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Nikhil Goyal: Leading A Learning Revolution

New book on education, penned by 17-year-old high school senior, challenges the way we think about school

Nikhil Goyal has been missing a lot of class lately. Judging solely by the number of school days skipped, one might assume that education simply isn’t that important to him. In truth, it’s the polar opposite: Goyal has been missing school because he’s busy traveling all over the country speaking about the need to revolutionize the American education system. At 17 years of age, this Woodbury student is already a respected author and education critic.

His new book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, calls for some radical changes: letting students have a powerful voice in how their education will be conducted; an end to standardized testing, with tests of questionable veracity, and the high-pressure, “drill and kill” culture in the classroom that it creates; more respect, pay, and, most importantly, autonomy for teachers; and the abandonment of the memorize-and-regurgitate model of learning in favor of active involvement in challenging, creative projects.

According to Goyal, we should be looking not to Beijing—which is only “beating us” in the international rankings in the sense that they are drilling the creativity out of their students more consistently—but to Finland, which has virtually abolished standardized tests and where only the best and the brightest aspire to be teachers, as our model going forward.

A good student during childhood, it’s only recently that Goyal began to harbor serious doubts about his education. In a way, the publication of his book can be partially credited to Syosset High School—although not in quite the same way that people usually credit the celebrated school.

“It really started with my frustration with school,” said Goyal, who started attending SHS in 2010 as a sophomore. The family had moved to Syosset in large part because of the reportedly superior schools, so Goyal was disappointed when he found many of his classes less than engaging.

“I found that a lot of what I was learning very irrelevant to me,” he said, going on to say that when he spoke to his classmates, many of them had similar feelings and were also bored in class. Rather than simply continue with boredom, Goyal decided that the best way to document these concerns was to write a book: offer a student perspective on an issue all too often discussed by pundits and business executives who rarely set foot inside a classroom.

However, Goyal didn’t only talk to his fellow students: he interviewed over 100 people including parents, college professors, respected educational critics and entrepreneurs—especially entrepreneurs involved in education technology. During this period, Goyal also reached out to various media outlets, leading to the publication of his essays on education in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post, among others.

He also read voraciously, in the process discovering the dirty little secret of multiple-choice tests: the first to put the test to widescale use, Frederick J. Kelly, director of the Training School at Kansas State Normal School (now Emporia State University) in 1915, later denounced the test as an effective way to measure intelligence. Goyal thinks we should take Kelly’s advice and ditch all the bubble-filling, which he considers not only suboptimal but harmful. While some assessments are valid and necessary, the author contends, students should primarily be judged by their portfolio—not a number.

“We need to sample, rather than test entire school populations…look at the work the students are doing. That’s really how you tell a school’s quality; by looking at the quality of the students’ work,” explained Goyal.

In addition to getting rid of high-stakes multiple choice tests and the culture of anxiety and cheating that they create, Goyal is also adamant that the role of the teacher must change: from a lecturer forced to recite inflexible curriculum under scrutiny to a respected mentor in learning.

“Right now in the country, it’s really the war on teachers: we’re not paying them enough, we’re not giving them autonomy,” he said. “What most people don’t realize is that teachers and students are on the same side, because we’re both being suppressed by the system. We’re both being thrown into these ruthless government policies that haven’t really been helping in any way.”

Another controversial issue within education that Goyal feels passionately about is charter schools. While Goyal acknowledges that there are some charter schools that are very good, particularly those that use innovative teaching models, in general he doesn’t believe that charter schools can function as an “educational cure-all,” as some have proposed. He is vehemently against charter schools taking over public education, citing frequent mismanagement and backing by financiers who don’t know about education. According to Goyal, if the wealthy backers of many of these charter schools wouldn’t send their own children there—and they don’t—they can’t be trusted.

While One Size Does Not Fit All may not be topping the bestseller lists just yet, the book has been very well received. Howard Gardner, professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lends only the first accolade to the pages and pages of positive reviews highlighted at the beginning of the book, calling Goyal’s opinions “well worth pondering.”

In general, Goyal says, people have been receptive to his ideas—despite, or in some cases because of, his age. “They like hearing students speak out.” On that note, he encourages other students to make their voices heard: like him, they can harness the power of social media to connect with others who want to change education for the better, and talk to their own school administrators about their concerns. In general, Goyal recommends talking to school officials directly if possible rather than going through student governments, which rarely have any power.

Of course, not everyone is on the same page. During NBC News’ 3rd Annual Education Nation Summit at the New York Public Library on Tuesday, Sept. 25, when Goyal had the opportunity to ask presidential candidate Mitt Romney his opinion of high stakes testing, Romney expressed his approval of the tests, and seemed dismissive of the possibility that proper education could be conducted in any other way. That view, as well as the criticism that Goyal is too young and inexperienced to know what he’s talking about, does not intimidate him.

The author has a busy speaking schedule lined up for fall, in addition to finishing high school; he plans to graduate from SHS in January, then take some time off before college to work in educational technology, perhaps starting his own edutech company. Meanwhile, he plans to keep leading a learning revolution: empowering students so they can have a role in educational reform like never before and proposing new ideas to replace archaic and corrupt institutions with better ones.

“Of course I’m going to get some criticism considering that I don’t have any PHD or any education degree, but I think my fresh perspective adds some value to the conversation and the debate,” said Goyal. Wherever you happen to stand on the issue of educational reform, it’s pretty hard to argue with that.

One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School is currently available from in both paperback and Kindle editions (search for Nikhil Goyal on Amazon). For more information about Goyal, and to read his education blog, visit