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  March 4, 2016

Schools on Trial: How to Fix America's Broken Public School System

Nikhil Goyal, author of "Schools on Trial," says the United States can resuscitate its public school system by emphasizing values such as freedom and creativity
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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: The first national union to endorse Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was the American Federation of Teachers. They were followed a short time after by the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union. But besides that there hasn't been much news around public education in this election cycle. So where do the major Democratic candidates stand on these important issues?

Now joining us to discuss this is Nikhil Goyal. He's the author of the new book Schools On Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. He lives in New York. Thanks so much for joining us.

NIKHIL GOYAL: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So Nikhil, as I was, you know, talking about in the intro, there just hasn't been much talk about public education in this election cycle. There's been two moments on the Democratic side that stick out to me. Clinton, during a town hall in Iowa, said she's going to close under-performing schools, and there was speculation about how many schools that might be. Is that [inaud.] all the public schools in the country? And then also on the other side, Sanders, he said that he wants to radically change the funding formula around public education. Kind of get tax, you know, property taxes out of the formula.

So you know, for me, I've followed this pretty closely. I care about public education. That's all I've heard. Tell us how Clinton and Sanders kind of compare on the broader issues, and your thoughts to these first two examples, as well.

GOYAL: Yeah. No, it's--you're right, there has been very, very little discussion about K-12 education in this presidential cycle, both on the Republican as well as on the Democratic side. And I, I mean, Sanders has endorsed free public higher education, but on the K-12 side there has been very little talk, especially on his side.

I mean, Clinton has been somebody who has endorsed many of the, the corporate education reforms throughout her career, and that's why it was very surprising to see her get the endorsement of the NEA and the AFT. She's somebody who voted for the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. She's been very supportive of charter schools, and pay for performance. She wants more, a longer school year. These are many examples that people in public education, who are advocating for public education, would oppose.

Meanwhile, Sanders is actually somebody quite interesting. He, back in the 1960s and '70s, he was actually arguing for a more progressive form of education, and critiqued American schools for crushing children's creativity and love of learning. And he, he actually voted against the No Child Left Behind Act. And also, in the recent Every Student Succeeds Act that was passed under President Obama just in December, he oversaw and fought for a portfolio and performance-based assessment system for states, so moving away from standardized tests. It's quite a--I'm a little bit surprised he hasn't talked about this very much, because I think a lot of people in public education would support most of what he's saying.

And I mean, on the two issues you raised, I think it's very, very important, especially--I really appreciate that Sanders was talking about school funding, because once you move away from the property tax model and you push for equitable and equal and accessible funding of public education, that changes the entire game. And I, I'm very happy he realizes that.

But meanwhile for Clinton, I mean, that is obviously something I'm not surprised--I think she said she wanted to close every, all the below-average schools. And then she's somebody who just, I think, recently said at a town hall that she wants to have a longer school year, more structured learning environment. So it is very troubling, much of her record, and the things she'd been saying around education.

NOOR: And so you talked about kind of being surprised that these, the major unions, the AFT and the NEA, would support Clinton. But haven't they sort of been going along with the corporate education reform, which we will get into? Haven't they been going along with it? Or not mobilizing at the, you know, at the very least not mobilizing their members against it. We're talking about No Child Left Behind, we're talking about the expansion of charter schools. I mean, the UFT, the local chapter in New York, they have their own charter schools in New York City.

GOYAL: Yeah, no, I think the AFT and NEA, I mean, I appreciate much of the work they do, have effectively capitulated to pro-corporate and business interests. I mean, that's in essence what has happened. They have fought in some ways against some of the reforms made by President Obama in the last couple years, but they have not done nearly enough, and they have not mobilized teachers against some of these changes. And I think Randi Weingarten, for example, and I appreciate Randi, I think she's a friend of mine, I consider her a friend. I mean, she's somebody who has been a longtime ally of Hillary Clinton.

So yeah, it wasn't, I think, I understand why she would support somebody like Hillary Clinton. At the same time, if you want to talk about, at a time of massive corporate education reform in a time of slashing of school budgets and an attack on public education, you need to mobilize your members and effectively and vigorously critique the kind of system that we have come about today. And I don't think AFT and NEA have done nearly enough.

