Is Khan Academy The Remedy For Public Education Failure Factories?

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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Sal Khan, founder of the eponymous Khan Academy, treads a fine line in his mission to remake the sclerotic world of K-12 education. With nearly a billion views of his self-paced instructional videos and supporting material, he is arguably the most impactful teacher in the history of the human race. Yet this self effacing “Math Moses” has to watch his step as he bumps up against America’s government education bureaucracy.

On the one hand, Khan’s free, self-paced, video-centric pedagogy is winning over tens of millions of students around the world, with American users highly concentrated amongst home schoolers. The results speak for themselves.

On the other hand, he has bent over backwards to position himself as a friend of the traditional public school classroom teacher, wary of generating a backlash from teachers unions suspicious of any changes that might dilute their stranglehold on public education.

Kahn’s book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, probably won’t set off fireworks in your head. But it is bound to turn on some lights. As Khan, demonstrates, education ain’t what it used to be. And what we think we know, ain’t necessarily so.

Our current K-12 public school system was based on the 19th century Prussian model, which was designed to spit out docile and obedient factory workers for the late industrial revolution. It was later adapted by Horace Mann to Americanize waves of immigrant children, with the results we still see today.

Students are segregated by age into “grades” where they are deprived of the chance to learn from older students, or teach younger ones. Classrooms are rigidly organized into rows of desks. Students passively sit and listen to lectures long past the range of their attention spans. Back in the day, letting their minds wander off got kids a smack with a ruler; now they are drugged if they can’t sit still. Everyone in the class moves through the curriculum at the same pace, graduating to the next grade if the standardized test shows they have absorbed at least 65 percent of the material, what we call “passing.”

Kahn calls this a recipe for “Swiss Cheese Learning,” which leaves gaps in understanding that accumulate until a student hits a brick wall on advanced subjects that require mastery of earlier concepts. Whether they hit the wall while trying to tackle algebra or calculus or write a persuasive essay, the one-size-fits-all pedagogy makes it all but inevitable. Students who fall by the wayside convince themselves that “I’m just no good at fill-in-the-blank.” Meanwhile, tracking systems condemn students who learn at a slower, but perhaps more thoughtful, pace to lower academic strata that put college out of reach for many of them.

Children in well-to-do suburban schools can escape this trap with a lot of parental involvement and the luck of drawing a few inspired teachers. But despite the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars per student thrown at struggling inner city schools every year, these failure factories plod on, advancing students who don’t learn. The result? A growing mass of innumerate, illiterate citizens poorly equipped to contribute to society, much less support themselves at a decent standard of living. And all because we are locked into an archaic pedagogy that is no match for our rapidly evolving digital world.

Given the powerful gatekeepers that control access to public education systems, you might think selling disruptive pedagogical tools like the Khan Academy is a hopeless cause. But how can gatekeepers stop progress from sneaking in over the transom? That is Khan’s secret formula. By making his entire program free, available to everyone, everywhere, all it takes is an Internet connection and a computer, tablet, or smartphone to wade into his material.

If you haven’t watched any of the Khan Academy videos you will be … underwhelmed. Take a peek at this one I grabbed at random on Algebra. “What’s the big deal?” most classroom teachers ask when I show it to them. Here’s the big deal. The student is in control of when, where, how fast, and how many times he watches. He can back up if he misses something. Most lessons last 10 minutes, about the length of the average middle school kid’s attention span. There is no social pressure to feign comprehension, and no embarrassment at being called on in class and giving a wrong answer. And most importantly, students don’t move to the next unit until online exercises show that they’ve mastered 100 percent of the concept. No “Swiss Cheese Learning” here.

Success breeds success; word of mouth is all the marketing Khan Academy needs. Homeschoolers lead the charge. Private schools that have the flexibility to change their teaching models can adapt Khan’s tools to their own purposes. And before long, public schools will face the choice of mending their ways or watching their classrooms empty.

Sal Khan, a gentle soul whom I had the honor of interviewing for RealClear Radio Hour, would probably bristle at my aggressive characterization of the revolution he is leading. As in any revolution, there will be winners — with parents and children having the most to gain. As for the losers? They have a choice. Teachers unions can learn to adapt and ride the wave of education innovation, or continue clinging to their 19th century ways. Which road they take remains to be seen.