Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Today, I welcome Sal Khan back to the show. I met Sal for the first time when he came on this podcast in the spring of 2021. We talked then about Khan Academy and the small experimental school — the Khan Lab School — he’d started. I’m excited to talk today with Sal about his latest ambitious endeavor, the launching of the Khan World School.

KHAN: The young people that we’re starting to see come through the door for the Khan World School — these are going to be the kids who are going to change the world.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

When I launched this podcast, I dreamed that it would lead not just to interesting conversations, but also to collaborations with my guests that might make the world a better place. And it’s actually happening. Because of that initial podcast interview, I, and my team at the University of Chicago, are heavily involved in creating the curriculum for the Khan World School. But the path to collaboration was not always smooth.

LEVITT: Sal, it’s so great to have you back for a second appearance on the show. We’ve done some double episodes where we do one interview and turn into two shows, but you are the first to make a return visit. So, I feel very honored to have you in that spot.

KHAN: I’m honored to be in this spot. Thanks for having me, Steve.

LEVITT: Okay, so when you came on the show the first time, listeners found your message inspirational. We received about 10 times as many listener emails as we usually get. And most of them wanted to know how they could get their kids into the Khan Lab School. And I wasn’t surprised by that, because I also wanted to get my kids into your school, if you remember. And so, just a few days after the episode came out, back in April 2021, I sent you an email outlining an ambitious plan in which we — you and me — could collaborate to expand your Khan Lab School from its current single location to 15 or 20 locations within three or four years. And I even started assembling a team of advisors. But there was only one problem: You never wrote back to that email.

KHAN: I will. Didn’t we follow up a little bit on it? We talked to a couple of the folks who might have been candidates to help lead that effort. Anyway, we’re spiritually aligned!

LEVITT: No, I’m sympathetic. Some time passed, we did indeed talk. And that was seven months later when I found another excuse to write you about something different. And I slipped in, again, this idea of expanding the school. And this time you wrote me back immediately, and we talked for 90 minutes. And you laid out your vision as to how to extend the reach of the Khan Lab School. And it was very different from my initial vision, but you easily convinced me that the way you were thinking about was a great path. And I’m excited to hear you talk today about that vision. And also excited that my little center at the U of C — the RISC center — that we are playing a part in bringing that vision to life.

KHAN: That’s right. And there’s some exciting stuff around — how do we create a platform? Obviously, Khan Academy is a platform, but can you create a platform of, essentially, a world school that then could also be leveraged in person settings, is where we’re going. And yeah, y’all are playing a big role in this.

LEVITT: Okay. So, before we dive into your new school, the Khan World School, I’d like to quickly talk about what you’ve done in the past, because I think it’s relevant to this next endeavor, starting this new school. So, let’s start with Khan Academy. Khan Academy is one of the great successes in modern education without a doubt. Could you just throw out a few key statistics as far as the usage of Khan Academy right now?

KHAN: We have a long way to go, but we already have about 140 million plus registered users. We’re covering all of the core academic material from pre-K through the core of college, trying to do it in a way that’s personalized. And we’re also starting to work on ways for students to get credit for what they know on Khan Academy. We have normally about 30 million learning-minutes are on the platform every day.  During the pandemic, we saw 80 million learning-minutes on the platform every day. So, we’re at a lot of scale, but there’s still a long way to go, if we want to reach the billions that need resources like this.

LEVITT: And we talked on your first visit to the show about how incredibly cost-effective Khan Academy is. If I remember correctly, it costs you about 30 cents per student-hour of learning. And when I did a back of the envelope calculation for the public schools in the U.S, it’s about $15 per student-hour of learning. So, we’re talking about a multiple of 50 times. It’s 50-times cheaper than traditional learning. And I think it’s also a good argument that the kids are learning a lot more in that hour on Khan Academy than they are in the classroom.

KHAN: Yeah, and I don’t want to create competition between Khan Academy and the physical. You do. You do. But the ideal world is you have both, but we just got another series of efficacy studies. There’s been over 50 efficacy studies — Khan Academy’s, I believe, the most studied ed-tech platform ever in human history. And the most recent study showed that students who put even 30 minutes a week — so not a lot — on Khan Academy, they are growing twice as fast as the students who are not. So, it’s not just the cost per unit time that is quite scalable and has a very high social impact, but it’s per-minute spent. So, yeah, we think that the modalities now exist. The ways of delivering it, the accessibility is now there. All of Khan Academy, it’s much more than me, we’re about 200 plus folks around the world. And we’re the budget of a large American high school, and we’re reaching hundreds of millions. And we have aspirations, no reason why we can’t reach billions, and be both a safety-net school system for the world, which we were a bit during the pandemic, and we still are for certain kids who don’t have a lot. But then ideally, we can work with the school system and really supercharge it, allow for more personalization, get that acceleration.

