Everyone wants to hangout with Sal Khan. The popular founder of the innovative Khan Academy is a good person to rub elbows with — even if you’re the Obama administration’s top education official.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fielded Khan’s questions about the future of U.S. education in a Google Hangout on Friday. Khan crowdsourced inspiration for his questions, often referring to comments made on Facebook and Twitter.

Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, has been widely praised for his free educational site which he started in 2006. Integrating technology in the classroom was one of Khan’s top questions for Duncan.

“Technology can help to strengthen teaching,” Duncan told Khan. 

“Technology is never going to replace great teachers.”

“Technology is never going to replace great teachers.”


The timing of the hangout coincided with President Obama’s two-day bus tour, during which he’s outlining his “Better Bargain for Students” education agenda. The president’s plan includes keeping down the price of higher education by creating a rating system for colleges and universities that measures value, weighing the school’s cost against graduation rates and the amount of graduates who go on to well-paying jobs.

“College costs are just crushing folks,” Duncan said. “At a time when going to college has never been more important, unfortunately, it has never been more expensive.”

Under the proposed system, institutions that rank highly would be favored when allocating federal grants and loans. Duncan called it a system that “makes more sense” in the hangout with Khan, citing a need to protect the country’s $150 billion yearly investment in higher education.

In addition, Duncan stressed the need to prepare students to compete in an increasingly demanding global job market.

“A high school diploma is no longer enough,” Duncan said. “We want to lead the world in college graduation rates.”

Khan mostly took a backseat and asked questions, letting Duncan move through talking points throughout the nearly 40-minute conversation. In addition to higher learning, the two also discussed early childhood through high school education.

On the front end, Duncan said the administration would like to invest heavily, citing a seven-to-one return on investment for money put into early childhood education. To do this, he said state governments need to prioritize education.

“The investments we make reflect our values,” Duncan said. “I would argue in tough economic times, education is not something you cut back on, you actually double-down your investment.”

When it comes to high school, both agreed that the current model is outdated. As Khan put it, “Kids get promoted because they were in a chair for four years.” Duncan called it a “19th century model” and “neanderthal.” Instead, they suggested a competency-based model for promotion through grades rather than one that is time-based.

In terms of content and standards, Duncan suggested adding subjects such as computer science, foreign language and financial literacy to the core curriculum. He adamantly defended the Common Core standards as a way for the U.S. to remain competitive globally and ensure requirements don’t get dumbed down “to make politicians look good.”

“Literally for the first time in our country’s history, a child in Massachusetts or a child in Maryland or a child in Mississippi, they’re going to be held to the same high standards,” Duncan said.

Watch the video above for more on Khan’s and Duncan’s thoughts on current state of education.