The XX Factor

Can Khan Academy Repair the Summer Slide?

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

For us, school starts exactly two weeks from today, and in the interest of getting everyone back on the horse, we’ve re-instituted sort-of-nightly quiet reading (lost over multiple vacations). Last night at dinner, I flipped over my rising fifth-grader’s placemat and wrote three simple division problems on the back of it in the pencil they’d given us to order our sushi.

Sam looked at them blankly. “I don’t remember how to do this,” he said, and I started trying to talk him through while wiping up another child’s spilled water. “Well, how many times does two go into nineteen?” “Um…” We were just getting into what to do with the “one” left as a remainder after resolving that first question (I’d asked him to divide 192 by 2) when, to his relief, the dumplings and soup appeared. I started to tell him we’d go over it at home, and then I remembered: I’ve got access to a much better division teacher than me. We all do.

Wired’s article on “How Khan Academy is Changing the Rules of Education” features a fifth-grader who’s “completed 642 inverse trigonometry problems at,” but all I want is for my fifth-grader to re-learn the division (and probably the long multiplication) he’s so clearly lost via the infamous summer slide, and Khan Academy is there for that, too. I cued up the necessary video and founder Salman Khan’s voice, but not his face, filled the screen as his hand worked problems across a chalkboard. Khan is featured in Slate’s “Top Right” series on leaders in technology (read a Q&A with him here). A former boss described Khan as a “natural” teacher and Bill Gates calls him “amazing.”

Sam was not mesmerized, but he did pick it back up much more quickly than he would have with me at the pencil’s helm. (I apparently do division backwards compared to what teachers want today, and I “show my work” all wrong.) For good measure, I pulled up “Basic Addition” and “Basic Subtraction” for two of my other kids as well. (I put the fourth child in front of “Basic Addition,” too, just to see if Khan’s magic would hold. She watched avidly for seven minutes and then was presented with the first question: What’s seven plus two?” “Sixteen?”)

I had a little school envy. If my kids went to a school like the one profiled in the magazine piece, they’d be using Khan Academy for everything math related, watching the videos at home and then working problems at school under the oversight of their teacher—a flipping of the usual “learn at school, practice at home” process that some say allows students to do the hardest part of the process with more help available than they’ll find at their kitchen counter. One of my kids—maybe two—would thrive in that environment. But the others would not. And that’s the problem with nearly every grand “solution to the problem of education.” There is no single solution. Khan Academy belongs exactly where it is—an excellent tool in a teacher’s arsenal (and the place I’ll go when, in a few years, I need to re-learn inverse trigonometry). I don’t need a whole school devoted to testing its across-the-board prowess. I’ll settle for seeing how well it serves to make up for a summer when the only division anyone did involved blueberry pie.