Teaching Christianity at K12 Inc.

by David Safier

[NOTE: In the original version of this post, I ventured into the question of whether there was an actual historical Jesus. That was an error on my part. Though some people debate that issue, it's not relevant to the point I'm making about the K12 Inc. material discussed in the post. Since I don't believe in removing anything I've written, I crossed out those passages and added wording that more accurately reflects my views.]

In January, Greg Cochran enrolled his 7th grade son in Agora Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania's online school run by the for-profit company K12 Inc. When his son complained that his history textbook was teaching religious beliefs, Greg looked through the textbook and the online materials and agreed. He decided to email me because of what I've written about K12 Inc. in the past. He wrote,

I read the chapter on Jesus Christ which referred to Jesus in the factual sense as if it were a provable fact that Jesus “Said,” “Did,” etc. It was . . . clearly written with a Christian perspective.

Greg sent me copies of Agora Cyber's online materials which included maps taken straight from Christian websites as well as links directing students to other Christian websites. The material treats Jesus as a historical figure without any mention of the scholarly questions about the existence of a historical Jesus. The material treats the specific details about Jesus' life described in the New Testament as historically accurate. Worse, the material fails to create a clear distinction between "biographical" and religious information. Greg also sent me the textbook his son was using.

Agora Cyber, like K12 Inc's online schools across the country (including Arizona Virtual Academy), is a publicly funded charter school. As is true with other public schools, it is required to draw a bright line when it comes to religious instruction; it can teach, but not preach. The K12 Inc. materials cross that line over and over again.

When students enroll in K12 Inc. schools, they are given a laptop and if their homes don't have online access, an internet hookup. They are also sent hard copy materials including textbooks and workbooks. Much of the actual work students do is similar to what they would do at brick-and-mortar schools: read textbooks, answer questions about what they have read, complete worksheets and write essays. The major difference is, there is no teacher present. Especially in grades K-8, parents act as their children's primary teachers, and K12 Inc's staff occupy the role of facilitators and
trouble shooters, taking care of administrative duties and helping
students and parents with specific problems. The online educational materials are a vital, integral part of the curriculum, often presenting information and enrichment a teacher might present in a classroom.

The hard-cover history text used by 7th graders is "The Human Odyssey, Vol. 1: Prehistory Through the Middle Ages." It was written specifically for K12 Inc. and is one of a number of textbooks the company has published. Chapters 8 and 9 are headed: "Judea and the Rise of Christianity" and "The Spread of Christianity." I read the chapters and gave the rest of the textbook a careful once-over. In general, I found it to be a satisfactory textbook with lots of information about a number of ancient cultures, including respectful treatments of other religions and belief systems from the Middle East and the Far East. In that context, the space given to Christianity was not excessive. The main concern with the textbook's presentation is that Jesus is treated as a historical figure.The main concern with the textbook's presentation is it treats the specifics about Jesus' life as they are portrayed in the New Testament as historically accurate.The chapters state as fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, began his religious teaching at 30, was crucified at 33 and so on. The main concern with the textbook's presentation is it treats the
specifics about Jesus' life as they are portrayed in the New Testament
as historical truth rather than part of a religious narrative. However, the book is careful to say "According to the Gospels" when it writes about miracles or other purely religious matters. Because the textbook gives a generally balanced presentation of other cultures and religions — and because I've seen all manner of problems with textbooks during my teaching career — I wouldn't have been overly concerned about what I read in the textbook if that is all I had in my hands. (I should mention that Greg Cochran disagrees with me and finds the chapters in the textbook about Christianity objectionable because they assume the existence of a historical Jesus.)

The online materials, on the other hand, contain a great deal of religious content that goes far beyond what any public school should include in its curriculum. And since so much of Agora's teaching is done online, that religiously charged material is central to the students' educations.

Before students read the chapters in their textbooks, they go online together with other students and listen to a teacher use a PowerPoint presentation to give an overview of the material. (What this teacher mainly did was prompt students to read the bullet points on a page, then reread them herself. "Facilitator" would be a better word to describe her than "teacher.")

One of the PowerPoint slides is titled "Map of the Judea."

Map_of_Judea

The map comes from the website "Daily Bible Study: www.keyway.ca," as is indicated in the map's lower right hand corner. The URL takes you to the home page of "The Church of God Daily Bible Study: A Ministry of God's Pure Word." The map used in the slide is on another page,
where the word Decapolis is defined and the New Testament descriptions
of the miracles Jesus performed in those areas are presented as fact. At the
bottom of the map page is a bonus "Fact."

