Why You Shouldn’t Use Acellus (among others)

Because this post continues to receive a ton of attention, I have written an addendum to it. It’s available here. And if you really want to see the “research” maybe go read the excellently thorough investigative piece at OneZero, the journalist arm of Medium. Below is the original post, unaltered.

Psst… I know I’m not around here very often. Mushroom and BalletBoy are working their way through homeschooling high school with some live online courses, some dual enrollment at a local community college, and some courses at home. I’m busy running things over at Simplify Homeschool. If you need help with homeschooling, especially with planning high school with college acceptance in mind, you can find me there.

My social media and search feeds are bombarded with ads for really bad homeschooling programs and well-meaning homeschoolers recommending those programs. If you’re new to homeschooling, there’s a good chance you’re being bombarded with them too.

Time4Learning, Acellus/Power Homeschool, Mia Academy, Calvert Homeschool, Monarch… and the list goes on. You probably also see ads for K-12, Connections, and other programs typically provided as part of online charter schools. Plus you likely see ads for math and individual learning programs such as Adventure Academy, Elephant Learning, IXL, ABC Mouse, and others.

In the last several years, these programs have come to dominate the homeschool conversation and scene. They promise that for a low monthly fee, you can have everything you need to homeschool or that for a monthly fee they can enrich your homeschool through digital learning.

Let’s look at one of the most popular options, Acellus, which is sold mostly through Power Homeschool. I’ve been around long enough to remember when Acellus was an upstart provider getting banned from multiple homeschool groups for running sock puppet accounts to post fake testimonials about their product. From that beginning, and a lot of money spent on advertising, they have grown to become a huge company, providing credit recovery classes, homeschool “courses,” and other software based education services. They’re a private company, so I can’t say how much they make, but suffice it to say that it’s a great deal.

On the Power Homeschool site, they use the word “complete” to refer to their product in several places. They offer various “reports” such as attendance and progress reports, just like a school would. Under the section on parent responsibilities, it only lists that parents must follow state laws and “supervise” their students. It makes no mention of doing any outside teaching, enriching, or even homework support. Sounds like a complete program, right?

Nope.

In actuality, Acellus quietly places a disclaimer that it’s meant to be “part” of a program. What’s the rest of the program? There’s no way to tell from their website materials. It’s really up to the parents. However, parents choosing Acellus are typically thinking of it as everything they’re doing for school. Because they aren’t immersed in a homeschool community where parents talk about enriching ways to approach education, they come to think that choosing this self-paced, video-based, multiple choice program, they’ve done their duty.

Most families turning to software based solutions for homeschooling as their primary teaching method would be better off leaving their kids in school.

I do think these online, software-based programs can have uses. Sometimes, you just need to check the box for a subject, especially for a student in high school who is busy with another subject or even a non-academic pursuit. Other times, parents use programs like these to fill in the gaps when someone in the family, either the student or parent suffers from a chronic illness or is going through a rough year, perhaps with a major life change. There are worse ways to deal with that than relegating a year of learning to a computer program. A few families do enrich these programs, though in my experience, they tend to use them briefly then move on in dissatisfaction because they realize how bare bones and boring the programs are.

What is the purpose of homeschooling? Sure, some people turn to it out of a specific need — a child’s physical or mental health issues, a child’s career such as in acting or the arts, a situation with severe bullying. However, typically, it’s to provide a superior education to our kids. The core of these programs is videos plus multiple choice and other very basic questions. That’s it.

Learning happens through interaction. It happens through experience. It happens by testing and trying things out. The idea that a student can learn how to write by choosing the best option for a sentence on a multiple choice quiz is preposterous to me. Many of these programs do offer ways for students to write paragraphs or essays. However, they don’t provide much, if any, feedback. What use is that? Sometimes they do ask students to read books for literature, but there are no opportunities to discuss. The overall emphasis isn’t on reading at all, but on information given in little video chunks. Even for a subject like math, where there usually is a single correct answer, the process of understanding how to get that answer is often too complex to be learned solely through multiple choice questions.