LEVITT: Okay. So, another of your projects is the Khan Lab School, which you started in 2014. And it is a radical rethinking of the standard school experience. Could you remind me of the key pillars that underlie the Khan Lab School?

KHAN: Khan Academy itself really got on people’s radar back in 2010, 2011. We were already scaling to millions of folks. I wrote a book called The One World Schoolhouse in 2012 that, one, talked a little bit of the history of education. Why is the education system look the way it does? The middle third of the book was, how did I fall into this with the Khan Academy journey. And then the last third of the book was really, look, it’s nice — it’s important that Khan Academy’s reaching hundreds of millions — and hopefully billions of people one day. And it’s nice — it’s important if Khan Academy can accelerate outcomes within the existing system. But it feels like there’s an opportunity to completely reimagine the system from first principles. And that was the last third of the book. So, what could a schooling of the future look like? Leveraging tools like Khan Academy, you can have personalization and mastery learning. Personalization just means 30 kids in a classroom — they don’t have to learn at the same pace. We know that when you do that, most kids are either lost or bored. All the students can learn at a pace that’s appropriate to them. Mastery learning means if you have an 80 percent understanding in this topic, it doesn’t mean just put a C in the grade book and move on. It means that you should always have the opportunity and the incentive to go back and fill that in. Even if it’s a year later, even if you took it a little longer to do it, what matters is the competency, not how long you sat in a chair. Other ideas — why do we have summer vacation that comes from us being in agrarian civilization, where even the teachers had to work on the farm? We have things like full-day schooling, homework, and support during homework is a massive source of inequity. In the book I articulated we should just make it a nine to five school day, support working families, and get all the work done during the school day so that kids can go home, rest, relax, have time with their families, et cetera. So, I wrote all these ideas  it’s one thing to write a book, it’s a whole other thing to implement it. At the same time, in 2014, my oldest, who’s now 13, but he was a rising kindergartner. I said, “Look, I can’t preach all of this to the world without” — and I believe in it — “without my own children doing it.” I wanted my own children to experience mastery learning, personalization, have space for their passions, being able to tutor each other. So, we created a lab school, literally under the offices of Khan Academy to embark on this to show that this works. And I’ve always told that team, if this is just another school that really serves its kids, that’s okay, but this is really here to show the world that there’s another way of doing things. And now it’s a K through 12 school. We had our first graduates last year. Second graduates just graduated a couple weeks ago. And I want to be careful, I don’t want to jinx things, but I think we are showing with our graduates that there is a way to have really healthy, really happy students, who are curious, have their passions, but they still mastered their content arguably better than the kids in the pressure cooker prep schools. And they’re getting better college placement than pretty much anybody. I don’t want to brag too much about these kids—

LEVITT: Brag. No, brag. Are you allowed to say where some of the students are going to college? I think you should brag.

KHAN: Oh, yeah. And look, I want to be careful here. It’s not all about where you go to college. I think the important thing is that these kids were super healthy, super happy. And out of the 25 kids who’ve graduated over the last two years, we have three at M.I.T., we have, I believe three at U.C. Berkeley. We’ve had Harvey Mudd. They’re getting into some of the top colleges — and I’m staying with them. So, I’m still in touch with our class and they’re thriving, that’s the more important thing. They’ve gone to these places where they’re in situations with these kids, who’ve been in these pressure-cooker environments, and they’re outperforming them. They’re participating more, they’re healthier, they’re happier, and I think that’s what we all want.

LEVITT: So, let me now play the role of a skeptic. A skeptic would say, give me a school populated by Sal Khan’s kids and the kids of his friends. I could lock them in a room with four white walls and no teachers for 12 years of school and they’d do fine. They have great family structures. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

