The Worth of Khan

Is America’s entire education infrastructure as obsolete as the “buggy whip?” Is it possible that a short education story in Fortune Magazine and on CNN’s Money site will shake the foundations of America’s overpriced and underperforming education system? One can only hope.

A recent CNN/Fortune Magazine story entitled “Bill Gates’ favorite teacher” told an amazing story of how one young man is revolutionizing the delivery of knowledge over the internet. The site and method is so successful that Bill Gates and venture capitalist John Doerr have snapped to attention at the growing phenomenon of the Khan Academy, an on-line school providing sequenced curricula on a wide range of content – all for free.

The first thing that should come to mind as you read the article is the massive potential value of Khan’s idea, not to mention the value of the 1000s of imitators and innovators who will build on the foundation that he has built. The next thing that we should all understand is the pointless waste of today’s overpriced and underperforming education system.

The infrastructure of the Internet, combined with the 10s of 1000s who can produce and encapsulate the world’s knowledge into 10 minute sequenced segments, has made the entire massive infrastructure of the current education system potentially obsolete overnight.

The existence of Khan Academy should force us to question everything about how we will educate the coming generations of Americans. Will we still need teachers? Yes, but far fewer than what we have now. We will also need to redefine the word ‘teacher’ way beyond the borders of today’s limited, union-defined monopoly.

Will we still need brick and mortar schools? Probably, but far fewer than the massively wasteful infrastructure we have now. Spend a few minutes on Khan Academy’s site, and you realize that an I-Pad, smart phone, or similar device, combined with a network of independent learning centers, could revolutionize education in less than a decade – all for a fraction of the cost.

Do we need to worry about how we measure Mr. Khan’s Academy? Not at all. All we really need to do is have society decide on a broad set of standards and find an efficient way to measure the acquisition of knowledge. Envision a near future where a child can walk into a licensed testing center and take a test on any given subject matter. If they pass the test, who cares how they acquired the knowledge?

Examples for rapid innovation abound.

This is a baby/bathwater situation. Our nation’s children, talented conveyors of content (Khan, dedicated teachers, etc.), and a rational, fair assessment process are the proverbial baby. Everything else (teachers unions, administration, buildings, bond dealers, school boards, textbook cartels, etc.) are the bathwater.

The only real question for policy makers should be how to best transition from the current bureaucratized “legacy” system to one where a dynamic array of content providers delivers the what your child needs to know at the moment your child needs to know it.

The best avenue to manage that transition is to have most (say 95%) of the education dollar follow the child and having the remaining 5% go toward developing standards and the method for measuring up to those standards.

It is time to question the meaning of the words “education reform” and the investment in reforming the current system. Once the automobile was invented, there was no need for “buggy whip reform” or “horse turnaround plans.” Mr. Khan, and those like him, have exposed the current system for the obsolete monopoly that it is. This article lays waste to the idea of “reforming” the current system. The best thing we can do is rapidly manage the transition to an entirely new education model.

31 thoughts on “The Worth of Khan”

  1. Bruno, I have used the Khan system to for review and recommended to friends and family. Many would pay for this free content.

  2. Imagine the intellectual thoroughbreds on this blog putting out content in this fashion on economics, philosophy, history….

    80% of our Brick and Mordor schools are obsolete. Who was it who said, “The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.” Was it Kurzweil? (whose name in German means “short time”)

  3. Hey, cool post.

    In my day job, the push is to try and provide more “self-directed” learning. Come to think of it, I’m supposed to be adapting some of this stuff for an online site myself. Better get cracking!

    – Madhu

  4. I wanted to ask one thing: do you think school is still important for socialization skills? Emotional intelligences that will help you when you get a job? The homeschooled kids seem fine, so I suppose the answer is there is more than one way to be socialized well.

