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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS

Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education

Aired January 7, 2012 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to a GPS special: RESTORING THE AMERICAN DREAM: FIXING EDUCATION.

I'm Fareed Zakaria.

When we talk about what America needs to do to compete in today's world, everyone agrees that at the heart of the matter is education. If our own workers are not skilled, trained and smart enough, we will decline as a country.

In addition, democracy depends on an educated citizenry.

So how are we doing? Let's take a rough look. One hundred representative American kids entering high school. What does fate have in store for them? Twenty-five out of that 100 won't graduate from high school. A total of 50 won't go to college. That's half the class that won't go on to higher education. Fifty will attend college, but only 22 will graduate within six years.

Meanwhile, other countries are outsmarting us. On a recent international test, U.S. students ranked only 15th in the world in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math. Overall, the World Economic Forum ranks the quality of our education at 26th.

What's odd is that we've been outspending most developed countries by a long shot. In 2007, we spent over $10,000 per student versus the $7400 average for rich countries.

How can we spend so much money and have so little to show for it?

We'll ask that question and others to some of the leading figures in American education here on this special essay and in a "TIME" essay. We'll examine the role of teachers, testing and technology. And we'll ask the man who spent billions of dollars trying to fix education about how he's spending his money. Microsoft founder and philanthropist, Bill Gates.

But first, there are two nations whose students consistently rank on top of the world. South Korea and Finland. What is their secret? We'll take you there and show you how they get their impressive results with completely opposite approaches. Let's get started.

Welcome to Seoul, South Korea. Capital city of one of the world's fastest growing economies. There are many reasons to be impressed with this ancient tiger that rose from the ashes of the civil war. But South Korea's crown jewel is its education system. Thanks to a militant drive for success, this nation's students have outperformed the rest of the world for the better part of a decade. On the most recent PISA exam, the benchmark international test, South Korea ranked first in reading and second in math among all nations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAKARIA: President Obama has noticed, singing Korea's praises on a regular basis. On a visit to Seoul in 2009 he asked South Korean President Lee Myung-bak what his biggest challenge was in education. The president's reply? Korean parents care too much about their children's success.

We visited the Cho family on a typical day for their son, Sung-do. He gets up every day at 6:00 a.m. Jumps rope as the sun comes up. Then eats a massive breakfast his mother has prepared. She says a healthy meal helps his concentration.

Song Do's studies are especially important this year, because next November he'll take an all-important college entrance exam. It's the ultimate test in a particularly test-driven education system.

SUNG-DO CHO, SOUTH KOREAN STUDENT: Since the family is really expecting a lot from me and supporting me a lot, I think I have to return their favor.

ZAKARIA: Sung-do goes to school from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on most days, much longer hours than most American stints. There are about 205 school days in South Korea's calendar, 25 more than the typical U.S. schedule.

Over the course of their academic careers, South Korean children will spend almost two more years in the classroom than their American counterparts.

After classes let up, Sung-do studies for hours in a school cubicle and takes his dinner in a school cafeteria. Then he'll sometimes go to a late-night cram school known in Korea as a hagwon. Hagwons are nocturnal schools for kids offering classes in science, math or any other subject that's covered on the big college exam.

After-school instruction is very popular here, enrolling three- quarters of the nation's students. The average Korean family spends roughly 20 percent of their income on private tutoring. Back home, Sung-do usually continues his studies well after midnight.

CHO: It's true that study hours is horrible. But I believe that I might enjoy the pain that I cannot avoid. So I'm now trying my best to enjoy this environment and this age.

ZAKARIA: The Korean education system is at the heart of an extraordinary economic success story. Thirty years ago, the nation's per capita income was less than $1700. Today, it's almost $24,000.

But many here think that the pain students endure is not worth the price of admission to the world's elite. Suicides among school-age children are abnormally high, doubling in 2009 compared to 2003. President Lee Myung-bak has made easing academic pressure one of his top priorities, pledging to reduce study loads and create a more engaging curriculum for students.

AHN BYONG MAN, FORMER MINISTER OF EDUCATION: The process is so painful. They don't know how to enjoy learning.

ZAKARIA: Ahn Byong Man is a former minister of education and now advises the president. As minister, he changed the college admissions process so there would be less emphasis on the entrance exam. He also targeted the late-night cram schools, which were known to drill students past midnight.

