Book Review - Schools on Trial

Schools on Trial by Nikhil Goyal

Schools on Trial by Nikhil GoyalSchools on Trial by Nikhil Goyal
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on February 16th 2016
Source: Publisher
Pages: 320
Buy from IndieBound


“…our schools should strip away every element that they are known for: grades, tests, compulsory classes, periods, bells, age segregation, and homework. And then we should craft institutions that are grounded in the attributes we want to see in citizens in our society and designed to foster critical thinking and lifelong learning.”

Twenty-year-old Nikhil Goyal is not wrong: America’s education system is indeed in shambles. It is possible for students to learn without a constant barrage of testing and it is possible for them to guide their own learning. Goyal doesn’t have to argue these points for me, or a majority of educators, I imagine—we study the educational history he references throughout Schools on Trial and see ourselves as the facilitators he hopes for, even if the current education system views us otherwise. While I think the heart of his argument is sound, I struggled with the way he presents his ideas and couldn’t find the key to fixing the problems in American education, at least not for all students.

Schools on Trial struggles early on from an abundance of unsupported anecdotes and extreme hyperbole.  There is quite a bit of “…from what I have observed…” and tales from friends, which can have a place, but should be backed up by real research if intended to persuade. Goyal goes on to call conventional schooling “one of the most oppressive and antidemocratic institutions of modern times” and claim that kindergarten information packets should come with a slew of mental health warnings. By the time he asserted that academically successful students suffer from Stockholm syndrome, my eyes were rolling hard. But I hoped his frustration would lead to a good solution.

Most of Schools on Trial is a push toward free or democratic education, with visits to schools like Sudbury and Brooklyn Free School to highlight potential outcomes. The problem is that most of the country’s democratic schools are not public (and many of the public examples, like Richmond’s Open High School, require admission). It’s great that many of the private schools offer scholarships or sliding scale tuition, but they can only offer so much help.

To counter that, Goyal suggests breaking up large public schools into several small settings that are ideal in democratic education. He highlights the possibility of converting existing spaces and using the community as the classroom for these new schools, but where does that money come from? With so many public schools in horrific condition, expecting districts to double their physical size is simply not realistic. While the detailed examples of successful free and democratic school settings help bolster his thesis, I couldn’t help but wonder if Goyal spent time trying to understand the underfunded, struggling public schools that are most in need of help or if he only sought them out to criticize.

“The challenge is how to bring these schools to more communities, cities, and countries to rescue young people from the clutch of traditional education. Godspeed.”

Godspeed, indeed. But we need more than godspeed as a solution to “fix our educational malpractice”. What does democratic education look like for all students, including those with disabilities and those raised in poverty? I’m not saying it can’t happen—I would love to see it happen—but I have yet to see a realistic proposal. Until then, the concept is far from democratic and an unthinking push for a handful of students seems poised to widen gaps that already exist, causing more damage than good.


  • Interesting thoughts. I’ll be honest, I don’t know all that much in detail about education background, current state of things, etc… I attended private Catholic school, and feel I received likely an above average education (albeit with Jesus crammed down my throat every second), and was raised in an overwhelmingly middle class town where I likely could have received a similar quality of education from any of the public schools there as well. I understand this is not the norm for many/most areas, and if the only way to secure a “decent” education is through private school, then that is a HUGE problem, as you outlined above. I enjoyed this review, and your thoughts as an educator, and it made me think about a few things – and ones I will have to tackle before I even know it with my little one on the way.

    • It can be such a tough/tangled situation, for sure, and there are so many different opinions with so many different “right ways” that it’s hard to figure out. I imagine you deal with very similar situations in nursing – people with great ideas/concepts, but little in the way of plans to follow through (and so often that leads to more problems).

    • I actually think this IS the norm for most areas. Most kids today do get a pretty good education, but there are enough that don’t, and those are the ‘squeaky wheels’ we hear about. That doesn’t mean things can’t be improved, and yes, there is entirely TOO MUCH testing! But the biggest changes I have seen since my youngest started school 10 years ago is in the amount of parental involvement, even in our good, middle to upper-middle class district. It seems now that parents are expecting the schools to do EVERYTHING and be EVERYTHING for their kids. They don’t seem to volunteer to help with parties, field trips, or classroom helpers they way the did even 10 years ago.

