17-Year-Old Author Is Determined to Fix Education in America

Nikhil Goyal shares why he fiercely opposes standardized testing and the traditional model of learning.

Nikhil Goyal

Nikhil Goyal's book One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School will be published in September by Alternative Education Resource Organization. (Photo courtesy of Nikhil Goyal)

Kelly Zhou has written on a variety of topics for TakePart, predominantly politics, education, and wildlife.

Nikhil Goyal is only 17 years old, but he has big ideas for fixing the American school system.

A rising high school senior in Woodbury, NY, Goyal is a fresh face in the world of education reform. Eloquent and articulate, he has publicly argued to abolish the infamous No Child Left Behind legislation; repeal its successor Race to the Top; and create schools based on creative projects, not standardized testing.

“Over time, I came to the conclusion that, first, students were left out of the debate,” Goyal said in an interview with TakePart. “Second, that education was really messed up in so many ways. So I decided to tackle that somehow.”

MORE: Students Take Charge From Adults in School Reform

Students in the U.S. are losing to those in many other industrialized countries, according to a recent Harvard Kennedy School report on international and U.S. trends in student performance. Twenty-four countries are improving faster than the U.S. is, and about half of them are doing so at twice the rate of America.

It’s still a plain-vanilla style of learning. Kids being lectured at, listening to the teacher passively, textbooks on the desk.

Goyal explains his ideas for fixing the American system in a new book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, to be published in September by Alternative Education Resource Organization. His book features propositions for revamping the U.S. school system, along with dozens of interviews with experts and leaders from around the country.

“My perspective is fresh. My book is based on research, studies I’ve looked at, and interviews. It’s all research-based,” said the high school student, who also enjoys debate and track and field.

Goyal, who began writing the book in summer 2011 after finding inspiration on a family trip to India, attends Syosset High School, which made the top 100 on Newsweek’s 2012 list of “America’s Best High Schools.”

At Syosset, 100 percent of students graduate, and 98 percent are bound for college, according to Newsweek. But while Goyal’s school is forward thinking and includes technology such as SMART Boards, or interactive white boards, the principle is the same as that of less innovative schools, he said.

“It’s still a plain-vanilla style of learning. Kids being lectured at, listening to the teacher passively, textbooks on the desk,” Goyal said.

He describes the American system as outdated, molding students as “cogs in a machine.” One of Goyal’s main proposals is to personalize the education system, focusing on creativity and leveraging students’ individual passions. He wants to do away with what he calls the “drill-and-kill” culture of bubble-filling and test-taking, instead focusing on classes centered around learning via projects.

He used Brightworks, an innovative school in San Francisco, CA, as an example. At this private school, students are integrated across grade and age levels, learning different subjects while tackling big problems or ideas.

“People like to say we need to prepare students for real life, and what I counter that with is, ‘Why don’t we make school like real life itself—bring experiences outside of school into the school environment?’ ” Goyal asked. “Can you imagine how many kids would be motivated intrinsically rather than by a grade or by a reward?”

As for the financial viability of such a revamped system, Goyal compared the costs of, say, a $100 textbook for each child versus buying construction or building models or finding project materials on the Internet.

“If you look at the curriculum in general in high school, you can transform it by making students do projects,” Goyal said. “Projects don’t cost any more money if you look at it.”

But Goyal and his more unconventional ideas are not without detractors, including those who have questioned the high school student’s credibility—not to mention, the feasibility of implementing his proposals.

“I’m not an expert, that’s one thing. I haven’t necessarily had the same level of experience as Diane Ravitch or Deborah Meier,” Goyal said, referring to key education leaders. “But I’ve been in the system for 13 years, and I’ve seen it as a firsthand account.”

Nonetheless, Goyal’s drive and passion for education reform are clear, as seen in his Huffington Post piece last year: “Instead of schools cherishing students' passions and interests, they destroy them,” he wrote. “Let’s raise kids to dream big and think different.”

Interested in Goyal’s upcoming book? Click here for more information.

What do you think should be done to fix schools in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments.

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