At the start of the first pandemic school year, Angie Richardson sat beside her 13-year-old daughter, Sharon, in their Northport, Alabama, home as she watched lessons and completed assignments on a computer program called Edgenuity, which the Tuscaloosa County School System had purchased to provide a remote learning curriculum for students. When Richardson got COVID-19 later that fall, leaving her too sick to oversee her daughter’s schooling, Sharon had to navigate the virtual courses on her own.
That shouldn’t have been a problem: The software, which cost the district $370,000 during the 2020–2021 school year, provided no live instruction from a teacher but promised “on-demand tutoring” available six days a week.
But Richardson and other parents soon found that Edgenuity tutors were often unresponsive, sometimes for hours at a time. Another Tuscaloosa parent, Terri Burnette, recalled her son waiting for hours after clicking the “Tutoring Help” button when he got stuck on a math question about measuring angles. “But nobody came,” she said.
Calls and emails to district teachers didn’t always bring a prompt reply. By the time Richardson had recovered, she said, her daughter’s education had become “a catastrophe.” Sharon ended up falling so far behind that the district required her to return to school in person.
“They set these kids up to fail,” Richardson said. “She can’t talk to a teacher, she can’t talk to anyone. There is no teacher with Edgenuity.”
The coronavirus pandemic turned the American education system upside down last year, shuttering classrooms, leaving students isolated and adrift, and sending school officials scrambling for virtual solutions. But it was a boon for the many private companies that helped schools move their operations online.
Among the winners was the company that Sharon and other students said left them hanging: Edgenuity. During the first year of the pandemic, the Arizona-based software company added more than 500 public school districts to its client list and inked contracts totaling at least $145 million. Thanks to prepandemic acquisitions and rising demand during the crisis, Edgenuity nearly doubled what it pulled in from the public sector the year before, according to public data made available via GovSpend, a company that aggregates government spending data.
“She can’t talk to a teacher, she can’t talk to anyone. There is no teacher with Edgenuity.”
Some parents were satisfied with the education their children received through Edgenuity, and some districts appreciated the safe alternative to in-person learning amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
But at scores of schools around the country, the solution Edgenuity provided at a time when districts were desperate for an online option came at a high cost to students’ education, according to a BuzzFeed News investigation based on a review of hundreds of pages of court and school district documents and interviews with more than 50 people. The investigation found that Edgenuity entered into contracts with school districts that lacked the resources — or the will — to make sure teachers were overseeing the virtual learning as the program intended. As it has risen to prominence over the last decade, the company also at times employed lobbyists who pushed limits: In Alabama, where Edgenuity contracts have boomed in recent years, one politician who also worked for the company as a consultant was convicted of ethics violations tied to his work with Edgenuity, while another was granted immunity to testify against others.
Again and again, it was kids, often those in underprivileged communities, who paid the price.
“It was a disaster,” said Mercedes Schneider, a teacher in a Louisiana district that contracted with Edgenuity for virtual school last year.
Officials in Schneider’s district, St. Tammany Parish, signed a contract with Edgenuity in July 2020 that left some teachers responsible for upward of 600 students for months, according to data released by the district. In Mineral County, Nevada, high school students from the Walker River Paiute Tribe had no contact with any teacher for more than eight weeks in the beginning of the 2020 school year and did almost no schoolwork during that time, according to district elementary principal Lance West. In Providence, Rhode Island, where more than 6,000 mostly Latinx and Black students enrolled in the Edgenuity program, a majority of remote high schoolers were failing by February, according to a counselor and teacher with access to student performance data.
Have you had any experience with Edgenuity or another remote learning program? Contact this reporter at email@example.com.
In a statement, Edgenuity said that the company is proud of how it responded to the unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic, and that it “collaborated closely with district and school leaders — consulting, training and supporting our customers — to make sure that teachers had curriculum to teach students and channels through which to reach their students.”
The problems that arose, the company said, did not reflect deficiencies in its services but in school districts’ inability to staff enough teachers to supervise remote students using the software.
“Although some districts used our products in ways that they weren’t designed, the vast majority of the thousands of districts we serve used our products successfully during the school closures,” the company said in a statement. “School districts looked to us to help them, and we answered.”