There is now a 10:00 p.m. curfew for the schools. South Korea's very own law to prevent students from studying too hard. Citizens can actually report misbehaving cram schools to the government for a cash reward. The tipsters have become known as the hatparazzi.

We followed a team one of cram school inspectors one night as they made their rounds in Seoul's Gagnon district. There's a hagwon in this neighborhood on almost every corner. The team looked for any suspiciously lit schools where students might be receiving an illicit algebra lesson.

One school was opened. And the inspectors issued a penalty. They've exposed 75 schools this year alone.

Ahn Byong Man hopes that South Korea can eventually reach a happy medium between its infectious enthusiasm for education and its students well-being.

AHN: We should try to make students be happy to learn. That's very important to me. So that's what I hope for the future of Korea.

ZAKARIA: Coming up, is there a kinder, gentler way for students to make the grade? We'll visit a country where students spend far less time in the classroom than South Korea, yet enjoy remarkable results.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: South Korea's students spend way more time in the classroom than Americans. That might explain why they've been outperforming us lately by leaps and bounds. But there's another country where students spend less time in class than the South Koreans, and their performance is also off the charts. Finland.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA (voice-over): On the surface, Finland is the education world's ultimate slacker. Children don't start school here until they're 7 years old. They have far less homework than many countries. And they log fewer hours in the classroom than most developed countries, even the United States.

But don't be fooled. Finish students score first in the world in science and second in the world in math.

PASI SAHLBERG, FINNISH EDUCATION EXPERT: That's the kind of amazing thing that we are able to achieve higher internationally in these academic areas that (INAUDIBLE) with a very little work and a very short school days.

ZAKARIA: Pasi Sahlberg is a leading figure in Finland's education field and works with its Ministry of Education. In his recent book "Finnish Lessons," he says Finland is less concerned about the amount of time students spend in class than with how that time is spent.

SAHLBERG: If we could calculate how much time young people engage in real learning, I think Finnish young people are probably at the same level where your children or Japanese or Koreans are.

ZAKARIA: In Finland's schools, teachers spend less time drilling the facts and more time developing students' creativity. Most importantly, says Sahlberg, hardly any time is spent preparing students for standardized tests.

SAHLBERG: We have deliberately removed all those things. We never had a standardized testing system. And I hope that we never will.

ZAKARIA: But how can Finland afford to be so flexible in its approach and still get great results? The answer is simple. They have great teachers.

Teaching is a highly respected profession here, on par with doctors and lawyers. That's because they're all required to have master's degrees. The competition for those degrees is fierce. Only one in 10 applicants is accepted to primary schoolteacher training programs.

CHRISTY LANKA, PROFESSOR OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI: The elementary teacher program is hardest to get in than the university. It's harder to get in than medical school or law school.

ZAKARIA: Christy Lanka, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki says her school routinely turns away highly qualified candidates.

It's the exact opposite situation in America. Almost half of all U.S. teachers graduate in the bottom third of their college class.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm asking what kind of information we need.

ZAKARIA: Kaisa Hekanan (ph) was one of the lucky ones accepted to the University of Helsinki's Teacher Education Program.

KAISA HEKANAN, TEACHER: From sort of day one, they start making you think about the importance of how you're teaching and what it is that you're trying to get across. It's not just your subject. It's also that you're raising future citizens. When you think about Finland, what comes to mind?

ZAKARIA: In addition to managing her course load, she practices her craft at a local school under the watchful eye of an experienced teacher.

HEKANAN: And definitely from the start, there's -- they put you on the spot. And you have to start kind of performing as a teacher.

ZAKARIA: South Korea and other high performing nations are known for their well-trained educators, too. But in Finland, teachers are given far more autonomy.

There is a national curriculum here, but it's just a framework, serving as a guide for each school instead of a top down edict. And because teachers don't have standardized tests to worry about, they can teach their students however they want.

LANKA: It's like in a company. You have a strategy of the company, but you are not watching each employee all the time. So it's very autonomous profession.

SAHLBERG: But this autonomy and handing over the responsibility of many things to schools would not have been possible if we hadn't had this academic program for training teachers. So without good teachers you cannot really do this.

ZAKARIA: With all of that responsibility and the respect that comes with it, Finnish educators tend to stay in their profession. Compared to the U.S. where the turnover among teachers is roughly seven times higher.