KHAN: Obviously, if you take a cohort of kids whose families have a high level of education, who understand the system, who are highly invested in their kid’s success, you’re right. That is going to create a lot of positive things for those kids, almost regardless of where they went to school. But even if you were to create a comparison group out here in Silicon Valley, it’s not hard to find neighborhoods in Silicon Valley that I cannot afford, let me just put that, way. And where the great majority of the parents are highly educated. They work for Google, they work for Stanford, whatever it might be. Some of these schools that — actually all of these schools in these areas, have some of the highest suicide rates in the country. I can name them. Palo Alto High School, Gunn High School. Khan Lab School is essentially taking from a very similar demographic. I would say our demographic is actually in many ways more middle class than a lot of these — I can’t afford to live in Palo Alto High School district, just to give you a sense. I’ve gone and spoken in a lot of these high schools and the stress, the mental health issues. And at the same time, the kids actually aren’t getting to mastery. We have some families where their siblings in the same families that some of them went to some of the schools I just mentioned, or some of the super expensive private schools in this area, that charge $50, $60,000 a year. And I’ve had parents come to me and say, “Look, this isn’t a scientific study, but I wish my other child went to this because I just see the stressors — the social stressors that were happening there. The academic stressors, and my child at Khan Lab School’s actually learning more, actually curious. Not just doing this because they feel they have to, they actually love learning and they’re having better outcomes for the stuff that everyone else is stressed about, like test scores, or like, getting into college.”     

LEVITT: I have noticed a real change in my college students. It used to be when I got to the University of Chicago 25 years ago, that at least half of the kids were curious and would come up to me after class and ask me questions about the material and would want to talk about ideas. And now I would say 90 percent of the students, they’re worried about getting an A. They don’t care how or why they get an A, they need to get an A. That’s all that matters. As an educator, I find it incredibly discouraging. And it’s all of the trends you’re talking about. And the idea that we could have a different kind of student, a different kind of child emerge from our K through 12 system, it’s super exciting to me. And now you’ve got Khan World School, which is an extension of that, but not just for a small set of kids who live in the Bay Area, but instead, for anyone in the world. And the Khan World School is opening for business on August 15, 2022, serving 200 lucky ninth graders in its first class. And it’s currently accepting applications through July 15. So, what’s your vision for Khan World School?

KHAN: Yeah. And I give you a little bit of credit for this. As you mentioned in that email, which I didn’t respond to — anyone who’s visited Khan Lab School had the same reaction. How do we scale this? How do we get this to more families around the world? Especially during the pandemic, we realized, look, virtual schooling is a vector for doing it, and potentially virtual schooling in conjunction with place-based experiences. And so, we said, “What if we essentially take what we learned from Khan Lab School and then even innovate on that, and bring it to the whole world?” So, we said, “Let’s do the world’s best high school that happens to be online.” And so, once again, we looked at first principles. Okay, there’s a lot of good ideas that we learned from Khan Lab School: that mastery learning really can work, that having peer-to-peer learning can work. Just laying it in front of kids and letting them set their goals and collaborate and work at their own pace — that really works. But then we also thought about some things that were unique to the online experience. We all learned from the pandemic that you can’t spend five hours on Zoom. That’s mind numbing for people. But you also can’t just do these kind of correspondence courses that have no human connection either. And so, one of the key tenants of the Khan World School is a daily seminar, and this is where y’all are helping us — which is, can we have daily conversations on the topics of the day? Will CRISPR fundamentally change the human genome? If we can, should we? Why is the country so polarized? Is social media to blame? Are there other factors? How should democracy evolve? What are the issues of the day — have conversations about them, so that they aren’t these artificial things that kids don’t care about, but they’re the things that are going to actually make them really knowledgeable about the world, and it’s easy to integrate cross-disciplinary ideas from sociology, from history, from civics, from biology, from chemistry, from statistics, all into something so it actually makes sense.

LEVITT: So, although this is a virtual school, you don’t have very much Zoom-time built into it. Other than the daily seminars, which are one hour a day, kids are mostly independent, right?

KHAN: Well, it’s interesting. I think it’s going to model what a healthy work or collaboration environment’s going to look like. Kids are going to have about two hours of synchronous — call it “video conferencing” — time a day. That’s going to be between the daily seminar. They’re also going to have check-ins with their advisors. They’re going to have their Oxford-style tutorials — it’s a small group that can review their goals in a given domain, get unblocked a little bit. But that’s only about two hours on average a day. And so, the rest of the day, yes, they might be working on their Khan Academy goals. They might be tutoring, they might be writing, they might be coding, but even as they do that, we’re looking at ways, what do we do at work? We’re using Slack. And with Slack, we’re able to talk to each other: “Hey, what’s going on here? Can you help me with this? Can you send me that file?” We want the kids to feel that as well. So, they do have some structure that even when they are asynchronous, even when they’re not on video conference, they still feel like they’re a part of a community. And if they need help, that help is a Slack message away.

LEVITT: So, these ideas sound great, but the logistical challenges of launching an online school are huge. Creating the platform, getting accreditation, developing a curriculum. So, you’re partnering with Arizona State University because of their experience in this domain.

