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Sal Khan's History of Education Has Some Pretty Significant Holes

It's erroneous to say that nothing changed in schools between 1892 and the Khan Academy.


Khan Academy founder Sal Khan recently sat down with Forbes' Michael Noer and the two of them created a Khan-style video lecture of the history of education from 1680 to 2050. The duo posits that nothing much changed in our school system from 1892 when a committee of 10 individuals sat down to decide when physics should be taught and the arrival of the internet in the mid 1990s. But the real revolutionary innovation, they say, only arrived a few years ago with the Khan Academy's online video lesson-based model, which allows students receive an individualized education and learn at their pace.

The argument that public education has been stuck in an industrialized time warp for the past 120 years—after all, we still have 12 grades that students go through in age-based cohorts—is pretty common. But as education writer Audrey Watters notes, this version of history leaves out a great deal of change in our school system.

"To argue," says Watters, "that education has not changed in this country in 120 years overlooks the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the desegregation (and lately re-segregation) of schools."

Khan and Noer ignore, says Waters, "the passing in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)," Title IX, which was enacted in 1972 to bring gender equity to schooling, and "the rise of the standardized testing regimes of the College Board (the SAT was first offered in 1926) and No Child Left Behind (2002)." They also neglect to mention, says Watters, that "public schools' responsibility for 'college readiness' is a very recent one since, until the 20th century, most people did not attend college."

But most concerning, says Watters, is that crowning the Khan Academy as the start of a new era of educational progress,

"ignores the vocal opposition to that so-called factory model and the construction of alternatives by educators themselves. It ignores the entire progressive education movement. It ignores the work of John Dewey and Maria Montessori. Conveniently. To jump from 1892 to 2000—from the 'Committee of Ten' to Khan Academy—ignores the work done by numerous educators and technologists to think about how computers and networks will reshape how we teach and learn. It overlooks the work of Seymour Papert and all his students. It ignores the decades of research on cognitive tutoring and the notion that a computer should be able to respond on an individualized level to each student—something that Khan's history of education credits to Khan himself."


While the access to knowledge that the Khan Academy provides is laudable, Watters is right—a version of education history that neglects the real change that's happened in our school system is a mistake. Sure, there are plenty of things that still need to change in our schools, but as Watters says, educational "change—and history—is always messier than the straight line," Khan and Noer are presenting.

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