Update 2023: I have been a hater of Acellus for years, but even I was surprised to see the turn of events in the last week. The founder of Acellus accused homeschoolers of being cheaters, removed access to coursework and records without notice, and set up a new business in a blatant cash grab. I’m just going to say it again. Acellus does not respect you or your kids. They do not value education. They are a shady business. Run the other way. Fast. Update and original post are still below.
Update 2020: 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?
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.