KHAN: For folks in the know, A.S.U. really is one of the most innovative universities out there. They already have a very large scale, very high quality online high school, which primarily caters to students in Arizona, but some students beyond Arizona. It’s an online charter high school. I had written a vision document, which I shared with you many months ago, and just talking to people we could collaborate with, maybe even hire to help run this. And I met, Amy McGrath, who’s the chief operating officer of A.S.U. Prep. And when I talked to Amy, her reaction was like, “Look, I already run a very large online high school, which I think is very good,” and it is very good. “But what you’re describing is what online high schools, and frankly, what all high schools should be.” And by the end of that hour of conversation, we’re like, “Do you want to do this together?” And so, to be able to take their operational know-how, the connection to the university, the possibilities of getting college credit, with the vision we’re bringing to the table, tools like Khan Academy, platforms like that have peer-to-peer support. It really is a marriage made in heaven. We’re super excited about it. And the young people that we’re starting to see come through the door for the Khan World School — these are going to be the kids who are going to change the world. Like, yes, they’re going to have a great high school experience. They’re going to get into amazing colleges. I am going to be one of their teachers. I just made an announcement. We’re going to do a monthly session with me. But most importantly, the reason why I’m going to be so invested in these kids is because I think these kids are going to going save our lives. And I’m serious about that. I’m doing this with the Khan Lab School alum that we have now, and I hope to do this with the Khan World School graduates, which is: they’re not done with us when they go to college. We’re going to stay invested in them so that they are optimally supported to make a dent in the universe.

LEVITT: One thing that I think can’t be overestimated is the power of great peers. I think if you’re telling me these are the kids that are going to change the world, then I would want to send my kid there. I went to a really incredible private school in St. Paul, Minnesota, St. Paul Academy. And it was incredible for me that I was a little bit above average in high school. I was one of the top kids when I went to Harvard, but I was only a little bit above average in high school. And I think that changed everything for me.

KHAN: You know, people say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And I can testify the main benefit of going to a great high school or going to a great university is actually the peer group that you’re with. And hopefully the program and the curriculum only makes that better.

LEVITT: Okay. So, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, I’m trying to imagine I’m a parent listening to this podcast. And I’m pondering whether to enroll my ninth grader in this school. Now. it’s linked to A.S.U., and if I’m dreaming of my child attending an Ivy League-type school, do I need to worry that your partner is Arizona State University? An innovative player, for sure, in the education space, but not necessarily a highly prestigious name.

KHAN: Well, for anyone who has doubts about that. When I was in high school, I did dual enrollment at the University of New Orleans, which was like the local commuter college where I grew up. And when I went to M.I.T., that preparation at University of New Orleans made me way more prepared than the kids who went to the fanciest prep schools in the country. I had a year or two under my belt. It allowed me to triple major at M.I.T. At Khan Lab School, which is out here in Silicon Valley, we have a partnership with Foothill College, which is a community college, and the kids are able to do dual enrollment. And that credit they’re getting — it transfers better than things like I.B. or A.P., because it actually correlates better with success when kids actually get to college. And so, our students — not that the ranking of the university is everything, but our students from Khan Lab School, having spent a lot of time at Foothill College, their admission rates into the M.I.T.’s of the world are an order of magnitude better than the kids at the fanciest prep schools. And I think the kids at Khan World School — obviously I’m not going to make any guarantees — is going to be similar. Because what gets you into college is that you can show that you’re capable of rigorous work, you’ve truly mastered the material, you have authentic passions, and that you have credible people who can vouch for them. And to have me vouch for these students, to have A.S.U. vouch for these students, is going to be huge. Not only do I think these kids are going to have amazing college placement wherever they want to go, but I think they’re going to thrive way better than kids from even some of the most elite prep schools in the country.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Sal Khan. After this short break, Steve will announce a large scholarship he’s financing for the Khan World School.

*          *          *

Morgan LEVEY: Hey, Levitt.

LEVITT: Hey, Morgan, how are you?

LEVEY: Good, thanks. So, since we have Sal Khan back on, I thought it would be a good idea to check back in on some of the other guests that we’ve had on the show. They’re all high achievers and doing interesting things. The most pertinent one is that a week after we published our episode with Asmeret Asefaw Berhe called “Getting Our Hands Dirty,” she was confirmed as the director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, where she’ll head a $7 billion budget. She was nominated by President Biden over a year ago and has finally been confirmed. Took long enough.

LEVITT: So, that’s great news, but I am so annoyed because I really wanted her to talk about that job. And she said, “No, no, no, I can’t talk about the job until I’m confirmed.” But I’m glad she got confirmed. It is crazy that it took a year for it to happen, but I’m really excited to see what kind of changes she’ll bring to that job.

