The Role of the Khan Academy in the Field of Education

onlinelearning

In recent years, the Khan Academy has attracted great attention because of the free education it provides to anyone regardless of its participants’ location. As a non-profit organization, the Khan Academy provides free education materials covering Math, Science, Finance, History, Art, and other subjects using online videos through YouTube. By providing supplementary education free of charge, the Khan Academy may be perceived as a mainstream alternative to private tutoring. At the same time, however, it has been criticized for the quality of education it provides. So, let’s thoroughly examine the Khan Academy to get a better understanding about its emerging role in the field of education.

As noted on the Khan Academy’s website, the story started with Sal Khan’s intention to tutor his cousins in math. Since it was difficult to set a different schedule for each of his cousins, Sal Khan used YouTube for sharing his course notes with the cousins. As time passed, Khan’s YouTube videos raised interest among many other people, indicating a broader demand for these types of instructional educational materials which eventually lead to the establishment of the Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy has been viewed as an increasingly important trend in the field of education, and Sal Khan started to appear on talk shows like TED Talks. The popularity which the Khan Academy gained in such a relatively short amount of time opened more doors for the Academy. For example, the Academy received  $2 million from Google and $1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to expand the number of course offerings and translate the core library into other languages.

There are many people who see the Khan Academy as an important new tool in the field of education, especially valuable for students who need additional educational support but do not have enough money to afford private tutoring. Based on a review of the Academy’s website and users’ comments, it seems that the Khan Academy does a great job of  making various kinds of videos available for the public, and teaching various subjects in a systematic way. With the addition of videos in different languages, it seems that the Khan Academy will continue its upward trend in terms of providing additional support and supplementary education to many others.

Nevertheless, many critics raise questions about the quality of education that the Khan Academy provides. Some argue that the evidence about the educational benefits of Khan Academy lessons is purely anecdotal and that it is necessary to examine empirically whether the Khan Academy actually “helps” students. In a very popular video, Michigan professors David Coffey and John Golden harshly criticize some of the math videos broadcasted by Sal Khan, arguing that they promote “a shallow understanding of math.” Likewise, Dan Meyer (a doctoral candidate at Stanford University) and blogger Justin Reich organized an online contest offering a $750 award for the best online critique of Khan Academy videos. Interestingly enough, all these critics applaud the mission of the Khan Academy to some extent, emphasizing the importance of providing free online education. However, their main concern is whether the Khan Academy will break new ground in providing quality education.

In conclusion, even though there is a growing trend in seeing the Khan Academy as an important tool for reaching out to more students and helping close the educational gap, the question of the quality of education remains urgent. If the Academy seriously considers its critiques and takes the necessary steps to address its problems, it is likely that it will better serve its goals.

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Charter Schools—A Real Choice?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are managed privately. Growing in popularity across the United States, this public/private hybrid is often presented as one of the solutions to the broken public school system supported by both political parties. Today, over two million or 4.2 percent of students in the US attend charter schools. Yet, there is not much evidence to support such an unprecedented expansion of charters across the United States.

The idea of charter schools originated in the late 1980s and was first introduced by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. He felt there was a need for teachers “to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out.”  Later on in 1993, “Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

Even though there’s little evidence that charter schools are effective, they steadily drain funds that could be going toward improving public schools. In 2009, a study by StanfordUniversity’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that only 17% of charter schools delivered superior education to their public school counterparts.  (CREDO) also showed that performance at approximately half of the charters surveyed were not substantially different and, in fact, about 37% were worse than the traditional public schools.

Charter school problems don’t just revolve around student academic success.  Recently, the US Government Accountability Office claimed that charter schools “do not enroll students with disabilities at the same rate as traditional public schools” even though it is required by law. There is also a growing concern among civil rights groups that charter schools can be exclusive and more racially divided. In a Civil Rights Project report it is stated that “charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system.”

How to explain the continued support for an idea that clearly doesn’t work?

In California, philanthrocapitalists like The Waltons (of Walmart) are furiously at work dismantling the public system there and replacing it with privatized charters. In Chicago,Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been a proponent of charter schools. While closing down over 54 traditional public schools just recently, he aims to “add 60 charter schools in the next five years with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is trying to expand charters across the country.”  And most recently in New Jersey, Mark Zuckerberg has donated millions to Governor Christie’s educational reform aimed at expansion of charter schools. According to Huffington Post, “This puts Zuckerberg well in the mainstream of billionaire tech executives like Bill Gates, who pump millions of dollars into efforts to encourage charter schools and put pressure on teachers’ unions.”

