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Everybody Loves Khan Academy


GOOD Magazine, in its continuing armchair coverage of education reform efforts, wonders whether Khan Academy is the model for closing the achievement gap. Is it?

Khan Academy is a website with excellent educational videos explaining a wide variety of topics in math, physics, and other subjects (geared initially toward high school students, but now serving a wider range). It solves the problem of access to clear explanations. If a student sits in class (or misses class) and doesn't understand the concept that was taught that day, Khan Academy videos can help. I would suggest, though, that a student who will go home and watch a trigonometry video online is probably not at a terribly high risk of dropping out. Perhaps Khan's best role is to help already on-track students raise their grades in challenging courses.

Ben Goldhirsch of GOOD repeatedly plugs Khan Academy as the solution to low graduation rates in the MSNBC interview embedded with the story. As you can see in the video, though, Goldhirsch uses his camera time to name-drop the for-profit University of Phoenix, one of his advertisers, which he describes as "focusing on solutions in this education space" such as Khan Academy. What's going on here?

Though it focuses on social causes, GOOD is a for-profit magazine and media outlet, and I can't help but smell a rat when I hear that one of Goldhirsch's advertisers is part of the solution to what ails our educational system. The argument is as follows: Public schools are failing, Khan Academy is helping, and the University of Phoenix is like Khan Academy. This conflation of a massive corporation with an unrelated nonprofit website happens so smoothly that it sounds perfectly reasonable.

The University of Phoenix spends more than $100 million per year on advertising, and rakes in more than $2.9 billion (with a b) in revenue per year. Never mind that the University of Phoenix itself has a 78 percent dropout rate for undergrads pursuing a bachelor's degree. Exactly how is this a silver bullet?

Dylan Ratigan, the MSNBC host in the video, suggests by both his comments and accompanying stock footage that Khan is a revolutionary kind of web-augmented bricks-and-mortar school (like the University of Phoenix), and Goldhirsch does nothing to dispel this misconception. Why? Because it plays into his narrative that traditional schools have it wrong, and that online education can rescue us all from the failings of public education.

I think Khan Academy is a great idea, and I hate to see it held up as a model of schooling—rather than just a great tool for specific purposes—in order to bolster support for education companies that benefit their corporate owners rather than their students.

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