But let's get real for a moment. What can America learn from a tiny ethnically homogenous country that's home to just over five million people?

Sahlberg agrees that size does matter. But he points out that over 30 American states are similar to Finland in population.

SAHLBERG: Colorado or Maryland, or Minnesota or Massachusetts. Very close to what Finland could be.

ZAKARIA: But an American classroom is likely to be far more diverse, featuring many different languages and ethnic origins and have a great deal more poverty. Only 4 percent of Finnish children are poor, while in the U.S. the rate is over 20 percent.

SAHLBERG: I've been in these classrooms in the United States. And when I would see these huge diversities and poverty, you know, I'm helpless.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Can an education system overcome poverty? And can the U.S. create an army of great teachers like in Finland?

Next, we'll talk to the man who's spending billions of dollars to answer those questions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: As students around the world overtake the United States, no one outside government is more concerned or spending more money to fix education than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In total, it's bankrolled $5 billion worth of initiatives for students and schools.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA (voice-over): I visited Bill Gates at his foundation's new headquarters in Seattle to talk about his latest plans.

(On camera): If you were the secretary of education, well, I'd say you are even more powerful than the secretary of education. Suppose you could change something about the structure of American education, the system, what would it be?

BILL GATES, CO-CHAIR, BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION: If I was in charge of a school district, it'd be about hiring the best teachers. And how do you get them to learn from each other and how do you make sure you're bringing the really good ones in? So the basic research about great teaching, that's now become our biggest investment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's OK. It's good.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): It could be a very smart investment. One study says that if students had a top teacher for four years straight, the achievement gap between blacks and whites would disappear.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Page 68. And if you have your notes --

ZAKARIA: The Gates Foundation has launched a massive effort to figure out how America can foster great teaching. Collecting data from thousands of educators and even videotaping their lessons.

(On camera): What do you think makes a good teacher?

GATES: Clearly, there's something about engaging the student. As I've watched the videos of the great teachers, they are constantly looking out and seeing if the kids are starting to fidget. They're bringing up the energy level. They're calling on this kid. They're using examples.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What were you all thinking when they're hanging the --

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But Gates's research is not only about identifying great teachers. His team is also figuring out how to grade the teachers, just like they grade their students.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not saying that you need to use semicolons all the time again. Just like the dot --

ZAKARIA: They're looking at different ways to reward and motivate good teachers, like adding to their paychecks, based on a principal's evaluation or their students' performance.

GATES: Why is teaching can be better 10 years now, 20 years now that it is today? Well, partly because we're going to have these feedback mechanisms. Now the way you weight the different elements, how much tasks weigh into that, how strong the other elements are, that's what we're investing in.

ZAKARIA: And that's where things can get controversial. Because when it comes to education policy, the politics are nasty.

CROWD: No more cuts.

ZAKARIA: In recent years, an all-out brawl between school districts and teachers unions has dominated the education debate. Critics of the unions say they're more concerned about preserving their members' jobs than educating children. The unions say that the administrators' reforms aren't doing any good.

At the center of the storm has been Michelle Reed, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public school system, one of the nation's worst performing school districts at the time she took over.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In 2007 the education world went into a frenzy over the possibility that Michelle Rhee could actually turn around the school district.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAKARIA: Featured in the lightning rod documentary "Waiting for Superman," Rhee turned the school system upside down, firing dozens of teachers and closing 27 schools.

(Voice-over): You -- very famously clashed with the unions while you were in office. Do you think still in retrospect and looking forward, are teachers unions a fundamental problem to educational reform?

MICHELLE RHEE, FORMER CHANCELLOR, DC PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Well, I think that teachers unions, and -- but more specifically the contracts, the collective bargaining agreements that dictate a lot of the policies in school districts are extraordinarily problematic.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: One of the policies that Rhee has been fighting has to do with seniority. When schools cut their budgets, newer teachers are often laid off before the more experienced teachers regardless of their performance. It's the so-called last-in, first-out policy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RHEE: This is a policy that makes absolutely no sense for children. Because what it results in is, one, you end up firing some of your best teachers. Two, you end up disproportionately negatively impacting the lowest performing schools in the system because they are the ones that have the largest number of new teachers. And, three, you actually end up having to lay off or fire more teachers because the junior teachers are -- are the lowest paid.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): After she left D.C., Rhee started her own organization, Students First, to push her agenda all over the country. She's lobbied state governments to pass laws, reforming teacher tenure, and paying teachers according to their performance. Merit pay.

