Are Khan Academy And Private Schools A Part of The Problem?

We The Masses

The line, “The masses will be attended by machines and the rich will be attended to by people” is the one that still stays with me weeks out from reading Cathy O’Neill’s ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’. This will be the outcome of all the technology that we apply to managing (or controlling) our lives. This will be how Artificial Intelligence impacts our lives in all the areas where we apply this technology; the rich will be able to afford the services of wealth managers who cater to their every desire to ensure the continued accumulation of wealth while the rest of us will rely on roboadvisors. The rich will pay private tutors for the education of their kids while we the plebs will flock to Khan Academy and every other variation of personalized learning delivered through touchscreens.

Even as we are uncertain about what education our children will need to navigate the future, we continue to chauffeur them to whatever school we consider to be best for them or the one we can afford to get them into. Even as they progress, we hope that universities, as they are or will become, provide the skills they’ll need to become value adding member of society. We have no idea about the jobs our children will take when they grow up. One thing we do know, because we are experiencing it in real time, is that we will rely on technology to help us attend to our kids at a rate far exceeding any other generation before ours. We already rely almost solely on technology to keep our children entertained as only ‘30 percent of US parents believe kids under 13 years old should not be allowed to play in a public park unsupervised’. I confess to being one of those parents. And we are now also shifting to technology, not teachers, to educate them. For the majority of the populace, thinking we are helping our kids prepare for the future, we will rely on personalized curricula, delivered on devices sold to the schools by any one of the major technology companies (Apple/Google/Microsoft). But that wealthy will have humans/tutors assist their kids, the most personal of personalized education, because ‘the masses will be attended to by machines and the rich will be attended to by people’. How did we unintentionally get here? What is a middle class parent to do? What is a middle class parent of a minority kid to do?

ii) Trying but failing to do for your kids

In the final episode of the second season of the hit FX tragicomedy ‘Atlanta’, there is a scene where Earn, the protagonist of the show, and Van, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child, take their daughter, Lottie, for a parent teacher conference. As Van and Earn sit in uncomfortable mini chairs, in what looks like a classroom with books and teaching paraphernalia everywhere, an older African American lady, Lottie’s teacher, suggests that Lottie is ‘very advanced and gifted’. The lady recommends transferring Lottie to a reasonably priced private school to prevent further stunting her learning development. The lady leaves the hesitant parents with the words ‘if I see a steer smart enough to get out of the pen I leave the gate open’. If you’d watched other episodes of the show it’s easy to understand Van and Earn’s hesitation to send Lottie to an expensive private school. Earn is struggling as a manager of a rising star rapper, ‘Paper Boi’, and Van lost her job as a schoolteacher (and the irony there is subtle but powerful). Money is not exactly flowing in this separated parent household. Lottie’s current school, a public school, is the only true option that her parents can ‘afford’. But now that the seed of ‘gifted’ has been planted in Van and Earn’s minds, there is very little choice about what to do next. Van and Earn will have to, some way some how, find the money. No parent, real or fictional, wants the guilt of his/her child’s unfulfilled potential to come down to their inability to afford what would have assured the attainment of that potential. Crazy thing is, this guilt is what the vast majority of parents of minority kids in the United States have to live with. Every. Day. In a country where we’ve come to believe that public schools are crap and private schools provide the best education.

For the majority of parents of color in the United States there are mainly two barriers preventing them from sending their kids to private school. One is money, the lack of. Another reason is the less studied issue of tokenization; a problem that arises when attempts to integrate a community lead to poor outcomes for the ’tokens’ that are brought in to integrate said community. But we’ll get to that shortly.

iii) The money problem

While desegregation and the massive opposition to desegregation happened long ago (relatively), the Southern Education Foundation, in a study titled ‘Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding for Private Schools’ released in 2016 suggesting that ‘on all indicators ­of race and ethnicity in private schools — over-representation of white students, disproportionate white enrollment rates, virtual segregation, and virtual exclusion of students of color — segregation continues in private schools across the country and in the South. The report highlights the disproportionate number of white kids that show up in private schools. Even private schools with funding provided to less financially able communities through voucher programs.


