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Khan Academy Founder on How to Boost Math Performance and Make Free College a Reality

By Benjamin Herold — April 12, 2022 | Corrected: April 14, 2022 9 min read
Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of registered users of the Khan Academy. It is 137 million users.

A bevy of technology and software tools are taking center stage as America’s public schools try to close the learning gaps that opened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the most popular is the nonprofit Khan Academy, which now counts 137 million users across 190 countries.

Education Week talked recently with founder Sal Khan about how his organization has approached the pandemic, why public schools are still struggling along on a “spare tire,” overcoming his fears of enterprise-level partnerships with K-12 districts, and Khan Academy’s long-term dream of providing users with a way to earn two years of free college credit.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you see in K-12 usage of Khan Academy when the pandemic initially closed schools?

Go back two years, and we were expecting a bump. But it ended up being as large as our most aggressive assumption. On a normal school year, school day, we have about 30 million learning minutes per day. In that first week, we started to ramp up to about 80 to 85 million learning minutes.

What do you see now?

From back-to-school [in fall] 2020 until now, there’s something very strange happening in the overall education system. I would attribute it to a combination of overall fatigue in every dimension. I’m seeing a lot of educators now saying, “Look, if we can just have some semblance of predictability and normalcy, and the kids are in school and we’re not guessing what’s going to happen next week, that’s a win.”

But even this year, I think they’re not covering as much. There’s less aggregate learning time happening in the system right now.

The metaphor that is popping into my head is a spare tire, that’s not full-sized and you can only drive 40 miles per hour on, and can’t take on the highway. I think the whole system is still in that mode.

At the same time, we have all of these districts we’re working with who are recognizing that learning loss is a very real thing and they’re going to have to invest. It isn’t just something they can fix in a month, but something they’re going to want to fix over the next three, four, five years.

Tell me more about what you make of that.

People are just super tired. You had faculty, administrators, students, everybody trying the best they could. You have teachers that are feeling depleted. I was working with a school district, and we were thinking about doing an after-school program where kids could do more Khan Academy work. And they were just saying how impossible it was to find people to staff it. Historically, if they paid $50 to $60 an hour, there were teachers who were more than happy to do it. But now they’re paying $70 to $80 an hour, and teachers are still not willing to do it. And to me, that’s a sign of fatigue.

You know, we have Khan Lab School [a private, brick-and-mortar school in Mountain View, Calif.], which I’m the chair of and very involved in. This is a school that had all of the pieces in place. Families have a lot of support, it’s reasonably well-resourced. But just the level of uncertainty. Masks, no masks. Oh, one of the teachers got COVID, alright, we all have to [cover] for that person. Oh, four of the teachers got COVID, and you find out about it that morning. That’s the kind of thing that is incredibly taxing. And in a lot of other places, the complexity is even higher.

Should we accept that we’re in a pandemic and that such fatigue (and the interruptions to normal timelines that follow) are a normal response? Or should we be trying to change that?

At a high level, we should try to get back on the highway. But it’s hard to do it by just putting more pressure on teachers who are trying to deal with so much.

I hope, I believe, that next school year might be the first truly normal school year we’ve had since [2018-19].

But I think there is space for individual students, families, and teachers to take action. Khan Academy is out there. You don’t have to wait for somebody to get it for you. If students are able to put in even 45 minutes a week, we see really good efficacy studies. We’re talking about kids growing 30 to 40 percent more than expected.

If you’re a school or a district that feels ready, we also have our Khan for Districts offering where we can go do support and training with the teachers and give districts dashboards so they can better understand what’s going on.
I think that’s going to be especially important because traditional testing regimes have been broken. And it’s unclear what they’re going to go back to.

What might assessment and accountability look like in the near term?

We have this partnership with [nonprofit assessment organization] NWEA that I believe is the best of both worlds. Where you have these interim assessments, and then it informs the personalized practice, and you as a district or principal or teacher get a roll-up of how kids are performing, and you get to validate that against a very psychometrically valid assessment like MAP Growth. That’s what I would be doing if I was a superintendent or chief academic officer.

Let me play devil’s advocate. Kids and families and educators have endured lots of trauma during the pandemic. Instead of doubling down on this idea of catching kids up based on where the standards say they should be, why not re-orient the system to more of a care-based approach focused on giving people the time and space to heal?

I don’t think they have to be in tension with each other.

Our ideal implementation model is to have the students go on the platform and the platform meets them where they are. They practice in their zone of proximal development. But it’s keeping them engaged where they need to be, so they can grow.