When districts needed to increase the number of students or staff using its software last year, Edgenuity expanded the available capacity for free. During the first pandemic school year, Edgenuity said the number of customer service requests it received tripled from the previous year. The company said it worked to hire and train tens of thousands of educators to deal with the spike in demand that came when districts realized “how difficult it was going to be to have their teachers work both in person and online.” While wait times for virtual tutors were initially high, averaging 20 minutes in October 2020, the company said its record improved over time.
Hearing that some students struggled “makes me feel badly, as someone who cares about kids,” said Sari Factor, who was the company’s longtime CEO before becoming a senior vice president at its corporate parent Weld North in January 2021. “And I think a lot of kids have gotten left behind this year, unfortunately, just generally, because of the chaos of COVID.”
As coronavirus variants continue to disrupt classrooms, districts across the country are continuing to ink deals with Edgenuity. Milwaukee Public Schools will use Edgenuity for 1,300 virtual students this year, as will the southwest Virginia regional virtual academy for around 800 students. Columbia Public Schools in Missouri is spending $1.29 million on Edgenuity for virtual students for the 2021–2022 school year. And in Des Moines, Iowa, the school board voted in August to award the company a $495,000 contract to teach around 500 virtual students.
In March, the private equity firm that owns Edgenuity, Weld North, whose companies serve over 10 million students in the United States, received $275 million in new investment that it’s used to continue acquiring competitors. One former sales staffer described Edgenuity as “the Amazon of ed tech.”
While Edgenuity is one of the industry’s biggest remote learning services, it’s not the only one to face complaints from parents and teachers. In September 2020, the Miami-Dade school district pulled out of a contract with K12 Inc., now called Stride, over concerns about the quality of content and instruction. And school districts in Hawaii canceled contracts with Acellus after parents complained about inappropriate content.
Carolyn Heinrich, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University who has done studies of Edgenuity in schools, said that many virtual classroom providers allow school districts to get away with fulfilling their obligations to students on the cheap — a temptation she predicted more districts may embrace in the future, despite the pedagogical limitations.
Edgenuity, which disputes Heinrich’s research methodology, maintains that its product is not meant to be a substitute for teachers. But, Heinrich said, “a product that allows school districts to substitute that program for the core of instruction instead of a teacher” and “to have twice as many kids in a classroom where the instruction is driven by an online system, that’s replacing the teacher.”
Students who have “been historically underserved” are “more likely to be the ones” enrolled in such programs, she added. “I don’t think it’s going away, unless you want to start funding schools in a whole other way.”
At its core, Edgenuity offers districts a computer-based curriculum consisting of prerecorded videos, digital readings, and assessments, often algorithmically graded.
The company started off in Michigan in 1997 as e2020, a small software company focused on providing online education to children who couldn’t go to school because they were sick or had a disability.
By the early 2000s, the company had relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona, and brought on as a consultant Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona education official who previously advised then-president George W. Bush on education policies, including the expansion of standardized testing. Keegan, who briefly sat on e2020’s board, pushed the idea that private companies such as e2020 could contract with schools to help teachers improve classroom learning while also creating student performance data that would be valuable to administrators and policymakers.
“You don’t think anybody’s making money off of education? Big secret, it’s happening,” Keegan said in a 2004 interview with PBS. “People make millions.”
In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Keegan said she believes kids learn best from teachers, and that technology should not be a substitute for direct instruction, even in emergencies such as teacher shortages
“It cannot take the place of great teachers. It’s not magic,” Keegan said. “Teachers are magic. Technology is not magic.”
Keegan sold her shares in e2020 in 2011, when it was acquired by Weld North, a private equity firm named after founder Jonathan Grayer’s Harvard dorm. Grayer had previously been the CEO of Kaplan Inc., a test prep company he transformed into an online for-profit higher education behemoth. Under his leadership, Kaplan made a series of acquisitions that built the business into a $1.5 billion “financial crown jewel,” as Bloomberg called it — before employees and students began alleging that its higher education division used fraudulent recruiting practices to get students to enroll in online classes and take out loans in the process.
Kaplan said “no case has ever found fraudulent recruiting practices” at the company. It later refunded some student tuition and settled with the Department of Justice, which was investigating its hiring of “unqualified instructors.” But by then Grayer was gone; he departed in 2008 with a $76 million payout and was lauded for seeing the potential for profit in online education that traditional colleges were slow to act on. One major private equity firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, bet big that he could do it again, investing, according to the New York Times, “several hundred million dollars” in Grayer’s vision that, through Weld North, he could beat textbook publishers at creating and selling educational software for grade schools. Through a spokesperson for Edgenuity, Grayer declined an interview request but conveyed that his priority has been providing quality education to students across the country.
