Thoughts on How Education is Changing (Or Not) Before Our Eyes

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At a big gathering of entrepreneurs, innovators, and educators today at the NewSchools Venture Fund summit in the heart of Silicon Valley, the morning kicked off with two big names in education circles.

Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, which offers more than 2,000 free YouTube videos covering almost every subject under the sun, and Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City public schools who spearheaded New York's iZone and who's currently with NewsCorp, brought up intriguing points.

These are some of the ideas that stood out from the public discussion (paraphrased).


Joel Klein: Where we are today is a lot better place in terms of discussion, but not in terms of results compared to 10 years ago. What we're doing now is building a system empowered by technology with a huge infusion of private capital aimed at bringing a total delivery system. Eventually, we'll have far fewer teachers who are paid much more. Education would be data-driven, customized, will engage kids, differentiate instruction, and value human capital in a different way. What we're doing now is trying to reform a broken delivery system rather than create an effective delivery system.


Salman Khan: It’s a pretty exciting time in education. There's grassroots hunger for something better. Even 20 years ago, for someone who wanted to produce lessons online for the public to access, it would cost tens of millions of dollars. Now all need you is the technology and any joker in his closet can reach 50 million people. Things take a long time to start happening, but when it does happen, it goes fast. In five to 10 years, a lot of classrooms will look a lot different than they have in the past 100 years.


Joel Klein: Entrenched interests want to protect their interests. Let private markets come in and do the innovative challenging things. Khan's site gets 50 million people on the Internet that doesn't sell sex. It's doing great. But on a large scale that fits into institutionalized districts, there will be a lot of pushback. Entrenched systems don’t go away because Sal Khan is charming.

Sal Khan: I don’t see any barriers. We have the opportunity to go straight to students and those aligned with student, instead of all the things that Joel has had to deal with. Our strategy is to build the best possible thing, and if a student has nothing else, he can learn with videos and self paced software. But we don’t force it. We find school systems that are ready for it. And there are many who are ready for it. When people start seeing it succeed in one district, then five districts, all the soccer moms will freak out and want a piece of it.


Joel Klein: In any digital classroom setting, the point is to maximize the role of the teacher. The teacher has to be the genius piece. They won't have to be concerned with the routine stuff going on in the class. With the School of One and the Innovation Zone, teachers say they like it, they feel empowered by it because they can focus on the one-on-one context.

Sal Khan: Our point of view is that a lot of teachers are spending time using the same lecture over and over again. They spend their time grading papers. Let’s liberate teachers' time for the students' benefit. There's a knee-jerk reaction from teachers that videos make the class more robotic, they minimize the role of teachers. But what was making it robotic was the existing classroom model, the same script every year, no variance from it, the assembly line model, getting branded with a grade, instead of everyone learning at their own pace. It’s actually a way of freeing up tons of time without sacrificing core skills. In the Los Altos class [where a math class is piloting the Khan Academy videos], it's much more interactive experience. The teacher has to be very comfortable with the fact that one kid is doing trigonometry, and one kid is doing fifth-grade math. They need to know fifth-grade math and know the big picture, and how it's going to lead into higher math. It requires a different skill set and a humility that students respect.


Sal Khan: Our goal is to get what students need, what the system as a whole is assessing them on right now. But we’re still in our first few innings. It’s crazy that we don’t have statiscts, law, accounting and finance [and computer science] as part of the core curriculum, which are useful in any setting -- school or workplace. To me, calculus is beautiful and interesting, but it’s not useful. You don’t need calculus in most jobs. We could debate what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate to teach. But the reality is that’s what’s required right now, and I’d want my son or daughter to prove themselves in this context. It's our Trojan horse mode. You go in, serve what people need, but then bring in other things like statistics, or finance, or law that are useful.

Joel Klein: The Common Core will drive us to a more meaningful high school credential. Most universities know right now that a high school diploma is not sufficient to ensure kids will be successful in college.

Sal Khan: Now you have kids who are home-schooled, and take the SATs without an official high school degree and they're going on to Harvard and Stanford. What I'd like to see is for kids not to drop out, but give them a chance, say if you're ready, you take the exam, you rock the exam and you’re done. We don’t force people to sit in class like you’re in prison. At 14 or 15, you can go to college, or get a job.