Turning teaching upside-down

Witty, brilliant, self-effacing, a seeming agnostic in the education wars over school choice and performance pay, Salman Khan is an unlikely revolutionary. But Khan, the former hedge-fund manager turned online tutor, first for his East Coast nieces and nephews and now for the world, is flipping education upside-down. Many teachers and their unions have been too slow to recognize that.

Salman Khan
Salman Khan

Khan’s 2,800 YouTube tutorials on everything from elementary addition to algebra to calculus and physics, are enabling millions of students to excel on their own time, at their own pace, moving ahead only when, by completing 10 problems in a row, they have mastered one discrete lesson at a time.

With backing from the Gates Foundation and Silicon Valley benefactors like John and Ann Doerr, his nonprofit Khan Academy has taken the next step. Teachers anywhere can freely use the software he has created in their classrooms and monitor every student’s progress in real time: which video she last watched, how much time she spent, which problem she was stuck on.

By using technology to guide students through drills and step-by-step basics – with badges and points to make it fun enough for students to stay plugged in – teachers are liberated to do small group tutorials, help students where they’re stuck, teach concepts, and do project-based learning.

It’s challenging and can be unnerving for teachers to watch the paradigm shift. In the traditional classroom, the time spent on each lesson – adding negative numbers or dividing fractions – is fixed. Following a prescribed calendar to get through the text, teachers lead students lockstep, whether they fully understand the material or not; mastery varies. But now, Khan said in a talk Thursday, “the variable becomes how long it takes to master a concept. What is fixed is mastery.”

Khan Academy is not yet the holy grail of differentiated learning, but it’s getting closer. The dashboard tools for teachers, while impressive, are still in their infancy, and this is only the second year that Khan has moved from at-home resource to in-school curriculum. The results, based on four math classes in two grades in Los Altos, are promising and intriguing. What was most surprising, Khan said, pointing to a multicolored graph tracking each student’s proficiency topic by topic, was the rate of mastery and the unpredictable patterns. One middling student plodded along, then something clicked, and she was off, outpacing even advanced students. For many students in a traditional setting, that point never comes. (The Silicon Valley Education Foundation also used Khan Academy and MIND Institute algebra tutorials last summer in some of its Stepping Up To Algebra/Math Acceleration Program classes with positive results.)

Khan was the keynote lunchtime speaker in San Francisco at the “Excellence in Action” national summit on education reform sponsored by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education – a gathering of conservative legislators, free marketers, entrepreneurs, and charter school administrators. The other keynoters were Melinda Gates and, scheduled for this morning, the devil incarnate, Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, with his designs for online technology.

Bush’s promotion of teacher pay by testing and voucher-like funding of online courses, and Murdoch’s mere presence in the heart of anti-charter, progressive San Francisco spurred a picket Thursday organized by United Educators of San Francisco. Their poster branded them Enemies of Public Education.

It made for good theater and another skirmish in a divisive battle over public schools. What the protesters missed, by dismissing the conference and those there as destructive to public schools, were lessons from Khan and John Danner, CEO of Rocketship Education in neighboring Palo Alto.

Integrating online learning nearly two hours per day, Rocketship’s five charter schools in San Jose (two opened this year) are producing test results for a student body of largely low-income English learners matching those of wealthy Bay Area neighborhoods. As with Khan’s videos, Rocketship’s online software lets students progress on the basics until they get it. Because of learning labs, Rocketship  uses fewer classroom teachers, while funneling the savings to pay them better and train them intensely.

Khan’s videos, Rocketship’s learning labs, and the best virtual schools are working for kids. Districts and teachers that resist the potential do so at their peril.

(Did I mention that within the past few months, trustees of San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified and Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto rejected Rocketship charter proposals? All three will be heading to the State Board of Education on appeal – more evidence of why an appeals process in California is critical for innovation. San Jose Unified, whose progressive teachers union president has endorsed  Rocketship and encouraged it to take over a low-performing school, will likely approve a Rocketship charter.  Had Santa Clara County board of trustees on appeal not approved the first and other Rocketship charters, there would be no Rocketship today – at least not in California.)

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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