After buying e2020 in 2011, Weld North changed its name to Edgenuity and set about getting the company’s digital product into the nation’s largest school districts.
At the time, Edgenuity’s bread and butter was something known in the education world as online credit recovery — digital courses that allow students who’ve previously failed in-person classes to quickly make up work, a cost-effective way for schools to increase graduation rates.
Edgenuity said its program “is designed to be used under the supervision of a qualified teacher, not as a substitute for a teacher.” But many school districts began using the software in a different manner: deploying it to help failing students make up work on a computer without much direct instruction.
As online credit recovery became more popular — through vendors such as A Plus, Apex, Edmentum, and K12 — graduation rates rose sharply, as did concerns that these programs prioritized students getting a diploma over getting an education.
Heinrich, the Vanderbilt University professor, recently published findings that show online credit recovery saves school districts about half of what they would have to spend on a real teacher. Her longitudinal study of students using Edgenuity in classrooms in Wisconsin found an association between more time spent in online credit recovery classes and lower math and reading test scores.
Still, districts continued to sign up, and Edgenuity increasingly promoted its products for use in “mainstream” classrooms in a model it called “blended learning.”
Edgenuity disputed Heinrich’s research, saying her Wisconsin study didn’t account for students who weren’t actively engaging with their classes. The company pointed to a different study conducted by the American Institutes for Research, which found that outcomes for students using Edgenuity in Los Angeles were comparable to outcomes for students in “teacher directed classes,” depending on how the software is used.
In 2013, Edgenuity introduced a new product called Instructional Services, which provides a remote, accredited “teacher of record” who can grade assignments and meet with students and sometimes provides live virtual instruction. Districts can use the product to offer advanced classes or electives that wouldn’t otherwise be available. And, as districts across the country faced teacher shortages, schools in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi were among the takers of what the company described in advertisements as a way for districts to “reduce the struggle of hiring and keeping good teachers, while helping you stay within your budget.” When teachers in Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, went on strike to protest low pay, large classes, and understaffing, administrators turned to Edgenuity.
The program wasn’t always a great fit: Facing a teacher shortage, the school district in Española, New Mexico, has repeatedly put students on Edgenuity even though the kids didn’t always have access to computers or the internet, according to the local newspaper, which reported that in one class in 2019, 80% of students failed. The district did not respond to a request for comment.
By the time the pandemic shut schools down, Edgenuity’s software was being used by 6 million students in 20 of the country’s 25 largest school districts.
In May 2020, as $30.75 billion in federal relief funds for school districts began flowing, classrooms in Tuscaloosa County had been empty for weeks, but in the district’s IT department, phones were ringing off the hook.
Sales reps were calling to sell districts the technology they needed to take their operations online.
“It was overwhelming,” said Michael Townsend, the IT director in the district, which eventually contracted with Edgenuity. “You had everybody calling you that wanted to sell you something.”
The names of the companies that rushed in to help schools are now well known to parents across the country: Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology. Among the biggest players was Edgenuity, which by summer 2020 had a new marketing slogan for its products, saying they would allow schools to “pivot” from “brick to click.”
But what the program entailed came as a shock to many parents.
“We imagined … that there would be a teacher who would record lessons, kids would watch them at their own pace, do the assignments as they were doled out, and … if you didn’t understand a math concept you could Zoom with your teacher,” said Jennifer Steffen, whose daughter attends middle school in Williamson County, Tennessee. “So imagine our surprise when we had Edgenuity thrust upon us.”
As the school year unfolded, the problems mounted in many districts using Edgenuity.
“It was overwhelming. You had everybody calling you that wanted to sell you something.”
Officials in the St. Tammany Parish school district, which spent at least $179,500 on Edgenuity, had initially agreed to license Edgenuity for 500 students in July 2020, according to contracts reviewed by BuzzFeed News. But by the time school started the following month, more than 5,000 students had registered for the virtual classes. The district didn’t immediately hire more teachers to oversee them, leaving half a dozen staff members responsible for over 600 students each. One St. Tammany teacher oversaw more than 1,000 students in Edgenuity courses ranging from Spanish to computer science to calculus. Though Louisiana law limits in-person high school classrooms to a maximum of 33 students, or about 200 total for a teacher with a full class load, there is no rule for student-teacher ratios in the state’s virtual schools.
