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Sal Khan on changing the trajectory and outcomes for struggling learners

Some students have messy lives -- and the messiness hurts their learning. Khan Academy founder and CEO Sal Khan offers three ways to help them find success.

6 min read


Sal Khan on changing the trajectory and outcomes for struggling learners

Sal Khan (Credit: Khan Academy)

Ray* is a 20-year-old college student and father of two. He had a busy spring. He transferred schools — he’s a scholarship athlete — and his second son was born in May. His days have been a blur of bottles, diapers, transfer paperwork, and texts and phone calls from coaches.

Ray is excited to play at a new school but he’s nervous about the academics. School has always been tough for him. Taking notes. Focusing. Preparing for tests. All of it is difficult. He never learned how to be a student. Add to that challenges in his home life — poverty, absent parents, two young children, battles with anxiety — and it’s no wonder he feels overwhelmed about school.

Ray’s situation is not unique. Students from low-income backgrounds frequently struggle in school, write William Parrett and Kathleen Budge of Boise State University. The conditions of poverty — unstable housing, food insecurity, poor medical care — affect their mental health, physical and cognitive development, and motivation. These students also tend to have less access to high-quality learning resources and begin school at a deficit, in terms of language and literacy development, in comparison to their more affluent peers. When you look at all these factors combined, it’s easy to see why students in poverty yield poor learning outcomes.

Ray wants better for himself and for his children. He just has no idea how to get there. The same is true for other students in similar circumstances. It’s not simply a matter of willpower or discipline. 

I discussed this issue and Ray’s situation recently with Khan Academy founder and CEO Sal Khan. Here are three ways he says we can better support these young people and help them change their academic trajectory.

Let them reach mastery

When students haven’t grasped a concept or have forgotten something they previously learned, give them the opportunity to work at it until they reach mastery.

“I actually think it’s more of a deficit to tell someone, ‘You’re a C student; too bad.’” Khan says. He’d rather hear teachers say, “Yeah, you have a gap. Let’s keep working on the gap until you can really master that concept, because I believe you should master all your concepts.”

Khan gives the example of college students taking math courses. Seventy percent of students entering community college have to take remedial math, he says. “And this math is not 11th- or 12th- grade math. Remedial math is essentially sixth- or seventh-grade math,” Khan explains. “College algebra is really Algebra One/Algebra Two. That’s one — if not the biggest — gating factor for most students.”

The problem, he asserts, is that students following the math track – taking pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and algebra 2 — are routinely promoted year over year, even when their learning is deficient. Too often, Khan says, the level of deficiency isn’t uncovered until students reach college and take the math assessment.

“All of a sudden, they get to community college and a community college says — based on this very simple assessment – ‘You’re not ready to learn algebra yet,’” he explains.

Khan suggests letting students complete college algebra while they are in high school.

“Let’s just focus on that as the end point,” he says. And if students have trouble mastering concepts, provide a way to let them work on those gaps.

“Don’t say ‘They’re dumb.’ Don’t say, ‘You’re not capable,’” he says. “Because if [they] can graduate where [they] really know algebra at a college level then [their] pathway to success is way better.”

Put resources in a familiar place: the classroom

In the early days of Khan Academy, students came on their own to find the help they needed. A 2012 survey by the organization revealed that for 65% of first-generation college students, Khan Academy was their go-to for tutoring help and rigorous coursework that their schools didn’t offer.

Students like Ray don’t always take this approach. They know they need help but don’t know where or how to find it. Khan suggests putting resources in a place familiar to these students.

“One of the most popular ways of reaching them is in the classroom,” he says. “That’s where they are. In the classroom they have other supports — they have the teacher, they have fellow students.”

And that’s where Khan Academy wants to be. In 2019, the organization launched Khan Academy Districts, designed to provide Khan Academy resources to all classrooms throughout a district. More than 100 school districts are now using the platform, which includes tools, training and analytics.

Khan also launched, offering free, live group tutoring, last year. These services aim to help students like Ray understand what they need and find the resources that can help.

“How do we reach the Rays who didn’t come to us on their own? Many of them are but how do we reach the ones that aren’t so that earlier on — before they have a chance to drop out or before they have a chance to graduate from high school — they’re able to learn that there are resources for them,” says Khan.

Nurture learner autonomy

Online schooling proved difficult for many students but others thrived and saw big gains in performance. Khan attributes these wins to students taking agency over their learning.

“I’ve talked to some charter schools. They’re realizing that we were underestimating a lot of our kids’ capabilities to have ownership,” he says. “We were essentially letting those skills atrophy because we were spoon-feeding them everything.”

Success for students like Ray starts with helping them develop a mindset of learner autonomy. “Part of [a student’s] education is ‘Do you know how to learn?’ Especially in high school, we give students too little agency,” Khan says. 

Khan Academy wants to train students to assert ownership for their learning.

“Once the teachers have pulled the kids into the Khan Academy platform, the Khan Academy platform needs to do what it can to make those kids into self-learners,” Khan says. “Because they’re gonna hit a context like Ray [has], where now their high-school teachers aren’t there anymore. You’re in a college environment, you’ve got life happening.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. Reach her at [email protected].

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