(On camera): People look at one of your proposals, merit pay.

RHEE: Mm-hmm.

ZAKARIA: And say the whole rationale behind this is wrong. You're looking at teachers who have gone into this profession for reasons that don't have to do about maximizing money.

RHEE: Right, right.

ZAKARIA: And you're trying to influence them by offering them a little bit more money or a little bit less money.

RHEE: Mm-hmm.

ZAKARIA: Is it really going to work?

RHEE: The merit pay proposal that we put in place in Washington, D.C., allowed the most highly effective teachers who were teaching in the lowest performing schools to make twice as much money as they were in the old system. So when you're talking about the potential of doubling someone's salary, that's not a little bit of money.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: What the Gates Foundation is trying to do is to come up with the perfect combination of carrots and sticks to improve teacher performance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The Hillsborough County, Florida, school district, covering the Tampa area, got a $100 million Gates grant to be one of the foundation's new guinea pigs. After some tough negotiating, here's the system that the union and administrators came up with.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's continue as we normally do, OK?

ZAKARIA: New teachers are given lots of training and on on-call professional mentor so they have a real chance to succeed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's what I want to do.

ZAKARIA: All teachers are graded in three different ways. Evaluations by a peer up to six times a year, observations by the school principal up to four times a year, and a complex formula that measures their students' performance.

Under the old evaluation system, a whopping 99 percent of teachers were given a satisfactory rating or better. But not anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am not going to receive the same kind of performance appraisal. I'm no longer going to get one that says I'm perfect. I'm going to get one that actually is representative of how well I'm doing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How might that help in future lessons?

ZAKARIA: The ratings will determine pay levels for new teachers and for veterans who opt in and could lead to firings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And learning was enhanced because of the communication with the students?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

ZAKARIA: But it looks like the teachers, for the most part, are onboard. Eighty percent of them said the feedback improved their craft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can sit down and have a conversation with that person and say, look, give me some feedback. Give me something that I've never got before.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: But not everyone agrees with the Foundation's $100 million experiment. When we come back, we'll hear from one of the Gates's harshest critics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE RAVITCH, RESEARCH PROFESSOR OF EDUCATION, NYU: He's listening to economists who think that the way to evaluate teachers is by their students' test scores. I think this is profoundly wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon with a look at your headlines right now.

Greece's political leaders are expected to name a new prime minister as soon as tomorrow. The current prime minister, George Papandreou, has agreed to step down but there is a catch. The Greek government must accept the European bailout plan hammered out recently with other countries in the euro zone.

Another chartered flight headed to Cuba from the U.S. is scheduled to take off today. Delta partnered with Miami base travel agent Marazul after the Obama administration relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba in 2009. The flights got started just last month. In Saudi Arabia the annual Hajj pilgrimage is under way. This is the first one since the so-called Arab Spring brought about sweeping political changes across the Middle East. Millions of Muslims have come to the Saudi city of Mecca for the five-day religious gathering. Every faithful Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.

Those are your headlines this hour. Now back to "CNN PRESENTS, a Fareed Zakaria education special.

ZAKARIA: Bill Gates has given billions of dollars to help fix education. Performers like him have put enormous energy into the school reform movement. But their ideas do have critics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAVITCH: The Gates Foundation has extraordinary power so that Bill Gates decides on a policy, people start lining up and saying, we'll do it.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): NYU professor Diane Ravitch issues a harsh critique of Gates and other reformers in her latest book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

RAVITCH: He's listening to economists who think that the way to evaluate teachers is by their students' test scores. I think this is profoundly wrong. What he'll discover is that many teachers will be fired. Test scores may go up, but students won't be better educated.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We're going to send more money, more resources.

ZAKARIA: Ravitch used to be a big fan of testing, supporting the "No Child Left Behind" measure passed by President Bush which made testing the law of the land.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you look at the latest international test scores --

ZAKARIA: But after a decade of tests, Ravitch has changed her tune.

RAVITCH: I thought, I'm wrong. And that shocked a lot of people.

ZAKARIA: Ravitch notes that their importance has led test obsessed school districts to cut programs like the arts that actually foster real creativity.

