Sal Khan Finds a Partner

At the intersection of personalized learning and assessment, Chris Minnich and Sal Khan are creating a new platform for teachers. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Their missions are similar: to help teachers integrate personalized learning and assessment to accelerate student learning.

Thus, Khan Academy and assessment provider NWEA have partnered and co-created MAP Accelerator, a classroom tool design to help teachers integrate personalized learning and assessment to accelerate student learning.

Powered by Khan Academy, the new platform helps teachers quickly and easily deliver personalized learning pathways to each student based on MAP Growth results.

Chris Minnich joined NWEA as CEO in January 2018. He’s held key leadership roles in the education industry throughout his career. Most recently, Chris served as the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, where he led the organization to ensure all students in the public education system—regardless of background—graduated prepared for college, career, and life. Chris holds a BS in political science from the University of Washington and a master of public policy (MPP) from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Sal Khan is the Founder and CEO of Khan Academy, and started Khan Academy in 2005 to help his cousins (and soon other people’s cousins). In addition to setting the vision and direction for Khan Academy, he still makes a lot of videos (although he’s not the only one anymore). Sal holds three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard.

In the fall of the current school year (2019-2020), four school districts began piloting MAP Accelerator — allowing for 150,000 students to use the platform. Pilot sites include Clark County (NV), Madera Unified School District (CA), Pajaro Valley Unified School District (CA), and Glendale Unified School District (CA).

For more about why the two nonprofits came together and how the new platform will actually help empower teachers to differentiate instruction for each student, Chris and Sal answer up here in full—and then some.

Among other things, they discuss: the partnership, the backstory, developing the platform, their goals, the right approach in helping teachers, the ‘trend’ of mastery-based learning, two words that make Sal bristle when he hears them, and the future of learning.

Can you tell me about what inspired the partnership between NWEA and Khan Academy?

Sal: Well, in recent years, we’ve had mounting evidence that if students are able to put in at least 30 minutes per week of personalized mastery learning, they grow a good bit more than expected. Depending on the study, we’ve seen 10% to 30% more than expected. That’s powerful because we’ve always been about mastery learning – students should be able to learn at their own time and pace, fill in gaps as necessary and make sure that they’re able to have really strong foundations before they move on.

But for most classrooms, moving to a mastery learning model is difficult. I give talks to a lot of teachers and intellectually they agree with it, but then in practice it’s hard. How does it work with a grading system? How does it work with the traditional curriculum? But when we saw this is doable with at least 30 minutes per week, which is essentially one class period a week, that was an aha moment. This feels like something that classrooms could adopt.

“We’ve always been about mastery learning – students should be able to learn at their own time and pace, fill in gaps as necessary and make sure that they’re able to have really strong foundations before they move on.”

So we started talking to large school districts, especially large urban districts. We said, “We think we have a model that could really work for some of your biggest needs.” Those needs are essentially: How do you ensure that all of your kids have strong foundations and are able to stay in their zone of proximal development and maximize their growth? And the districts immediately told us a few things. They said, “We agree with you. This is the way to serve all students, but especially the ones who are most underserved. But in order to do this well and to reach all of these students, we have to think about how does this integrate with what we’re doing around assessments?”

Many superintendents and chief academic officers and teachers and principals told us it would be amazing if Khan Academy partnered with the NWEA MAP Growth assessment. That is how they already measure growth. That is the gold standard. If the MAP Growth assessment could inform what students should do on Khan Academy, then the district, the school and the teacher can see how that work on Khan Academy is impacting growth as measured by MAP Growth. Then it becomes a really, really powerful vision.

And so I got introduced to Chris. He had been on the job at NWEA about five or six months. It was literally four minutes into the conversation he was like, “Well, this makes all the sense because all the districts we’re serving, they’re looking for actionable things to do with this really powerful data they’re getting from the MAP Growth assessment.” So that was the genesis of this partnership.

And I’ve got to say two organizations don’t always work well together. But NWEA and Khan Academy are both not-for-profit organizations and both spiritually aligned. Our teams have been very functional in their ability to work together, and the organizations have also been very complimentary. NWEA has a large footprint in terms of schools they serve, teachers they serve, and teachers that they’re able to support. We obviously have a large footprint in terms of teachers and students who are using us in a grassroots way, and a very significant product capability and content capability. It’s been a powerful partnership.

What is MAP Accelerator? How will it be used?

Chris: Developed jointly by NWEA and Khan Academy, MAP Accelerator is a new, online classroom tool designed to help school districts deeply integrate personalized learning and assessment to accelerate student success. Leveraging scores from our MAP Growth assessment, the solution immediately and automatically places students into personalized learning paths in Khan Academy’s mastery learning system. Additionally, by providing actionable data, MAP Accelerator enables teachers to tailor instruction for each and every student as well as helps identify which students need individualized support to help their classes fill gaps and accelerate progress. For students, the tool empowers them to focus on their own individual needs, at their own pace.