A spokesperson for St. Tammany public schools said that during the “unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic,” St. Tammany virtual school teachers were expected to “provide enrichment and support,” but not direct instruction.
“We were flabbergasted,” said a St. Tammany teacher who worked for the district administering Edgenuinity’s virtual school and requested anonymity to protect her job. Teachers “can’t meet their needs. They can’t even keep up with phone calls and emails.”
Overwhelmed, the district asked Edgenuity if it could provide additional teaching staff. The company couldn’t fully “accommodate their needs,” Edgenuity spokesperson Elliot Sloane said, but in November was able to provide certified teaching staff for 304 students taking advanced classes, which cost St. Tammany an additional $99,000.
In Providence, Rhode Island, where 40% of families live below the poverty line, four district employees said many virtual students were left without help because most parents in the district had to work outside the home — helping explain why a majority of the district’s students on Edgenuity were failing classes by February.
Providence initially agreed to pay “up to $100,500” for 500 high school students to use Edgenuity; over 6,000 students signed up. “It’s a tragedy that my district spent this kind of money on a program like this,” said a district teacher who oversaw virtual students last year and requested anonymity to protect her job. “This is some of the worst instruction I have ever seen.”
At the end of the 2021 school year, Providence quietly closed its virtual learning program, for which Edgenuity said it ultimately paid around $145,000. It continues to use Edgenuity for credit recovery in high school. The district didn’t respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.
Meanwhile, nine weeks into the school year in Mineral County, Nevada, remote high school students from the Walker River Paiute Tribe had completed less than 2% of their Edgenuity coursework, according to Lance West, an education activist and local elementary school principal. West said the remote high school students, who rarely heard from any teachers, received “no live instruction, just straight Edgenuity coursework.”
“The advertising claims it did everything, so [teachers] didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “The whole thing was a train wreck.”
At an Oversight Hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February, West told senators that the decision to use Edgenuity for remote learning “did more damage” to students who were already at a disadvantage.
Two of those students were the daughters of Norberta Garcia, who, as a full-time cafeteria worker at the elementary school, wasn’t able to stay home and monitor them while they used Edgenuity for their ninth-grade coursework.
“My youngest, she said, ‘I feel really stupid. I don’t know anything.’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t say that about yourself, you’re not stupid,’” Garcia said. ”It did impact them a lot, because there was no interacting with the teacher, or helping them learn.”
Superintendent Andre Ponder, who began in the job this school year, declined an interview request. Edgenuity said it conducted two training sessions with Mineral County teachers in September 2020.
In other school districts, Edgenuity simply wasn’t able to deliver what schools needed. The company said it declined potential contracts in Stockton, California; Bethany, Oklahoma; Sarasota, Florida; and Revere, Ohio, because it wasn’t able to provide enough virtual classroom teachers. Revere Local School District Superintendent Matthew Montgomery told parents that Edgenuity “had assured” the district on a Friday that it would be ready to start classes using Edgenuity-provided teachers by Monday, only to learn on Sunday morning that it “was not going to have the staff available needed to outfit all of the courses.”
Edgenuity’s success stories were often found in districts without staffing shortages. BuzzFeed News spoke with at least three school administrators who said they had positive experiences with Edgenuity. One North Carolina couple whose first-grade daughter used Edgenuity said they were happy with the program when she was sharing a teacher with around 30 other students — but when the girl’s school made changes that led to larger class sizes, they began considering transferring her elsewhere.
Seith Bedard, a charter school director in Peabody, Massachusetts, said Edgenuity’s software was “super interactive,” “very well done,” and “allows us to manipulate it in a way that meets our needs” — but his school has only 35 students, making it easy for its teachers to oversee their learning. “This isn’t a product where I would stick a kid in front of a computer and say, Go at it, Johnny!” Bedard said.
Company officials acknowledged growing pains last year. Sometimes bandwidth got overwhelmed with traffic, leading the company to pledge to “build capacity as quickly as we can,” as Miami Herald reported.
“It all hit us in August … We hired like four school districts’ worth of teachers in a month and a half,” Factor told BuzzFeed News. “What we didn’t anticipate was how many districts were going to depend on us to do the teaching of their students.”
Some schools that used Edgenuity to get through the initial emergency in spring 2020 eventually decided that it wouldn’t be a good fit for the long term.
