Is the Khan Academy in Detroit?

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Drudge Report and City Journal offer examples of two opposite approaches to education, along with their opposite results. To get the ugliness out of the way first, there is a sad story coming out of Detroit, where students from a public school that requires an entry exam have been suspended for picketing the school and demanding "an education". Given that teacher absenteeism is such a chronic problem that the students have been parked in the gym on occasion, for lack of teachers on hand, the fact that anyone got suspended for this is incredible:

One math teacher, parent Sharise Smith tells WJBK-TV, has been absent for more than 68 days.

The students marched outside the school and chanted, "We want... education! When do we want it? Now!"

Students and parents became increasingly alarmed when Frederick Douglass was no longer listed as an application school in the district -- current students had to apply to attend. Smith told the Free Press that her son was given an A in geometry without taking a final exam. [link dropped]
It is a shame to see young men so cheated by the government's near-monopoly on education that, they seem to feel like begging for crumbs from government officials on the streets is the solution to their problems. But it is farcical to see this when the very name of their school suggests a better alternative: taking charge of their own betterment. (I am saddened to see that mere picketing in the hopes that others will do something is what passes for taking charge these days.) The suspensions in this affair don't hold a candle to this degree of irony.

Fortunately for these students, as a story at City Journal suggests, it has never been easier for to emulate Frederick Douglass, in casting off the chains of ignorance. Having to waste precious time lolligaging in a gym, thanks to truancy laws and the entrenched mediocrity of Detroit's government "education" system, would, granted, make their efforts more difficult, but it wouldn't make them impossible. Modern technology and recent innovations in education, such as those by Salman Khan, offer a way to learn to these students and many others like them:
Khan didn't make the files private, and soon he started hearing from fans. For good reason: he's a born teacher. He uses simple, straightforward language. He illustrates complicated concepts in visually elegant ways. His voice is smooth, he doesn't try to tackle too much in any one lecture, and his energy is infectious. In one video, he explains one of math's most beautiful equations: ... "If this does not blow your mind, then you have no emotion," he enthuses.

After hearing how much his videos were helping students, Khan posted them at He also wrote software that would test student comprehension of math topics. "The exercises we give students ... give much better feedback than every other answer in the back of the book," says Khan. Get ten problems in a row right, and you move on to a more advanced level, scoring various badges and "energy points" along the way. Ten consecutive correct answers shows mastery: "Why is it wrong to expect to get perfection?" Khan asks. A "coach" function quickly lets a teacher or parent using the software know if a student is stumbling. It's the same feedback that a quiz would give, but in real time and without the laborious grading.
I followed a link on the dismal, but "improving" performance of Detroit's government schools and found that some bureaucrat had apparently praised the system ("Detroit was also highlighted") for "its smaller gap between the average scores of high- and low-income students". I have never heard a more damning indictment of egalitarianism in my life.

I'd love to see a group of students somewhere really take matters into their own hands by beefing up on their studies with Khan, taking tests, and then exhibiting the "gap" between their performance and that of others who had not availed themselves of a real educational option: individual effort aided by the private sector.

-- CAV


Richard said...

I do love me some Khan Academy. Even though I'm an adult. It's a great site and Khan seems like a genuine guy. (This is probably going to sound like spam, but hey it's relevant!) There's even videos on historic art appreciation. Something government schools will not touch on.

After watching a number of his videos I noticed why his site is a success. He admonishes against gimmick short-term "learning" with mnemonic devices and memorization. You can tell he has actual knowledge and understanding, he isn't going off of a booklet with answers. He always explains *why* math methods work and *shows* it.

On a social level he doesn't talk down in a manner some adults address children. There's no attempts to be "edgy" or "fun" and insert humor out of desperation. (Khan has no rapping math equations sorry)

On top of which I see that Mr. Khan once worked at a hedge fund, and it shows. The site lists tons of videos on finance and economics. None of which treat finance and money as The Devil.

Gus Van Horn said...

I first heard about Khan in a lecture about disruptive innovation, but I hadn't heard that he covered AS broad a swath of terrain as he has. Thanks for bringing that up.