LEVEY: I’m sure it was our PIMA episode that really pushed the confirmation through in the end.

LEVITT: Exactly.

LEVEY: Also, in the news very recently was Sue Bird, the W.N.B.A. star is going to be playing one more season and she’ll be retiring. We interviewed Sue Bird over a year ago, and it’s a great conversation that you two had, and listeners should check it out.

LEVITT: Yeah, I was nervous about that interview because we don’t have much in common, but I still think often about how much I liked her. She has to rank as one of the most likable guests we ever had in this show — and smart, too.

LEVEY: Yeah, absolutely. So, is there anyone else?

LEVITT: Yes, my friend and fellow economist Emily Oster was recently named as one of Time Magazine’s, “100 People Who Matter,” and that’s for her work, both on parenting and her really pathbreaking, controversial work that she’s done around bringing data to Covid and her arguments about keeping schools open. And interestingly, the person who wrote up the blurb about Emily — when you make the Time 100, someone writes a description of why you should have that honor. The writer was Steve Pinker, who was the very first guest that we had on PIMA when we launched it. And I loved the turn of phrase he used in describing Emily. He said, “Emily is a savior for whipsawed mothers,” which is a great description of what she does.

LEVEY: That is great. When you were one of time’s hundred most influential people who wrote the blurb for you?

LEVITT: Well, interestingly, it was Malcolm Gladwell. And that came up back in the David Epstein episode that we did because Malcolm wrote more or less the nicest thing about me that anyone has ever written.

LEVEY: Right. And you do tell that story in the David Epstein episode and listeners should go and check it out if they haven’t heard it already. Last, but certainly not least, your good friend and neighbor Austin Goolsbee has also been in the news recently. He and his son found a trove of Chicago Morel mushrooms in Hyde Park.

LEVITT: And he won a prize for that, right?

LEVEY: Oh, he did. Morel of the Week honors from this writer.

LEVITT: There are no limits to the great achievements that guests of this show can accomplish.

LEVEY: Thanks for listening. If you have a question for us, our email address is That’s Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.

*          *          *

In the second half of this conversation. I want to dig into the part of Khan World School that I’m working on and I’m so excited about. But also, I want to challenge Sal. It’s a big ask of parents to send their child to a new school. What does he say to parents who are interested but nervous about taking the plunge?

LEVITT: Okay, so the part of Khan World School that got me personally most excited was what you’re calling the daily seminar and you’ve talked some about that already. It’s a 15-person, synchronous, hour-long daily discussion of a question that matters. And I’m excited to say that my team at the University of Chicago — my RISC center — is in charge of creating the content for these daily seminars. So, what are some of the topics of these seminars that have gotten you most excited so far?

KHAN: One — just the notion of it, I think is incredibly important. We, as a society have forgotten how to have a good conversation about important things. In the school system, the conversations are usually about things that kids don’t care about or aren’t relevant in the news. And then in the public square, we’ve gotten so polarized. So, many people I know are skeptical of whether we can even have constructive conversations about important things anymore, but this is probably the most important skill. So, you can imagine topics like: is there a changing world order because of what Russia is showing itself to doing right now? Is there alien life? How would we know it? How would we communicate? That covers so many different disciplines. So, questions like that. And bringing in real information, not stuff that’s in a textbook that’s 10 years old, but kids getting primary sources that’s happening as they speak. Things like that are the stuff we should be talking about.

LEVITT: You mentioned the seminar on what I’d call, “Does intelligent life exist elsewhere in the Milky Way?” And that’s one of my favorites too. The inspiration comes out of a guest from the show, Jill Tarter, who’s been searching for intelligent life her entire career. And in particular, it’s focused around what’s called the Drake equation. It’s an accounting equation for trying to figure out how many intelligent societies might be out there. And the focus of this conversation is not pie in the sky, do I think there is intelligent life or not? It’s actually thinking carefully through what are the dimensions by which the number of intelligent societies would be and how do we estimate them using the data that we see. I’ve heard you describe these seminars as being part of the humanities portion of the curriculum at Khan World School. You know me well enough that I’m not going to miss a chance to inject a data analysis component into this. So, every seminar’s pre-reads begins with graphs and figures that capture the important facts and trends surrounding the issue. And each discussion will start with the students interpreting those figures. What do the pictures imply? In what ways might the graphs be misleading? What other facts would be useful that we don’t have. And I suspect our students will get more data science training in the humanities curriculum at Khan World School than most students get in all of their S.T.E.M. classes combined.

