoria Public School District in Illinois. A 2018 article by Kansas City Star reporter Mara Williams also quoted educators and students who praised the program for preventing dropouts and helping special education students. A listing of Acellus instructors shows lots of people with extensive teaching experience.

“The Star spoke with officials at districts using Acellus, interviewed teachers in Acellus training, and competing companies that also provide schools with online credit recovery curriculum,” Williams wrote in 2018. “None offered anything negative about the Kansas City company.”

A bank robber illustrates a lesson on Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery [Screenshot via Acellus]
There’s also another explanation, one that might reconcile the two others: Even if Acellus was sufficient as a supplemental or remedial learning tool, it wasn’t prepared for the kind of scrutiny that came from being a full-time pandemic learning solution, as some schools are now using it.

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In California, for instance, the Alameda Unified School District had been using Acellus for seven years without incident, largely for credit recovery and supplemental learning. But when parents started complaining about the inappropriate lessons that parents had discovered elsewhere, the district took a closer look. Pasquale Scuderi, Alameda’s district superintendent, says the district in turn found Acellus’s educational quality to be “lackluster.”

“We had really only used this program in a supplemental capacity with one segment of our population,” Scuderi says. “And that’s part of the mistake we made, was assuming that because it seemed to function serviceably in the supplemental ways we used it in secondary school, that it would be equally serviceable in elementary.”

Now, the district is taking responsibility. In addition to dropping Acellus, for which it would have paid in the neighborhood of $50,000, the district is reexamining its entire curriculum, both in print and digital. “This is clearly an indication that we’ve got to do better in vetting these things,” Scuderi says.

These kinds of issues extend well beyond one program. Earlier this month, the Miami-Dade County School Board cut ties with My School Online, an online-learning platform with some parallels to Acellus. As the Miami Herald‘s Colleen Wright reported, parents complained that the curriculum was inappropriate for young students, and the platform was marred by technical glitches and a cyberattack.

Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, says these kinds of issues are going to become more common. Digital learning tools are so complex that procuring them is a lot different from buying textbooks, and a lot of schools aren’t prepared for the transition. ISTE recently conducted a study of how schools acquire digital tools, and while the study found plenty of financial checks and balances in schools’ procurement procedures, those schools often failed to do much research into the actual effectiveness of what they were buying.

“You have schools and districts that are paying a lot of money for a product that actually isn’t teaching the kids, or teaching them in an effective way,” Culatta says.

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An Acellus lesson on plantations [Screenshot via Acellus]
As of now, there is no widely accepted measure of quality that schools can look for when buying digital tools. Acellus runs its own online K-12 school called Acellus Academy, which is accredited and draws on material from the Acellus Learning Accelerator program that schools use. However, accreditation in that context only means the academy is able to award education credit to students. It’s not a blanket endorsement of all of the 985,000 lessons that Acellus claims to offer for other schools. And while ISTE has been trying to establish a “Seal of Alignment” for programs that meet its standards, the vast majority of remote-learning tools don’t carry that seal. That means school leaders are still left to do much of the heavy lifting themselves.

“Schools and states have to invest in preparing their leaders and teachers how to recognize crap,” Culatta says. “Because if they don’t, unfortunately, this sort of thing will keep happening.”

Down the rabbit hole

Although Acellus did not respond to requests for comment, it has showed little contrition for the controversy over some of its lessons.

In a September 6 video on Facebook, Billings said he was targeted for supporting President Trump. In particular, he called out a now-deleted Twitter post he had written on May 18, which some political activists had found while criticizing Acellus.

“I think it’s important that everybody know what triggered this avalanche of negatives. It was one tweet,” Billings said in the video. “It said at the end, ‘Make America Great Again.’ And I found out in our modern culture, there are things you can’t say, or you’ll have a whole community that’ll attack you on social media.”

(Billings’s video didn’t acknowledge the first part of his tweet, which may also have raised alarms: “So far, everyone #COVID19 killed was going to die anyway,” he wrote. “When we go back to work, some of us may perish sooner than normal but at least those that live will be alive. We no longer can cower in fear and shame.”)

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“Towelban” as an answer in an Acellus lesson [Screenshot via Acellus]
Some parents critical of Acellus have made the fight more personal. When MC, the parent in La Mesa-Spring Valley, reached out to her district, she sent them a long list of web links and implored them to examine Billings’s past. Known in the 1990s for a patent infringement lawsuit against the networking tech company Novell (a suit he eventually lost), Billings tried to establish a hydrogen fuel business in the 2000s. A story by The Pitch’s Allie Johnson in 2005 claimed that he was living in a cave outside Independence, Missouri, where he had created the International Academy of Science and given himself a doctorate. That story also said that Billings’s nine children and some former students were working in the cave for Acellus, which Billings had founded four years earlier.

In bios on Acellus’s own website, several of its instructors—Eileen Dayton, Stephanie Merkley, Pajet Monet, and Jody Sauer—also tout doctorates from the International Academy of Science but list no other specific teaching experience outside of Acellus. Monet’s personal website says she is Acellus’s director of social and emotional learning, but her bio on Acellus’s website lists no degree or certification in that specific field, and her LinkedIn page lists no prior experience or qualifications in education.

Parents in Hawaii went even further. In a petition urging the state to drop Acellus, they accused Billings of succeeding the founder of a “polygamist cult” in the 1980s and linked to written testimony for the Hawaii Board of Education in which a parent accused Billings of forcing polygamy and molesting a child. They also linked to a seven-year-old blog post by Aaron Billings, Roger Billings’s son, recounting what he claimed to be a cult experience. (That post has now been wiped from the internet, including from Archive.org, though the parents have since uploaded a copy.)

Those allegations are unproven, and in a video that Billings posted to his website (and later deleted) last month, he claimed that all the attacks stem from a bitter feud with Brigham Young University. One can easily fall down a rabbit hole looking into these unsubstantiated claims, and several sources who want to see Acellus removed from schools tell me they’ve done exactly that.

Schools and states have to invest in preparing their leaders and teachers how to recognize crap.”

Richard Culatta

Schools, however, have divorced the allegations against Acellus’s founder from Acellus itself. Deann Ragsdale, the assistant superintendent for La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, says the school heard concerns from several families about Billings and the rumors circulating about him. Ultimately, though, the district believed the claims to be unfounded and limited its decision-making to the content itself.

“The rumors about the founder of the company were about a person, not about the program,” Ragsdale says. “I think it’s a very important distinction. Once there were identified and verified content concerns, we withdrew our plans to use the program with our students.”

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Some parents don’t think Billings and the program are so easily compartmentalized. As MC points out, Billings hosts weekly video lectures to discuss his life experiences, and advertises them prominently on the Acellus Learning Accelerator website. Students who attend Acellus Academy can also get tuition discounts by agreeing to watch the videos. Monet often appears alongside him to offer her own advice, and offers a social emotional learning course for elementary school students.

All of this left MC feeling deeply uncomfortable with the program even before it had started. Despite what Billings has said about his detractors, she insists that her only interest was in sending her daughter into a safe learning environment. And if it weren’t for parents in Hawaii and elsewhere who had spoken out, she might have given up.

“I’m not a social justice warrior, I’m not an activist,” she says. “I’m just a mom.”

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