Among Nikhil Goyal’s prescriptions for fixing America’s public education system: group students by ability, not age; reduce standardized testing; repeal No Child Left Behind; abolish grades, the SAT, and Advanced Placement programs; embrace project-based learning; pay teachers more; “stop the spread of Teach for America;” adopt lean and flexible curriculum guidelines for the major subjects — English, math, science, civics, history, and the arts. All interesting recommendations, some more easily implemented than others.
But why should we pay attention to Goyal’s proposals? Because, more so than policymakers and pundits, he knows what’s up. After all, at 18 years old, he’s quite recently been in the trenches. Here’s the young author’s pitch, in his own words:
“Why the hell are you reading a book written by a 17-year-old kid?...If you want to know the truth, here it is. I’m a high school student in a public high school in New York. For thirteen years, I’ve been told to shut up and sit down and listen. I’ve been ignored. I’ve been left on the sidelines. Not just me, but millions of students around the country and the world. I will not be silenced any longer. Enough is enough.
“My goal, by the time you are finished with this book,” he writes in the introduction to One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School (published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization), “is for you to rethink education in a new light and maybe conclude that the claims of a disgruntled, but optimistic teenager are justified.”
Goyal’s book, published earlier this year to much fanfare (the Washington Post says he’s a future US Secretary of Education), is the first to be tackled by Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanual Caulk’s book club, which Caulk has launched as an opportunity for local residents, parents, and staffers to talk about topics in education.
“I don’t agree with everything in the book, and I doubt you will, either,” Caulk writes on his blog. “But Goyal presents lots of compelling information in a readable format that will get you thinking. I had to keep reminding myself that the author was only 17!”
I didn’t; not when the author listed these four celebrities as “the cream of the crop” — Stephen Hawking, Jessica Alba, Chesley Sullenberger (the airline pilot who successfully landed a plane in the Hudson River), and JK Rowling. A list of millennial heroes if I’ve ever seen one.
Despite Goyal’s pop culture references and colloquialisms, many of his observations are on-point. His discussion of the modern classroom, in which educators largely struggle to implement 21st century learning strategies, is illuminating. Too often, Goyal says, teachers shy away from the very things that get kids engaged — play, technology, controversy, and experiential learning — in favor of the age-old and much maligned technique of teaching to the test.
“The kids catch on pretty quickly to the game of school — get good grades and get out as soon as you can,” he writes. “Research has uncovered that students of all ages who have been led to concentrate on getting a good grade were likely to pick the easiest possible assignment if given a choice.”