Comparison of the % of white school age kids and % enrollment numbers for white kids in private schools show an over-representation that suggest there are systemic reasons at play. This has been the case since 1998 when the study was first carried out to 2012, when the data for this report was last gathered. The report goes on to highlight that this situation is particularly prevalent in the southern states, states where there are higher percentages of people of color than the northern states. Greg Foster, a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, speaking to the Washington Post in 2016, suggests that Private schools generally want to serve as many students as possible, but they can only serve those who are able to pay. School choice levels the playing field by helping those with lower incomes have access to the choices that others now have and even take for granted. It is not a scandal that those who are able to access better schools choose to do so; it is a scandal that because of the government school monopoly, only some are able to access better schools.’. The same study highlighted that this situation is more prevalent in the southern states, with the five states with the highest over-representation of white students being in the south. In Mississippi, for example, 87 percent of all private school students were white. But this is not a situation peculiar to the south. As can be seen in the diagram below from the same study, outside of the midwest, the over-representation is in double digit percentage points across the country.

While the data is from a few years ago, anecdotal evidence would support this data today. If the number of white kids in these private schools is so high, it stands to reason that the number of kids of color in those schools is low compared to their relative percentage of the population of school going kids. Even when the kids of color get in, what is their experience in these schools? This brings us to the second issue making the private school experience a treacherous one for families of color. Tokenization.

iv) Tokenization: when integration fails to help the integrated

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her seminal 1977 research paper ‘Some effects of Proportion on Group Life: Skewed Sex ratios and responses to token women’, the relative numbers of socially and culturally different people in a group are critical in shaping interaction dynamics of the group. In other words, the proportion of the different people in a group critically impact the dynamics of that group. In her research, Uniform groups have a typological ration of 100:0. There are very few systems, cultures, institutions that are uniform groups in our society today. Well, maybe paper echelons of the private equity and venture capita industries but that is a story for another day. Skewed groups are those where there is a preponderance of one type over another, where you have a ratio of up to 85:15. Unsurprisingly, if you’ve ever been to high school, the larger group is considered dominant. The less dominant group are considered as tokens, they are representatives of their group and considered as symbols rather than individuals. In cases where the absolute number of the skewed group is particularly small, the token is considered a ’solo’i.e. the only one of their kind present. At the time of the release of this paper, the assessment of the token phenomenon being studied was the experience of women in groups and organizations in which the numerical distributions traditionally favored men. The research went on to show that the women, the tokens, would start to act more like the dominant group in the organization and, in some instances, start to turn against their other ‘tokens’ in order to show and gain the loyalty of the dominants.

Tokens are not merely deviants nor do they defer from other group members along any one dimension. Tokens are identified by characteristics they can not change — age, race, ethnic group etc — and which carry with them perceptions of cultural and behavioral attributes that the dominant group ascribes to them. There are three perceptual phenomena associated with tokens due to their proportional rarity;

  1. visibility: tokens capture a larger awareness share one-by-one than dominants looked at alone. For example, and unfortunately in most organizations today, you notice the female-engineer less the more female-engineers exist in your org.
  2. polarization: the token’s differences are exaggerated.
  3. assimilation: This is where stereotypes are used to confirm the token’s personality, even if this means distorting the characteristics of the token.

To counter the effects of these perceptions, the token will do one of two things i) over perform or ii) become invisible. Based on research [Hennig 1970, chap. 6], the second response, becoming invisible, tends to be more common. The token becomes a symbol that the dominant group uses to assess the group that the token now represents in their minds. For the token, they’ve been thrust into a role that has little to do with their presence in the social setting. My son has been a token in almost every school we’ve put in him since we moved to Texas. He’s had a teacher call him aggressive. He’s had a teacher grab his face and he’s been called loud. He is only 5 years old. These teachers, older women in every single one of these circumstance, felt threatened by the token 5 year old black boy who represented something different from most of the other kids in his class. He looked nothing like the dominant group.

