Bible studies

These Online Learning Platforms Offer a Surprising Lack of Church-State Separation

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

When the school board of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, voted to reopen public schools in October, one reason they felt comfortable doing so was their Cyber Pathways Academy. The district’s fully online school had served students with a remote learning environment since 2013, and it was presented as an alternative for those who did not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning at that point in the pandemic. When my third grader transferred to this cyber school later that month, we quickly discovered that these online learning platforms included lessons with a surprising lack of church-state separation. They probably would not pass an Establishment Clause sniff test if they were in a regular school textbook. As if pandemic pedagogy hasn’t been challenging enough, the Covid-mandated rush to provide virtual learning for millions of students has, in some cases, resulted in content that has slipped through procedural cracks and may be seen as endorsing particular religious views.

The third-grade social studies curriculum began with three modules on “Ancient Hebrew Cultures.” Two of these were paraphrased Bible lessons, describing the Genesis stories of Joseph’s many-colored coat and the tower of Babel. My child was asked to explain why the Ancient Hebrews’ god confused the tower builders. “What was the result of Yahweh’s actions? Could he have done something else?” Challenging theological questions! But not subject matter I had expected in my child’s public school.

Our experience was not unique. Some other families who switched to Cyber Pathways expressed concern about the curriculum. As we soon learned, Lancaster was not the only place where content like this found its way to public school students. American Atheists, a nonprofit organization that frequently advocates for the separation of religion and government, received complaints about these same Bible-based lessons in four other states back in September. Geoffrey Blackwell, the organization’s litigation counsel, said, “We got a number of reports from parents over the span of about a week, providing us with documentation of some of the content they were encountering.” Letters that American Atheists sent to school districts in Ohio, Michigan, and New Mexico asserted that these Bible-themed lessons “explicitly promote elements of Christian theology” and are “blatantly sectarian.”

These school systems, as well as my own, used programs created by Accelerate Education, an online content creator and provider with a decade-long track record in public and private schools. Although Accelerate does provide some content directly to learners, in all the cases above, third party-providers serve as an intermediary between the company and school districts. In the cases where American Atheists intervened in Ohio, Michigan, and New Mexico, that intermediary was the for-profit online learning provider Edgenuity. (My Pennsylvania school district used a local, state-run intermediary.) Edgenuity established a partnership with Accelerate Education in March 2019 to provide K-5 elementary instruction, facilitated by Edgenuity’s virtual instructors.

According to an email from company spokesperson Amanda Coyle, “Edgenuity is in use by more than 20,000 schools—including 20 of the 25 largest school districts—and reaches more than 4 million students.” Not all of those 4 million students are elementary age or at public schools, but such numbers give a sense of the scale of online learning—even before the pandemic. In January 2020, Edgenuity’s parent company, Weld North, acquired another online curriculum provider, bringing the total number of students its holdings serve to nearly 8 million.

In September, Edgenuity changed materials it was providing in Ohio and other locations in response to American Atheists’ concerns. According to Coyle, “It was brought to our attention that some course content owned by a third-party organization, Accelerate Education, includes religious texts without sufficient context. Although the stories are presented as a lens through which elementary students learn about the ancient Hebrew culture, we share the concern that the context for the stories is not made clear enough to students or learning coaches.”

Lessons also contained factual errors, according to Alison Joseph, a Hebrew Bible scholar based at the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, who examined screenshots of some of the lessons at my request. There were claims “that ancient Hebrew letters were pictorial representations, like the ‘Egyptian alphabet,’” she told me. “I’m assuming they mean hieroglyphics; that’s not really true.” Getting such historical details wrong is a problem for any curricula, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the lessons are teaching religion inappropriately for a public-school setting. It does, however, seem to be evidence of using the biblical stories as foundational evidence, which crosses a sectarian line.

Jill Linden, the vice president for client services at Accelerate, did not explain how Accelerate’s Ancient Hebrew Culture lessons were developed or whether anyone had raised concerns about them before September, but she did explain why the topic was covered so extensively. “There are many states that include social studies standards for Ancient Hebrews.” She added, “We provide school districts and teachers training on how to easily remove these (or any other) lessons if they elect to not teach them in the local classroom.”

Linden did not mention specific states that require third-grade instruction in ancient Hebrew cultures, but a look at state standards does reveal when and where such content would be included. None of the four states in question (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and New Mexico) have any such requirement. Texas, whose standards and textbook adoptions have been notoriously contentious and political, does require that students “identify the individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses.” But that requirement only applies to high school curricula. Indiana’s high school history standards also call for teaching about “Ancient Israel” and the Bible as “the source of many moral and ethical traditions of Western civilization.” A 2017 law in Kentucky required new standards for an elective course in “the historical and cultural influences of the Bible.” These standards all focus on higher grades, where more nuance and context could be expected.