NOOR: So the, the national laws we've been talking about, No Child Left Behind and then Race To The Top, they sort of made this possible. They made the increasing of charter schools, the increasing of standardized testing possible through the Department of Education through federal law. Now the three Republican frontrunners, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, have all discussed abolishing the Department of Education. So would this sort of be a good idea?

GOYAL: I'm all in favor of reducing the federal role over public education. I think there has been way too much power given to the Department of Education in terms of, for example, the Race To The Top program, which basically threatened states to adopt former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan-backed policies. But at the same time, I'm not in favor of abolishing the Department of Education. I think it's a wrong move.

I think it needs to be, the powers need to be more strongly regulated and constrained, but I think there is a place in our society for the Department of Education, especially when it comes to things, for example, like civil rights or school discipline. I mean, the Obama administration, fortunately, has responded to activists' and community members' calls to move away from zero tolerance discipline policies, and they have supported, they've called for schools to move away from those ruthless discipline initiatives.

So there is some--I mean, I think the DOE, while I criticize it tremendously, I think has done a few, some, a few good things in the past couple years. And I don't support abolishing it in any form.

NOOR: Okay. Well, Nikhil Goyal, this wraps up part one of our conversation. We're going to talk more about your book, Schools on Trial, in the upcoming segment. Stay tuned.

Part 2

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. We're continuing our discussion with Nikhil Goyal. He's the author of Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. He's joining us from New York. Thanks for being back with us, Nikhil.

NIKHIL GOYAL: Absolutely.

NOOR: So let's get right into your book. You start off your introduction by describing what high school was like for you. You described it as almost like a prison. You had very little freedom, you had five minutes in between classes, you had a 45-minute lunch break. Besides that, it was, you were forced into this routine, and you really didn't like it very much.

And so what I'm describing many people would be surprised to hear, is one of the most affluent, wealthy, and high-achieving, quote-unquote, school districts in the country. Talk a little bit about your own experience and your journey to writing this book and becoming an advocate for quality public education.

GOYAL: Sure. I graduated from Syosset High School on Long Island. And as you said, it's a high-achieving, wealthy high school. Many kids go into Ivy League institutions. It's a very well-funded district. And I noticed a number of things when I came to the school. I moved to the school in the summer before 10th grade. And the school is a place where there's essentially a mental health crisis. Kids are very much so sleep deprived, they're depressed, anxious, hooked on prescription rugs. There's a ruthless competition for college admissions. I mean, the whole purpose of high school for many students is to simply pad their college applications to get into as top of a college as they can.

And I felt this kind of journey was very artificial, and I didn't want to participate in this rat race. And I just started to ask questions about my school experiences. I found myself incredibly bored in class, frustrated. I had very little freedom or opportunity over what I wanted to learn and my classes. I just felt that there was something very distorted and inhumane about this education system.

And I would argue, I mean, I went to, as I mentioned, a high-achieving high school. And I think it's even worse in urban districts, where you have metal detectors and police officers, and even less, much much less funding, in the schools.

So I graduated from Syosset High School in January of '13, and for the past couple years I've been going around the country and looking at the problems of American education, and then also offering and examining where is education actually working around the country, where is, where are there humane, effective, and democratic and experiential learning models that should be more widely adopted around the country?

And so I reported on those and I wrote about those issues, and I wanted to expose the public to another education system. An education system that is much more based on children's curiosity and intrinsic motivation, as opposed to compliance and obedience.

NOOR: And so, you know, this has been a debate that's been happening for a long time in the education world. This is where the idea of charter schools came out of. But especially with the larger charter school chains, one you mention in your book is Success Academy, that's not what many people are saying is the reality in these schools. And there is a video I wanted to share with our audience that just came to light over the last few weeks. It was taken in 2014, but it's an interaction a teacher has with one of her students when her student can't correctly explain how she got an answer during, you know--couldn't answer a math problem. We're going to play that video.


TEACHER: You cut or you split. So count it again, making sure you're counting correctly.

Go to the calm down chair and sit. There's nothing that infuriates me more than when you don't do what's on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer that was [one and a split]. Show my friends and teach them.

