I recently spoke at the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) conference in Columbia, SC, charged with the daunting task of speaking on the conference theme, "The Role of Technology in Public Education," while using technology to argue that education needs to heed strong cautions about the lure of technology.
At one of the keynote talks, another speaker ended his presentation by highlighting what he feels is the next wave of educational innovation—Khan Academy.
Just a couple days later, Khan popped up again on a segment of 60 Minutes.
At this intersection of technology, education, and media, I have to note that Sal Khan and his new wave of video-based education has something striking in common with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, Bill Gates as education entrepreneur, and Michelle Rhee as draconian education administrator.
The Cult of Personality v. Expertise
First, let's consider how Duncan, Gates, Rhee, and Khan attained their status as educators, educational leaders, and educational reformers.
Secretary of Education Duncan walked the path of appointment to his status in education.
Peter Smagorinsky puts it best:
"Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective."
How about Bill Gates
? This one is easy, to become an education expert or education reformer, Gates amassed billions of dollars, which apparently equates with expertise in any field he so chooses.
And Michelle Rhee? Bypass the education establishment by not receiving any degrees in education, become a leader by entering the classroom through TFA, teach three years, and then attain your credibility by firing teachers and creating an education system built on fraudulent test data.
This brings us back to Sal Khan—whose wikipedia page identifies him as an "American educator."
Pretty impressive considering he, like Rhee, Duncan, and Gates, has no degrees in education, and like Duncan and Gates, has no experience teaching.
Sal Khan got tired of his day job, started tutoring his relatives, made some videos, and now is a full-fledged educator. And according to CBS, he may be the future of education.
Ironically, Khan and his academy do offer us a powerful lesson about education and education reform, a lesson repeated by Duncan, Gates, and Rhee:
The cult of personality can garner you public fame and accolades as an educator and reformer, but that notoriety is all glitz, ultimately causing more harm than good.
Let me return to my recent talk at CEFPI. Throughout the day, I noticed that speakers and participants at this conference—primarily architects, technology experts, engineers, and administrators—argued for the use of technology to support individualized, student-centered instruction as well as project-based learning.
Two things are interesting about this pattern.
The participants and speakers appeared to believe that those ideas (individualized, student-centered instruction and project-based learning) were innovative, personified by the "new wave" ideas of Khan. (I am always fascinated that people who have no background or experience in education can trust that ideas generated outside of education have somehow never been considered by educators.)
During the final panel presentation at the conference, I noted two things for the participants and speakers.
First, I clarified that teachers have never made policy decisions for education in the U.S. If education has failed, as most people claim, that failure isn't the result of decisions made by educators.
Second, I informed them that individualized, student-centered learning and project-based learning were championed by John Dewey a century ago and popularized by William Heard Kilpatrick in the 1930s.
Khan, I added, is not being innovative, if, in fact, his video-based learning is advocating what they claim. But beyond that, Khan has no expertise as an educator.
Khan has been a stellar student (if we can trust wikipedia), but that doesn't make someone an educator any more than being a stellar athlete assures that person can coach. Or that being a frequent flyer qualifies a person to pilot a plane.
Khan's plan for education fails also on many other levels:
• Prepackaging content insures a static approach to knowledge and understanding. This is the essential failure of the "banking concept" of education denounced by Paulo Freire.
• Focusing on content leaves the student out of any decision making concern what should be learned and why. Teaching is reduced to a service industry and students are, then, just passive and thoughtless customers.
• Video lectures are essentially little different than a textbook, and thus carry the same traditional limitations textbooks do.
• More and more genuine experts who are examining Khan's videos are exposing that the content is often of a low quality; the videos may be engaging, but accuracy is being sacrificed.
In the big picture, Khan, again, is showing what is essentially wrong with U.S. public education and the perennial move to reform it: We are trapped in the cult of personality and ignoring the enormous wealth of expertise that exists in the classrooms of K-12 school and universities across the U.S.
The cult of personality is a self-serving dynamic. In the current personality-based education reform movement, Duncan, Gates, Rhee, and Khan are all feeding their own aggrandizement.
Theirs is not about democracy or student autonomy or teacher professionalism.
With the death of U.S. public education, the cult of personality is also sacrificing expertise.
Teachers as professionals, teachers as experts are enduring. Expertise deserves our attention.