Fact Finder: Should Christians fear demons, or should demons fear Christians?
See Why Demons Are Afraid Of You

Another slide in the PowerPoint presentation is titled "Map of Jesus' Teachings."

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 10.54.40 AM

The slide doesn't indicate the source of the map, but it comes from the website, Generation Word, A Bible Teaching Ministry, which describes itself as "an online Bible School that teaches the Word of God."

Once the students begin reading the chapters in the textbook, Agora Cyber provides online links to other web pages to help students through the material. Here's one link:

Bible-link-matthewmcgee

The Resources link to a "Chronology of Apostle Paul's Journeys and Epistles" takes students to a page on the website, Wielding the Sword of the Spirit. Here's a typical sample from the website's home page:

How to be Saved: Do you know if you are going to heaven? Here is the Roman Road to Salvation.

What happened to us when we believed the Gospel? Understanding our assured salvation and position in Christ: crucified with Him, buried with Him, raised from the dead with Him, baptized into Him, seated in heaven with Him, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and chosen before the foundation of the world.

This is a link from another supplemental page:

Bible-link-christian-history

The link takes students to a page on the website, Christian History for Everyman. The author of the website states his reason for creating the site:

I want to expose you and everyone else to the Glorious Church: the gathered people of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Along with those links are a number of statements that should not be included in a public school curriculum. The PowerPoint presentation assumes the biographical details about Jesus in the New Testament are factual. That would be of less concern if it weren't for the religious teaching included in the unit, but when the two are combined, they compound the religious teachings in the lesson.

Here is the first slide from the PowerPoint Presentation introducing the unit:

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 4.36.28 PM

All statements except the one defining the word "Gospels" portray biographical information about Jesus from the New Testament as fact.

The one slide that talks about scholarly questions concerning Jesus' life begins with the assumption that Jesus is a historical figure and wonders about what happened during his "Missing Years." the biographical information about Jesus in the New Testament is accurate and the only question is what happened in the parts of Jesus' life that aren't discussed.

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 4.39.08 PM

The story of Jesus' baptism by "his cousin, John" is also treated as history, not material from a religious text:

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 4.41.19 PM

The same is true of the Biblical description of Jesus' time in Jerusalem:

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 4.42.46 PM

Starting with the "Jesus in Jerusalem" slide above and continuing onto the bullet points on the "Crucifixion" slide, the material comes dangerously close to perpetuating the "Jews killed Jesus" story which has been one of the many pretexts used to justify centuries of antisemitism and persecution of Jews.

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 4.46.11 PM

The summary slide at the end of the lesson titled, "So what did we learn today" gets closest to a genuinely antisemitic statement in the presentation. It ignores the Biblical descriptions of Roman concerns about Jesus and simply asks students to "Summarize the conflicts between Jesus and Jewish leaders and the events that resulted."

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 4.49.03 PM

The clear implication is that it was Jesus' conflicts with "Jewish leaders" and not the threat he posed to Roman authority that led to his crucifixion.

Included in the supplemental online materials for students to view as they read the chapters about Jesus and Christianity is a two minute video about the
life of Jesus. K12 Inc. may have created the video, but its
production is so shoddy, it's hard to believe a multimillion dollar corporation like K12 Inc. would make something so amateurish. I
suspect it's a low budget video created by someone at a Christian website with minimal filmmaking skills, though I can't be certain.
Here is the narration.

"Most of
what we know about Jesus comes from the Gospels, 4 books of the Bible
that tell us about his life. When Jesus was about 30, he was ready to
start doing God's work.
First, he spent 40 days in the desert without
food or water, preparing for what lay ahead. Jesus spent the next 3
years traveling around the countryside teaching people about God.
He
made friends with all kinds of people, even some that others didn't
like. Before long, great crowds were coming to hear him speak. At that
time, Jewish people were waiting for a messiah, a special messenger
chosen by God to begin a new kingdom on earth. Many people believed that
Jesus was this messiah.

[Religious-sounding
music begins] "Jesus had a special group of 12 friends and followers
called The Disciples painted here by Leonardo da Vinci [picture of da
Vinci's Last Supper]. The Disciples went with Jesus as he met the people
and taught them about God.
. . .