Propaganda films like Waiting for Superman pander to both sides of the political fence, promoting charters primarily as a way to attack one of the last bastions of the American labor movement—our teacher unions.  This dismal film is part of a far larger effort, a new “economy of knowledge production” fueled by corporate interests hell-bent on siphoning public funds to private pockets. As critics argue, private think tanks are “eclipsing independent university researchers” and sound data is replaced with talking points.

Charter schools do not offer a real equitable choice. Because of their limited space, they segregate a key population that could have made a profound difference in improving the educational experience of all the children in the community. They also take away a meaningful portion of funds that could be used to improve the traditional public schools. Charter schools are not a real choice and should be urgently reconsidered as the alternative to solving public schools’ problems.

Myschool’ Website: Short-Sighted Policy on Public Vs Private in Australia

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The public and private school debate has elevated in Australia.

While choice has always been part of Australian schooling, governments of all political hues have been enhancing their commitment to educational choice by increasing funding to the non-government sector (Forsey, Davies, & Walford, 2008).

 The Australian Minister of Higher Education has spearheaded a project spending $3 million on research and creating a website “Myschool” that uses national standardized tests to compare performance of socio-economically and demographically similar schools across the country. Any parent and community member can now search and compare profiles of almost 9,500 Australian schools.

The launch of the website has raised several major issues regarding the private versus public debate in the field of education, questioning sociocultural ideology behind school ‘choice.’

There are several issues not only with school choice but also with how the website goes about comparing such schools. Forsey et al. (2008) note several reasons for why parents find ‘school choice’ so crucial. The first is self-segregation (a trend of a specific population group trying to separate itself for self-interest) – otherwise known as ‘white flight.’ It often results in wealthier families self-segregating themselves in better performing schools. Other reasons include higher level of placement testing (schools with higher average of standardized test scores) and concerted cultivation (parent expectations for structure and child-rearing support through the education system.)

It would appear that the government run website has embraced these facts, stating specifically that its purpose is to “locate statistical and contextual information about schools in your community and compare them with statistically similar schools across the country.”

How does the website compare such schools? This is where more problems arise…

The website compares the socio-economical background with the schools performance in ‘NAPLAN’ testing. The socio-economical status is judged by examining family background information provided to schools directly by families, including parental occupation, and the school education and non-school education levels they achieved. In some cases, where this information is not available, ICSEA uses Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census data on family background to determine a set of average family characteristics for the districts where students live. Where as the NAPLAN is based on two subjects (literacy and numeracy) and includes 40 questions. NAPLAN collects data on a national level every two years and it forgoes arts, science, health, music and the ability to function as a part of the community. It thus reflects an extremely narrow conceptualization of the broader purposes of schooling.

Another controversial point is about the use of the data on the school background (ICSEA), i.e. where the school sits on the socio-economic scale. The website shows whether a particular school is doing better, worse or about the same as schools that are statistically similar in their demographic group. In a way, it is directly naming and shaming Australian public schools and specifically singling out those in the lower socio-economic areas.

Another related and highly contested issue is the use of public funds in the private sector. The below numbers, which are taken directly from the website, reveal the funding of one of the most elite private schools in Sydney compared to one of the low-achieving public schools. When looking at the below charts, on the surface, a reader would notice both some discrepancy in the amount of money spent per student and unbelievably different academic results.

Private: Sydney Church of England Grammar School, North Sydney, NSW
  Total Per Child
Federal Funding $2,593,487 $1,644
State Funding $1,747,072 $1,107
School Fees $33,278,400 $21,089
Total (including deductions)                                             $34,134,46 $ 21,631
Public: Chifley College Shalvey Campus, Shalvey NSW
  Total Per Child
Federal Funding $1,235,638 $3,051
State Funding $5,469,505 $13,505
School Fees $81,221 $201
Total (including deductions)                                             $6,843,842 $16,898

 

This can’t be all there is to education. Money in, against scores out.

The short-sightedness of comparing the scores of the wealthy private scores against the low socio-economic means we’ve already given up on the majority of our population in such areas.

