Khan Lab School vs public school

This school year I had the (unwanted) opportunity to see, side by side, how our public schools in Mountain View differ from a private school. I wrote previously about how Khan Lab School (KLS) kicked out my son, as best I can tell because the principal Dominic Liechti disliked me and my husband asking to know how our son was doing. This sounds crazy when I read my words, but I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe it.

With as many months at KLS as at the local public Landels Elementary School, I’m now no longer sure that KLS was a better choice. We had sent our son to KLS believing that it would be a better education for him than our local public school and also wanting to support the development of a project-based and individualized teaching model.

Parental engagement:

KLS provided limited means for parents to engage with their child’s daily routine. In contrast, at Landels my son brings home worksheets every week that allow me to see what he’s doing. This, in turn, allows us to engage in conversations at home that support what he’s learning at school. I don’t read every worksheet; I don’t try to recreate the lessons. But we’ve had many interesting dinner conversations spurred by something my son brought home. I spoke with a retired public school teacher (Mrs. T) recently and she expressed how key parental involvement is in children’s lives. It hit me then how much I’ve learned about parenting and teaching from my children’s day care teachers and school teachers, and their teaching routines. Switching schools mid-year made clear how much I missed that indirect, implicit, effortless learning.


Children learn many things at school, but literacy is the bedrock of most everything else. Math, science, art, music… those are all important. But reading trumps them all in in importance in early elementary school because reading lays the foundation for later learning. This, also, is a realization from that retired public school teacher, Mrs. T.

Within about 6 weeks of switching to Landels, my son got excited about reading. Every week he brought home a book from school, alternately fiction and non-fiction, to read at home. In every book were a few questions for him to answer, fostering reading comprehension. These assignments illustrated to him that reading was something he could do at home by himself, not just in the classroom. He started picking up books on his own and sitting on the couch to consume them. Landels sparked an excitement for books. Landels nailed reading.

I know little what KLS did for reading. I didn’t see much change in his reading ability or passion over his 4 months at KLS.


Writing is the other part of literacy. A co-worker recently commented that if he could go back to his childhood and prompt his childhood self, he would encourage working harder at handwriting. Being unable to write quickly enough and to decrypt his notes later was a hurdle in college.

At Landels my son brings home hand-written worksheets every week. At KLS he had a handwriting workbook, and a lined journal where he worked on longer essay. I haven’t counted words but from what I’ve seen, I would estimate that he gets 10 to 30 times more writing practice at Landels. It’s a shocking difference.


There’s some debate about the value of homework in early schooling. KLS sent home no homework. Landels has weekly homework which takes my son about an hour to complete. So which is better?

I like the homework. An hour a week is not enough to detract from our family dinners and other family quality time. And homework brings good things:

  1. Homework spurs conversations. It helps us support at home what my son is learning at school.
  2. Homework assures me that the school is doing the right things. Part of my job as a parent is to ensure my son is challenged enough but not too much. Homework provides visibility.
  3. Homework teaches my son responsibility. Learning to focus and to take care of our duties is an important skill.
  4. Homework showed my son the joy of reading. The proof is in the pudding!

Art and Music:

If you read the newspaper, you may have read that Common Core sets standards for reading and math but not art nor music nor science, and that public funding primarily supports Common Core goals. That may have scared you. It scared me.

But around here, public schools aren’t fully public. The Mountain View Education Foundation (MVEF) funds weekly music and art classes for all public elementary school students in the school district, lead by teachers from the Community School for Music and Art (CSMA). Each school’s PTA funds additional after-school programs.

At Landels and KLS, my son had art once per week.

There was no music in his KLS schedule, whereas at Landels he has a weekly music class, and I was quite impressed with the variety of music at his 1st grade music concert: American patriotic, Japanese, humorous, an abstract wordless song, and more.


I was surprised by the similarity in how KLS and Landels approach math. At Landels the teacher splits the class into two. Half the kids use Chromebooks to work on math individually using iReady, which the teacher prefers to, while she teaches the other children. And then the groups swap. KLS did something similar, wherein kids spent some time each week using independently, and some time working 1:1 with a teacher.