    – Madhu

  5. Madhu, JMHO, but I believe the social/emotional is about all the brick/mortar schools offer and perhaps to the extreme. The present push by many “progressive” school districts (including ours in Northern VA) are focused more on self-esteem than content knowledge—the main reason we transferred our nine year old from public to private school last year and never going back. As for home schooled kids, and entire support culture is available for these families so that the kids “miss” very little. As for sports, we have lots of independent club sports which are pay to play, but more than adequately fill the gap.
    I’m a self-taught liberal arts guy (I tested my way through an undergrad and completed two years of grad work) with a closet physics passion hobby—Khan and a couple of trusted texts keep my skills sufficient for my interests.
    Bruno is on to something, and the something is that “future” he described being evenly distributed.
    (BTW, good to finally have reason to respond to one of your posts—you almost always add value to any post you comment on.)

  6. Madhu,

    The “socialization” that my wife and I received at the hands of the public school system was one of the primary considerations that led us to choose a mixture of homeschooling and private schooling for our own children.

    Having spent a good portion of my adult life recovering from some of the “life lessons” that public school taught me, I wanted something better for my family, and non-institutional education has been key to achieving that goal.

    I’ve known some homeschooling families that were insular and overprotective in ways that I don’t think were healthy, but their grown children have still turned out much better socially and academically than many of the “normal” kids and adults I see.

    Sure, there are good public schools out there, and some truly exceptional teachers, but those bright spots are becoming rarer and rarer, they are having to swim harder and harder against the cultural and political currents.

  7. Madhu,

    If the problem you want to address is the need for children to be socialized, would you design a solution that involved segregating children into large chronologically age defined groups where they have minimal interaction with normal adults pursuing normal adult activities but instead are supervised by union workers in a bureaucratic environment where the focus is not on serving others but on meeting the demands of of the central authority? One reason childhood has evolved into adolescence and is now evolving into young adulthood is the arrested maturation resulting from the age segregation of our children into Lord of the Flies environments. Schools are not healthy places. What other institution do public schools most resemble? Prisons.

  8. I think we are fast approaching the time when we take the gloves off and stop hiding the facts from the victims. Most children do not understand that they are being robbed of the education they could have, that this robbery will handicap them their entire life, and that they need to take action to secure their own education.

    The results of this action will be a fundamental destruction of the respect that public school teachers need to operate. That’s what has stopped up so many adults’ mouths. But that reluctance isn’t infinite and as our educational system degrades, it starts to be a more and more attractive option.

  9. you still need schools to warehouse the kids of families that depend on two incomes and can’t afford a nanny or daycare . . . for many working lower and middle class families, eliminating public schools would be seen as a tax increase.

  10. @ J Scott – thanks! That’s a nice thing to say.

    Thanks, too, to the others that responded to my question. My point was not to defend public school education as it is, but to try and tease out the positives and negatives to more self-directed learning. I think the positives far out weigh the negatives.

    – Madhu

  11. You folks are all silly.

    The purpose of education is indoctrination – from recycling to multi-culti. The purpose is not knowledge development. If knowledge development were the purpose, the public school system would never have been formed in the first place.

    The homeschool kids have slipped through – but not without a fight.

  12. I’ve been homeschooling my three for three years. This will be the start of our fourth.

    I was dragged into it kicking and screaming . . . but as a gifted student I suffered misery all through school, and I knew there was simply nothing a warehouse could offer my children that I couldn’t do at home — and we do more in less time.

    And we have an amazing group of friends and playmates. We get together once a week for classical memory work and public speaking skills and just plain fun. And that’s the tip of the iceberg – we also have drama, art, and piano outside of ordinary “school”. But there’s no bus time or waiting in lines, so our day is more streamlined, I suppose. There are also drawbacks – I would love more freedom and I would love a break from my kids more often. Too much of anything gets stressful.

    But the point I wish to make is – Khan is available now, and so are thousands of curricula choices that beat public school hands down. But parents freak out about such things. It takes a lot of parental ability and patience. Usually I find that parents who are gifted or well-educated or just downright determined themselves are willing to take on the challenge. But that doesn’t describe most parents, I’m afraid.

