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One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School

Nikhilgoyal2I started seeing Nikhil Goyal's name about a year ago and immediately took notice.  I follow the work of a group called the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), which advocates root-and-branch transformation of education to make schooling far more democratic and student centered.  AERO had just published Goyal's book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School, with a subsequent torrent of media attention. 

One Size Does Not Fit All is a scathing indictment of American schooling that synthesizes a lot of arguments familiar to people who closely follow the various streams of education reform.  But what makes Goyal unique is that, at the time of the book's writing, he was a 17-year old New York high school student.  Now 18 and a graduate, Goyal travels widely and writes copiously in his advocacy for new ways of thinking about schooling.  I've been pleased to follow Nikhil on Twitter and correspond with him via e-mail, and I was happy to finally get a chance to read his book.  While One Size Does Not Fit All has some flaws, Nikhil Goyal's message is worthy of every educator's attention and consideration.

Goyal makes the case that American schooling is stifling to children's creativity and treats learning as a kind of industrial, input-output process that promotes rote memorization and behavioral compliance.  Drawing inspiration from the work of John Taylor Gatto (whose book Weapons of Mass Instruction I reviewed here and here), Goyal explains how schools are still configured for the 19th-century industrial workforce and a mission based on ranking and sorting students.  He argues that if schools are going to properly prepare 21st century students, a shift to emphasizing innovation, creativity, and student-directed learning must take place, and here he borrows liberally from the work of school reformer Tony Wagner (whose book, the Global Achivement Gap, I reviewed here; I think the links between Goyal's interest and mine are probably becoming very clear).

Goyal lays most of the blame for the poor condition of schooling on the test-obsessed culture of Goyal_Cover_final_small1-400x600education, which started emerging with A Nation at Risk and its concern for America's education standing relative to other leading countries, and then rapidly accelerated with the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind Act.  Goyal draws heavily here from the work of Diane Ravitch (more reviews here and here), who makes one of the best cases for how standardized testing has been misused to improperly measure student learning and mischaracterize the work of teachers and schools.  And like Ravitch, Goyal disparages the move toward for-profit educational alternatives and "corporate" educational reforms that he believes work hand-in-hand with the drive for test-based school accountability.

Goyal calls for a radical transformation of schooling to include far more student voice in school governance and especially in learning and a richer, broader curriculum infused with the arts and real-world learning, enhanced and facilitated by new technologies.  His vision closely aligns with my own interests in dismantling the structure of schooling and rebuilding it into something that is far more student centered (like the Montessori Method).

I would recommend, however, that Goyal rethink his allegiance to Diane Ravitch and her crowd of educational traditionalist because their ultimate goals and methods will not bring about - and in many cases stand diametrically opposed to - the kinds of changes in school that he envisions.  As I have written elsewhere, Ravitch makes a vital contribution to the debate on education reform by raising questions about the place of high-stakes standardized testing, but errs in conflating the school choice movement with testing and "corporate" interests. 

The transformation Nikhil Goyal is looking for will best be accomplished by establishing meaningful school choice options for all families that will foster new innovations in teaching and learning.  Simply paying teachers more, giving them more autonomy, and forgetting about testing and accountability will give us the educational outcomes of the 1970's - not a time when schooling was particularly student centered or conducive to rigor and higher-ordered thinking.

These disagreements notwithstanding, I am thoroughly enamoured with Nikhil Goyal and his book, in no small part because he speaks with the passion, and above all the authority, of someone who has just lived the experience of schooling as a high school student.  On a personal level he reminds me of myself at the same age, all full of idealism and hubris, but with far more drive, organization, and follow through (after all - how many high school students write books and then launch worldwide speaking tours?). 

Nikhil Goyal represents our future.  As one of the best and brightest - both because of and in spite of our flawed educational system - we need to heed his warnings, and his calls for how to make schooling better for all students.



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