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School? Just like prison except you go home at night

Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice

By Nikhil Goyal

Doubleday

258 pages, $26.95

By Peter Simon

If you’re already alarmed by the problems facing our public schools, be forewarned: this book makes the case that the growing controversy over excessive testing, Common Core standards, rote learning, meaningless homework and charter schools is just nipping at the edges of an education system that is irretrievably broken.

“We have become obsessed with making tweaks and small dents to the system when what we genuinely need is a total overhaul, a transformation, a goddamn revolution,” Goyal writes. “It’s time to break free from the shackles of our oppressive school system.”

Compulsory education, he argues, could be considered a violation of the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. Sending young people to school is like sending them to prison, except that they get to come home at night.

“In both prisons and schools, you are cut off from the rest of society, stripped of your basic freedoms and rights, like free speech and free press, told what to do all day, and (monitored) dragnet style,” he said.

Goyal, a graduate of Syosset High School in a wealthy Long Island suburb, spent three years on this passionate, well-researched book which he published at age 20. He has written for the New York Times and appeared on several national news networks. Public schools, he writes, reward passivity, obedience, fear of taking risks and conformity.

Just a “tiny minority” of students enjoy school, he claims, and many of them suffer from Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages form emotional bonds with their captors. The miserable failure of public schools preceded increased federal involvement in education, he said, and the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top – reform efforts from Washington – “just made schooling more intolerable.”

Goyal proposes a diverse mix of options to remove students from traditional public schools and have them learn in community centers, libraries, museums and other public facilities. Apprenticeships, internships and volunteer opportunities would largely replace full days spent in schools. Mixed-age classes – like old one-room schoolhouses – would also be established.

Goyal also envisions a greatly enlarged system of “democratic and free schools” where students learn in their own way and pace; where tests, formal classes and homework are not required, and where students could hire and fire staff members.

“Once the city and community becomes the school, then children can learn however, whenever, and with whomever they choose,” Goyal writes. “One day, I hope we will find ourselves horrified by what we once made children go through for six to seven hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year, and 13 years.”

Although dramatic change is hardly imminent, growing public concern with conventional schooling could be setting the stage for the overhaul he seeks, Goyal said. If it takes hold, he said, it will at first be difficult for everyone. The relative handful of students who have switched from traditional to “democratic” schools experienced a “detox” period before “slowly rediscovering their true self and identity and learning how to be and think for themselves,” he said.

The book ends with a call for students to force the issue.

“You are more than some arbitrary test score or grade,” Goyal says. “You are human beings. You have rights. You have a voice. And, most important, you have power. So go out there and use them all.”

Peter Simon is a former veteran News education reporter.