But our seemingly poor scoring low socio-economic schools do so much more. Let’s for a second forget that these kids may have less educated parents or less resources at home to help bolster scores. Schools for these students are more than just a place to memorize grammar and mathematical equations. Shalvey School (listed above) offers home cooking skills (whether for the students or their family), fitness classes, healthy cooking classes, getting kids involved with club sports, Smith Family I-track program for 20-30 students being mentored online from business people in the community about goal setting and personal development, University of Western Sydney student mentoring with pathway, Impact club for outdoor, home handy man and film course, learning grounds program for Aboriginal students focusing on number and literacy development, classes for women to make prom dresses while learning about community issues.

The school also offers classes for parents on how to use of computers, help students with homework, use numbers around the house, and improve literacy.

These schools are making communities stronger, they are making communities safer and maybe, just maybe (although not in standardized tests) they are making these communities smarter.

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*Forsey, M., Davies, S. & Walford, G. (2008). The globalization on school choice? An introduction to key issues and concerns. In M. Forsey, S. Davies, & G. Walford (Eds.), The globalization of school choice? (pp. 9-26). Oxford: Symposium Books.


I am sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, Startup: Education will improve your reputation but not necessarily the lives of children

These days we hear a lot about Zuckerberg’s $100 million foundation Startup: Education, which was established in cooperation with the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker in order to improve student educational success and “champion great teachers.” In fact, this ambitious project aims to reform public education in the United States if testing New Jersey’s waters proves successful.

At its core, the idea is simple. In order to reform public education one can use a simple formula, which will embrace one billionaire and the support of local authorities. Supposedly, by implementing an entrepreneurial approach to education, it is possible to make schools accountable, transform low performing students into high achievers, and improve teachers’ performance. Wait a second. Does it mean that public education cannot be improved from within? Without private investors? What do teachers think about this initiative? What does education research have to offer? Does it imply that if you can donate $100 million, you actually have a say in shaping public education policy? Why is it so?

There is not much transparency about the operation of Startup: Education. In an interview to NJ.com, the Teacher Union President Joe Del Grosso says that he is troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the Facebook donation: “We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money.” Del Grosso insists that “with that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use.” Yet, many teachers, parents, and broader members of the community continue to raise their concerns about the murky conditions under which Startup: Education operates.

Startup: Education is another privatization effort in public education, reflecting the logic of running schools like businesses.  In 2011, for example, a $500,000 grant from the Facebook money was used to attract high-quality principals to the district who were given the authority to staff their schools as they see fit.  According to NJ.com, teachers who did not make the cut were demoted to teacher’s aide jobs or other supporting roles. The funding also went to support the establishment of charter schools and the introduction of merit pay schemes. Not surprisingly, the foundation became quickly implicated in the closure of some public schools and many teacher layoffs on the pretext of ‘low performance delivered.’

However, public education is not a business and should not be managed like a company. While there is no clear answer to the question whether private donations lead to student higher academic achievements, it is crystal clear that in a democratic society, all players – think students, parents, teachers, and local communities – should be involved in the decision-making process regarding public education.

Feel free to like the idea of the Startup: Education, “surprisingly”, on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/startupeducation.

Educational Rankings and Economic Success: How Clear is the Connection?

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Following the release of the PISA 2009 scores, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said:

The findings, I have to admit, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to try to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality, instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership.

Similarly, in this short video advocating for the Common Core Standards, the Hunt Institute makes reference to the U.S.’s PISA rankings and says:

Out students need better knowledge and tools to prepare them to compete in the global economy.

This is not a new argument, nor is it one restricted to the U.S. context. Advocates and detractors of education reform continually make reference to international competition, often using PISA and TIMSS rankings to bolster their argument. They draw an explicit link between these rankings and economic performance.

So, let’s take this argument at face value and test it on it’s own merit.

Using IMF data, here are the ten largest economies as measured by GDP PPP:

  1. United States
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Japan
  5. Germany
  6. Russia
  7. Brazil
  8. United Kingdom
  9. France
  10. Italy

Based on the arguments commonly heard from politicians, interest groups, and in the popular press, we may expect to see a significant overlap between this list and the 2009 PISA rankings. Here are the top ten performing nations and cities from that exam:

  1. Shanghai, China
  2. South Korea
  3. Finland
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Singapore
  6. Canada
  7. New Zealand
  8. Japan
  9. Australia
  10. The Netherlands

One nation appears on both lists: Japan.

