Tag Archives: covid schooling

A Follow Up on Acellus

My post about Acellus continues to get the most hits on this blog consistently. I want to say a few things about it.

This is an extraordinary time that may call for unusual solutions.

First, I wrote that post as I was frustrated with trends in homeschooling way back at the start of the year. Little did I know that the homeschool landscape was about to radically change. There are now a LOT more people engaged in home learning. There are a lot more families doing this who simply did not want to be. One of my premises in that post was that unless your child was in an unsafe situation at school or had another unusual circumstance, you’d be better off leaving them in school than using these inexpensive online programs. Well, surprise! In person school is now an unsafe situation for nearly everyone in the United States, at least for now.

With that in mind, I want to emphasize that for anyone who is stuck doing this, no choice about curriculum that you make is going to “ruin” your kid or your kid’s education. And especially, I want to emphasize that if you need to use a basic computer learning system to get through a single year, then please do it. In my original post, I talked about circumstances where it made sense to use these sorts of programs in the short term, such as a mental health crisis or a student with an outside job. Well, add the pandemic to that list.

Acellus is still the worst of the bunch.

However, if I was going to pick an online program for you, I would still strongly recommend against Acellus specifically.

They aren’t the only bad player out there. In fact, several of the Christian specific programs are just as bad if not worse. However, since that’s where my hate mail seems to come from and since that’s what’s churning up dislike of me, I’ll just keep singling them out.

A lot of US school districts chose Acellus as their virtual platform to use during the pandemic for the 20-21 school year. And very quickly, one state dumped it.

You can read the summary of what happened in Hawaiian schools here or here. The tl;dr is that parents quickly took screenshots of eye raising content they witnessed in Acellus. That included racist content, sexual innuendo in an early elementary video, and a teacher showing off a gun to a class.

They also started looking much more closely at the founder of Acellus. According to the articles I linked above, Roger Billings “doctorate” was awarded by an institution he founded and there have been allegations for years that he leads a cult. He also has tweeted some disturbing things, such as that everyone who has died of Covid “would have died anyway.” The articles linked above also link to more sources, including Twitter screenshots of some of his acolytes and more of his now removed Tweets, all of which have a very strong political bent that goes outside the mainstream. This is not a man qualified to create curriculum for children.

Several districts in Hawaii have already dumped the program, less than a month into the school year.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m very concerned about corporate influence in education right now. It’s across the board, in homeschool and public school arenas. Acellus is one really blatantly bad example. But I’m also unimpressed by everything I’ve seen from companies like Edmentum and Pearson. None of these are great systems for kids to truly learn. I’ll say it again. Education is slow and labor intensive and requires a human connection.

Some people complained I didn’t give advice.

Look, I can’t tell you what the right solution is for you if you need to homeschool suddenly. I strongly believe in personalized solutions in homeschooling. One size does not fit all in education at any level. I have literally built a business founded on that idea. There are programs that I might offhandedly call “meh, light” or “way too overplanned” or “weird book choices” that, when I meet the right person I have to say “perfect fit for your student struggling with that subject” or “this will lay it out for you step by step like you like” or “oh, I’ve got the perfect book based program for a kid with those unusual interests!”

If you want to know what I used, it is literally all over this blog. The “Our Curriculum” tab on the blog links to posts that tell you what I used with my own kids from K-7th grade. Those won’t necessarily be right for you or your kids either! But they were things we mostly liked. And there are lots of new programs available now. When we started out, Acellus didn’t even really exist as an option, but neither did rich book based secular programs like Build Your Library or Blossom and Root. The whole marketplace is different now.

If you have a K-2nd or 3rd grader, I beg you to try and keep them off the computer for at least a chunk of their learning day. Little hands need small motor practice that they won’t get there. Little brains need less screen time. If you have a kid who is older, I would also say that there are lots of options for paper based curricula that you can use. Online is not the only solution. Try to accomplish math, reading, and writing. Everything else is icing on the cake.

