The Worth of Khan

Published September 20, 2010

The U.S. Department of Education last month announced $650 million in “innovation” grants, followed shortly by $3.4 billion in Race to the Top grants to help states tinker around the edges of school reform.

Meanwhile, a 33-year-old former hedge-fund manager who spent a couple thousand dollars on a computer and video equipment is revolutionizing learning from a converted walk-in closet in his house.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently hailed the “breathtaking courage” of states such as New York, which won $700 million in Race to the Top money. New York recently announced a sharp drop in student math and reading scores after revamping the state’s standardized tests. Officials admitted they had been dumbing-down the tests for years, as this year’s dismal results proved.

Sal Khan, by contrast, is showing how smart people with a keen interest in education don’t need hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to make a difference. Mr. Khan, the subject of a glowing profile in Fortune magazine this week, has won praise from none other than Bill Gates, who lauded his efforts while decrying the “mind-blowing misallocation of resources” in public schooling.

Through his nonprofit Web site,, this Harvard MBA offers more than 1,600 mini-lectures covering topics as diverse as linear functions in algebra, the Hardy-Weinberg Principle in biology, and the history of the French Revolution.

And while U.S. public schools spend more than $12,000 per pupil per year on average, Mr. Khan distributes all of his material free of charge.

Innovations such as Khan Academy probably won’t eliminate the need for brick and mortar schools. But Mr. Khan’s closet and simple storefront computer labs would obviously be much more cost-effective than the current system with its wasteful, tax-funded monstrosities such as the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community School Complex opening in Los Angeles this month.

Spend a few minutes on the Khan Academy site and it’s easy to see how a network of independent learning centers, equipped with iPads, smart phones, or similar devices, could revolutionize education in just a few years at a very small fraction of today’s cost. Mr. Khan estimates he reaches 200,000 students a month, and there is no reason he couldn’t reach 20 million—or more.

We will still need teachers in a world of Khan Academies, but far fewer than today. Mr. Khan is Khan Academy’s one and only instructor. And he’s hardly alone in melding cutting-edge technology with excellent teaching.

The Carpe Diem Academy in Yuma, Arizona has 240 mostly low-income, non-native English speakers in grades 6 through 12—and just one math teacher. The charter school employs a “hybrid” learning model in which students rotate in and out of a computer lab and a classroom. The school consistently produces some of the highest math scores in the state.

Rocketship Learning in San Jose, California operates three hybrid charter schools with about three-quarters of the staffing of traditional schools. Elementary school students spend about a quarter of their day on computers, developing basic math and literacy skills through individually tailored lessons. Like Carpe Diem, Rocketship primarily serves low-income, minority students. Yet, Rocketship students last year averaged 926 on California’s Academic Performance Index, well above the state’s 800 benchmark score.

Monitoring students’ progress at places like Khan’s Academy poses no problem. Students could periodically take tests showing their progress, regardless of where or how they may be learning. All that really matters is results.

The Khans, Rocketships, and Carpe Diems of the world pose an existential threat to the education status quo. Right now, teacher unions across the country are negotiating contracts to bar public schools from introducing technology that could put some teachers out of work. And administrators will be disposed to agree—a public education system in which nearly all the funding follows the students would have tens of thousands fewer bureaucrats.

But the education system shouldn’t exist to employ people. It should be for building informed, self-governing citizens. Innovators like Sal Khan will save public education in spite of itself—if we’ll let them.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News. Bruno Behrend ([email protected]) is an attorney and director of The Heartland Institute’s Center for School Reform.