Of course, one could argue that education is a lagging variable. That those educated today will not have meaningful participation in the global economy until years later. To test this, let’s look at the 1995 TIMSS 8th grade Math rankings:

  1. Singapore
  2. South Korea
  3. Japan
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Flanders (Belgium used disaggregated data)
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Slovakia
  8. Switzerland
  9. The Netherlands
  10. Slovenia

Again, only Japan appears on this list and the list of largest economies as determined by GDP PPP. Here one could argue that GDP PPP is a simplistic measure that fails to take population into account. As our final exercise, let’s look at GDP PPP per capita:

  1. Luxembourg
  2. Norway
  3. Qatar
  4. Switzerland
  5. Macao SAR, China
  6. Kuwait
  7. Australia
  8. Denmark
  9. Sweden
  10. Canada

This is even more problematic, not one nation (or region in the case of Macao) that ranked in the top ten in 1995 appears on the per capita list.

It should go without saying there are a number of problems with the simplistic analysis used in public policy debates.

For starters, although we often say “Nation so-and-so is ranked Xth in the world,” the reality is that the majority of the nations in the world don’t participate in TIMSS or PISA. Luxembourg, Qatar, and China did not take part in the 1995 TIMSS. We can hardly expect nations that didn’t take the test to appear on our top-performers list. In fact, only 43 nations in the world participated in that exam in 1995. That number has increased over the past eighteen years; sixty-four nations, cities and regions took the most recent PISA exam in 2012. However, we are still working with an incomplete dataset.

In addition, we’re not even using simple linear regression analysis in this blog post. We’re just comparing top-ten lists and looking for commonalities. Scholars studying comparative education know this is an invalid way on measuring the effect of education on economic growth. The link between a nation’s education system and its economy is a complex relationship between two adaptive, emergent systems. A relationship that can’t be measured by comparing GDP and PISA scores. We know this.

However, outside of the universities, think tanks, and multilateral development banks it is a different story. Politicians are not making complex arguments that take many variables into account. They are saying better rankings equals better a economy. President Obama:

It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.

The weaknesses in our argument above should serve to reveal the weakness in the president’s argument. Politicians define educational success with league tables and make ill-defined linkages to the nation’s economic rankings every day. Just by looking at the rankings it should be clear that this argument fails to hold up by its own logic.

UPDATE 03-09-13 0554AM – A reader asked why I said “nations” before the PISA rankings with Shanghai taking the top spot. I misspoke, that should have read “nations and cities” and has been fixed. This does point to another problem with the way the league tables are discussed in the popular discourse, as mixing up nation and city results is a common mistake. When the 2009 results were announced, many commentators reported that “China” had top the world rankings. Here’s Time Magazine:

China Beats Out Finland for Top Marks in Education

Education: Cost or Quality?

Like most searching for an answer, I started by looking at PISA results and commonalities between high performing nations.

My first search: National Curriculums.

It seemed to work well for Japan and New Zealand but not for the UK and Portugal. Time to look for another explanation.

PISA tries to avoid supporting rote memorization by measuring “How well can students nearing the end of compulsory schooling apply their knowledge to real-life situations?”  So, maybe countries with strong links to high stakes/standardized testing will reveal poor scores.

No dice. Finland and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are at opposing ends of the testing spectrum. Finland has very little standardizing testing and ROK works towards solely standardized testing. PISA shows both countries in the highest echelon on national education. Next.

Maybe countries with the highest spending on education skyrocket the PISA rankings? Nope…another dead end. The USA ranked the fourth highest in public expenditure on primary, secondary and tertiary education per student by the OECD.  Much higher than ALL front runners.

How could this be?

“Currently only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom. Fewer than half of Washington’s 101,700 public school employees are classroom teachers. Spokane Public Schools employs 3,087 people, one for every nine students, but only 41 percent of them are classroom teachers.”

–Washington Policy Center

So, maybe it’s cultural or political?

“Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.

“All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.”

“ All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.”

-Washington Post

Now we’re getting somewhere!

One of the most emphasized points in the Finnish system is the social status of teachers and its impact on education.

