Think improving education means shoveling more money into the existing public school system?

Perhaps you ought to read the nine-page Forbes magazine cover story on Khan Academy, the creation of 36-year-old innovator Salman Khan.

According to a report from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, global spending on education is $3.9 trillion, or 5.6% of planetary GDP. America spends the most–about $1.3 trillion a year–yet the U.S. ranks 25th out of the 34 OECD countries in mathematics, 17th in science and 14th in reading. And, as in so many other areas of American life, those averages obscure a deeper divide: The U.S. is the only developed country to have high proportions of both top and bottom performers. About a fifth of American 15-year-olds do not have basic competence in science; 23% can’t use math in daily life.

It’s those latter statistics that motivate Khan. The site covers a staggering array of topics–from basic arithmetic and algebra to the electoral college and the French Revolution. The videos are quirky affairs where you never see the instructor (usually Salman Khan himself, who personally has created nearly 3,000 of them). Instead, students are confronted with a blank digital blackboard, which, over the course of a ten-minute lesson narrated in Khan’s soothing baritone, is gradually filled up with neon-colored scrawls illustrating key concepts. The intended effect is working through homework at the kitchen table with your favorite uncle looking over your shoulder.

Or make that the planet’s favorite uncle. Over the past two years Khan Academy videos have been viewed more than 200 million times. The site is used by 6 million unique students each month (about 45 million total over the last 12 months), who have collectively solved more than 750 million problems (about 2 million a day), and the material, which is provided at no cost, is (formally or informally) part of the curriculum in 20,000 classrooms around the world. Volunteers have translated Khan’s videos into 24 different languages, including Urdu, Swahili and Chinese.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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