    School is entitled babysitting. Parents even moan if their child’s bus stop is inconvenient:

    Yes, America’s education infrastructure is as obsolete as a buggy whip. But I’m not sure how to get around the babysitting entitlement issue. And yet, in the “good old days” before compulsive education, parents who didn’t care just simply didn’t send their kids to school at all or teach them at home either. So that was worse, perhaps.

  13. … but …

    Everything I Know Was Learned For Me By A ‘Teacher’ (copyright)
    How Dare You Presume That People Can Learn Things On Their Own?

    In point of fact, when someone tells me we have to continue to
    support the current structure because the TEACHERS ARE SO IMPORTANT,
    I ask them to tell me even ONE THING they know that a teacher
    “learned” for them.

    Sure it is completely absurd. But that is the point. Teachers CAN be great facilitators. But learning is done by a motivated student.
    Of any age, gender, creed, or place of natural origin.

    Bruno is 100% correct. What an excellent post!

  14. The real problem is how to get a child to the level where she can benefit from wonderful resources like Khan Academy. It seems to me that the only way to teach a child to read is to read to her, teach phonics, and spend time practicing. This cannot be done online. A solid grammar education is essential, and it seems to me, confined to a teacher/pupil model. Small sized grammar classes (1st-4th grades approx.) that enable a child to master reading, writing, and arithmetic are the spring board that allow a child to profit from these and other great works.

    We are a homeschooling family and are confident that we can give these tools to our children more effectively than anyone else.

  15. I was rushed when I entered my last comment and didn’t get a chance to “add just one more thing.”

    I loved school, especially high school. I loved my classes, my friends, my homeroom, drama class, all the cool looking kids in 80s clothes hanging out in front of their lockers talking about which colleges they were going to “back east.”

    I attended a high school in Iowa in the 80s. I had very good teachers. I don’t remember any overt “indoctrination” but who knows? My very strong and strict Indian parents kept a sharp eye over me.

    Well, all of that is neither here nor there, but I just wanted to add that not everyone dislikes school. That doesn’t mean that the system should continue as it is, not at all. Public school in most places sounds horrifying given all the stories I hear (I don’t have children myself.) I completely sympathize with what you are all saying. I think we should have charters and the money should follow the student, not the teacher.

    But not everyone hated school or got nothing out of it. I had a brilliant chemistry teacher in high school. He is the reason I did a chemistry major in college before going on to medical school.

    – Madhu

  16. Oh wait. I do remember something funny, but it was from grade school.

    I loved to read and asked a teacher what books she recommended. She suggested a Judy Blume. I took it home, my mother flipped through it (I think it was Are you there God, it’s me Margaret) and said to me, “no, not this book.”

    I was relieved. I didn’t really like it anyway. It seemed completely horrifying.

    – Madhu

  17. I got instapundit’d over. I am returning student and am taking all my classes online. Online classes are much better: I don’t have to drive to school, find a parking spot and walk to class and do the whole thing in reverse a short time later. If I have questions about the presentation of material I can find alternative presentations that always help me understand it better (i.e. Khan Academy, Youtube, Google Books or just plain Google-actually Bing works better) The classes all have multi-media help that comes with each class. I don’t have to leave the house for anything. Books, registration, tuition. lectures, class interaction etc…all online and btw class interaction is much more efficient because it is done in chat rooms or discussion rooms where there is no need for idle chit-chat or formalities, just go straight to the point of your question. All in all it is much better than listening to some bored instructor meandering on in their monotone and having them inject ridiculous progressive philosophy into each lecture.

  18. I Hear America Singing:

    What if, on the morning of September 11th, 2010, when we wake up and get ready to go out to put up the flag, or stand for a moment on our porches or balconies, or at our front doors looking out over the sidewalks of our neighborhoods, (or wherever it is that we will find ourselves that morning), and what if, in coming to consciousness in those early moments, each of us slowly realizes that this is, indeed, the Ninth Anniversary of September 11th? And what if, in doing so, each of us recalls what all of us, (the living, the maimed, and the dead), suffered from the horrific, dreadful events of that day nine years ago?

