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Reclaiming The American Dream VI: The (Other) Lessons of Khan Academy

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Reclaiming The American Dream VI: The (Other) Lessons of Khan Academy

Forbes.com October 28, 2014
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyOther

To say that Khan Academy has important lessons to offer is to state the obvious. The Mountain View-based internet teaching institution—which has grown from founder Salman Khan's individualized YouTube math lessons for his 7th grade niece to a worldwide phenomenon—offers thousands of free, plain-spoken online courses, from algebra to biology. But there are even broader lessons to be taken from the astounding success of Sal Khan, winner of the Manhattan Institute's $100,000 2014 William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship. Indeed, the lessons extend well beyond education.

Just eight years after its founding, Khan Academy has already shown how a new approach to a deep-seated problem can gain an astoundingly wide reach—with private, rather than governmental, origins and support. What's more, Khan's success shows that starting and leading a new organization with that sort of idealistic goal has emerged as a calling (and a career) for some of America's best and brightest.

The story of Khan Academy's start and growth is dramatic. Sal Khan, New Orleans-born and MIT-educated, was working in the finance industry as a hedge fund analyst when, in 2004, he learned that his niece, Nadia, needed help with algebra. He began sending her his own clear, step-by-step illustrated lectures (Khan himself did not appear) via YouTube. That allowed other web users to use the same lessons. The teaching of Khan—a complete outsider to education or education reform—went viral, ultimately catching the eye of Bill Gates, whom Khan learned was helping his own children with lessons first meant for Nadia. Khan eventually attracted $15 million-plus in philanthropic support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google , venture capitalist John Doerr, and others accustomed to the idea that radical newcomers might be worth investing in. Such funding allowed Khan to give up his day job and start Khan Academy, with a forthright, undeniably ambitious goal: a free world-class education, for anyone, anywhere.

Notes Khan: “Education should be a fundamental human right. It doesn't matter if you are a student, teacher, parent, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up on earthly biology. Our goal is for Khan Academy's software and content to be the best possible learning experience and for it to be for everyone, for free, forever. This is why we are a non-profit and it's also what drives our small team and supporters.”

Khan has made no small amount of progress toward realizing his ambitious goals, as evidenced by Khan Academy's 15 million registered students and nearly 500 million You Tube views, in 70 countries. (Google's $2 million contribution was targeted toward allowing translation of lessons into the major world languages). Khan Academy's learners have solved over 2 billion problem questions on the platform, assisted by a virtual dashboard which tells them exactly how much progress they've made toward mastering the topic. Although first designed for kids and parents to use at home, even classroom teachers (over 500,000) have come alive to the potential of Khan Academy lectures, devoting class time to helping students with their specific problems. (It's called “flipping the classroom.”) Most recently, Khan Academy became a partner of another major U.S. non-profit, the venerable College Board, offering free internet SAT test prep for the new 2016 SAT exam, in hopes of providing a popular, no-cost alternative to expensive private test-preparation firms (which some view as having made it comparatively harder for lower-income students to do well on the all-important college entrance exam).

In other words, Khan Academy has done something different—and more far-reaching—than starting another social service program which signs up clients. It's providing the tools for self-improvement; by doing so, it's spreading the word that one can, in fact, do just that. Put another way, Khan is trying to change the conventional view about how education works.

Khan's success offers other lessons, too.

A great deal of head-scratching persists among foundation and non-profit leaders (often in consultation with government) about how to bring effective programs “to scale”. Far better to follow Khan's example of seeking ways to change norms. That could mean discouraging crime rather than developing better programs for ex-offenders; encouraging marriage rather than coping with the ill-effects of single-parent families and poverty; encouraging and rewarding educational progress, rather than providing ever more remedial course work. Only when social norms change for the better, Khan shows, can true “scale” be reached. Khan, for his part, points the way toward changing conventional attitudes toward learning: not by building ever-bigger programs but by developing a sufficiently attractive approach to doing homework, or upgrading one's employment skills, and which, thanks to the web, is dirt-cheap to distribute.

It is also instructive to compare Khan's impact to that of Head Start, on which the U.S. spends billions annually, with little to show for the investment. The $300 billion-plus in philanthropic funds donated annually in the United States is often thought of as a private safety net for those in need. But it's also a social venture fund—directed toward outsiders with promising ideas and lots of drive. Sal Khan's inspiring story is yet another version of what can rightly be called the American Dream.

About this series

Since 2001, I've helped direct an annual awards program at the Manhattan Institute recognizing top social entrepreneurs: those who develop effective, original approaches to dealing with social problems and who rely mainly on private funding and volunteers to see their ideas to fruition. They are leaders of America's civil society, doing the things that government can't do—or can't do as well.

We grant up to five $25,000 awards, named for libertarian thinker Richard Cornuelle (who coined the term “independent sector”), to promising, growing programs. A $100,000 lifetime achievement prize, the largest such award for an American nonprofit leader, is named for William E. Simon, the investment finance pioneer and U.S. Treasury secretary, whose book “A Time for Truth” sounded the alarm about the growing dependence of nonprofit organizations on government funding. Simon Prize winners have included Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone; and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN. All award winners direct organizations that they founded themselves—and that rely minimally, if at all, on government funding. Winners are, however, more than just “points of light”: many seek to extend their reach, whether by growing larger and branching to other cities, or helping others start similar organizations elsewhere.

Award winners, nominated by donors who have seen the nominee's work firsthand, are selected by a panel that has included: Les Lenkowsky, professor of philanthropic studies, Indiana University; Adam Meyerson, president, the Philanthropy Roundtable; William Schambra, director, Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal; Cheryl Keller, independent foundation consultant; and James Piereson, president, William E. Simon Foundation. This year's awards presentation will take place in New York City on November 12. This column marks the sixth, and final, weekly profile of 2014 award winners.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes

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