I’m hardly a Luddite and I’m a huge advocate for using screens creatively as well as using live or asynchronous classes with a teacher as part of your homeschool. However, parking a kid in front of a screen without even a human to talk to on the other end for their entire education is soulless, empty, and bereft of meaning. Education is more than a few facts. It’s a process that should be at the heart of a child’s life. Homeschoolers used to talk about raising lifelong learners. These computer programs don’t care about anything other than checking off a box.

They also take away the beautiful flexibility of homeschooling. Why should a kid have to learn American history one year if they’re obsessed with medieval knights? Why should a high school homeschooler emerge with a transcript that looks just like a public school student? Shouldn’t they aim for more individualized work? Of course there are “elective” options on these sites, but they’re often relatively limited. The array of electives on Power Homeschool is fewer than what the large public schools offer here.

I sympathize with parents who are pressed for time and money but want to homeschool. I would ask them, if the education your child will receive through a computer is inferior to the one they’ll receive at school, then is it worth it? Homeschooling takes work. It takes your time and effort. If you don’t have that time or energy, that’s okay! It doesn’t make you a bad parent. If your child really needs out of a bad school situation, then maybe it’s a temporary solution until you find a better one. Maybe that’s another brick and mortar school. Or maybe you seek within yourself and your community and find those reserves to be able to help your student at home with interaction and work that does go above and beyond what these programs offer.

There are some amazing teachers out there teaching online and some great little curricula written by homeschoolers and teachers. Everyone deserves to get paid for their labor. However, the found of Acellus or Time4Learning do not care about your student’s education. They are looking to make a dollar. They have no philosophy beyond simply sales. Money and corporations have become the biggest force in education these days. I see it and weep because it is not helping homeschooled kids receive a better education any more than it helps kids in traditional schools.

In the end, I know these companies are going to continue to prey on homeschoolers. They’re going to continue to make it sound like it takes no effort to homeschool. They’re going to continue selling you snake oil.

I’m going to continue to rage about them, because I hate what they’re doing to a group of people who used to really care about the best way to teach our kids.

20 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Use Acellus (among others)

      1. In order to compete in quality with a half decent traditional public or private school or traditional homeschool experience with a half decent curriculum and a parent with at least an modicum of investment, an online school would need to have actual interaction with teachers, either through telemeetings like Zoom or through individualized correspondence. It would need to have significant written work that goes beyond multiple choice, fill in the blank level questions. It would need to require older students to read full texts. There are schools like Stanford OHS that actually excel at this sort of online schooling. But that particular option is out of reach to many (for both price and selectivity). There are others that do a pretty good job, but I’m not going to do a full rundown of every name here. As I said many times both here and in the follow up post, for families who are stuck in a tough spot, sometimes these cheap computer program learning platforms can be a good stopgap to tide a student over. The pandemic is one such “tough spot.” If I had to pick one, I’d say do Time 4 Learning. But do I think T4L competes in quality with the traditional approaches to education above? Not on its own, not by a long shot.

        For young kids, I don’t think they should ideally be on online schooling at all. For older kids, beginning at middle school age, there are wonderful, high quality individual providers like Well-Trained Mind Academy and many others that do individual classes that I absolutely think can compete with a traditional school or homeschool experience. But it takes work to line these up. And while it’s lot cheaper than a high quality online private school, it’s also a lot more expensive to pay for half a dozen quality online classes than to pay for Acellus or T4L or Monarch or whatever. This is part of what my business does – we help families find and plan those individual options. But you can do it yourself. It just takes research legwork and time up front.

  1. I get the point of this article. If you are going to criticize popular programs and say don’t use this or that program, I think you should offer an alternative or at least outline what program you use and the other sources you augment your core curriculum with and why.

    I even jumped over to simplify homeschool to try and follow up on this article and didn’t find any recommendations.

    Let me be clear, I’m not trolling you here I am seriously considering homeschooling my two kids. I am looking for any opinions on the matter so I can make the best decision about what curriculum to use.

    1. This is my personal blog. There are many years worth of posts about the materials I used with my own children. At Simplify, helping people figure out what individual choices are right for them is literally a cornerstone of our business. But our philosophy is that one size does not fit all. We often recommend programs that were not right for us or our kids and totally different programs to different clients. I have even, on occasion, recommended a couple of the programs mentioned above (though not Acellus) as part of an overall homeschool plan in certain situations.