RAVITCH: Now I've seen many articles about how a child wants to somehow break free of the lockstep approach to standardized instruction and standardized testing. We, on the other hand, seem to be rushing towards the model that they are trying to shake free of.

ZAKARIA (on camera): I've heard people say, you know, the American system needs to be one which encourages people to be curious, adventurous, taking risks, not this sort of Asian style system where everyone is -- you know, hurtling towards a test. And they will often cite you as an example. They'll say, well, look, Bill Gates dropped out of college, spent hours and hours in computer labs just dreaming up stuff. This was not working methodically towards a test.

What do you say to that?

GATES: Well, certainly if my example is meaningful, it's just one data point. Being good at math and having that knowledge was critical to my being able to understand computers, to write code. And yes, I memorized the tables and how things work.

ZAKARIA: Do you think that the kind of tests that so much of education reform uses as a metric is a good measurer of intelligence or achievement or future success?

GATES: We're not an organization that says that testing data alone is what is the measure of teaching excellence. What we need is a broad set of measures where your peer teachers, the feedback from students, evaluation of your video, of your classroom activities, all these things need to be brought together to build a personnel system.

ZAKARIA: If the remedies aren't greater accountability and more emphasis on merit for good teachers and dismissal for bad teachers and tests, what should we do?

RAVITCH: Well, the biggest problem we have in American education is the fact that so many children live in desperate poverty. More than 20 percent of our children live in poverty. And the best way to improve academic performance would be to address both the social problems as well as the school problems.

I would love to see Bill Gates pour millions and millions into coming up with the very best way to improve early childhood education. These would be immense social contributions.

GATES: If there was a magic thing you could do to improve the inner city, you know, I'm all for any ideas there. I think improving the schools, having them be as good as the really good charter schools like the KIPP and others, that is to me the most transformative thing. Because the KIPP school is running on the same dollars per student per year as the drop-out factory that's five blocks away.

ZAKARIA: KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge is Power Program, is a group of public schools that are allowed to operate independently of the normal school system. Most of KIPP's students qualify for public assistance. Yet more than 95 percent of its middle-schoolers have graduated from high school. More than 85 percent of KIPP alumni have gone to college.

GATES: Those charters are fantastic. I mean, they -- whenever you get discouraged that somehow this can't be done, you know, the kids have had a tough experience, go to a KIPP middle school, you know, see those fifth graders, see those eighth graders and see what a transformation it is.

ZAKARIA: Long hours, a long school year and a demanding personnel system for teachers are the hallmarks of the best charter schools, says Gates. But he says the key to their success goes beyond organizational nuts and bolts.

GATES: They are really focused on the kids' values, what counts, how the kid thinks of their future. That is where they really get the win. And then the idea of, OK, let's learn addition and multiplication, let's not disrupt the classroom. That follows from creating that really good environment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: But while charter schools like KIPP have extraordinary results, they've been the exception, not the rule. A study of half the nation's charters found that only one in five tested better than a typical public school, and almost two in five performed worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAVITCH: We're offering a false promise that simply by creating -- turning public schools over to private management that the results will be better. They're not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAKARIA: The debate over charter schools, teachers, and testing in America goes on. But, meanwhile, there are even more radical innovators at work far from the educational bureaucracy.

Next, we'll talk to an outlier who stumbled into a way to revolutionize teaching.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: We've circled the globe to learn lessons on education from other countries and sought answers from advocates for change here at home. But there are some who say that incremental reform of the current education system would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. They argue for a complete overhaul of the education system.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIR KEN ROBINSON, AUTHOR, "THE ELEMENT": Most of the time kids spend their days at school doing low-grade clerical work. And human intelligence is much more exciting and diverse than that.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Sir Ken Robinson is a professor emeritus at the University of Warrick and the author of several books on creativity.

ROBINSON: You have three children, yes?

ZAKARIA (on camera): Mm-hmm.

ROBINSON: Well, I'll make you a bet and I'm confident I'll win it. Though I haven't met them. My bet is that they're completely different from each other. Aren't they?

ZAKARIA: Yes. You win. (LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Exactly. You know the basic truth of the matter is that all children are different just in the way that all adults are different. Human ability and aptitude and passions are tremendously diverse.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Despite that basic truth, America's education system approaches children as if they're all the same. It was originally designed to meet the needs of industrialism in the 19th century. And it hasn't really changed.

If you think about it, our schools literally resemble factories. Right down to the ringing bells that mark the beginning of every class.