KLS wholly out-sourced their weekly science class to Quantum Camp. Our son came home with some really imaginative, inspiring projects from this program. I’m less clear on what Landels does for science in 1st grade; it seems that much of it comes in the content of the books selected for the RTI (Response To Instruction) program.

Foreign Language:

KLS offered foreign language instruction to all kids even as young as my 1st grader. Moby really liked his Mandarin teacher at KLS. Public schools start in a later grade.


This is probably the biggest thing that drew me to private school. Surely, with 24 students per public school teacher, and about 8 students per KLS teacher (which seems to be a typical private school ratio around here), private school has an edge, I thought!

I’ve realized two “buts” since:

  1. Teacher quality is huge. I’m amazed at the ease with which my son’s public school teachers manage their classrooms. They keep 24 kindergarteners or 1st graders active and engaged, something I doubt I could pull off, but they do. I recently learned that about half of KLS teachers have no prior teaching experience; compared to only 4% of Landels teachers with 3 years or less. Imagine being a new teacher at a school where half your peers are just as new AND are trying to invent a new curriculum!
  2. Public school are individualizing education, too! Call me naïve, but somehow I hadn’t realized how much the experienced educators in my public schools are evaluating new trends and technologies. All the schools in our school district have Chromebooks to allow kids to use apps for math and literacy. A new program called RTI (Response To Instruction) splits kids into ability levels for reading, and includes a variety of educational topics in the content of what kids are reading.

More on teacher quality:

I asked my son recently: “You’ve had three teachers: Miss Erika at Bubb, Sophie at KLS, and Mrs. Parry at Landels. Whom do you like best?” He immediately answered: “Parry”. I asked why? “Because she teaches me a lot.”


Prior to our incident with KLS, I never thought much about school administration. Since, I’ve thought about it a lot.

Public schools welcome volunteers, and many parents spend time in the classrooms. This, effectively, provides routine oversight, beyond whatever the principal and other teachers see.

KLS lost that when Dominic Liechti curtailed parent volunteering and parents entering the classroom, starting with our school year (2016–17).

I teach my kids that if you want something, you should use your words and ask before getting upset that you don’t have it. I learned this child-friendly phrasing from our day care teachers. Dominic Liechti did not use his words to ask us for whatever it was he wanted of us. He just kicked us out. He forced a child to switch schools mid-year because he didn’t use his words. This man is in charge of teacher hiring and oversight and firing decisions at KLS.

Technology and Modernization in Education:

The integration of technology to improve and personalize education was a big draw for me in choosing KLS. Technology has improved to where it’s ripe for this. I’ve taken adult courses online, through Stanford with infrastructure from edX and through Coursera. Why not bring this to kids?

The tricky thing is doing it well. And KLS is still working on that. This is part of the great educational experiment.

I watched my son using one day. He was doing the 3rd grade curriculum as a 1st grader and I was a very proud parent. But he had no idea what he was doing. He had zoomed so far ahead that he was completely lost. When he later took a standardized math test at Landels, he scored normal for his grade.

After the KLS annual donation drive, Dominic Liechti spoke at an evening event for parents. He kept thanking parents for giving him and the school “runway”. I felt like his speech was aimed more at donors than at vested partners. Now I wonder whether in Dominic’s mind attending KLS means donating my child to the greater good of a fledgling educational experiment, and that is indeed a big thing to thank a parent for.

One KLS parent told me the school’s project-based learning approach is more effective in upper grades. One teacher in the school’s first year of operation said something similar: That for the youngest kids, the experienced teachers fall back on traditional techniques they learned in prior jobs.

I still have high hopes for technology bringing personalization to childhood education. I see our local public school taking small measured steps in that direction with correspondingly slow progress, and KLS taking giant leaps with correspondingly varied success. It’s coming.

This story is duplicated on my old blog.