Context and grade level also help determine whether a lesson mentioning religion is legally appropriate. “In the context of a high school comparative religion course, some of this content would be fine,” Blackwell said. He related an incident where discussion of religious ideas intended for an eleventh-grade English class were used in an eighth-grade history class. “In the context Edgenuity intended … it would have been fine. It provided context for American literature for the 1800s.” Regarding the Accelerate lessons on Babel and Joseph, however, he said, “I do not see a way they could be properly delivered to a third-grade class, and from what I could tell from the materials we saw, it was heavily favoring the Judeo-Christian viewpoint.”

Another example of problematic context occurs when Bible stories are used to teach skills that could have been presented using more secular content. One lesson in my district asked students to follow the biblical Joseph’s journey into Egypt. Alison Joseph, the biblical scholar, told me that “the learning objective is to teach map skills, but to do that, it presents the Joseph story as historical, a narrative to apply objective skills to.” Another assignment had students copy the Babel story as handwriting practice.

Elementary age lessons on “ancient Hebrews” aren’t required by most states, but they are standard fare in many homeschool curricula that appeal predominantly to Christian audiences. (As a recent Religion & Politics article observes, American homeschooling and the culture that supports it have long been tied to the anti-public school and anti-desegregation sentiments of Christian Reconstructionism.) While science topics are often what people think of first in terms of conservative Christian objections to public schooling, history is also fraught with questions about religion.

Policies defining how history should be taught also prompt reflection about how different world cultures are described. Accelerate’s lessons largely avoid explicitly equating ancient Hebrew cultures with present-day Judaism. To Alison Joseph, this is an important distinction. “The ancient Israelites aren’t Jews” in a modern sense, she said. And yet Kentucky’s and Indiana’s standards suggest that ancient Hebrew history is important because of its influence on Christianity and the religious and legal worldview of the United States. In doing so, these lessons reinforce Christian supersessionism, or the dangerous and anti-Semitic idea that Jewish history exists primarily as prelude to Christian theology.

Other social studies lessons in the Accelerate curriculum seem to embrace the notion that primarily white colonizers of European ancestry replaced Native American peoples in North America. Several lessons describing cultural practices of the Hopi, Cherokee, and Sioux peoples are written in the past tense. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie is recommended, even with its racist stereotypes of indigenous people, as a useful source for understanding life on the frontier.

Last September, another Accelerate Education lesson attracted controversy in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, where fifth-graders were assigned to write journals imagining they were running away from slavery. This lesson model downplays the cruelty of slavery and miseducates students. Something similar is present in the Ancient Hebrew Cultures lessons, which state that “the harsh desert of the Hebrews caused many to live as nomads, moving from water source to water source, often buying and selling slaves as a means of income.” This account suggests that slavery could have morally neutral and economically sound justifications—a key trope in the former Confederacy’s Lost Cause apologism.

Accelerate Education is not the only source of under-vetted and problematic materials, although its widespread distribution makes it more visible. Prompted by the Edgenuity cases, American Atheists sent letters to every state board of education encouraging them to review online materials. Prompted by this, in October, the Hawai’i State Board of Education voted to transition away from an online curriculum that includes religiously and culturally problematic content.

Blackwell said that in his experience, “schools have responded promptly and made good faith efforts to address the issues.” The biggest challenge is discovering these materials in the midst of a public health crisis that has turned into an educational crisis. Pushing that responsibility further down the distribution path has led to content slipping through the cracks, and to uneven or inconsistent responses across the country. Potential legal risks for First Amendment violations also get passed downstream to individual school districts. It’s an additional responsibility atop the many old and new ones that school boards have faced.

Change may be coming. In December, the School District of Lancaster received word that Accelerate would address concerns with its curriculum. According to Accelerate’s statement, shared with me from the school district: “Due to both the expanded role of our online curriculum within K-12 education as well as recent transformative events that have challenged public opinion on matters of racism and discrimination (among others), we have hired a new curriculum manager for the purpose of reviewing and recommending changes in our courses for bias, diversity, and/or cultural sensitivity.”

It comes too late for some students, including my own—who’s transferred back out of Lancaster’s Cyber Academy. Some other Lancaster families have opted to homeschool or else to simply tough it out with the existing content. And of course, some were untroubled by Accelerate’s lessons to begin with.

The rush to online learning has resulted in materials reaching students that school boards have not thoroughly vetted and approved. At least in these cases, some of the content has been culturally insensitive and, in some cases, it may unconstitutionally promote religion—namely white Christianity. In part, this situation is due to the rapid and stressful nature of the pandemic in overwhelmed schools. But in some cases, the pandemic and the sudden shift to virtual learning have only revealed issues that were already present in widely available public-school curricula. The pandemic means that many parents are “in” the online classroom with their children, and to a degree that is not possible during in-person learning. “It gives parents a much greater degree of oversight and ability to see exactly what their children are being taught,” Blackwell noted. “It’s providing us a better picture into what these programs are providing that we might not have seen otherwise.”

Virtual learning has already plunged pandemic parents into roles and responsibilities they’ve sometimes struggled to balance with their own uncertain professional and personal lives: A parent must now serve as a manager of kids’ routines, learning spaces, their IT problems. Until online learning providers are more carefully and formally vetted, we might need to add constitutional scholar to that list.

Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and religion and the author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Anti-Evolution Movement in American Schools.