      I know it’s a lot to navigate. If you want an all in one, you need to pay for it or teach it yourself. If you want it piece it together for an eclectic homeschool, then you have to do a lot of research. A lot of families are stressed and worried right now. But also, while I can tell you what I used and what the pitfalls are for these particular sort of corporate programs, I can’t tell you what to use – there’s not one right way to homeschool and the right choices are individual.

      1. This is honestly the first bit of research so our journey is just beginning…. My wife and I are feeling in Acellus. I would love some assistance of any kind that you may want to offer. Thank you so much.

    1. Hi, you’re welcome to look around this blog’s archives and see what I used with my own kids back in the day, though that was what was right for us then – there are new programs out for younger kids now and your kids aren’t my kids. I believe in choosing the right things for individuals. There’s no one system or program I think is the best for everyone. I also have a book about homeschooling the middle grades, which you can find on Amazon and is linked on this blog.

      I would suggest joining a state level homeschool group – there are lots of groups, mostly on Facebook these days. Tell people the age of your kids and what sort of approach you’d like to have and whether you want secular or religious materials (keep in mind that religious materials in homeschooling tend to be conservative politically as well). I wrote this post that you’re commenting on before the pandemic. One of my main points above was to say that students are usually better off in school than using low level online programs in a vacuum at home. I stand by that in normal times. But now… there is no in person school and many schools have not adapted well and many families are struggling. So with that in mind, you should do it however you need to get through. But if you want and are able to give your kids a richer education at home, look for resources that involve reading real books, and doing learning that is more complex than a multiple choice test. If you want to hire a consultant, I do consulting at http://www.simplify4you.com. I’m proud of the work I do, but I want to emphasize that most people won’t get a consultant and will do just fine.

  2. “(keep in mind that religious materials in homeschooling tend to be conservative politically as well)”…. sounds more like warning then simple opinion

    1. It is a statement of fact that religious homeschool materials tend to additionally be politically conservative. Obviously, this is not every Christian homeschool product. However, it is overwhelmingly true of Christian homeschool products as a whole. It clearly is a word of warning, but not a judgment. Many new homeschoolers do not seem to know that the marker of Christian in homeschooling is not a big umbrella Christianity, but rather a very specific, politically conservative, evangelical, sometimes anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon strain of Christianity. For families who specifically want that, then that’s great. But for families who do not, then homeschool companies sometimes do not make it clear. Sometimes they don’t even make it clear that they are religious at all. Again, if you want an evangelical, politically conservative product, then that’s your choice. Excellent. If you do not, then be aware that sometimes Christian homeschool companies use very vague language about what’s under the hood. I have had Christian friends – especially Catholic friends – purchase homeschool products thinking that the religion would be great and fine only to realize it was not something they could use within their faith. And I have had lots of secular friends think they did their due diligence looking for religious content only to receive a product and discover that religion is a core part of it. No one deserves to be surprised. In my work as an IEC, I’ve worked with Christian and secular families. I’ve made suggestions to religious families that I would never make to secular ones, and vice versa.

    1. And… did you read my response about the sheer amount of information and advice on this blog that I have given freely over the years? Look, this is a review. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. And this is during a pandemic when good enough solutions may need to be good enough. But you’re not going to convince me that children can learn as well without interaction with other humans and without higher order thinking tasks as a focus.

  3. My daughter is 5 and her in person school is doing virtual classes using acellus I can contest it’s a pain to use but I have no other option in my school district. So we’re forced and stuck using acellus and it’s videos are terrible most are not even a minute long and the tests they have are just stupid it’s I get better content off of YouTube. Do you have any recommendations for someone who’s school is forcing them to use acellus? Can’t move to another school district