KHAN: I 100 percent agree. And it’s an artificial division that exists in the traditional school system. Things like statistics should be brought to bear when you’re talking about social issues, when you’re talking about civics, when you’re talking about the humanities, and the fact that they’re not is a problem. And I talked to the provost of two leading universities, and they both told me that there’s a secular decline in kids’ ability to be critical thinkers. So, many kids show up at campus already anchored in their points of view. They don’t know how to discourse. They don’t know how to look at data to potentially change their mind and that’s a real problem.

LEVITT: The other thing we’ve built into these daily seminars is that we provide source material, reflecting both sides of an argument. For example, on the question of whether A.I. will lead to a massive loss of jobs. There are intelligent people who argue, “Yes, it will.” And there are equally intelligent people who argue, “No, it won’t lead to anything bad.” And this puts students in a difficult, but important, spot. How to make sense of a complex world where reasonable people can and do disagree? We aren’t trying to dictate to students what the right answers are. We’re giving them the chance to decide that for themselves. That’s a rare talent these days.

KHAN: One of the things that gets me so excited about this school and the daily seminar working with y’all is that every one of these topics, I feel a pang of envy that, like, I can’t be in every one of these conversations. I will insert myself into a lot of them. It’s not like this is something that kids need, but it’s going to be like taking medicine for them. It’s stuff that they need and they know they need it and it’s going to be fun and it’s going to engage them in learning across disciplines. Get them out of those silos. Get them out of that, “I need an A,” mentality. We’re not going to have traditional grades here. It’s going to be: have you mastered it or not? If you haven’t mastered it yet, keep working on it. It completely changes how you view yourself, how you view your learning, and then how you apply it either with your passions through entrepreneurship or in things like the daily seminar.

LEVITT: One of the things that my kids were often asked to do in high school was to debate. A question was posed. “Hmm, should Puerto Rico be the 51st state?” And half the kids are assigned, yes. And half the kids are assigned, no. And then they’re supposed to come up with arguments to support these assigned positions, but honestly, that’s always bothered me because I don’t want my kids being good debaters skilled at defending points that they don’t really believe in. Trying to use rhetoric to persuade other people of nonsense. I want my kids to be able to digest the arguments of both sides, accepting that each might have some truth and be able to thoughtfully discuss what kinds of evidence and arguments are truly persuasive. And I think through these daily seminars, after four years of these seminars, which would be about a thousand discussions on real topics. These kids should be incredibly sophisticated thinkers. I, like you, am jealous. If I had been able to do this for high school, I think I would’ve loved it. And I think I would’ve been much better prepared for life.

KHAN: You’ve done pretty well, but yes, I agree. I agree. And we’re creating a series of writing assignments that will also similarly evoke some of these same muscles, but in a written format, but also have peer review. Once again, you’re not just writing things that’s graded by a teacher and then gets thrown away. Peer review, you get to keep improving on it, and then you get to showcase what you know to the world. Make your writing relevant to the world. Put it on a blog. Put it as an op-ed piece. We want all of this to be relevant, not just an exercise in jumping through hoops.

LEVITT: The majority of writing exercises that I’ve seen my kids doing are with respect to some book that they’ve read, but that’s such a small sliver of what actual writing turns out to be. There’s so many different kinds of writing people do: editorial writing, scientific writing. I like the idea that in Khan World School that link can be broken. That writing in all its glory can be attacked instead of — because of the traditional breakdown within school systems, it ends up being, “I’m going to write the 7,000,000th essay about Catcher in the Rye.” The world doesn’t need another essay on Catcher in the Rye. The world needs kids who can, pick a topic they like, and then teach us about it.

KHAN: Yeah. I’ve always wondered why that’s the case. Probably because the system believes that’s how they can evaluate whether someone read Catcher in the Rye. But as we know, that’s not the case either. You could probably go get the Cliff Notes and write even a better essay about Catcher in the Rye than if you were to actually just sit and enjoy the book. That’s what we hope to do is to just break up these things. Like, read and really read for reading’s sake, but have a place maybe where you can talk about it, it could be relevant to your seminar. You’re going to see, “Hey, the more I read, the more that I’m able to really dive in and be a member of this community.” It might be reflected in some of your writing, but it doesn’t have to be. You should write an op-ed in your local paper. You should post a blog. You could answer a Quora post really thoughtfully. Like not only is it legitimate — in some ways, it’s more legitimate than the 9,000,000th essay on the Catcher in the Rye.

LEVITT: So, what does it cost to attend and how can students apply?