ROBINSON: We educate children by age all the time. We have separate subject departments and divisions. All of these things are really organizational features which are in the interest of efficiency. They're not much to do with learning.

ZAKARIA (on camera): Describe the school of the future, if you could build it.

ROBINSON: I believe that the future lies in personalizing education and in customizing it.

GATES: One-on-one teaching is kind of the ideal that you'd like to achieve. Where you see where they're confused. You see where they're bored. I also get to take kids around to neat places, you know, my son and I have been to particle colliders and computer museums and all sorts of unusual things that are kind of stimulating.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Not everyone has guided tours of particle colliders with Bill Gates, but a young Silicon Valley tech guru is trying to give kids a customized education using technology.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What I want to do in this video is try to figure out what X is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAKARIA: Meet Sal Kahn. He's the accidental creator of Khan Academy. A not-for-profit Web site that's turning heads.

SAL KHAN, FOUNDER, KHAN ACADEMY: We want to figure out what BDC is.

ZAKARIA: Seven years ago he was working at an investment firm when he began tutoring his little cousin in math. When scheduling time got difficult a friend of Khan's made a suggestion.

KHAN: You said, well, why don't you just put your -- put your lectures on YouTube. And I said no, YouTube's for dogs on skateboards, it's not for serious mathematics.

ZAKARIA: Five years later Khan has produced almost 3,000 videos that have been viewed over 80 million times. Bill Gates is a big fan and donated seed money. The videos cover every level of math.

KHAN: You only have a hypotenuse when you have a right triangle. It is the side opposite the right angle and it is the longest side of a right triangle.

ZAKARIA: Plus many other topics.

KHAN: And that's really just saying, hey, we've had enough of you, Great Britain. We are now --

ZAKARIA: They're conversational and fun, but still very thorough.

KHAN: If this does not blow your mind, then you have no emotion.

I'm sometimes a little bit eccentric in the videos. And I think, you know, students enjoy that. They're like, this guy's -- you know, kind of -- he's himself.

ZAKARIA: The problem with our approach to math education, says Khan, is that students carry on gaps in their knowledge throughout their math careers. Making it hard to get the more advanced concepts.

The key to overcoming that problem is to let students learn at their own pace. Khan Academy offers students a quiz after each video, and they can't pass a level until they get 10 out of 10 questions right.

KHAN: Let everyone learn at their own pace. Only move on to a concept once they've gotten to a certain level of proficiency or certain level of mastery on a base concept so that their took kit is really strong for that more advanced thing.

ZAKARIA: But if we let students learn at their own pace, what does that do to the traditional classroom model? It's turned upside down. Which is exactly what we need to do.

Last fall, Los Altos, California, agreed to use Khan Academy in five classrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Show me what that looks like as a number.

ZAKARIA: Kami Thordarson allowed her students to experiment with the program to see what it could offer.

KAMI THORDARSON, TEACHER, LOS ALTOS, CALIFORNIA: We saw kids exploring areas that we didn't know they could. I mean, it was -- it was surprising to them and to us that the levels that they were reaching and it was fascinating just to watch them be free, to have that freedom to explore on their own.

ZAKARIA: One crucial discovery Thordarson made was that it made a lot of sense for students to watch the videos at home.

THORDARSON: Victory.

ZAKARIA: It is the reverse of the current system where students spend valuable class time simply getting the basic information from the teacher. Copying notes.

KHAN: Now they're able to do the problems, which are really the most important part of the learning process, they're able to do the problems with other people around them. With the teacher around them. With their peers around them. They can actually tutor each other.

ZAKARIA: When her students get stuck, Thordarson tells them to right their name on the board. Another student soon comes to the rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Add this to it.

ZAKARIA: The classroom buzzes with little tutors who are learning themselves through the act of teaching. And if a particularly gifted student gets bored, she can race ahead and try calculus if she wants.

THORDARSON: If you look at people who work in a workplace and are creative and are engineers, I mean, they don't sit all the time at their desk and just work by themselves. They meet and they talk and they bounce ideas off each other. And we need to develop that skill in our students because it's such an important skill for where they're headed in the future.

ZAKARIA: What's more, Thordarson's students can't goof off because she has the ultimate tool to keep tabs on them. Khan Academy's intricately detailed tracking software. She can check how many units each student has passed.

