When 20-year-old Nikhil Goyal recalls his experience at a large, high-achieving public high school, he makes it sound more like a prison than an institution designed to foster learning and creativity. He describes listless teens who shuffled robotically between classes, anxious perfectionists who self-medicated with prescription drugs, and frustrated students for whom the system simply did not work. He remembers little joy, curiosity or innovation.
After graduating, Goyal decided to travel the country in an attempt to figure out what type of school he thinks would work for students. He said he did find some answers, but the schools he envisions look pretty different from those serving most kids today.
Goyal documents his research in a new book, Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. He looks to progressive, democratic schools -- both public and private -- in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, as models of what's possible. These schools encourage students to take control of their educational experiences, design their own curriculum and play as much as possible. They create happy environments, where bullying is virtually non-existent, Goyal writes.
We spoke with Goyal to learn more about his book and what he thinks about the current public school system.
Tell us about your high school experience and why it made you want to write this book.
I graduated from Syosset High School on Long Island. It's a pretty affluent, high-ranking district, and a lot of students go on to attend Ivy League institutions. It's pretty much the ideal school district on paper.
Many students had severe mental health issues, maybe depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, prescription drug usage. For most of the kids in the honors or AP classes, their primary goal in high school was to do whatever they could to make their college application as attractive as possible. They only took classes and got involved with extracurricular activities to pad their resumes. But they were sacrificing a lot of their happiness, sleep and mental health.
There's something much more to life than simply participating in that rat race.
How did you experience high school?
I was somebody who really did not like school. I found it to be very disengaging, boring, and irrelevant to what I was most interested in, which was politics and foreign affairs. There was little of that happening -- at least in the school day.
Some of the most meaningful activities in high school occurred after school, when I was participating in the speech and debate team or model U.N. team. That’s where I found most of my friends. I thought: What if those experiences actually dominated high school? What if those self-directed, project-based, hands-on experiences that were part of my after-school programs were actually the school day?
I began to do research on this topic. I began interviewing people and policymakers and found these progressive schools and called them up and asked if I could visit.
What surprised you most about these progressive schools?
I think what surprised me the most is how many of these schools are in existence and how few people know about them. In the book, I chart out a history of the progressive school movement and how many of these ideas were implemented, endorsed and debated rigorously in the 1960s and '70s. This was an era for protest, with the feminist movement and civil rights movement, but one of the overlooked movements is something called the free school movement. You had education writers indicting the traditional school system, saying it crushes creativity.
If you read those books, they will still be relevant for today's education system. Very little has changed. The structures of American schooling has largely remained the same for decades.
I think there is a lot of discomfort and frustration with the current education system. There is a movement away from standardized tests.
What kind of adults are schools today creating?
I think they're creating docile, passive adults who largely are not capable of complex, critical thinking.
I think they generally create people who fit into the social order and don’t look to destruct it as much. It's very rare for kids to come out of school with a lot of their imagination and curiosity intact.
How do we create a society in which a majority of students are able to attend these schools?
Practically speaking, one of the things we could do is start pilot programs with these kinds of models in districts around the country. We could look at the charter school movement -- which has unfortunately veered away from its original purpose to create innovation in the public system -- and create these islands of innovation. We should have publicly funded schools that have flexibility in terms of their standards, curriculum and testing requirements.
There's a lot of evidence showing that private schools are very effective, but many of these schools contain a population that is more affluent, white and privileged. I think we need to test this much more in communities of color. Even though there are some progressive schools in those communities, we need more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.