The battle over America's classrooms, featuring broom-wielding reformers pitted against long-powerful teacher's unions, has created a firestorm of debate over the best way to educate students and prepare them for the 21st century.
Sitting on the sidelines of this battle is a man named Sal Khan. A one-time hedge fund analyst, Khan has become an unlikely hero in education circles--his innovative methodology turns the classroom dynamic upside down.
In Khan's program, students watch a series of 10-minute video lessons at home. Kahn narrates the videos, which are available as free downloads on his website. Homework following up on each lesson is completed at school, where teachers circulate among students for one-on-one instruction and problem-solving tutorials. Software that tracks each student's progress helps teachers plan and respond accordingly.
Khan says his method of learning, dubbed "the Khan Academy," will liberate teachers from the standard "one-size-fits-all" lesson plan and help to "humanize the classroom."
According to Khan's staff, over 12 million people have accessed his 2,200 instructional videos in the last few months, watching them an estimated 100,000 times a day in over 225 countries.
Big name funders and local school districts are among those watching. Bill Gates, an early supporter of Khan's, gave the academy $1.5 million last year. Google, as part of its "Project 10^100" grant competition, awarded the academy another $2 million last year. In December, two schools in Los Altos, California, began implementing Khan's teaching methods in two sets of 5th and 7th grade classes.
"It's been an amazing difference in behavior and attitudes," says Courtney Cadwell, a 7th grade pre-Algebra teacher at Egan Junior High school, one of the two Los Altos that now uses Khan's tools. "These are students who avoided math at all costs -- avoided even eye contact -- and they now have the resources and tools to understand. They're motivated and empowered."
Khan says his program's success is largely happenstance. After he posted several of his homespun videos to YouTube so his nieces and nephews could use them for their schoolwork -- and because he thought that it would "be cool if one day my kids could use these videos" -- he was surprised at the positive reaction he garnered from people who happened across them. "Ninety-nine percent of the comments on YouTube tend to be vulgar or rude -- but 99 percent of ours were positive," he says.
From there, Khan Academy went viral. In 2009, Khan quit his day job and began making videos full time, populating the website with his tutorials, which are non-animated and have few bells or whistles. In each video, Khan remains an off-camera presence: a patient, sometimes goofy tutor offering guidance on everything from the quadratic equation to the anatomy of a neuron. (Khan's financial background is most evident in lessons explaining "The Geithner Plan" and "The Paulson Bailout.")
In 2010, Ann Doerr, wife of venture capitalist John Doerr, saw the site when she heard about it through family friends. Soon afterward, she made a $10,000 donation to the academy. When Doerr learned she had given the largest donation in the organization's history, she donated another $100,000 so that Khan could once again have a salary. "In dollar amount," says Khan, "it was a lot less than [what] Google or Gates [eventually gave me], but in terms of my own psychic safety," it was very important. "We were living off of savings -- we weren't going to starve, but I couldn't not work."
Doerr says that during her very first visit to the Khan Academy website, she spent "several hours" surfing the videos. She and her husband became staunch advocates for Khan and his work. Shortly after their initial donation, John Doerr was, according to his wife, "Tweeting to the world about how great Sal Khan was." She was soon texting Khan from the Aspen Ideas Festival, writing, "Bill Gates is talking about you right now." At the festival, Gates applauded Khan and his line of work, saying he had even used the teaching tools with his own children.
After he received the grants from the Gates Foundation and Google, Khan hired a small staff ("We hired some kick butt engineers," Khan explains) to develop software tools and begin to translate the lessons into Arabic, Bengali, French, German, Hindi-Urdu, Indonesian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish so they could be distributed globally.
Khan is modest about his beginnings: Initially he says he liked creating the video tutorials because he was "exercising a part of my brain I wasn't exercising in the hedge fund world."
"I always wanted to start a school," he adds. "I talked about it in college -- but I didn't do anything about it."
He isn't modest about his vision for the Khan Academy. Khan speaks about the possibility of "street kids from Calcutta" one day being able to have access to the same education as those in the richest towns in America. While the Khan teaching videos are unavailable in certain parts of the world where YouTube is blocked, Khan says they are working around this issue, partnering with NGOs and corporations to distribute the lessons in alternate forms, including memory sticks and DVDs.
No matter how effective Khan's videos are, results still depend on capable teachers working with the tools. If teachers can't deliver during "one-on-one" time with students, or don't understand and adapt to the Khan methodology, then Khan says there's no telling how successful this endeavor will be -- either in Calcutta or Cincinnati.
"I've been teaching for 21 years, but I made the transition smoothly -- I think because I've always enjoyed the role of being a facilitator," says Richard Julian, a 5th grade teacher at the Covington School in Los Altos, where the Khan tools are part of a pilot program. "Khan Academy works in a class where the teacher is totally willing to give up that control, and take that risk" of using a non-traditional format.
It's perhaps not surprising, then, that Khan aligns himself with reform efforts that place an emphasis on teacher accountability rather than seniority. Both critics and supporters of the reform movement say it tends to champion younger teachers over older ones. It's precisely these less traditional, tech-savvier instructors who seem to do best with Khan's teaching tools.
Khan says his personal view is that "teachers unions don't act in the interest of most teachers. Many of the best teachers I know are being laid off because their unions value seniority over intellect, passion, creativity and drive."
John See, a spokesperson from the American Federation of Teachers, said the AFT is working to develop better standards and protocols to evaluate underperforming teachers.
The White House, unions, state and local leaders will continue to debate how American education reform should look for some time to come. For the moment, though, Sal Khan continues to work towards his vision of a global classroom, tweaking and improving upon the lesson plans -- and, of course, making his videos. "We've got 95 percent coverage from kindergarten through sophomore year of college," he says. "And this is just a year and a half into it! Knock on wood, I'm gonna be around for at least another two decades."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of Ann Doerr's original donation to Khan Academy. It was a gift of $10,000, not $20,000.