“We got feedback from our community that it probably was not as rigorous or as engaging or as meaningful as our community wanted,” said Jerry Moore, chief academic officer at the Fort Worth Independent School District, which stopped using Edgenuity for its virtual classrooms this year. “We cannot replace good quality teachers with anything else.” Fort Worth Independent continues to license Edgenuity content.
In response to those complaints, Edgenuity told BuzzFeed News that the district didn’t use their product properly, assigning courses “without oversight from teachers.” “Their teachers were not trained, progress and data were not monitored, and students did not know expectations,” the company said.
On March 4, St. Tammany Parish Superintendent Frank Jabbia announced at a board meeting that the district would no longer provide a virtual learning option. “Right now, it’s basically Edgenuity, and our teachers are support personnel,” he said. “We tried. What we found is we can’t meet the needs of the students.”
“So basically,” summarized board member James Braud, “you’re saying that we tried a grand experiment, and it kind of failed.”
Among the places where Edgenuity’s business has surged in recent years is Alabama, where the quality of education consistently ranks among the lowest in the country.
In 2011, the company started paying the Alabama speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard, $7,500 a month to set up meetings with politicians. To avoid running afoul of state ethics laws, the contract said Hubbard could lobby only public officials outside of Alabama.
He arranged introductions to NCAA officials and state legislators in North Carolina, according to court documents, and encouraged South Carolina’s House speaker to make sure his home district in Charleston signed a deal with Edgenuity, a contract that hadn’t “happened without your help,” the company’s then-president, Michael Humphrey, said to Hubbard in an email. “I want to earn my keep,” Hubbard replied.
Hubbard said he never lobbied for Edgenuity in Alabama, but over the following years, Edgenuity’s revenue within the state exploded — growing from $70,000 to $2.4 million annually, the company confirmed. Part of that growth included $550,000 in grant money from the Alabama State Department of Education. That 2013 grant, which the state planned to distribute to school districts to spend on Edgenuity, followed a meeting in which another Edgenuity lobbyist, Ferrell Patrick, mentioned the company’s connection with Hubbard, according to court documents. Patrick, who had initially introduced Hubbard to Edgenuity executives, still works for the company, as does Weld North Executive Vice President Michael Humphrey. Patrick did not respond to interview requests for this story. Hubbard’s legal team did not respond to a request for comment. Through an Edgenuity spokesperson, Humphrey declined an interview request.
In 2014, state prosecutors indicted Hubbard on 23 charges of felony ethics violations for a variety of conflicts of interest, and in 2016 he was convicted of 12, including one for using his position as an elected official to illegally obtain “a thing of value” from Edgenuity.
Another former state senator, Steve French, who also had a contract with Edgenuity and testified that he had conversations with several state officials about the company, was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against Hubbard.
As details about Edgenuity emerged during Hubbard’s trial, some Alabama school board members grew alarmed. Two days after Hubbard’s 2016 conviction, Alabama state school board member Mary Scott Hunter sent an email to board members saying, “I think we have to assume that Edgenuity has internal compliance and ethics lapses that make doing business with them overly risky. My recommendation is to void any contracts we currently have with them and recommend the same to our [local education agencies]. Corrupt practices inside a company are a very serious matter, and clearly, there is evidence that the company is internally compromised.”
Edgenuity spokesperson Elliot Sloane said the company violated no laws: The Alabama Ethics Office issued an approval letter for the contract with Hubbard, and the “terms of our agreement prohibited him from working in Alabama on our behalf.” Sloane said that “the prosecution was unsavory and untrustworthy.”
In response to a public records request, Alabama State Department of Education general counsel Jason Swann said the agency has no record of which districts received funding to license Edgenuity in 2013, no knowledge of an investigation into Edgenuity after Hubbard was convicted in 2016, and no way to know which school districts in the state currently use Edgenuity. Locating the records requested by BuzzFeed News would “take a lot of cross referencing of different things” and going “through individual contracts” in a manner that was “time prohibitive,” Swann said.
While the state of Alabama does not have any contracts with Edgenuity, at least 54 Alabama districts individually signed Edgenuity contracts in the first year of the pandemic, spending a combined total of at least $4.3 million, according to GovSpend.
Betty Peters, a former state school board member who was in office during Hubbard’s conviction, said she was “appalled” that Edgenuity “has been allowed to continue to operate all across the state.”