While Kanter’s research focused on women in organizations, she provided examples of these same effects taking place in situations where the tokens where black men in predominantly white offices, male nurses in predominantly female-staffed hospitals and blind people in predominantly sighted groups. A commonality in all these situations was the response of the tokens to the actions of the dominants; over performing or becoming invisible. Both are coping mechanisms that could be attributed to the lessons learned from the accumulation of experiences the token has had over several years. But what if the ‘token’ is a little minority boy or girl who has been deemed gifted and, even though the parents can barely afford it, now has to go to private school? Or what if the kid is one that has gotten the benefit of vouchers to go to a better private school than the neighborhood public school? With no life experiences to inform an adequate response to becoming a token in a private school? A private school where the ‘dominant’ group is ~80% white and wealthy? This is where the parents of that said child get involved. We, the parents of these little kids who become tokens through no fault of theirs, dive in to help our kids swim through the murky waters of the education system.

v) Those Pesky Parents

My wife and I happen to have a few friends with children who end up being tokens in their schools/classes. Most of these friends, the parents, went to Ivy league schools for their undergraduate degrees, got their MBAs from other Ivy league schools, have well paying jobs that far surpass anything their parents made before them. The knowledge of this elevated status, the benefits ofhaving (seemingly) overcome the barriers that were placed before them and a desire to ensure that their children never have to face those same barriers, forces these friends of ours to place their kids in private schools even from the age of 2. With all good intention these friends of ours, like my wife and I, do our very best to get our kids into these schools and pay college rate tuition for a child 2 year old to go play with mind developing toys in a room where they become tokens.

These kids become tokens in schools which, for the most part, are ill-equipped to deal with the three forces of change that Sir Ken Robinson calls out in ‘Out of Our Minds’. According to Sir Robinson, we are witnessing the convergence of 3 social situations

  1. we are in times of technological revolution
  2. we have to think differently about our abilities and using those abilities
  3. we have to run organizations differently from how we have before due to the two prior points, especially our educational organizations. Schools.

The conclusion of Sir Ken Robinson’s book is that what kids will need in the future is creativity. But not just kids, we all need creativity. We intuitively know this. And we also now believe schools cannot help our kids. To counter the combination of barriers and the schools inability to prepare our children for the future, black parents now force themselves onto school boards to influence the changes that are required in these schools. Especially the public schools.

Public schools in predominantly minority areas do not have the same resources that public schools in wealthy white neighborhoods (where property taxes are high) have. Public schools also have less resources than private schools. To increase the standards, minority parents aspire to send their kids to private schools. Where the parents do not have the resources to send their kids to private school, they join school boards in public schools and become pesky parents who infringe on the professional nature of the work that teachers are trained to provide. But this infringement on the professional nature of teaching is not new. Minority parents are just bringing their flavor to a phenomena that came to a head in 2012.

In 2012, the public’s approval rating of public schools fell from 58% in 1973 to 29% in 2012. Some of this loss of confidence has been attributed to Reagan’s ‘ A Nation At Risk’ but I think the lowest level of confidence can actually be attributed to an unassuming guy who made every parent think they could personally teach their kids and provide personalized education through a computer screen. That man was Salman Khan.

vi) How Salman Khan Screwed Over Public Schools

With 3 degrees from MIT and Harvard, Salman Khan stood for everything that every aspirational parent desires for their kid. Salman Khan burst onto the public eye when, in 2012, he was on 60 minutes. “If you put a face there, especially a funny looking face, its hard to focus on the math”. In 2012 Bill Gates had extolled the virtues of Khan Academy while on stage at an event. Sal Khan had started the site by providing algebra lessons to his niece, Nadia, through the internet. He very quickly amassed a following for his videos and millions of dollars in grant money from organizations including the Gates Foundation. By 2015, users had viewed more than 365 million videos and solved over 1.8 billion math problems on Khan Academy. This led to thousands of schools adopting the tool, providing logins and personalized lessons to millions of school children across the US. While the company is a non-profit, it’s used the Silicon Valley approach to scaling a technology company; replace people that to a form of work, educating our kids in this case, with technology. Teachers became assistants to the technology and would jump in to attend to any struggling student. Everyone bought into the ‘innovator from outside the industry bringing the disruption into a staid industry’. But few acknowledged the erosion of trust in the teachers and, consequently, the schools. Along with that erosion was a growing belief by the system that it is technology that will get kids securely educated for the future.