KHAN: This is one of the exciting things by working with A.S.U., and especially A.S.U. prep — it’s going to be free to any student in Arizona, Khan Academy’s mission is free world class education for anyone anywhere. And that’s a mission statement where on that path trying to get there. What’s cool is the existence of Khan World School is making it a free world-class education for anyone in Arizona, and then beyond Arizona, it’s going to cost $10,000 a year, which we think compares very well, because some of the online high schools that cater to a similar group of kids who are ambitious, who are looking to go to elite schools, et cetera, they can easily cost anywhere between $15,000 and $26,000 a year and they’re done in frankly, a more traditional way, not having daily seminar, cetera, cetera. So, free to kids in Arizona. We’re going to be exploring, getting more states like that, but kudos to Arizona for us having a statewide charter there. And then we’re going to try to make it as affordable as possible. And I completely see that even $10,000 a year is not a joke for a lot of families. So, we’re going to continue to push the envelope on how we can make it more affordable.

LEVITT: What’s the breakdown of students so far between Arizona, the rest of the U.S., and outside the U.S.A.?

KHAN: So, last I talked to the team was yesterday and it seems like it’s about half and half right now, Arizona and rest of the country. We are starting to see people from the rest of the world. We’re trying to figure out some of the time zone logistics. If someone’s in Asia, do we have another cohort that’s there? We’re probably not going to do that in year one. But we expect a lot more folks to come in from Arizona in the next couple of weeks, because we are just starting to get the word out a little bit better in the state.

LEVITT: Okay, so, I’ve got a lot of young listeners, plenty of rising ninth graders, I hope. And I’ve been inspired by talking to you and I’m doing this off the top of my head, so I may regret it. I actually want to pause for a second to see if it makes any sense — I hope my wife won’t kill me. What if I make a commitment that I will pay the first year’s tuition to the Khan World School for the five ninth graders who write me the most compelling email explaining why they think Khan World School would be a good fit for them. I’ll put in $50,000 of my own money so that these kids can have the experience. Now, they still have to get admitted. I don’t have any control over who gets in and who doesn’t. So, they might write a compelling email to me and they might not get in, but, conditional on getting in, I will make that commitment. But I want to make one thing clear. This is from the ninth grader. I want to support kids who are incredibly excited about this school, not their pushy parents.

KHAN: For folks listening, Steve and I didn’t plan this ahead of time, so that’s incredibly, incredibly generous—

LEVITT: It’s off the top of my head. Talking to you and hearing you say it — it’s just — I mean, you know, in the abstract, I think it’s good, right? My team’s working on it, but when I actually hear you talking about it, I hear you saying that you’re going to teach in it, then it’s just, it gives me goosebumps, and I want it to succeed and I want to be part of the success. I didn’t plan it either. It just jumped in my head.

KHAN: That’s incredibly generous and exciting. And I think if there are eighth graders, rising ninth graders who regularly listen to this podcast, they are perfect for the Khan World School.

LEVITT: Exactly, that was my thought as well

KHAN: And we need to figure out how they can attend. And you being so generous, your family being so generous in this, it could be a game changer for at least those five students. And I think we get the word out and get some incredible kids.

LEVITT: Okay, so, going back to being the skeptical parent amongst all this exuberance that you and I have over the school — let’s be honest, it’s a little bit risky to sign up to this school in its first year. It’s got a radically different, maybe unproven concept. What would you say to parents to try to assuage those doubts?

KHAN: For sure, there is some at least perceived risk, if you’re setting your child to a school that hasn’t existed before. But I think what’s interesting about this is: it is a new school, but it’s a new school being created by a lot of actors with a pretty good track record. When we started Khan Lab School seven years ago, I had already built some notoriety around Khan Academy and I’d written The One World Schoolhouse and I was giving talks all about education and all of that. But even then it was like, well, hey, Sal doesn’t run a school yet. So, I would say those families back in 2014 took a pretty big risk and a lot of trust in me and the founding team to enroll their kids, their most, valuable thing in their lives, in this. And I took that very seriously back in 2014. And I said, “I am invested in these families more so than ever because they took this bet.” And this isn’t just a bet on me, but this is a bet on the future of education. So, I’m going to try to will their children into success. The good thing is I haven’t had to try really too hard because the system has been working and the kids have been amazing. But I am super invested in those kids. And then for the Khan World School, you get all the track record of essentially Khan Lab School. You get the same investment from me and the founding team. And the Khan world, we’re very well networked. And then on top of that, you get the resources of a major research institution, A.S.U., plus, all of their know-how, how to make a really great experience. We’re here to change the world. And so, I’m invested in them. The rest of the team is invested in them. You’re invested in them. And between me, you, and the rest of the team, if we’re watching out for these kids, they’re going to be able to reach their potential.

