A Movement on Trial

This January, I received, shipped to a student organization I used to lead, Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikhil Goyal. I knew it’s just part of a marketing campaign but hey, I don’t mind free books! Mr. Goyal’s background compelled me; we are basically the same age, and his work has won praise from Forbes, Sir Ken Robinson, and others. I was very interested in seeing what other people my age who think about educational issues a lot have to say. The burden of class and grad school applications forced me to abandon the book to a drawer of my desk until a month ago. Today, I hope to share my thoughts on this book and evaluate how Mr. Goyal’s stances reflect the future of education reform thought.

The cover of Goyal’s 2016 work (Doubleday). Image from Amazon.

Nikhil Goyal decries public education today as a tool of social control, arguing that children learn best when they learn “freely,” approaching subjects at their choosing and play, which he saw on site visits to ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ schools. He also urges investment in ventures such as coding, apprenticeship, and career education pipelines. Ultimately, he envisions more democratized, diffused, ‘real world’ system of classes held in schools, in libraries, community centers, and beyond.

There are certainly highlights. Mr. Goyal, armed with both personal experience and research, hits standardized testing hard. A wide body of work outlines its limitations as a policy tool, even though some tests have help teachers as a formative tool. We have been subjected to the height of the testing craze, and his stance frames the contemporary backlash nicely. He is also correct that our education systems today largely lack a critical educational focus so necessary to developing an independent mind. Overall, Mr. Goyal displays an openness to viewing education as connected with broader social forces in a way that transcends curriculum and classroom.

At times, however, it was a little hard to get what point Mr. Goyal was trying to make. The introduction felt all over the place. His rhetoric sometimes took a turn for the reductive. Take this line:

The advocacy groups and networks that dominate the field include StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform, ALEC, Students for Education Reform…and many others. Whenever you hear any of those names, immediately associate them with the corporate-reform agenda (78)

For context, in this passage’s chapter, Goyal simultaneously supports the institution of public schools and critiques both the ‘status quo’ and the conventional reform wisdom of the last couple decades. His definition of the “corporate-reform agenda” spans nearly a page, but it’s basically a “a free-market, neoliberal” privatization movement “bankrolled by foundations, Wall Street, and billionaires.” A related policy laundry list follows and includes school closures, vouchers, charters, the Common Core, and testing. It reminded me of how I would use general word associations to link clues when studying for quiz bowl in high school (Nietzsche — Will to Power — ressentiment). The reader is encouraged more to make some associations than to observe the underlying systems, theories, and narratives that fertilize the corporate education reform movement. He connects the movement to the Taylorist Progressive era, refuting each of its policies and morally admonishing its leaders and footsoldiers.

I was a member of Students for Education Reform for three years. The truth is that SFER is a community brimming with many young, talented, compassionate people who, I do believe, can make positive change in the lives of children. It is also true that many SFER-backed campaigns fall within the parameters of Nikhil Goyal’s ‘corporate-reform movement.’ I kept myself at arm’s length from many SFER campaigns, and there is a reason I have moved on to other arenas. My SFER time led me in Goyal’s direction in regards to, among other things, testing, funding, and school choice policies. If he looked a little down my resume, he might decide I’m not worth talking to.

While I believe I can find some common ground with individuals in the ‘corporate’ movement, Goyal would prefer his readers write them off completely. Although his book creates a needed space to address the failings of what he calls the “corporate-reform agenda,” at times it also turns into a sloppy hash of blog post buzzwords. I can’t criticize Goyal too much for this, because I have fallen into that thinking many times myself. But it’s important to model the public dialogue we want to see, and I forsee a future of thoughtful, vulnerable, political discourse. I really do because I have seen people throughout my life who are capable of it. It’s part of the reason why we began Case in Pointe. By challenging our own ideas and assumptions in our writing, we challenge readers to gaze upon their situation with a keener eye. Some of Goyal’s rhetoric instead works against his laudable goal of igniting critical change.

Nikhil Goyal also sometimes stakes his arguments anecdotally, leaving the reader hanging and at times confused. We’re all guilty of doing this, but it’s doubly important to avoid such arguments when fleshing out a book meant to influence policy and public opinion. And when he falls into appealing to individual studies and quotes from famous people, you get the sense that Malcolm Gladwell offered some writing tips. It’s okay to want to write something digestible to a broad audience, but there are so many arguments to be made in this book that many aren’t adequately fleshed out.

Finally, it is my opinion that Mr. Goyal paid too little attention to non-school factors, which he admits effective reform must address:

“How much can you really expect schools to do when you have children who are impoverished, hungry, malnourished more vulnerable to asthma…on a daily basis?”

A few pages later he hits the reader with some Paulo Freire. He must get it at some level! But he doesn’t contextualize his biggest ideas in this sort of theory; some of his (very detailed) case studies lack a sufficient sense of place. Rural and urban, a neighborhood, struggling for one reason or another, surrounds many a ‘failing’ school. His argument does not adequately consider the non-school along with the school factors. I have trouble articulating the kind of holistic approach I think education reform needs, but we need to acknowledge, as an education policy lever, that improving economic prosperity, equity, and access to essential goods and services. Bring a little Kozol to the table! (While writing this, I found Kozol himself blurbed this very book, praising Goyal’s passion.)

Nikhil Goyal and I are of the same age in the education reform timeline and I’m agape at the dedication he put, outside of school hours, into researching this compelling issue — improving education. I too have a natural itch to learn and to help solve problems, and I’m passionate about education. However, I couldn’t even imagine trying to organize my passions and thoughts into a book at this stage of my life; it was hard enough to finally put my name on a blog post. I commend Mr. Goyal for attacking one of our most important social issues, the role of public policy in the development of young minds. His knocks against the education reform mindset of the moment is valid, if a little unrigorous. He narrates the complexities of the classroom more sufficiently than he does the those of poverty.

I am hopeful for Goyal’s future arguments and impassioned writing, and thankful for the encouragement to meekly dip my toes into this debate. He adds a valuable voice to the education sphere. Here’s to another connection and a longer conversation about what we want our future to look like.

Just like every other study lounge, in ours not everyone agrees with everything said; people change their minds, and there is no institutional position. The views and opinions expressed herein are the individual author’s personal views and are not necessarily reflective of the views of Case in Pointe or of its constituent writers/editors.