Schools on Trial

schools-on-trial-goyalNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 23, 2016.

If you’re a parent with a child in public school, you may want to read Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikhil Goyal. Nikhil Goyal is an accomplished twenty-year-old journalist (he’s one of Forbes’ 30 under 30) who wants to change our public school system for the better. Seeking real solutions, he traveled the country visiting several alternative and democratic schools to see what he could learn from them.

You may not agree with Goyal on every point he makes. In the first few chapters, he’s very critical of the current public education system, though there are many who agree with him, at least partially. You only need look at all the parents and teachers protesting against the Common Core, excessive testing, and even homework for the younger grades. Homeschooling, as well, is becoming more mainstream, but this is still a small percentage of the U.S. student population.

The best part of Goyal’s book is his in-depth look at democratic schools. A democratic school is a private school where the students have significant control over their education, and some schools even give them voting rights when administrative or disciplinary issues come up in the school. Goyal believes that public schools should give kids more control over their education as well.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, “Goyal, you’re preaching to the choir.” I’m a homeschooling parent because I believe kids should have a more individualized education, and I think they should have a say in what they’re learning. It should be common knowledge that we learn more when we’re interested in what we’re learning.

Still, I’m not as democratic as some of these schools. I make my boys work on reading, math and some other subjects. But unlike public school, I work with my boys to find curriculum and resources that they like, and I don’t rush them. If they need more time with the material, I give it to them. Most of our day is spent pursuing interests we love, and that does make a huge difference.

As Sir Ken Robinson says in his famous Ted Talk, I think schools are killing kids’ creativity, but I also know it’s very hard to cater to individual students when you have 20~30 students to teach at once. I have always wondered how schools could give kids more autonomy and make learning more relevant to their lives and interests. The schools Goyal writes about in his book offer hope.

He writes, “After visiting many democratic and free schools around the country, I have concluded that I had never met more articulate, unorthodox, curious, and happy children before. The students at these schools have a purpose. They are lifelong learners. They love reading books and playing and learning. They can go on for hours about their interests and passions. They can communicate better than most adults can.”

I would like to see more research done on the graduates of these schools, especially those that are working to foster a diverse student body and admit lower income families. I think any kind of school is hard-pressed to help a child who doesn’t have a supportive, loving family at home. While the research and anecdotal evidence is showing that kids who attend these schools benefit, most of them do not come from a disadvantaged background, as Goyal notes in the book. (By the way, there are two democratic schools in Atlanta.)

Goyal knows how hard it is to make changes in our education system. He knows that the majority does not agree with the proposals he is making in the book, yet as he also writes, many parents and teachers are fed up with the system as we know it, and this is promising. If enough parents and teachers stand up, perhaps eventually there will be more positive changes in public schools. But first we must become more educated and aware of the alternatives. Goyal’s book is a good place to start.

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