Who is using MAP Accelerator so far? How many students do you anticipate will benefit from this new technology? When will it be generally available for classrooms?

Sal: When we started talking about the partnership our goal was, hey, it would be neat if 50,000 students could be in the pilot year for the MAP Accelerator. But because of unusual demand, it ended up being closer to 200,000 students. Clark County in Las Vegas is using it with all of their third through eighth grade students. Other districts are Glendale, Pajaro Valley, and Madera in California, as well as Louisville, Kentucky. We’re talking to many districts going forward. How many students do we anticipate will benefit? At Khan Academy, we have nearly 20 million students every month, but the first-year pilot of MAP Accelerator is over a quarter million students. Next year we expect MAP Accelerator to be used by roughly half a million students. In terms of the number of students who will benefit from this technology over the long term, I hope over the next five to 10 years it’s 10 to 20 million students. I hope it’s as many students as possible.

This is a new tool or approach to teaching by utilizing personalized learning. What support is NWEA/Khan Academy providing to the school districts piloting the program to help them understand the technology?

Sal: Both Khan Academy and NWEA are helping with teacher training. We’re creating district dashboards for pilot districts. As we’re seeing the MAP Growth assessment inform personalized practice on Khan Academy, we’re able to let the teachers, principals, and district officials know how their students are engaged and the level of engagement. As we go to future MAP Growth assessments, we’ll be able to see how Khan Academy drives hopefully better than expected growth as measured by the MAP Growth assessment. We’re really excited. We’re only a few months into this and already it’s been quite compelling for us.

What impact do you anticipate MAP Accelerator to have on classroom instruction and assessment?

Chris: We believe that MAP Accelerator will have a tremendous impact on instruction as it will enable teachers and schools to meet students where they are in the learning journey by eliminating the guesswork and providing insightful and actionable data to facilitate personalized instruction tailored based on each students’ needs.

MAP Accelerator removes the manual work of differentiating instruction and helps teachers quickly and easily deliver personalized learning pathways to each student based on MAP Growth results. The unified platform delivers to teachers individualized learning pathways for each student that shows where a student stands and the plan to move them forward by utilizing Khan Academy content, which includes recommended practice problems, real-time feedback, scaffolded help, instructional videos and articles.

“The unified platform delivers to teachers individualized learning pathways for each student that shows where a student stands and the plan to move them forward…”

We also believe MAP Accelerator will empower students to stay engaged and take more ownership over their learning when they get personalized goals and instant support.

Mastery-based learning is a trend we’re seeing in edtech. Will mastery drive instruction with MAP Accelerator?

Sal: I would call it more than a trend. Benjamin Bloom coined the term back in 1984 with his famous two sigma study. He was able to show if you have a personal tutor operating in a mastery learning framework, you can have two standard deviation improvement. But even if you don’t have a personal tutor and you have a larger student to teacher ratio but you’re able to do mastery learning, you can still get a one standard deviation improvement. There have been similar data points. Over 30 research studies since then that have essentially validated Bloom’s ideas. One could argue that the idea of mastery learning is maybe the oldest way of learning, but Benjamin Bloom put some rigor around it.

I think the reason you’re seeing it as a trend is that it has a solid body of efficacy research behind it and because of technology. Khan Academy can now make it a reality. And it really gels well with assessments that measure growth like the MAP Growth assessment. That’s really what the NWEA is known for.

So yes, mastery will drive instruction with MAP Accelerator. As kids get their personalized courses based on their performance on the MAP Growth assessment, they’ll progress through Khan Academy at their own time and pace and under the guidance of their teacher. They have agency, and teachers have a lot of agency in this process. They have full visibility into what students are doing, they can adjust the recommendations as necessary, and students will always have opportunities to fill in gaps, to improve their knowledge of things they might’ve not fully mastered, and to progress at a pace that makes sense for them.

What makes this partnership unique from an edtech perspective and what potential do you each see for this pilot programming changing how educators approach instruction?

Chris: Khan Academy is a truly innovative organization with a mission very similar to ours. Our partnership helps teachers make better decisions about the next instructional step for every student through a close connection between MAP Growth assessment results and suggested Khan instructional resources. The classroom tool creates a seamless connection between MAP Growth assessment results and instructional resources, removing the time-consuming and manual work of differentiating instruction which helps teachers quickly and easily deliver personalized learning pathways to each student.

Unlike many classroom tools today, MAP Accelerator is teacher-informed and teacher-driven – and teachers can decide exactly how to best use the tool in their classroom. It is this personalized learning that enables students to focus on their own needs, and empowers teachers to support them every step of the way with actionable data.

