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Silicon Valley: Class Action

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Originally published in the July 2016 issue of Silicon Valley. Read the full story here.

Silicon Valley: Class ActionSal Khan of Khan Academy, the nonprofit site with free video lessons on topics from Algebra 1 to black holes, has created his own brick-and-mortar private school called Khan Lab School, which also aims to create lessons that would train teachers at other schools, via Khan Academy—for free.

“It’s not just opening a new brick-and-mortar school,” says Dominic Liechti, the Mountain View school’s executive director and president. “It’s helping school districts adopt this personalized, project-based education model and providing training. How can we help them transform? It’s part of the key mission.”

Corporate involvement in education reform is not a new phenomenon. Look back 100 years or so to the Industrial Revolution, and titans of industry were influencing public schools and creating vocational programs to ensure a better-trained workforce. In the 1960s, when advocates argued that segregated, factory-model schools were no longer preparing students for the workforce of the later 20th century, a whole raft of alternative schools emerged. Now, half a century later, another wave of reform is building throughout the country, and it comes from that same cyclical concern—that our schools are not keeping pace with changes in the workforce—coupled with a rejection of the standardized education metrics championed in No Child Left Behind, and the more recent and controversial Common Core State Standards Initiative. “Silicon Valley’s reformers are looking to create the kinds of schools that will almost replicate high-tech work places,” says Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford, and a former social studies teacher, “and be much more flexible and amenable to a future that’s harder to chart out.”

For Khan Lab School, and the Primary School, that means a heavy emphasis on personalized learning, a concept that veers away from the old-school model of a teacher standing at the front of the room delivering one lecture to every student. With personalized learning, students work at their own pace, control much more of their own time and lessons, and, in some cases, don’t even have grades. “Students get bored in other schools because they’re not challenged enough,” Liechti says. “Here, they know how to learn, and they’re on their own, self-paced track. It’s important that they learn content and core skills, but even more important that they can apply that to real-life projects.”

At Khan Lab School, for example, students of different grades might all focus on a project like building a well in Africa. One student might learn about the mechanics of the project, while another studies the concept of volume, and others consider the cultural and political tensions the well could create.

[...] Changing education policy and the way American schools operate is a tough haul. Bureaucracy is a huge obstacle; structures are hard to change; and there are many stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and unions. And as Cuban points out, the many schools rolled out by previous generations of reformers ultimately failed, often because, eventually, funding dries up. But Russlynn Ali, CEO of XQ Institute and former assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S Department of Education under President Obama, believes that if change can happen anywhere, it’s Silicon Valley. “The thing that’s so remarkable is that the most intractable obstacles—the things that justify stagnation—in Silicon Valley, those are the impetus for change,” Ali says. “That’s what excites these entrepreneurs.” And having read through the 700 applications that have come in from across the country with revolutionary ideas for changing the way we build our high schools, she’s confident that successful models will emerge.

Montgomery, who has served as an educator both in San Diego and in San Mateo, has found that working to change the way we educate students is much easier in a place like Silicon Valley, where failure is a celebrated part of any process, and iteration is a key to success. “So much intellectual capital is attracted to this area; if any place can figure it out, it’s probably around here,” Montgomery says. “It’s really nice to see that talent and expertise work to solve these really important problems.”

Read the complete article in Silicon Valley.