Charleston, South Carolina, where Hubbard helped Edgenuity make inroads, has continued to use the software through 2021. In 2013, according to court records, Hubbard made a call to South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell to talk about Edgeniuty’s contract with the school district, which was in the area he represented in the state legislature. At the time, the district was trying out a pilot of Edgenuity’s software; email records from 2012, obtained through a public records request, show some teachers raising occasional concerns about issues like student cheating, service outages, and mistakes in the curriculum.
In October 2013, a few months after Hubbard’s call to Harrell, Charleston County School District finalized its three-year, $1.49 million deal with Edgenuity.
Edgenuity said the deal in Charleston had already secured school board approval prior to Hubbard’s involvement and that the Alabama and South Carolina House speakers “had no influence” in the district’s decision.
In the years after the district signed the contract, some teachers grew frustrated.
One teacher, Valerie Paquette, claimed in a lawsuit that the district demoted her after she accused administrators of using the virtual learning software to boost graduation rates, metrics that can impact administrator performance reviews and compensation, without ensuring students learned the material. She cited one student who failed her class, only to then take the Edgenuity version and “complete over 50% of an entire yearlong course in only 2 days.” In a later lawsuit, she argued that the district’s use of Edgenuity violated “the policy of the United States Government … that under-performing students, often those who are minorities, not be passed along without fair effort being made to give them the education they deserve.”
The district denied many of Paquette’s allegations in court before the case was settled in 2017. Neither Paquette’s former principal nor the district responded to questions.
The company said it provides schools with recommendations for how long it should take students to complete courses and that its products contain features that inhibit cheating. “When districts use their own teachers, they are responsible for managing this — just as they would with in-person learning to comply with the district’s policies related to granting credit and graduation,” the company stated.
Jody Stallings is the head of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, which raised concerns about Edgenuity to district administration in a 2015 report. He said large, urban districts tend to rely on Edgenuity because of budget constraints. “If you can afford to have a teacher in a classroom with students, you wouldn’t pay for Edgenuity,” he said. “You wouldn’t need Edgenuity.”
A spokesperson for the district said it has “taken significant steps to improve the use of Edgenuity” for online learning in recent years.
Students in districts around the country have penned op-eds and circulated petitions opposing Edgenuity. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, where Edgenuity signed a contract in 2015, students protested the program by writing letters to the school board, arguing that it did not provide a fair chance at education. In early 2020, the North Carolina state superintendent of education said the agency would look into allegations that students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg were graduating after spending less than a dozen hours on Edgenuity, but then the pandemic came and the investigation stalled. Charlotte-Mecklenburg continues to use Edgenuity, but through a spokesperson said it is working to ensure that students are taking “an appropriate amount of time” to earn credits.
Over the last decade, Edgenuity has grown rapidly through acquisitions, with parent company Weld North buying more than 16 companies in eight years.
Shortly after Weld North acquired major competitor Odysseyware in 2019, sales staffers who joined the company found themselves at a Friday Night Lights–themed sales training in Austin, chanting: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”
“The motivation was, you’re going to be number one, you’re going to sell the most to everybody, and you’re not going to f’in apolgoize for being great,” said a California-based former salesperson who said he was struck by the “cut throat” culture of the company. She left Edgenuity soon after that event for a rival company but asked for anonymity for fear of angering her current employer.
Four former Edgenuity employees, who requested anonymity to avoid hurting their prospects in the industry, said the fear of being fired for missing sales quotas and the promise of earning 7% commission per sale — a rate that could add up to annual earnings in the six figures — combined to create a high-pressure work environment. In some cases, these employees said, that pressure led sales staff to mislead school districts about what the product could actually do.
“There were salespeople in Edgenuity that would do anything to make the sale, whether it was the right fit or not, and make promises they couldn’t necessarily keep to close the deal,” said the former salesperson from California.
“I can’t think of any other word but greedy.”
Often, the confusion was just about a minor technical feature, but sometimes districts seemed not to understand how the product worked at all, said a former account manager recounting instances when districts didn’t realize they were supposed to staff classrooms with real teachers. “They’d complain, like, ‘I thought this was going to be just an online thing, I don’t have the teachers to sit here and interact,’” the former employee said.
In a statement, Edgenuity said both the company and sales staff “depend heavily on renewal business and referrals from customers to drive our growth, so misleading customers is not in our best interest.”