    1. Hi, I have been reading reports about districts who chose Acellus and it’s really unfortunate. Really, a lot of the virtual school solutions aren’t very good. My personal feeling is that every parent who is able to, who feels that what their school is doing isn’t supporting them, and who won’t lose a spot in a specialized or lottery based charter or public school should pull their K-2nd graders to homeschool them. I have had even some homeschool friends raise eyebrows when I say this, but I’m completely serious. It will be less work and burden on you. It will be less work to do your own thing than to do someone else’s thing on their schedule. Realistically, a computer or even a human on the other end of a computer, cannot educate a child that young, not without a lot of parent involvement. So you’re stuck doing some large portion of this no matter what. And there are so many materials out there at every price point. I don’t know your situation or what you’re comfortable with, but there are other materials out there. I have to admit that most of the things I have seen for this age that are online based are not great. But I’ll suggest this – look at free materials for learning to read, such as Progressive Phonics, find some math to do, such as the free program MEP Math Reception, which is very gentle, and read aloud a lot of books, have crayons and paper available, go outside, and then use the computer or videos or whatever you need to get through the year. There are other programs out there… Blossom and Root, Torchlight, Moving Beyond the Page, Build Your Library, and Oak Meadow are all examples of solid all in one programs for elementary school. However, there are others. And other individual programs. It just depends on what you want to do. There are better online programs, but I don’t know what’s good specifically for kindergarten. Good luck. I would just leave it behind.

  4. Can you tell me if you are referring to Acellus Academy, online school, or is this some of the materials they provide for homeschooling?!I have been looking at the Acellus Academy website to see if it would be a y fit for my son, and I was under the impression that it is a fully accredited school, and not just a portion of a learning system. Maybe these are 2 different things?

    1. The Acellus “system” is used by homeschoolers independently, by school districts who purchase it to use as a virtual program (though as my update points out, several have dropped it for racist, misogynist, and general low quality issues in the last few weeks), and as an accredited program through Power Homeschool. It’s all the same low quality software. Power Homeschool has teachers who check that students did the work and are available if there are issues. That’s pretty much it.

  5. Acellus also has Acellus Academy, which offers a full curriculum, and is an accredited online school. My daughter is currently in 5th grade with Acellus Academy. She loves it! Just thought it was worth mentioning that Acellus does indeed offer a full curriculum. They also track grades and transcripts and your child will receive a real high school diploma upon completion.

    1. I’m well aware that they think that it’s full. And that it covers the traditional subjects and even electives. And that they have an accredited version. I’ve been through accreditation at a small school. I understand what accreditation means. All it means is that your school does what it says. Acellus says that it sticks students on its very basic software and that teachers make sure they did the work. Accreditation does not impress me. There are many terrible accredited schools. And many good ones. And many excellent not accredited courses and schools. And many terrible ones. The basic software is the same. And it’s the same things that school districts are dumping nationwide for racist, sexualized content.

      1. Some of the articles I pointed out do an okay job with discussing this. If you follow the articles and the Twitter threads, you can see a lot of screenshots. Some of the highlights include an odd juxtaposition of clip art imagery of Harriet Tubman escaping enslavement with a stereotype bank robber, which I believe was to suggest that she was stealing property – herself and later other enslaved persons. There was also a lot of other strange juxtapositions. For example, a question asked which image showed celebrating. The first image was a relatively recent color photo of white dad holding a white kid with a sparkler. The second image was a classic black and white photo of a indigenous American man in traditional dress from at least over a century ago. He’s just standing there, so presumably he is not celebrating. There were a lot of these sorts of things – where a word with a positive connotation (celebrating!) is then associated with an image of whiteness, while the other answer is an image of non-white people. In another example, a question asked which showed a family. The white family was a nuclear four person mom and dad and two kids family. The other photo was a Black mom and a kid. Apparently, the student is supposed to choose both… but again, the subliminal pairing there is to make a kid pick between the two images, which one is a “real” family? And then, the image of the Black family would seem to reinforce incorrect stereotypes about absent Black fathers. These examples go on and on. I have yet to see a full accounting of them, but the company has had a very lackluster response. They removed ones that school districts (in other words, but customers, unlike individual homeschoolers) complained about. However, they defended themselves by basically saying that a full review of the curriculum is not necessary and that they simply reflect content that is every program. I have seen some egregiously racist content in many curricula over the years. However, Acellus’s content seems particularly unusual to me. Some of it – such as the images of the families – strike me as being similar to other programs that lacked a sensitivity reader or editor to look for instances of implicit bias. However, much of it – such as the image of the indigenous man – seem to be targeted to be intentionally subliminal messaging. Whether that’s true or not, there’s just a great deal of it. This is not a case of an older program that needs revision (it was all created less than 20 years ago) or a few mistakes. It’s woven throughout the early elementary program.

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