While not the singular reason for the decline in the trust of teachers, Khan Academy was another nail in the coffin of the American public’s perception of public school teachers.The public schools had little choice but to start signing up with Khan Academy. Administrators at these public schools also took the (perceived) necessary steps to evaluate and get rid of ‘bad’ teachers. As much as this was an attempt to improve the schools, it was meant to counter the negative perceptions that the public now had of the public schools. And it went wrong quickly. The assessment of the teachers, which needed to be done en masse, was left once again to technology. Cathy O’Neill shares the story of Sarah Wysocki whom, as described in Weapon’s Of Math Destruction, had no reason to worry about her IMPACT evaluation test scores. Despite the positive reviews from school administrators and the community she was a part of, her test scores as determined by the black box algorithms of IMPACT, were too low for her to keep her job. She scored below the minimum threshold of expected scores and, along with 205 other teachers who had low IMPACT scores, she was out of a job. Thankfully for Sarah, and sadly for the public school system, she got a position in a private school in an affluent district in northern Virginia.

Years after, we now know that period of teacher evaluation and the consequent interventions across the US — especially in California, Arkansas, Florida and Pennsylvania — failed. The RAND corporation, they of the failed New York Fire Department Deployment project, reviewed the Gates Foundation’s $200M donation to an initiative to improve teacher effectiveness and found that it failed. In their report titled ‘The Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching’, it was found that ‘student achievement, access to effective teaching, and dropout rates were not dramatically better’. Similar to the Sarah Wysocki story, the RAND research found that ‘Across the sites for which data were available, about 1 percent of teachers were dismissed for poor performance in 2015–2016. At least in part, sites dismissed few teachers because their evaluation systems identified very few poor performers. The sites struggled to balance reforms aimed at dismissing low-performing teachers with those aimed at improving teacher performance. While all this has been going on, we have had teacher strikes across the country. Teachers claim they are fighting for increased funding for their schools. And all this continues as parents look for ways to ensure the future of their kids.

v) Personalization on steroids

One of the promises of Khan Academy’s technology is the ability to personalize the experience that a student has. The software is adaptive, adjusting to the level of proficiency (specific level of achievement at a specific point in time) and growth (learning over time with emphasis on what the student can demonstrate by the end of the academic year) to provide a clearer picture of the student’s capability. Personalized education. Unfortunately, according to Gene Maeroff in ‘The Classroom of One’ the more a student differs from the traditional norm, or if the student is a token in a dominant environment, the less equipped the schools are to cater to that student’s need and the less responsive the school is to the complaints of the student’s caregivers. And, while Khan Academy’s software enables personalization, in the current setting where the student is being taught to achieve certain proficiency or growth metrics relative to the teachers predefined class objectives, the student’s experience will still be sub-optimal. Even with the best technology. With advancements in technology areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI, the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence), the technology is getting better.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises the ability to personalize a students education at a level that makes Khan Academy’s software from 2012 look like the kid was learning and working with an abacus. Artificial Intelligence is programming a computer to perform a task that is only possible with human intelligence due to its complexity. There are two types; Narrow (weak or domain specific) and general (strong). It’s in the technology we use every single day; the recommendations for ‘products you might like’ from Amazon, the predictive search questions as you type in Google etc. AI is entering a more competent phase of intelligence, using neural networks, with software that can be trained to generate outputs that did not exist before now. A good example is the creation of new images from training neural networks on tens of thousands of images. Or AI generated art sold at auction houses like Sotheby’s.

