How Khan Academy, the popular free tool for students, wants to play a more official role in America’s classrooms

When teachers in Compton Unified School District first started using Khan Academy, they deployed the online learning tool on their own — allowing students to use its tutorial videos to review concepts and practice key skills.

But that started to change two years ago, when district officials saw Khan Academy had launched a partnership with Long Beach Unified, a neighboring school district. Greg Puccia, a Compton schools official who oversees curriculum, called up Khan Academy to see if his district could strike a similar deal.

“It was definitely a little neighborly competition to say ‘Hey, if Long Beach is doing this, why isn’t Khan over here working with us, too?’” Puccia said. 

Last year, Khan Academy trained more than 200 Compton teachers to use its tutorials in their classrooms. This year, the district is also using Khan Academy to help high schoolers study for the SAT. And Compton officials are paying to use a dashboard that shows teachers and administrators how students are doing in their online lessons. Now that the district is a paying customer, Compton teachers with tech support questions get to jump to the front of Khan’s queue.

That partnership, which will cost Compton $44,000 this year, is an example of the growing role Khan Academy wants to play inside America’s classrooms. While the organization says it charged Chicago schools for one-off training sessions in the past, it is now formally selling its services to districts, putting it in direct competition with other education technology vendors — though there is little concrete evidence of Khan Academy’s ability to help students academically. 

The organization is banking that its nonprofit status and its familiarity to students and teachers, will serve as selling points.  

“I do think being not-for-profit increases the trust level that folks can have with us,” CEO and founder Sal Khan said. “If we really want to reach all of the students, especially the ones that might be most in need, we really have to triple down on our work with classrooms and districts.”

This fall, some 218,000 students in seven school districts will be using the new paid-for offerings, which include teacher trainings, data dashboards, and a tool announced earlier this year that helps students prepare for the NWEA’s MAP Growth test, Khan Academy says. In addition to Long Beach and Compton, those districts include the Glendale, Pajaro Valley, and Madera school districts in California, as well as Clark County schools in Nevada and Seminole County schools in Florida. The idea is to help teachers see what skills students have mastered and provide them with targeted practice questions to help students improve. “Videos are a small part of this,” Khan said in an email.

Districts like Compton that are using the dashboard and training pay $10 per student, while districts like Madera that are using all three pay $12.50 per student. Khan says those fees won’t cover the full cost of creating and running them, so the rest will be covered by philanthropy. (Though Khan Academy is a nonprofit, it’s allowed to take in more than it spends. In 2017, for example, it had a $15 million surplus. Last year and this year, Khan says, the organization ran a deficit, and will likely do so in 2020.)

Rich Halverson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of education leadership and policy analysis, has watched Khan Academy grow since Khan launched it in 2008 as as way to tutor his cousins in math. To be successful in this latest endeavor, he said, the organization will have to prove that its tools are truly valuable for schools.

“If teachers think that ‘Wow, I can really see how this whole group of students is struggling with this whole group of concepts,’ as a result of looking at this dashboard, then that’s clearly a win,” Halverson said. “But if the dashboards do not provide a lot of insights for teachers, then it doesn’t matter how much credibility that the Khan group has.”

Khan Academy already offers free data dashboards to teachers. But the paid tool allows school district officials to see how students in multiple classrooms are doing in specific subject areas, like algebra or English.

After starting a partnership in 2017, Long Beach now uses Khan Academy in many grades and subjects. This year, it is paying Khan Academy to set up accounts for all students from sixth to 12th grade, and teachers are using its free videos in several Advanced Placement courses and in the district’s core math and science classes. 

Khan Academy and Long Beach officials both say they’ve seen promising academic results. But there is not yet any rigorous research to back up those claims.

On Friday, Khan released a two-page brief on 89 Long Beach teachers who volunteered to use its videos in their classrooms during the 2017-18 school year and receive training. It says students who used Khan Academy’s tools for more than 30 minutes a week scored higher on the state math test than Long Beach students who didn’t use it at all. But the research can only say those were correlated — it’s unclear whether Khan Academy was truly behind those benefits. The brief also lacked information about its methodology; Khan Academy said more details would be released later this year.

“Future studies with a more rigorous research design may be able to provide better insight,” it says. 

Something similar happened in 2017 when the College Board released data showing that students who spent time practicing for the SAT with Khan Academy saw score gains that showed up across student groups. It couldn’t be determined whether Khan Academy caused those increases, though, just that the two were correlated.

The most comprehensive study on Khan Academy, released in 2014, looked at how Khan Academy was used over two years in 20 schools. In surveys, most teachers said they believed Khan Academy made a positive impact on students’ learning and their understanding of material, especially in math. And about one third of students said they liked math more after using Khan Academy. 

Again, higher math achievement for some students on California’s state test correlated with higher student usage of Khan Academy, but did “not constitute definitive evidence with respect to Khan Academy impacts,” the study said. The Khan Academy tools also changed over the course of the study, and not all teachers used them in the same way.

Daniel Kelly, an assistant professor of instructional technology in Texas Tech University’s College of Education, says though Khan Academy has been around for 14 years, the research on its use in classrooms is limited. Kelly put together a review of research on Khan Academy three years ago, and says not much has changed since then.

“There hasn’t been a lot of either transparency or research into what the outcomes [or] gains have been,” Kelly said. “The fact that information is not out there is concerning, especially now we’re going to pay for it.”

That hasn’t stopped districts like Compton from hoping that the expanded use of Khan Academy will translate to academic gains. This year, 2,500 sophomores and juniors in the district will use Khan Academy for PSAT and SAT prep during the school day. Officials hope it will make up for the fact that many of their students, nearly all of whom come from low-income families, can’t afford private tutors.  

“We live pretty close to some very affluent neighborhoods … where the families really have the resources for these kids to take SAT prep classes at about $800 to $1,000 per class,” Puccia said. “And our students just don’t have those.”

This story has been updated to include additional information about Khan Academy’s finances. An earlier version of this story said that Khan Academy’s new dashboard allows district officials to see how students of different racial and ethnic groups are performing; it does not.