  • I too have yet to see a realistic proposal. When I first got out of college, I worked briefly in education reform and became very very VERY disenchanted with it. I think a lot of people involved in that field have the best intentions and are smart and driven, and I also think there’s a ton of elements involved in providing quality educations that education reform pays absolutely no attention to. And, of course, many of the funders and political bodies supporting education reform are doing it for reasons that let us say I am not in sympathy with. It’s just a really complex and difficult issue. I get sad when I think about it for too long. :/

    • Agreed on all counts! It’s SO easy to get disenchanted. All of this is part of the reason I left the classroom and am moving to research – policy is too far removed from actually being connected to what is going on, but I’m hoping I can add some research to guide people in the right direction.

  • I saw this book come through Monika’s Edelweiss feed and thought to myself, “I bet Shannon is reading this, too.” Bingo! And I’m glad. My background is in English, not education, though I’ve worked in the educational sphere all my life. And public school vs. higher ed are different beasts (though both TOTALLY beastly). As you know, I’m feeling every bit of the problems with public education these days with Greyson in kindergarten, but I want a solid book with great research behind it. I don’t need anecdotes to piss me off more than I am right now. Since this is not the book, are there better ones you would recommend for someone in my situation?

    • I totally understand why you’re frustrated, especially in the kindergarten boat. I do research in pre-K classes and it just blows my mind that they’re already going through standardized testing at 3 and 4. The bummer about most education books is that you will have to trudge through the outline of problems before you get to suggestions (though, in some cases knowing you’re not alone may help). I’m a big fan of Diane Ravitch – she has a serious focus on keeping public schools functioning/actually public and understands the roles of everyone involved. I don’t always agree with everything she says, but most of it is spot on. Her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System actually has GOOD suggestions and is worth reading. I also LOVED How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, which is much more feel-good and focused on individual children but has some seriously actionable plans for parents/schools.

      • Ahhh, I knew you’d have something in your back pocket!!! Off to look through Ravitch and Tough’s books on Goodreads! <3 Thank you

  • I have been on the education soap box so often and so long, now. I get angrier every time I even think about it. Don’t get me started because I don’t have brakes, when it comes to this subject. Out $108,000 purchased computer platform for this year’s testing just crashed because… get this… every student in the state of TN logged into the testing site at the same time to take the same computer ELA test on one server. Crash… and burn. Now, more money is being spent to produce a paper/pencil test like they used to take. Grrrrr…. not to mention the politicians with no educational background who are making the decisions. It’s so disheartening to go to work every day and attempt to teach conceptually beyond my students’ developmental understanding. I’m no longer viewed as a professional who is capable of making decisions for my students, despite years of training, highly qualified status, and degree. I told you, don’t get me started because I have no brakes. I think this book would just make me even angrier. I don’t want anecdotes or he saw, she saw. I want knowledge based upon research based experience. Whew! Rant over.

    • Oh, I don’t blame you for losing the brakes at all. These are all reasons I just had to step away from the classroom after almost 10 years…I just felt like I wasn’t teaching anymore. And this book really did make me angrier. I feel like so few people understand the tough spot teachers are in and this book certainly did not.

    • Preach!

  • So sad that this book didn’t deliver. This is such an important topic that really needs more conversation, but nobody seems to be proposing actual attainable ideas for change.

  • That’s frustrating that he touts the amazing private schools that are working instead of discussing how we can make all schools good. Why do so many books show the disparity between our schools without proposing solutions?

  • Gah, nothing frustrates me more than endless anecdotes with flimsy or—even worse—no data to back them up. :/ I guess we should have known that a 20-year-old wouldn’t be likely to have all the answers…

  • Citizen Reader

    Thanks so much for this review. I thought the title looked interesting but the ad copy at Amazon was fantastically unhelpful about telling me who this author was. Not that there’s anything wrong with being twenty–but I would have liked to know a little bit more about how and why he developed these ideas.

  • Haha, what Shaina said! I hate authors that rely exclusively on anecdotes myself and it sounds like this author suggests a pretty unrealistic solution as well. Too bad, because this is a fascinating topic!

  • Pingback: Schools on Trial by Nikhil Goyal - Lovely BookshelfLovely Bookshelf()

  • Pingback: February 2016 Reading Wrap-Up - Lovely BookshelfLovely Bookshelf()