However, if I had to hold my nose and recommend an all-in-one inexpensive online program for you… I’ll suggest Time 4 Learning. I named them in my original post and I’ll stand by the idea that I don’t think any all computer based program can really be the best choice in normal times. But I’ve known a lot of people who have used Time 4 Learning to start out, to tide over, or to get through something. Most people I’ve known move on from it after a year or so, but some stay with it and supplement and enrich, making it just one component, which would be the ideal way to use any online learning system. They have extra modules for English that include reading actual books. I’ve never heard anything really negative about the content in the vein of the examples of racism and downright cringeworthy questions that I posted above about Acellus.

I’ll also recommend seeking out individual teacher-led classes online, especially for older students. If you’d like to just try this method of learning out, there are inexpensive options on Outschool. However, there are much more complete, challenging courses out there as well.

My last word about this is that I one of the best books I’ve read exploring the ideas involved in online education is Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse. If you are going to stick with online based learning, it’s definitely worth a look. Sal Khan founded Khan Academy. He writes a lot about mastery based education and how online, computer based education can support that. The book is more exploratory when he talks about what to couple with the sort of work a student can do on Khan. But he recognizes the need for interaction, innovation, and hands on exploration for students.


I’m worried about corporate influence in education. You should be too.

I’ve continued to get a few serious hate messages (none posted) from my post about Acellus and other low end homeschool online programs. Once you’ve decided to use the b-word in calling names, you’ve definitely undermined your whole position (and shout out to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s brilliant speech about exactly what’s not okay about that). But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Several people have said to me that this pandemic must be great for my business. I’m an independent educational consultant now. I work with homeschoolers – particular middle and high school parents – on how to homeschool and with students and families trying to get their homeschooled students into college. It’s true that we have had a bump in business. However, what we offer isn’t easy solutions. Our intention was never to work with parents who didn’t want to home educate. I absolutely believe there are lots of ways that home education can work, which is why my business doesn’t have some single system we’re selling. We get to know each client personally then try to tailor our suggestions to their needs. Even if business were booming beyond belief, we help people on an individual level. We have a pretty small limit on the number of clients we can take.

The people who are making huge sums on this are large educational corporations. Those include Edmentum, the company behind Monarch and the new Calvert; Pearson, the company you probably know as an educational textbook publisher; K-12, the company that runs online charter schools in most states; and Acellus, the company behind Power Homeschool, which I singled out previously because of its growing popularity and because they have had some very dirty marketing tactics in the past, including posing as homeschoolers with fake accounts on forums.

These large businesses are getting a larger share of the educational pie than ever this year. I’m concerned by that. I think you should be too.

I’m not saying that some of these companies don’t provide useful products. However, in the end, education is slow and personal. It cannot be downloaded into your child’s brain via computer. It’s also not a product. Education is a process. These corporations treat education as a product. They treat your children as products. In fact, they see your children as money to be made.

When you educate your child at home, you have their best interests at heart as a growing person in need of education. When you send your child to a small, nonprofit, private school, they have a mission statement that guides how they educate your child. They have teachers who are there to care about your child. When you send your child to a public school, you’re sending your child to an institution filled with people who are driven to care for you child’s education, overseen ultimately by the public and your votes. I’ve been involved in all of these at various times. They can all be good models of educating children.

When a corporation educates your child, they care about the money that your child represents. They cut corners whenever they can. Corporations do not have your child’s best interests at heart. Their core mission is always to make money on a large scale.

There will always be people writing books, creating educational software, teaching kids, making enrichment camps, tutoring, and making money in education in various ways. I do that too. But there is a difference between being paid for your teaching, your creative work, or your labor and paying into the profits of a large scale company that does not pay teachers very well. Everyone should be paid for their expertise and labor. But that’s not the same as amassing a fortune and making decisions that are about selling and marketing over quality. That is what Edmentum, Pearson, Acellus, K12, and so forth do.

If you’re in the pandemic, home educating unexpectedly, then you should do whatever you need to do to get through this. If you have a high school student and your easiest path to getting credits is one of these corporate options, they’re cheap and you should do what you need to do. I understand why people feel pressed to look at these options more than ever. These are big questions and forces, bigger than any one person’s individual decisions about their family’s needs. But that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned.