"The
Bible also tells of miracles, many of which took place near the Sea of
Galilee. These were amazing, seemingly impossible things that Jesus did,
like turning water into wine and healing very sick people.
One of the
most famous miracles is when Jesus managed to feed 5,000 people with
just 5 loaves of bread and 2 small fish. Christians believed Jesus was
able to make these miracles happen because he had the power of God. He
wanted to show how this power could change people's lives. [boldface added for emphasis]

After students finish the chapter unit, they are supposed to complete a
Lesson Assessment. Number 3 on the assessment asks students to mark each statement that
"is related to the causes and results of the problems between Jesus and
Jewish leaders."

Jesus_unit_assessment

According to the online guide, all 5 answers are factually correct, including "Jesus was resurrected from the dead."

While any one of the blatantly religious items could be explained away if it stood by itself, the sheer volume of this type of material in the unit indicates a conscious effort to give the 7th grade students a Sunday school lesson in Christianity. While this would be perfectly acceptable at a private school, taxpayer funded public charter schools have the same restrictions against religious instruction as any other public school. This kind of religiously-based instruction is unacceptable and very possibly a violation of court rulings about separation of church and state in public schools.

0 responses to “Teaching Christianity at K12 Inc.

  1. I felt I should ad that K-12 is not doing anything wrong by selling Christian Home school materials because that part of their business as a private enterprise. I was only suggesting that if by using said materials, K-12 was attempting to entice Christian families as, David suggested was marketing, that would be the issue. However I do not believe that is the case. I did not experience any overt attempts to suggest the Christian emphasis during any of my dealings signing up with K-12 which is why I was so shocked. My anger came in when it was done covertly. I felt, how they dare push their beliefs on my child without my permission. I have the right, as do we all, to teach our child religion as we deem fit. Likewise I certainly have the right to allowing my son a clear understanding between fact and faith.

  2. First I want to thank David for the input. On your point regarding K-12 motives I would say It is totally ok to be market driven but not with public funds. K-12 does actively go after the Christian home school market but they do that as a supplier of Christian Materials for Home School Families. If they are actively taking money out of local school districts by enticing Christian parents then that is a misuse of public funds. By putting an emphasis on Christian teachings and directing children to fire and brim stone website they are using public money to promote their personal beliefs. I just can’t help but fall back on the question “would it be a simple question about marketing if the emphasis was on a Muslim faith or new age religion? The teaching of faith based beliefs masked as history is freighting to me and it should be to everyone that appreciates their constitutional freedoms. I would also suggest that you learn about the founders of K12, I believe it will put a little more weight on the possible mission vs. market debate but regardless we are still talking about public funds. Let me also ad that I do not believe that K-12 is all bad. I could list several things I was impressed with. I do have a strong dislike for the theory where as if enough people believe in something it can become a fact regardless of whether or not it meets any level of scientific standard. I am happy that there is enough room for both science and faith in this great country. Our forefathers where smart enough when founding our nation to realize that we cannot give preferences to any one religion over another if we truly treasure our rights to freedom of religion. If you look to the Middle East as a case study I do not think anyone would say that a religion or country benefit under that model. Slanting the teachings or changing History is the first stepping stone in that direction.

  3. David Safier

    Just to clarify, the post above from “David” is another David. There are lots of us out there.
    David Safier

  4. It is difficult to keep this a civil discussion. I think David is doing a pretty good job of that. Referring to biographical information of the originators of other world religions as stories while referring to the biographical information about Christ as accounts is an example of a bias approach. The word “story” really should not have the connotation of fiction attached to it, but that is a different topic. The question is how should a public-tax-funded institution in a pluralistic culture that at some level still embraces freedom of religion treat the material. The examples being cited are not the most egregious examples of favoring Christianity or anti-Christianity that can be found, but they are worth noting. One thing to keep in mind is that writers write for intended audiences. I think it is valid to ask whether the K12 Inc. curriculum or the Agora online materials are written for a predominantly Christian audience? Does K12 Inc. or Agora shape their materials for that demographic, and if so, why? Also, if the materials are shaped to fit the audience, is it appropriate to give the learners so much consideration when writing curriculum materials? I suspect that both K12 Inc. and Agora are more market driven than mission driven.
    David

  5. I just want to be clear here, even though I think David made it clear in his article. The issue being raised is not about religions being taught in the K12 program. It is not about the fact that Christianity is being taught. The problem is the bias in which it is being presented. That is all nothing more. I do not object to nor do I deny the value of teaching world religions as they relate to culture. Based on these few responses it seems as though the article was skimmed and conclusions were drawn based on emotion. It’s easy not to be offended when the bias is in line with your beliefs but we need only look to the middle east to find the pit falls that result when we stop standing up for freedom of religion which by the way includes religions other than yours.

