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Acellus online curriculum promotes religion, shows racial and cultural bias, Hawaii reviewers find

The Acellus online curriculum has gender, racial and cultural biases and seems to promote religion in the public schools, according to a report released today by the Hawaii Department of Education.

The Board of Education has already voted to phase out the controversial program by the end of the academic year, based on complaints from parents and teachers and the recommendation of a review team.

The team’s full report, “Instructional Content Review of Acellus Learning Accelerator,” was posted online this afternoon and reveals more details.

Equity specialists from the department’s Civil Rights Compliance Branch found evidence of discrimination in Acellus lessons based on gender, national origin, race, physical appearance, religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

“Though the curriculum may be viewed as antiquated, this does not excuse the fact that it contains numerous discriminatory lessons and a showing of gender, cultural and racial biases,” the report said.

Reviewers also highlighted an “unacceptable” amount of religious content in the curriculum that was neither part of a course on religion nor a portrayal of individuals and events in historical context. Instead, the lessons “present Christian views as fact,” the report said.

That runs counter to the Board of Education’s policy on Religion in the Public Schools, it said.

“Although the policy allows for including religion where it is a natural part of the curriculum, it appears that Acellus goes well beyond that standard and thereby violated BOE Policy 900-3,” the report said.

“If a DOE classroom teacher was teaching the same material that Acellus presents in his/her classroom, it would be grounds for an investigation by the Civil Rights Compliance Branch and if substantiated, would likely result in disciplinary action,” it added.

The Acellus Learning Accelerator was adopted by more than 60% of Hawaii’s public schools in Hawaii this fall as a distance learning option but soon came under criticism for racist, sexist and outdated content. Acellus, chaired Roger Billings, was created by the unaccredited International Academy of Science in Kansas City, Mo.

Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said that the department “has ensured that Acellus has removed or addressed the concerning content that Civil Rights Compliance Branch identified in their review.” 

“During the phase out of the Acellus Accelerator during the 2020-21 school year, the Hawaii Department of Education will continue to ensure that any reported objectionable content is removed by Acellus,” she wrote.

The comprehensive assessment was conducted by 56 members of a multidisciplinary team, including school administrators, teachers, curriculum and equity specialists.

At least half of the reviews found that lessons were not aligned to the Hawaii Content Performance Standards. Many lacked rigor and did not meet grade-level expectations.

Acellus Learning Accelerator has been used for years by schools and families across the country. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was used in Hawaii only by high school students who needed to make up credits after failing a course. Since April 1, the DOE has spent $2.8 million on the program. Schools purchased year-long licenses for up to 74,000 students although only 40% have been used.

“Schools will supplement or replace Acellus content with other curriculum materials to increase rigor and minimize disruption of instructional delivery to students via distance learning,” the report said.

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