The other morning I had coffee with Fairfax County School Board member Elizabeth Schultz, who represents the Springfield district. Shultz said she wants to address some of the school system’s biggest problems head on, even if it means having to turn the system upside down.
When I sat down with her she was reading a book with an intriguing title: “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” by Nikhil Goyal.
Shultz immediately began to rave about the book and its author, a 17-year-old senior at a public school on Long Island. In the book, Goyal writes that the current public education system is broken. The problem, he says, is that students get no say in the matter. Instead, he says, teachers and administrators are pushing the rote memorization and standardized tests that quash creativity.
Goyal is a bright kid who is really onto something, Shultz said. From what she had read so far, she was already calling Goyal the future of education policy. The teenager has contributed articles to the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and has been profiled by Education Week and Forbes magazine.
“So, he’s the next secretary of education?” I asked.
Shultz smiled and flipped the book over. On the back cover was this endorsement of the author: “I nominate Nikhil for U.S. Secretary of Education!” — Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education.
I decided to contact Goyal to ask him about his book, his future and the future of education in America.
“I’m no expert,” Goyal said in a telephone interview. “I’m just trying to give a fresh perspective and a new way to think about education from someone who has gone through 13 years of education and to debate the policies and think about them in much more detail.”
He’s graduating from Syosset High School in January. (Full disclosure: This reporter’s father was a Syosset High graduate from the class of way-way-way back when.)
Goyal said the idea for his book came after a trip to visit family in India. While talking with some other teenagers, he realized that beyond the stark differences between the U.S. and Indian education systems, both he and his Indian counterparts shared a frustration with school. One common irritant, Goyal said, was all the testing.
“I’m not a number in a spreadsheet,” Goyal wrote in a letter to the New York Times this month. “I’m a creative and motivated human being. I want my teachers to be paid well, given autonomy and treated like professionals. I want my school to be adequately funded. Is that too much to ask?”
Goyal, an industrious teenager with big ambitions, decided to write a book about the U.S. education system from a student’s point of view.
What bothered him the most about his public school education, Goyal said, was that he did most of his learning on his own. Nothing that really interested him was taught in class.
“None of that was being discussed in school,” Goyal said. “Politics was taboo. It wasn’t even in the curriculum. Teachers don’t like to bring up too much controversy because it puts people against each other.”
Goyal used the social media sites Twitter and Facebook to track down education experts, as well as other teens who were frustrated with school.
“My assumption from all these years was that the best way to get an education was that you had to do all your homework, do well on your tests, cross your X’s and dot your I’s,”Goyal said. “After doing a lot of research, I came to the conclusion that the education system was really messed up.Students weren’t even being given a choice.”
What’s more, when he spoke to education policy experts, the bold names in the field, he found their comments lacking.
“The people who were influential, the people that you know off the bat, they were really boring to me, telling me everything I already knew in a different way,” Goyal said.
(Note to Nikhil: We journalists sympathize with you on that one.)
In the book, Goyal makes a few small suggestions that he believes would lead to big changes in the classroom.
First, he suggests that classes not be broken up by age group. Instead, students should be grouped by ability.
“That’s what happens in the real world -- you’re not separated by age,” Goyal said. “We need to have school resemble the real world as much as possible.”
Goyal will spend the next year and half promoting his book. He’s applying to colleges right now and said he will probably enroll in the fall of 2014. What lies ahead for him?
“I’m definitely going into politics,” Goyal said. “My hope is to probably do something in education policy and then pivot to politics. I’d campaign to be a congressman first, then maybe move up.”
Goyal in 2032?