  6. Tracey,
    I commend your faith and mean no disrespect but it is widely debated whether Jesus existed or not. Unlike other religious icons such as Buddha we cannot say definitively that Jesus walked the earth. There are mentions of Jesus(s) in some historical writings but Jesus was a very common name during roman times they may or may not be the Jesus Christians speak of in the bible. We only know of Jesus from the stories told in the bible and outside Christianity he does not exists as a factual historical person. When we hold a belief in our hearts it becomes very real and I would argue on your behalf by saying we have not proven that he did not exists either. With all that said it is still only fair to represent the story of Jesus in the context of a Christian Belief. It is not my intent to offend anyone else’s belief I want every person of faith and or lack thereof to feel represented when attending classes that are funded by our diverse tax base.

  7. Gladys,
    The issue I had was not that other religions were not going to be taught it was the way Christian beliefs were being represented as fact. Yet when they start talking about Buddha for example, who by the way was a real person in the provable sense of the word, they start the chapter off as “The story of Buddha” in doing this they clearly intended, in my opinion, for the reader to consider what follows as not as factual. When discussing Jesus who is not been proven to have truly existed outside the bible’s stories the teacher began the lesson by saying “we are going to be talking about the historical man Jesus and his life” It is ok to have and to teach religion in school so long as there is not an agenda designed to make one stand out above the rest. After all there are many people of other faiths some much older the Christianity that help pay the taxes to fund public schools. It is not fair to put your beliefs above there’s. It’s also a shame that you would enter the debate with such an inflammatory comment. I do not believe presenting a well researched factual question for debate merits “sweet ignorance”. One might ask why the text book and literature book my son was given is also widely sold by Christian home school stores online. Generally Christian home teachings have an understandably Christian Perspective it only stands to reason that these books tend to down play other beliefs since the goal is to further Christianity. Therefore these books are not good candidates for public school classrooms. I have a feeling if it were Mohamed being taught with such a slant you would not be as comfortable as you seem with this situation. As for the way I teach my children, I would put my child’s understanding of world cultures and religions up against anyone else’s child. Not only is my son well read but he has been taught the same values a good Christian parent would teach their child. I just prefer that my children have a real world understanding of consequences of their actions and a sincere heartfelt empathy towards others rather than forced morals that derive out of an irrational fear of a super being or guilt. For the record I would also ad that bible stories taught for their morals have value in that they make the reader contemplate consequences of one’s actions. It is my personal belief that was the overall intention of the bible. I do not believe in modern times one should take the stories literally and certainly have no place in a history class being taught as fact. I have studied many religions and have a fascination with world cultures the fact is there were many religions predating Christianity that share many similarities to modern Christianity much of it connects back to astrology. These religions even share a central type character born near the same date we attach to Jesus’ birth. The issue I have arguing with many Christians is that many (not all) process a very limited view of their own religion much less the religions of others. In closing many of the problems in the middle east stem from the lack of acceptance and respect towards the beliefs of others. That is not the issue here at all it is quite the oposite. I want my child to learn about all cultures without bias. Our great country allows for freedom of religion which is why it is illegal to give any religion a bias over another in a public school setting.