Bringing AI into the classroom will amplify personalized learning at a scale that we haven’t had up until this point. I know nothing about Khan Academy’s software but, considering the company’s Silicon Valley leanings, I can imagine they are utilizing AI as I type/you read this. Where the issues will lie is that at what point will the AI start to amplify the subjective treatment that the tokenscurrently receive? All technology is subjective, it takes on the biases of the creator, and at some point, a neural network that expects tokens to exhibit learning deficiencies will start to see patterns where there are none. Just like the neural networks in the images above created images that were nothing related to the training data it received, birds and insects from images of leaves, neural networks to personalize the education of a child will get it wrong.

In our bid to free up teacher time and increase their ability to serve kids better,without making it prohibitively expensive in these public schools, we will end up handing over more of the work to these technologies. This will not end well.

vi) When The Tokens Have No Real Choice

This increasing use of technology to augment or scale the ability of the teacher will only truly take in public schools. Public schools that are starved for money, firing staff using algorithmically defined metrics and using assessment tests provided by some of the same technology companies. Those same companies will turn around and provide the technology to save the kids. This cycle will only happen in public schools because the children of the founders of these technology companies themselves go to schools, $28000/year private schools, where technology isn’t used for instruction. With a student:teacher ratio of 12:1 it is not hard to see how there is no need for scale approaches to learning in the private schools as required in the public schools. It’s the perfect manifestation of the masses will be attended by machines and the rich will be attended to by people.

vii) Does it all matter anyway?

Ask any immigrant to the United States whether they would take their kids to school in their home country or in the US and the unanimous response would be to keep their kids in the US. The so-called ‘failing public school system’ in the US is light years ahead in terms of the infrastructure and the capabilities that they have in serving the kids that walk through the halls of those schools. Those immigrants would laugh at the complaints of US parents who now scream about the seeming slide towards disaster. The ‘Nation at Risk’ report that came out in 1983 documented in sad detail how US students, when compared to children from other parts of the world, did not place first or second on a series of nineteen tests. Follow on studies in 1998, 2006 and similar studies in 2003 and 2007 confirmed that US students continue to perform poorly. What these studies failed to realize is that, those of us who were the kids being compared to the US kids, would have traded the US education system at the drop of a hat. We weren’t actually learning, we were being taught to take tests. The US educational system, in response to those scores, over-indexed towards forcing kids to learn how to take tests. The result is the system we have now. What no one failed to acknowledge is that those same kids who were failing at tests (Generation X?), and are now employed across the top industries or launching their own companies, have accounted for the second highest level of growth the US economy has ever seen. It seems it doesn’t take test taking ability to success in this world. It takes a mindset of always learning and improving. Who knew!

In private school, The token child, my son for the short 3 years he’s been in some school of some sort, struggles due to being forced into a role a child is emotionally unprepared for. In public school the technology rules, at significant personal risk to the child, despite the subjective nature of the technology and the pressures being put on teachers. In either of these two instances the parent/child expend energy on things that aren’t directly related to the actual education the child is supposed to be receiving. It’s the classic case of being caught between a rock, emotional damage from tokenization, and a hard place, emotional damage from being an element in a system run by technology. What’s a parent of a token, read minority, child to do?

At the end of that Atlanta episode, as Van and Earn walk to their car, talking about their daughter, Van shares a though that every parent has about their child ‘I always knew she was gifted’. Earn, suffering from the burden of being a gifted child who, for some reason we are yet to be told, dropped out of Princeton shares the reality ‘every parent thinks that about their child’. The shame is that, for the minority child in an education system that isn’t set up to help them succeed, being gifted doesn’t really matter. Beating the odds is the only real option.

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Michael Berhane, Founder of POCIT
Seyi Fabode
Seyi Fabode

Strategy @AshaLabs, Writer @HarperJacobs. Check out my book "40 Semi-Obvious Startup Lessons".

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