Gary North – July 11, 2014
I have written a lot about Salman Khan and the Khan Academy. I will continue to do so.
Today, I want to talk about what he has done to modern theories of education. For over a century, there has been a mass illusion that has been fostered by beneficiaries of tax money. This money has gone to teachers and educators. This illusion is as follows: state certification necessary to be a good teacher.
This illusion has been basic to the creation of the teachers’ union. It is this commitment to what is laughingly known as professionalism that has been the basis of legal barriers to entry. Progressive educators fostered this illusion early in the 20th century. They created a theory of education out of whole cloth, except this whole cloth was tattered cloth. There was never any scientific or any other kind of evidence that indicated that going through a teacher-training program designed by men and women on college faculties would in any way improve the education of children.
This is a classic case of people who had little or no personal experience in teaching school children, who sat down and designed a series of theories about what it takes to teach children. The theories kept changing. There were always rival theories. But they all had this in common: most of the people teaching these theories in university classrooms had never had personal experience or success in teaching school children.
This is the classic example of how universities work. People who teach in MBA programs have never owned businesses. People who teach psychology have never worked as full-time psychologists. Professors get themselves licensed by their own group, few of whom have had any experience in the free market, where profit and loss determine who survives and who fails. Then, having created a state-mandated barrier to entry, they earn above-market wages paid by taxpayers. This starts at the university level, and then it moves down to the very lowest levels of the educational system.
It is all a farce. It is summarized by the slogan we have all heard: “He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches. He who can’t teach, teaches teachers.”
Without any warning, Salman Khan in 2006 began posting his mathematics screencast videos that he produced for his nieces and nephews. People began to come to his website to see the videos. He kept producing more videos. He offered them free of charge.
By now, you know the story. Today, 10 million students are using his videos. They are using them in school systems and also in homeschooling environments all over the world. The students must speak English. That is the main barrier to entry, other than Internet access. Internet access is going to get cheaper. Learning English as a second language is going to get cheaper. And, before too long, there will be automatic translation programs that can be applied to videos. Khan will someday be teaching 100 million students.
The faculty at Oakland Unity High School began using his videos and exercises. The performance of the students dramatically rose. It is a charter school, so I don’t think it is representative of the standard inner-city high school. But the point is this: a charter school drastically improved the performance of the students, which will make the charter school a pot full of money. The charter school is going to be able to defend itself against the critics inside the inner-city schools, who hate the idea of charter schools being able to siphon off the best students. The hostility of the teachers’ union against charter schools is legendary.
Khan has proven that 100+ years of educational theory is wrong. With no training whatsoever in a formal program of education, he became, almost overnight, the most important teacher in the history of the world. The teachers’ union can scream bloody murder, but it won’t do any good. His program is clearly better than anything that the typical tax-funded public school has to offer. Other charter schools will pick up Khan’s program. Why not? It’s free. They get all of this educational support material, and it does not cost them a dime. All the school has to do is buy used computers, add Wi-Fi, and let the students loose on Khan Academy’s site.
His site is living testimony to the fact that 100+ years of rival educational theories, all insisting that you have to have professional training to be a good teacher, were fake from the start. The most important teacher in the history of education had no training in this regard. His program is better than anything that has been produced by people who have gone through the screening process of dumbed-down education — a system that is taught in the colleges and universities of the world. It is simply a way of screening out candidates for teaching jobs. It is a way for moderately intelligent people, who have gone through certification, to keep out rivals who are really good teachers, and who would be willing to work for less money. The whole system of automatic payments based on seniority and the number of semester hours earned in night school programs and summer vacation programs is about to come to an end. The teachers’ union is on the defensive, and it will never again get on the offense. Three words give the lie to the whole illusion: “What about Khan?”
The teachers’ union is by far the most powerful single union in the United States. It is the most powerful politically. It is the most powerful economically. It is based on an illusion. That illusion is being statistically undermined every day by the Khan Academy. The foundation of the entire public school system all over the world is being undermined free of charge every day. A man with no training as a teacher is clearly the best teacher in the world. This is demonstrated by the number of students he has.
Any high school mathematics teacher in the United States could now set up a rival program. There are probably 100,000 of them. If these teachers are any good, or if 10% of them are top-flight, then any one of them could do it. Nobody has done it. They are lazy to the very core of their being. They are not confident about their own abilities. They refuse to sit down with $200 worth of equipment and post videos free of charge on YouTube. They have surrendered the entire field to one man, and this man is not a trained educator. It is too late ever to catch up with him. He has the financial support of Bill Gates, and he has the trust of Bill Gates. Nobody is going to displace him in this generation.
This means that the public schools of the world can either ignore this revolution, or else they can integrate it into their programs. If they ignore it, they are basically turning over education to the charter schools. The charter schools are going to use it. It’s a free resource which improves student performance and cuts expenses.
Because one man has single-handedly proven that the entire theory of progressive education is wrong, and that you don’t need to have specialized training in order to be a great teacher, other institutions can now get involved. Institutions that are not certified by the educational establishment will be able to provide top-flight educational services. Churches will be able to do this. Charitable groups will be able to do this. I hate to think about it, but inner-city gangs will be able to do this. Anyone who wants to gain a following in the community can do so by offering top-flight educational services free of charge, simply by providing low-cost computers to students, and a minimal place to house them. The state will still regulate square footage, and the teachers’ union will still try to convince people that these alternative routes to education are substandard, but Khan Academy’s success at Oakland Unity High School is proof that an uncertified teacher and his educational program are better than what the inner-city schools, or regular public schools, are capable of providing. That is the affront of the Khan Academy.
This message is going to spread. It’s going to spread to universities. It already has begun. The entire structure of education, based on false theories of what constitutes top-flight education — state certification — is being undermined by one man and a support staff of statisticians, whose salaries are paid by Bill Gates and other donors.
The World Wide Web is undermining newspapers. They are dying. It is killing network television, which is also dying. The last bastion has been education, and while it is not dying, its executioner is deploying a digital guillotine every day, 24 hours a day, free of charge. He has proven, statistically and technically, that the number-one theory of modern education is wrong, namely, that you need training in a state-certified educational institution in order to be an effective teacher.
I don’t know what Khan’s politics are, and I don’t care. I don’t care what his educational theory is, either. I care about this: he was never formally certified as a teacher. This represents a threat to the public school system like no other in history.