LEVITT: So, I have to say you’ve got a good thing going at Khan Academy. You’ve got a good thing at Khan Lab School. Is your energy limitless? Do you ever get tired? It seems like you have a lot on your plate.

KHAN: Well, I got to say the times that I’ve gotten most tired or demotivated is when I feel like I am against a wall. I feel like I’m constrained in some way. Like, life is short and there’s so much to do. And if I feel like I’m not able to take on some of these projects, then I feel actually the most demotivated. Projects like Khan World School, I find incredibly energizing for everything I do. Khan Academy, obviously, we’re reaching hundreds of millions of folks, but for me to know that the tool we’re building at Khan Academy that reaches so many can also be a very important core part of what happens at Khan World School for redefining a very high-fidelity school of the future — that gives me more energy. And these are all pieces that are all fitting together. We have that does tutoring through volunteership. The kids who are good tutors are getting — University of Chicago, M.I.T., Case Western, have it on their admissions applications. What’s your tutor profile? What have you certified yourself in? These pieces are all fitting together in a really cool way. I’m not going to do a million things. I’m not going to start a clothing line. I’ve given up my aspirations to be a pop star. So, I am somewhat focused, but any of these things that are related to education, and I would say maybe by extension, people’s happiness or mental health are things that I get energized by being able to put some energy towards. One of the fortunate positions I find myself in, and I think you find yourself in this position too, is once you reach a reasonable level of credibility, there’s a good idea that either you or someone else has, you’re in a position to bring other really thoughtful people to the table. Either in terms of philanthropists, resources, talent to just run it. And when you have access like that, it’s almost wrong not to continue to put the right resources, put the right people together so that good things can happen in the world.

LEVITT: One of the extensions to Khan World School that really get me excited, as it gets to scale, is the idea of a hybrid model where you are delivering this content online, but say, in Chicago or in New York City or in London, there is a physical space that’s not a school, per se — it’s a meeting space, it’s a space for social interactions — that I think could serve the best of both worlds, because there’s no reason for learning to take place inside a classroom, but there is value to having people together. So, is that on the horizon?

KHAN: I hope so. What we hope happens is as Khan World School gets off the ground, that where there’s a critical mass of students in a given geography, I think there will be critical masses in places like Phoenix or Silicon Valley or Chicago or New York — even if it’s five, 10 students — that we can help facilitate the families getting together, getting space. They could even do it in their homes. But so that there’s also a physical experience, physical communities, maybe eventually athletic facilities, et cetera, et cetera, so that you really have the best of both worlds. You have that in person place-based experience, but you also have access to the whole world at your fingertips.

LEVITT: Okay, 10 years from now, what’s your prediction? How many kids are attending Khan World School?

KHAN: Ten years from now, our true North is making sure that the students who attend Khan World School are getting the best possible experience as we scale this. The thing about us doing this as a not-for-profit is our bottom line is how do we maximize impact in the world? We’re not trying to make a buck here. We’re just trying to make sure that these new models that can serve more people, get more people to reach their potential, are available to more people. And the scale might be with Khan World School itself, serving thousands or tens of thousands of students, or it might be happening with the model being transplanted to other places or admissions officers at university saying, “Hey, I really like seeing how good of a tutor these Khan World School kids are. How do I put pressure on other schools to invest in those muscles? I really love how these Khan World School, the daily seminar — these kids come to our campuses and they’re leaders immediately. Maybe other schools around the country can start adopting daily seminar?” So, I hope that all of the above happens as we scale, we’ll see. The No. 1 thing is we want to make sure these kids have an amazing experience.

I talked to my wife and I’m happy to say she’s delighted to have us fund these five scholarships. So, if, you know, a rising ninth grader who might be a good candidate for Khan Word School spread the word. Applying for the scholarships is really simple. You just need to upload a short video. I know I said in the interview that students could send me an email, but we decided a video is best. You can find all the details on the Khan World School website, which is That’s And also, it’s very important to the lawyers that I say this scholarship program is not sponsored by, or affiliated with, the Freakonomics Radio Network, Renbud Radio, or Stitcher In case you missed the announcement last week, I’m moving to Germany for a year and so we are soon going to shift to releasing new episodes every other week for a while. I’m still here in the U.S. for one more week. So, there will be a new episode waiting for you on Friday. But the best way to ensure you won’t miss an episode with our new schedule going forward is to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. As always, thanks for listening.

*          *          *

People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

KHAN: Bless you. I guess you’ve had more best-selling books than I have.

Read full Transcript


  • Sal Khan, founder and C.E.O. of Khan Academy; founder of the Khan Lab School and the Khan World School.



Episode Video