That actually is nurturing, versus I’m just going to show you 6th grade material because you happen to be 11, even though you forgot half of your 4th and 5th grade material. There’s a way where you can meet them where they are, it doesn’t feel like a pressure-cooker type of situation, and then they can accelerate into where they need to go.

But you do need to do something. People talk about a K-shaped recovery in the economy. I think it’s a more dramatic K-shaped situation when it comes to education. My kids have learned just fine over the pandemic. The kids at Khan Lab School have learned just fine. While a lot of kids in large urban school districts, kids in poverty, kids who didn’t have the right supports, not only have they not progressed, they’ve lost a grade level or two.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to just accept that as OK.

Are schools and districts using Khan Academy the same ways they did pre-pandemic?

Before the pandemic, we would go to districts and say look, here’s the efficacy studies, here’s the implementation models. And they would say, “Look, this all makes sense. But for us to adopt it as a mainstream strategic thing, we have to have better support, better training, we have to have district-level dashboards, integrate with our assessments.” And so that’s when we started the Khan for Districts offering, a few months before the pandemic hit. It’s a deeper use case than we have historically had, and it is growing pretty dramatically.

Another use case that you could say maybe the pandemic catalyzed is I’ve always been interested in how work on Khan Academy can translate into real credit. I’ll just pick college algebra, because that really is the leverage point where most people aren’t able to reach their goals. Even the motivated kids, the kids who graduate from high school and are going to college, 70 percent of them have to take remedial math.

We started a pilot with Howard University. It’s very small right now, five classrooms. But there’s no reason it couldn’t scale to 5,000 classrooms. Where the [high school] students are taking a mastery-based, personalized college algebra course on Khan Academy called Howard College Algebra. And if they get mastery in the Khan Academy course, they’re going to get transferable college credits from Howard University.

It’s stuff like that I’m pretty excited about as part of the arsenal to help solve a lot of the damage that’s been done the last several years.

Let’s talk for a second about the nuts and bolts of how to actually teach math. I had the chance to talk recently with the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She was hesitant about schools turning to software to help students catch up. But she was excited about new tools that allow students to collaborate and show their thinking to the entire class. Does that make sense to you?

I don’t think it’s an either-or. At Khan Lab School, the kids use a lot of Khan Academy to get that practice in, get that feedback, make sure they’re seeing a lot of different types of problems. That’s important in any field.

The class time with the teacher, most of it is the collaborative problem-solving, the stuff you can’t do on Khan Academy.

But here’s where I’m a bit of a traditionalist. If you just did the group-based problem-solving, you’re not going to see the same number of problems. And so I don’t think that by itself is going to be sufficient for kids. You need both.

Back in 2014, you and I talked about how Khan Academy was making the shift from quirky disruptor to operating inside the K-12 system. Hearing you talk now, it sounds like you’ve gone even further in that direction, where Khan Academy is now operating much more like a traditional ed-tech software company or curriculum provider.

Yeah, definitely more so. But I’d like to believe we still have a little bit of that quirkiness. A little bit of the, “Let’s run through cracks that other people might not be seeing.”

College algebra is an example. Our work is very much happening in the system. But it’s something that as far as I can tell, no one else is really thinking about. And obviously if it works for college algebra, why can’t it work for 10 other courses? Why can’t we have a world where students can get the first two years of college for free no matter where they are through Khan Academy?

Is that part of your strategic plan?

Long-term, yeah. I do hope that in partnership with others, we can make things like free college credit a reality.

Lots of ed-tech companies have seen their disruptive ambitions crash on the rocks of the structural factors that make K-12 schools so resistant to change. Is there a danger of that happening with Khan Academy, too?

You know, disrupt has a negative connotation. I always wanted to be viewed as we’re going to accelerate or enhance dramatically what is happening.
But to your point, that’s why it took us this many years. I was afraid and wary of enterprise partnerships with school districts. So many people scared me about it. But we realized three or four years ago that we’re here as a not-for-profit to move the dial. And we had gotten to the size and scale where it was like, “We should not shy away from this.”

So we’ve started building the muscles. And they’re still very nascent muscles. But we are making progress, better than I would have expected. And districts are meeting us, too. They are also coming around to the need for personalization, mastery, better data, new ways of thinking about assessment. So I think the stars are aligning.

It is real work. Every year, 50 to 100 percent more districts are using it. This is a long game. We’re not in it trying to sprint to some type of an exit. We want to be here for generations.

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as Khan Academy Founder On How to Boost Math Performance and Make Free College a Reality

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