    And what if each of us, just because we wanted to do so, not at the beckoning of anyone else, nor at the direction of a government agent, what if each of us, quite freely, and in our own particular style, without asking “ Is it allowed?”, without obtaining the required permit, having no “permission slip” signed by “the authorities,” performing for no audience beyond ourselves, what if each of us, at some moment of our own choosing, deliberately raised our voices in song, or took up our instruments: our horns, our strings, our reeds or our drums, and began to play and sing “America the Beautiful,” two or three times over, or just as long as we liked? And what if we stopped when we chose to do so, and not before?

    And what if two or three of us, starting to sing and play, hear another voice from across the street, or from down the road, or from across the town or the city and then hear yet another join us? Or what if those of us still silent hear their song, and when they finish, new singers (each of us) take up the song for a few minutes so that “America the Beautiful “echoes through our time and space across the land?

    And what if some of us played or sang “off key”, or missed notes, or had to look up “America the Beautiful” on to remind us of how the melody or words go? And what if we taught it to our families and our friends so we all could sing and play our hearts out on that September morning?

    And what if, having spent some few minutes in song on this coming September 11th morning, just in singing, in that act itself, we were solemnly to realize the amazing and wondrous gift we have been given: the privilege to live in freedom, in this country, in these times? And what if some in America that morning chose to forget, or were too busy, or too intimidated by the powerful who might investigate and prosecute a display of spirit so “unacceptable to our leaders”? Or what if no American cared to do this, if none thought it worth the risk, and no one sang or played that music across time and space?

    What then, if on this September 11th morning, just one little old man taking up his trombone, and just one little old woman picking up her violin, stand on their porch in the blessed sunlight (or the rain or the fog) before God and their neighbors and all the world, and pierce the silence of the morning in great solemnity so that the lovely sounds of their instruments and their aged, wavering voices surround them? And what if, on that sacred morning, “America the Beautiful” hangs brightly in the air, if only for a few, brief minutes, in true remembrance and celebration of who we are? And what if they invite you to join them?

    That would probably be all right, too. Count On It Happening!

    Anne Abler and Richard Woodworth

    music at:

  19. The “SOCIALIZATION SKILLS” needed can be applied by a good neighborhood and CHURCHES, social clubs like 4-H and Scouts. Good grief do we really need to spend so much for “professional socialization coaches” Believe me with 3 in college I know. I am self employed as an organic dairy farmer and have learned most post high school info from BOOKS, later INTERNET. If a child can read he can learn anything.
    P.S. “professional socialization coaches” are they similar to “community organizers”?

  20. It’s funny that you wrote a story on Education and you started it with the first line containing grammatical errors.

    (Is America’s entire education infrastructure is a obsolete as the “buggy whip?”)


    You lose much of the social growth if you take away actual schools. Not to mention kids already don’t know how to speak to one another since all they do is communicate electronically through text and facebook posts.

    I agree that the current system is TERRIBLE and that change needs to happen. While I don’t think this is the answer I like the outside the box thinking.

  21. If anyone out there wants to do a little research on how we got the current educational system we have, I can suggest a few, free online resources:

    former New York Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto’s exhaustive “Underground History of American Education”
    former Reagan Dept of Ed official, Charlotte Iserbyt’s comprehensive paper trail: “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America”

  22. “All we really need to do is have society decide on a broad set of standards and find an efficient way to measure the acquisition of knowledge.”

    No, private parties like Khan will set standards and consumers will choose between them.

    “The only real question for policy makers should be how to best transition from the current bureaucratized “legacy” system to one where a dynamic array of content providers delivers the what your child needs to know at the moment your child needs to know it.”

    The beauty of this is that policy makers need not even be consulted. Khan is showing the way to completely circumvent the tragedy of the commons in education.

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