The Los Angeles Unified School District's inspector general is investigating a complaint about the district’s use of Edgenuity, a digital curriculum company that has supplied educational software to the nation’s second-largest school district since at least 2015, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
One complaint filed to the agency and reviewed by BuzzFeed News questioned whether LAUSD was using all of the Edgenuity licenses it paid for, whether the product was effective, and whether its pricing model for various products was fair.
The inspector general, which investigates waste, fraud, and corruption within the district, declined to comment, saying via email that all investigations are “confidential.” Elliot Sloane, a spokesperson for Edgenuity, which rebranded as Imagine Learning earlier this month, said the company is not aware of any investigation.
The district’s review of its Edgenuity contracts comes as parents and school administrators across the country are reconsidering their reliance on the company’s software, which provides educational videos and digital assessments that became increasingly popular among schools in need of remote learning programs during the pandemic. A BuzzFeed News investigation, published last month, found that as Edgenuity and school districts struggled to keep up with skyrocketing demand, some students using the software for remote learning went months without receiving direct instruction from a teacher. In September, hundreds of families in Plano, Texas, withdrew their kids from an online learning program that relied on Edgenuity, according to the Dallas Morning News, and a group of teachers in Alabama sued their school district on claims that its implementation of the software last year led to discrimination against in-person staff.
Edgenuity previously said that it is proud of how it worked together with school districts to support teachers and students through the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
Los Angeles schools have used Edgenuity’s products in a variety of ways over the years, from credit recovery for kids who failed classes to “keeping their students busy” during a 2019 teacher strike, as the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
The district, which has an annual budget of $24 billion, spent at least $6.7 million on Edgenuity licenses for the 2020–2021 school year, according to tech news website dot.LA. A district spokesperson declined to say how much it has spent on Edgenuity so far during the second full pandemic school year, during which the software is being used as the primary instructional tool for the 16,000 K-12 students who chose to remain remote and enrolled in the district’s online school, City of Angels.
In September, the LA Times reported that City of Angels was “overwhelmed” by the number of families who signed up, outpacing the number of teachers available to supervise the virtual classrooms.
Two teachers assigned to City of Angels told BuzzFeed News they had received minimal training on Edgenuity and weren’t able to start instructing most students until between four and six weeks after the school year began. One substitute who was temporarily assigned to the program said his students were unable to access Edgenuity until mid-October, two months into the school year; another teacher, Shawn Fornari, said he got a call from a parent in October who said their family had received no information from the district about how to attend virtual classes.
Fornari, a teacher at City of Angels, said Edgenuity’s content is too advanced for his sixth-grade students, but said he has little control over the program or the curriculum for his own class. “My students are so far behind, it’s just been a nightmare,” Fornari said. “I can’t teach when there’s a computer trying to teach something totally different.”
Some teachers in City of Angels have been assigned to instruct subjects regardless of whether they have the relevant credential, Fornari said, while others have been asked to grade assignments for foreign-language classes even though they don’t speak the language. An art teacher who was assigned to oversee students in the virtual school after refusing to get vaccinated told the LA Times that he didn’t feel qualified to support students in the classes assigned to him, which he said included advanced math, history, and science.
“The general feeling was that the kids are just put in front of the computer and told ‘Go!’ and not really given a lot of check-ins,” Casey Dykes, a high school math teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, told BuzzFeed News.
Dykes called the program a “Band-Aid” and said what she’s seen “with math in particular is it’s not really up to par with direct instruction, where you can respond to misunderstandings right away.”
Sloane, the Edgenuity spokesperson, said that the Los Angeles Unified School District reached out about expanding its use of the software in August. The spokesperson also said that, due to a variety of review requirements, technical requests, and last-minute changes made by the district, City of Angels students weren’t able to start logging in to Edgenuity until Sept. 22. He said LAUSD is responsible for staffing the program with qualified teachers. “We are in good communication with LAUSD and collaborate closely on issues that arise from time to time,” Sloane said.
LAUSD did not respond to questions regarding complaints about City of Angels or district spending on Edgenuity.
Earlier this month, Edgenuity parent company Weld North announced that it would rebrand as Imagine Learning, the name of a small, Utah-based supplemental ed tech company it acquired in 2014.
On Oct. 27, at least 25 sales staffers learned they would be losing their jobs as part of the final phase of a merger between Edgenuity and Imagine Learning. The company did not dispute the layoffs, which it said were the direct result of overlap, as it “did not have enough territories for every member of our legacy companies’ sales teams.” Their departures followed those of most of Imagine Learning’s executive team, including former CEO Jeremy Cowdrey.
For Weld North, the move follows a pattern of mergers and acquisitions of Edgenuity competitors, such as Compass Learning and Odysseyware. Six recently laid-off Imagine Learning employees said the pressure to hit sales quotas and get deals signed increased sharply when Edgenuity sales executives took over. The employees, who were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements in order to receive their severance packages and are still waiting to be paid out on earnings including commission, spoke to BuzzFeed News on conditions of anonymity. Sloane, the company spokesperson, said they would receive payments on Friday.
“That’s the problem about trying to privatize education,” one former Imagine Learning employee said. “The only thing that matters in education is the student outcomes. But as soon as you add the profit component to that, then the only thing that matters is money, and the community, parents, teachers — none of that matters.”