  8. I beg to disagree with some posters definition of fact. There is no “proof” that Jesus lived at all. We only know about him from the bible which is a Text that was written only after 400 or so years of the story’s being told orally. Have you ever played the game where 20 people stand in a line with a story being passed from the first to the last? It is never the same story. But you want to treat the bible as complete fact. At best Jesus’ life and the story of Jesus is based in faith which is perfectly ok if that is what you choose to believe. One could easily argue that Jesus was a very common name in that time in history. It is hard to say without any doubt that the Jesus we learn about as a child was absolutely the same Jesus talked about at age 32 or so.After all we hear nothing of his life in between. An example of this leap of faith is the Virgin Birth. That was never mentioned until King James added to his version of the bible yet many people live by that belief as if it is fact. My son has a broad understanding of religious beliefs from many cultures because we teach it at home as part of understanding other cultures. This includes eating the foods of many other cultures as well. Unlike many religious followers my wife and I raise our children to “accept” and understand the beliefs of people from around the world. However we also pride ourselves on teaching our children science and by doing so there is a learned the standard of proof in order to accept something as fact. The bible does not even begin to meet that standard. That is why there is the need for faith. It is through Faith that we accept the unbelievable as factual. I.E. Noah was over 700 when he put two of every animal in the world onto a wooden ship that he built. I mean no disrespect to anyone but I also do not care for the implication that because I choose to teach my child to distinguish between faith and fact that I am afraid for my child to learn about religion. I am also open to learning new things myself. Please refer me to the proof that Jesus walked the earth and was absolutely the son of God and I will share it with my children. But before I get a hundred responses please understand the differences between provable fact and theory’s that rely on faith. I would be perfectly fine with this subject being tuaght as a belief of christians but when it is taught as fact I have a problem with that in a public school.

  9. A historical person is someone who truly lived on this earth and changed the course of history. Something Jesus had done.

  10. This is NOT religious indoctrination at all. You keep saying that Jesus was not a historical person, That is so untrue at its finest. He was a true living breathing human being who had a ministry in his short life time. If he were not historical then we would not even be talking about him today. That one single event of his crucifiction changed history. His life was documented in the Bible and there is tons and tons of historical archaeological data that he existed. So your statement is completely false that he was not a historical figure. This is why we have 1 billion Catholics in the world today, and millions of Christians of other faiths.

    K12 teaches about all different types of world religions and not just Christianity. I don’t see any complaints about teaching other religions. This is just Christianity bashing at its finest. Where is the complaints about teaching about Buddism, Hinduism, Islam? This is okay but teaching about someone who truly existed in this world and started Christianity is horrible? Please. So Mohammad is historical but not Jesus. Buddah is historical but not Jesus? Where is your proof that scholars argue about the existence of Jesus Christ? I have never yet, until now heard that scholars argue about this point at all.

    This is the issue when God is taken out of the school the end result is what our world has turned into today.
    K12 is a fine curriculum and it does a fine job at teaching children all about different religions. If they don’t learn and study about what others believe then they are ignorant of this world. What you are preaching is worldly indoctrination. Hmmm, let’s pick that apart. I agree with Gladys,poorly written article for sure.

  11. David Safier

    Gladys, please read what I wrote more carefully. You’ll see I wrote, “In general, I found it to be a satisfactory textbook with lots of information about a number of ancient cultures, including respectful treatments of other religions and belief systems from the Middle East and the Far East. In that context, the space given to Christianity was not excessive.” I absolutely believe in teaching about cultures in the context of history, and you can’t teach about cultures effectively without talking about their religious beliefs. The amount of attention given in the textbook to the beginnings of the Christian religion was absolutely appropriate, especially since similar attention was given to other religions.

    My concern isn’t the inclusion of a chapter about Jesus in the textbook. My only concern about the chapter was that Jesus was presented as a historical figure, something which scholars, even religious scholars, argue about. If even a sentence was included saying our only source of information about Jesus is the New Testament, that would have been satisfactory. But even that problem didn’t rise to the level of a serious issue for me, so I wrote, “Because the textbook gives a generally balanced presentation of other cultures and religions — and because I’ve seen all manner of problems with textbooks during my teaching career — I wouldn’t have been overly concerned about what I read in the textbook if that is all I had in my hands.”

    My concern was that the online material was far more religiously based than it should be at a public school. Any of that material, if it were presented in the way it was presented in the textbook, would have been acceptable. But it’s unacceptable for a public school to link students to religious websites or to confuse what are simple biographical details (even if their source is a religious text) with details which are only accepted by people who are Christians.

  12. Gladys Stefany

    Ahhhhhhh sweet ignorance strikes again! I am a parent who used to use the K12 curriculum. During her years in the program, my daughter learned about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc. etc. It’s called a well rounded and complete education! It is NOT indoctrination into any of those faiths. If we raise our children afraid to discuss world religions how will they ever understand, for example, all the problems in the Middle East?

  13. As they say, the devil is in the details and the details are very devilish indeed. Isn’t it nice that our taxpayer dollars are directly paying for religious indoctrination?