“When we have had the rare issue of a customer who has misunderstood the capabilities of the offering, we have provided refunds and have given appropriate corrective action and coaching to the sales rep,” the company said. “Of over 7,000 accounts, this has only happened twice in the past year.”
But five former staffers said Edgenuity leadership seemed more interested in acquiring competitors and growing the customer base than in making sure the content was high quality and up to date.
“I can’t think of any other word but greedy. They wanted to own everything, and not really invest in the products anymore,” said a former Austin-based sales staffer. “They keep selling the same crap to make more profit.”
By fall 2020, as district officials around the country faced a return to schools still disrupted by the pandemic, teachers began speaking out against the extra demands of educating both in-person and remote students.
In Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, some teachers threatened to resign because of exhaustion. On Sept. 14, dozens of sign-carrying parents and teachers joined together to protest outside a school board meeting.
Newly appointed superintendent Keri Johnson came up with a solution: Edgenuity, and its promise of ready-to-use, preloaded content. Johnson had worked with Edgenuity in a previous district and knew the local sales rep. The day after the parent-teacher protest, she authorized a purchase of over $370,000 to bring Edgenuity to Tuscaloosa County.
The plan was to pay some district staffers a bonus of around $5,000 to administer Edgenuity to virtual students using the software at home.
From the beginning, Johnson acknowledged in an email to one teacher that Edgenuity was “not that great many years ago” but said that, after updates, it was “much better than it used to be.” The reason she picked it, email records obtained by BuzzFeed News show, was to find a way to deal with virtual students while preventing teachers from “having to do any extra work.” She bought Edgenuity’s “on-demand six days a week” virtual tutoring service especially to prevent students from “emailing and messaging teachers about every little thing,” she wrote in an email to one teacher. The district told teachers that Edgenuity now offered a “virtual assistant” called Eva: “Eva is new to Edgenuity and is artificial intelligence,” school guidelines released in October said. “The more we ask Eva, the smarter she gets. Ask questions and Eva will guide you.”
Johnson said she recommended that the district purchase Edgenuity with emergency relief funds based on her previous experience with it and because the online learning option provided by the state didn’t meet her expectations.
In a written statement to BuzzFeed News, Johnson said: “There were no perfect solutions in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, but every decision I made was with the best interest of our students as my number one priority.”
Many parents, students, and teachers quickly grew disenchanted.
One district teacher who requested anonymity to protect her job said she was initially excited when she heard Edgenuity was going to be “a self-driven machine.” But as she began using the program to teach, she increasingly felt alienated from students and frustrated that the software couldn’t do her job as well as she could. “My heart goes out to these kids because they’re not getting the support they need,” she said.
“My heart goes out to these kids because they’re not getting the support they need.”
Michelle Beasley, a math teacher who was among those who had threatened to quit, was likewise disappointed, calling Edgenuity “an easy cop out plan to get teachers to shut up about being overworked” in a September email to state officials. At the school year’s end, Beasley and three other teachers filed a class-action lawsuit against the district alleging that administrators did not expect staff to actually teach virtual students and had taken its reliance on software so far as to eliminate written assignments so that nobody would have to grade them. Beasley declined to comment on this story; the district declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is ongoing.
The consequences of those decisions fell on students like Sharon, the middle school student who struggled to get academic support from anyone outside her family last school year. Her mom, Angie Richardson, said she felt the district had abandoned the girl. Richardson struggled to pick up the educational slack. “When I was in college, I didn’t take algebra or geometry. I’m like, We might be in trouble, they put letters in the math!” she said.
In the end, Sharon, formerly an A or B student, fell so far behind she was told her grades were too low to register for a career tech class she’d been looking forward to.
Sharon wept when talking about this in an interview. “I’m not stupid,” she said. “I’m trying to bring my grades up really hard.”
This year, Sharon is back in school in person, but some parents in places like Iowa, where state law bars schools from requiring masks, are still afraid to send their unvaccinated kids into classrooms.
In Des Moines, that meant more families signed up for an Edgenuity virtual program than the district was prepared for. The superintendent warned parents it was not “in the best interests, in most cases, for any elementary student.”
In its statement, Edgenuity acknowledged that elementary school students are “best served by in-person instruction” and the company didn’t recommend that schools use its software for kids that young, but it continued to develop and sell virtual curriculum for that age group “at the request of some of the schools we serve.” ●