Now, let’s talk a little bit more about education technology overall. Sal, from your perspective, what are some of the issues and challenges you’re seeing in the space?

Sal: I sometimes bristle when I hear the term education technology, even though I’m often associated with education technology. I think the term puts too much emphasis on technology. I think many technologists often times fall into the trap of trying to do technology for technology’s sake, or saying, “I have a really cool solution, now let me just find a problem that it can solve.” And I think in education, it really shouldn’t be about the technology. It’s got to be what is our pedagogical theory of change? And then, given a pedagogical theory of change, how do we test it, how do we validate it and how do we make it as easy to adopt as possible for teachers and students? And the solutions might have nothing to do with technology. It might be a scheduling issue, it might be something very low tech. Some of it could be technology.

If you say, “Hey, I’ve adopted blended learning.” I’d say, “Well, blended learning to what end?” Or we have more assessment and I would say, “Assessment to what end?” Or we have more Chromebooks in the classroom and I would say, “Chromebooks to what end?” What’s more interesting is to say, “Look, our theory of change is personalized learning because we think the reason why kids are struggling is that they have these debilitating gaps that they’ve accumulated over time.” And I’d say, “That’s exactly what we should be trying to solve, and so what things do we have to put together, not just technology, systemic issues that we have to solve to make this really doable and to really support teachers?”

Are there any future trends you’re seeing?

Sal: I think the future trends are hopefully going to be more in the direction of teacher empowerment, making things easier for teachers to adopt, giving teachers more agency. I think that’s another problem I’ve seen and actually not just edtech, but I would say sometimes in ed reform generally a lot of the solutions are to take agency away from teachers. I think teachers are in the best position to judge what their students need. And so I think we need to give teachers greater information to make those decisions. We have to give them great tools so they don’t have to spend a lot of their time with administrative or technical tasks. At the end of the day, you’ve got to give them agency because they’re going to be the most important piece of all of this.

“I think teachers are in the best position to judge what their students need. And so I think we need to give teachers greater information to make those decisions.”

What trends are you seeing right now around the use of technology in education and assessment?

Chris: The research conducted by our Product Innovation Center – one of our three research centers – provides us with a unique perspective on which new technologies are of interest to schools and districts, how they’re using those technologies, as well as their overall effectiveness. We’re seeing a number of trends around the use of technology in assessment, specifically. We’re seeing technology being used to allow students better access to the content they’ve learned, and overall the technology is being used to help teachers teach, not replace them. One big fallacy in the edtech space is that technology could somehow replace teachers, but it’s just not the case. A great teacher is better than tech every day. Therefore, by using these technologies to provide real utility, teachers will then create more opportunities for their students and ultimately more personalized learning.

What role do you think technology will play in assessment in the future?

Chris: We’ve already seen a move toward faster results in order to help students on the spot. This trend will continue, but they’ll also be a focus on measuring the students as their interacting with their learning. This means having integrated experiences for students, which is what MAP Accelerator does. In the future, it’s possible that the assessing could happen as the students are in their learning. This seems like a much better way to assess than having a separate sit-down assessment.

Anything you’d like to add or emphasize concerning the future of education, the future of learning—or anything else for that matter? 

Chris: One reason for our partnership with the Khan Academy is because much of the future is integrated experiences for our students. Districts are using lots of different products for different reasons. I think the future looks like districts having access to curriculum tools tied to their assessment and school improvement resources. I also believe in the future, we’ll have a much broader definition of what success looks like for a student – thinking about the students’ aspirations and how we might help them get there. I think assessment and then what’s next for a student should create hope and opportunity. There is too much about our current system that holds students back, including our out-of-date assessment systems. Opportunity and options for students furthered by better assessment and learning, that values each student as an individual, will be what we’re trying to build in a new system.

Thank you, Chris. Your thoughts, Sal?

Sal: I gave a commencement address at the USC School of Education last year, and I started off by saying, “If I ever have to pick between an amazing teacher and amazing technology for my own kids or for anyone else’s kids, I would pick the amazing teacher every time.” I think that’s really important for me, Sal Khan, to say because so many people associate me with technology and edtech. It’s very important for all of us to triply underline the importance of teachers – they’re the most important aspect.

The future of learning is not technology for technology’s sake – it’s technology in service to humans. It is technology in service to making class time more human, more interactive, and more sustainable for an enriching and compelling experience for all.”

But the really powerful thing starts to happen if people, like those at Khan Academy, create truly teacher centered and student centered tools to help those amazing teachers be able to serve their students even more, and to do it in a way that’s really healthy and sustainable for the teachers.

So I think the future of learning is not technology for technology’s sake – it’s technology in service to humans. It is technology in service to making class time more human, more interactive, and more sustainable for an enriching and compelling experience for all.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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