“There’s a lot more demand for people who want to just improve themselves than anyone would have guessed,” says Salman Khan, founder of the wildly popular free educational video series that bears his name and author of the new book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (Twelve).
Khan, a 36-year-old Bangladeshi American, first put together a couple of video tutorials in 2004 to help his young cousins learn math. The videos proved so popular on YouTube that two years later he launched the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free online lectures and tutorials that are now used by more than 6 million students each month. More than 3,000 individual videos, covering mathematics, physics, history, economics, and other subjects, have drawn more than 200 million views, generating significant funding from both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. Khan Academy is one of the best-known names in online education and has grown to include not just tutorials but complete course syllabi and a platform to track student progress.
Reason TV Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Khan in October to discuss how American education can be radically transformed, why technology is so widely misused in K?12, and how massive amounts of taxpayer money never make it inside conventional public classrooms.
reason: Talk a little bit about the videos and the enormous growth in their audience during the last few years.
Salman Khan: People who look at the videos will see someone writing on a digital blackboard. And you’ll hear a voice. For a lot of the videos it’ll be my voice, working through things, thinking through things—very conversational. It started with me making it for my cousins. It soon became clear that people who were not my cousins were watching them. They just kind of took on a life of their own.
Many things have surprised me over the last several years. The biggest thing is that when I made these things I assumed these were for my cousins; they were pretty motivated students. I made them for what I would have wanted if I were 12 years old or 13 or 18 years old. I said: Well, maybe this will be for the subset of people who are really motivated, whatever that means. They’ll actually seek out knowledge on the Internet, and then they’ll find it useful.
It didn’t take long to realize that the feedback we were getting was from people who were not the traditionally motivated: kids who were about to fail classes, kids who were thinking about dropping out, people who were going back to school. And they were saying [the videos] make me understand the intuition, the big picture, and I’m starting to get excited about math. So the big realization is—and I think this surprised frankly everybody—there’s a lot more demand from people who just want to improve themselves than anyone would have guessed.
reason: In the book you mention that New York state spends about $18,000 per public school student per year. Clearly New York state is not known for great schools or great outcomes. We’re spending $18,000 a year for flat results over the past 40 years for public schools. What’s wrong with the status quo?
Khan: The reason I highlighted that in the book
is that a
lot of times people make it sound like it’s a money issue. The problem is you can never say you’re spending too much on education. It’s such an important thing; if you can get a dollar of value in education, it’s worth it.
reason: Although that’s not what’s been happening.
Khan: Exactly. And when you look at the $18,000 number (or even in the lower districts that spend less, $8,000 or $9,000), and you multiply that by how many students are in a classroom—someplace between 20 and 30—you get a fairly large number. You get something [in the range of] $300,000, $400,000, $500,000. When you do that very simple back-of-the-envelope calculation, you realize how little of that money is actually touching the student. Very little of that is going to the teacher. Very little is going directly for the facilities. Most of that is going for layers of administration. We can actually professionalize teachers as they are, turn it into a career that pays as well as doctors. The money is there. There just has to be major restructuring in how you spend that money.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: Is there any reason to believe that if we tripled what we pay teachers we would have teachers that are 200 percent better?
Khan: I don’t know. I think the general sense is that there’s a lot of lip service being given to teachers: Oh, we need to respect you. We want the best of the best to be doing this. But society’s not sending that economic signal. In engineering I used to say: How come more people are going into finance than engineering? Well, look at the salaries, and you get a very clear picture of why. Now that’s actually changing in engineering. Engineers can do just as well as or better than people in finance. I think that has to happen in teaching.
We are already getting a lot of great talent in teaching, but we’ll get even more people who aspire to do this. And it will change the dynamic in the classroom to where the students say, I wish I had a chance of becoming that person who I have the privilege to be with in this room. That completely changes the dynamic of the classroom. I think that’s possible.
A lot of the excuses—oh, we can’t have technology; it’s too expensive—those are a round-off error compared to the amount of money that’s being spent even on things like textbooks and whatever else.
reason: One of the things you emphasize is that there are multiple ways and multiple sites of education. Talk a bit about how we have to start reimagining education so it’s not something that happens eight-and-a-half months a year in a brick building with bad air conditioning.