With so many families taking students out of the public system because of the pandemic, I’m very worried about access to schooling that is above and beyond this cheap online model. Both new homeschoolers and school districts are turning to corporations to solve their education problems during the pandemic. Maybe that’s a good stopgap? But what happens if we move so far away from the human-centered, human-delivered, mission-driven model of education and toward a model where money is key? It will exacerbate big gaps in access to quality education between rich and poor, and often along racial lines. Some states are even planning to use pandemic emergency funds to encourage parents to abandon public schools. Many of them are using funds to expand the corporate role in your child’s education.

There are no easy answers for education during a pandemic. However, I don’t think parking American kids in front of low end learning software long term is going to be a good outcome. Maybe it’s better than the alternatives for now. But then what?

Homeschool Pods

Our crew, back in the day. I think we were studying American history, because this is Mount Vernon. They’re probably not supposed to jump off that little wall.

Okay, since I popped back in here after a slew of angry spam, I realized I have another thing to say about schooling options right now for struggling families.

Now there are all these models floating around for support structures for homeschoolers. There are class centers where students sign up for individual classes, “microschools” where a group of parents hires a teacher for a small group of kids, online schools that offer just a few classes or do it all for you… I like a lot of these models and we’ve even used several of them. Especially as my kids have gotten older, it’s nice to have the option of sending them to a quality teacher at a center or enrolling them in an online class for a subject I can’t teach. And if other structures help families feel more secure or work better, especially for working parents, then I’m all for them. Education can be done so many ways.

But it has occured to me several times that the way we did it back in the day when Mushroom and BalletBoy were small, could be perfect for the pandemic times, assuming you can get a group you trust and want to “pod” with. I assume you’ve all heard about the pod concept where you stop distancing with a couple of families and share resources in various ways, as well as try to keep each other a bit saner. Everyone has to agree to limit their contacts beyond that group, but within that structure, it seems like it’s worth the risk for many people. Everyone has to follow the law and decide what risks you’re comfortable with, obviously. But since a lot of families are considering this sort of approach anyway, it’s out there.

When my kids were little, we did have a co-op, but we didn’t hire a teacher, rent a building, or charge any fees. We didn’t develop or choose a curriculum or try to figure out how to cover reading, writing, and arithmetic together. We were just about four families (though we were sometimes three or five) and met just once a week, though more often could have been fine, especially in this environment where you don’t have other activities taking up your time. We changed it at various points, but the gist was just that we rotated parents as teachers. The kids picked a topic to study. Dinosaurs, American history, secret codes, poetry, money, the human body, robots and inventions, and so on and so forth. Then each parent would teach something for a day. The kids would come over, do a bunch of activities, then spend the rest of the day playing hard and running around until someone decided we had to beat the traffic and stop.

Later on, we changed up our model so that one parent oversaw a whole unit with lots of meetings about a topic the kids were learning about. Then we rotated for the next unit. We were part of another co-op where the parents picked the topics and we picked big themes for the kids as well.

Math, reading, and writing? Those were for the parents to be in charge of because not every kid is ready to do the same thing at the  same time. Not every program works for every kid. Plus, you should do those for a few minutes with younger kids every day.

I have the most idyllic memories of those co-op days. We were together for many years. The kids once learned about poetry and went to the aquatic gardens to write poems about lotuses and tiny wildlife in the pools. They once learned about the Gold Rush and spent several hours, in the rain, “mining” for gold. They once learned about crystals and grew colorful ones stretching down from strings into jars. They planned camping trips together. They cooked food together. They invented board games and put on shows.

All these other models could be right for these new families in this hard time. But also, you don’t have to have a school or a microschool or an outside teacher. You definitely don’t need an online based option or a curriculum in a box. Keep up your kids basic math, reading, and writing just a little bit. Get a math program, make sure they’re reading some books or teach them phonics if they’re still learning, and make sure they put pencil to paper sometimes. And then for everything else, it’s okay to think way outside the box. It’s okay if it’s loose and fun and wild. Whether you’re alone or with others, if you have elementary schoolers, whatever works is whatever works. But if you are with others, think about keeping it open ended and child led. You really can’t go wrong if you’re just trying something, letting them ask questions, letting them play.