The OECD states Finnish teachers hold an extremely high social status and one of the most sought after professions.  Teachers are taken from the top 10% of gradates to earn a masters in education before being able to teach in public schools.

Conversely, consider the U.S. stigma of teaching: “Those you can’t do, teach.” “Easy job, short hours with major vacation time” isn’t the reality. Again in OECD comparisons:

-Finnish teachers are paid substantially lower than their American counterparts.

-U.S. teachers put in 1051 hours of direct teaching with Finland, a mere 550.

In Hidden Markets (2007), Patricia Burch shows the further decline of the status of American teachers showing a cultural shift towards online learning. Public state funds are already being used as an alternative to public schools. In some states it is even possible for virtual schools to hire non-certified and non-full time staff.

To me it needs to be a ‘one problem at a time’ approach. The initial focus needs to be on providing an education as opposed to the cost cutting measures limiting it. The Federal and State governments haven’t mastered the application before attempting to sell it off as a commodity and stripping it of the biggest strengths. Teachers.

U.S. teachers are paid a low salary comparative to other college graduates, are readily being replaced by computers and online classrooms, work longer than teachers in other countries, are forced to submit to standardized testing in a very non standardized environment and with society assuming ‘they have it easy.’

Maybe a consultant will suggest we ‘stop trying and fail for free?!?’

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The Boom of International Branch Campuses: Western Universities and the Export of Knowledge

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In recent years, the number of international branch campuses has increased enormously, particularly in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, which is an independent institution conducting research and examining policy frameworks and emerging trends in higher education, there were 162 international branch campuses (IBCs) across the world in 2009. The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the most prominent IBCs providers. In fact, U.S. universities constituted 48% of all IBCs in 2009. While IBCs are a relatively new trend in higher education, it is not clear whether exporting international campuses abroad will help host countries  strengthen their higher education systems and keep up with current global trends. Perhaps, the main drive for the establishment of IBCs is not public service, but rather increased revenue and reputation of home institutions.

To better understand the boom of IBCs, it is necessary to take a look at the context of host countries where these international branch campuses operate. Currently, the most popular destinations include the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore, and Qatar. For example, Qatar’s Education City hosts such well-known U.S. universities as Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates, which has the highest number of international branch campuses in the world, hosts such highly reputable universities as New York University and Sorbonne University.

From the perspective of host countries, particularly oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, the main goal is to make “prestigious” (Western)  education accessible globally. The expectation is that international branch campuses will prepare youth in the Middle East (and other regions) for the global labor market, thus decreasing host countries’ dependency on natural resources. In addition, it is believed that these IBCs would increase innovation, research, and development activities in host countries, thus contributing to the emerging knowledge-based economy in the Middle East.

Theoretically, all this sounds good. Yet, many questions arise when carefully examine the implementation of IBCs abroad.

First, IBCs offer very limited undergraduate programs in host countries compared to their home institutions. One of the reasons is a lack of academic freedom in host countries, which may compromise the liberal arts curriculum and discourage many professors from teaching in IBCs. In fact, American universities that have established branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia have faced an ongoing criticism for collaborating with authoritarian governments.

Second, business, management, and engineering programs seem to prevail over liberal arts programs offered by many IBCs. IBCs thus primarily function as producers of business leaders rather than supporters of innovative research initiatives in host countries. Even though some IBCs prioritize research activities in host countries by strengthening their relations with policy-makers, their number is not very high. Without introducing rigorous research programs, IBCs are unlikely to produce innovative solutions for the knowledge-based economy or help local governments.

Third, many IBCs were established in hopes of potential new revenues, yet many have been shut down for financial reasons. For example, Michigan State University expected to enroll 100-150 students per year, but there were just 10-20 students in MSU Dubai’s programs. Therefore, some international branch campuses already start to pull away from host countries. For example, Michigan State closed all of its undergraduate programs in Dubai in 2010. Not surprisingly, many families prefer to send their children to Western universities rather than enrolling their children in IBCs. The legitimacy of degrees offered by IBCs thus remains in question.

Clearly, IBCs struggle with many problems in host countries. Some of these problems arise due to the specificity of the local context of host countries, while others stem from the contradiction between universities’ financial interest in the region and the public demand for the academic programs. As a relatively new phenomenon in the higher education marketplace, IBCs will need to carefully address these academic, financial, and ethical issues as they establish their place in the education world.