KHAN: Nineteen total minutes spent on videos.

ZAKARIA: How many times he's watched a video.

KHAN: Each bar here is a different student --

ZAKARIA: And even how long he's been watching, down to the minute. All of the information can be seen in real time on Thordarson's iPad.

THORDARSON: Being able to walk around and just pull that instant data up on a child and be able to sit down and say, oh, I just saw you were struggling with this particular problem, it's fabulous.

ZAKARIA: Khan Academy shows real promise. But countless past attempts to bring technology into the classroom have fallen flat. A landmark study by the Department of Education found that nine out of 10 math software products had no significant effects on test scores. Only a handful of Khan classes have been tested. But so far they've earned high marks.

KHAN: Traditionally people said, that technology is cool. Let's use it by hook or by crook, just because it's cool. We're saying, we want to enable a certain way of learning. We want to enable people to learn at their own pace. We want to empower the teacher so that they have all of this class time freed up. And then we say, how do we do that? Really, I think it's a matter of major shift and mindset on what a classroom is.

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ZAKARIA: Coming up, I'll give you my own conclusions based on this fascinating reporting on education around the world and what we need to do at home.

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ZAKARIA: We've traveled across the globe. We've listened to the experts. So what should we do about American education?

Here are my thoughts.

First, let's face up to the fact that we have a deep problem. The data is clear. The unemployment rate for college graduates today is just 4 percent. For high school dropouts, it is 14 percent.

Part of the reason we're in this crisis is that we have slacked off and allowed our education system to get rigid and sclerotic. But part of it is that other countries have focused intensely on education in recent decades. The result? We have a population of adults now that face real competition in a global economy.

As Bill Gross, the head of the world's largest bond firm, PIMCO, puts it, American workers are too expensive and to poorly educated to compete globally.

There are two variables here. Our education level, which is too low, and our wages, which are too high. Either we raise education or markets will lower our wages.

It's already happening. Our decline in education achievements over the last 20 years has been accompanied by a stagnation in wages for the median American worker.

Now, if we can raise our education levels, the payoff is huge.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When Jonas walks into the (INAUDIBLE), what does he see?

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ZAKARIA: The global consulting firm McKenzie estimates that if the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better performing nations like Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher. This represents a 9 to 16 percent jump in GDP.

So how do we get there?

Some elements of the solution seem obvious. The writer Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at anything. It's really just another way of making Thomas Edison's famous point that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Now if our kids spent two years less in school than in many other countries, they will find themselves behind in many areas. We don't have to go to the lengths that South Korea has gone to lengthen the school day and the school year, but we can't do the least work and hope for the best results.

Whether you look at South Korea or Finland, getting great teachers is obviously at the heart of good education.

We had great teachers until the mid 1970s. The most talented, hard working and ambitious women in America could only go into a few professions. And teaching was top among them. The good news is that women can now succeed in any profession. The bad news is the quality of America's teachers has declined.

We can see what works by looking at America's best performing schools, private or public. They have great teachers, high standards and customized teaching. And while we spend much of the education budget badly, good teachers and good schools cost money. So cutting education budgets now will not improve quality. We need to reallocate the money, spend it better and get better results.

Finally, though, let's try to do all these reforms, keeping in mind the genius of American education.

I went through the Asian educational system that is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to America for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The way that Carver develops the characters --

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ZAKARIA: American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, question authority, think for yourself and be creative. It teaches you to learn what you love and to love learning.

These are incredibly important values, and they are why America has been able to maintain an edge in creative industries, entrepreneurship and innovation. We need to know the basics, but we also need to be encouraged to think.

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KHAN: We know the triangle HGI is an equilateral triangle.

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ZAKARIA: That's why I'm so taken with what Sal Khan is doing with California schools. It is classic American innovation. Thinking outside the box. Upending the old system applied to education. We might well look back on this trend as the beginning of a whole new way of teaching math, and maybe everything. Technology is allowing us to make education more customized, personal and interactive.

I'm optimistic about America's educational future. We now have a national sense of urgency, we have so many people inside and outside the system working to change it. We have new ideas and new models.

In retrospect, this might be seen as the time that America started fixing its education crisis for real.

Thanks for watching this special, RESTORING THE AMERICAN DREAM: FIXING EDUCATION. You can read more of my thoughts in a "TIME" essay.

Join me for my regular program, "GPS," Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.