STUDENT: One and a split.

TEACHER: Thank you.


NOOR: Okay. So that's a bit of this video that went viral. And that teacher was actually a very high-performing teacher. She got some of the highest evaluations that you can get as a teacher. And she took this paper of the student, ripped it up, publicly humiliated the student, and told the student to go sit in a chair. You know, outside of the circle. So are these some of the better conditions which let students flourish? Because these, you know, actions like these are sort of common in charter schools, and kind of the similar models around the country.

GOYAL: Yeah, no. It's--I mean, to put it just bluntly, it's child abuse. It is just completely abusive practices that should not be in schools. And Success Academy is one of the more egregious examples of that. And I mean, the New York Times has done a lot of good reporting on Success Academy, and I mean, last year they found that the kids were wetting their pants because they did not want to risk losing any time in test preparation.

So this is a school that is very much so similar to many charter schools, where it's very regimented, very disciplined. The teachers do not look like the population they are working with. And it is just, just rigorous test prep. And this is nothing like what we want to see in children. They are creating obedient, very docile workers in our capitalistic society. I mean, this is not the kind of purposes of education that we would like to see.

But I also should mention that many public schools have similar practices. Maybe not on the same scale. But in 19 states corporate punishment is still legal. So you have tens of thousands of, hundreds of thousands of kids, being legally assaulted by teachers every year. So I mean, I think charter schools are, obviously have committed incredibly heinous practices, but I think it's also very much so in the public system as well.

NOOR: And of course if you talk to teachers they'll say, like, look. There's tons of pressure for us to make sure our students do good on those math tests, on English standards. You know, they don't perform, they might get held back. We're going to lose our jobs, we won't get our pay benefits. The school might get closed down. Right? So it's really, the system is incentivizing those type of actions and behaviors.

GOYAL: Yeah, no. I would agree with that. I just would say that corporal punishment has been in the system existent--has been in the system very much so ever--even before the, the burdensome amount of pressure put on teachers, especially with teacher evaluation systems that are based on test scores.

But yeah, I think, yeah. I agree with the sentiment that teachers are under incredible pressure to make sure their kids meet certain standards and metrics. And yeah, under No Child Left Behind as well as other pieces of legislation, if a school does not perform at a certain level they are at risk of being closed down or turned into a charter school, or some other restructuring scheme. And so it can have devastating effects on that school and the community.

NOOR: So Nikhil, we just have a few minutes left in this segment, but we're going to have you on again soon to talk more about your book. But in this book you got a--or I guess in the cover of the book you got a ringing endorsement from Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education. And she says she nominates you for the U.S. secretary of education. We just have a few minutes left, but talk about what some of the best practices are to create healthy, vibrant learning environments, and where students can have the freedom and creativity that they need.

GOYAL: Yeah. In the book I write about a number of models of schools that do incredible work, that are known as progressive schools, child-centered progressive schools. And many of your viewers may have heard of Montessori schools, and Waldorf, and Sudbury. I mean, they're very much so along this kind of model which is that children are natural learners, that they have an immense curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. That the purpose of a school is to nurture and help those qualities flourish. And to create the conditions for that to, for children to thrive. And it includes equal relationships between students and teachers, letting the community be the classroom, so not letting the school building be divorced from the community, let them be very much so interconnected. Letting kids engage in experiential and project-based learning environments and opportunities.

I think those, where students are able to apply their knowledge to real-world experiences, that often has much better outcomes than simply listening to a teacher, regurgitating that information on an exam, and then oftentimes forgetting it just a couple of days or even hours later. And these schools that there, there are many private schools like this. There are also public schools. There is a New York State Performance Standards Consortium, a group of public progressive schools that have adopted these practices--.

NOOR: And actually, I have an interesting anecdote about the Consortium Schools in New York City. When I was living there and reporting there, they actually don't really talk to the media and get their story out of their success. Some of these schools actually take kids that are kicked out of the regular public schools. And they, you know, they take them in, and they graduate and go to college at rates that are far higher than any other schools, and basically in the entire city, on par with some of the best schools in the city. But they don't want the word getting out, because they're afraid that they'll get shut down if there's too much publicity about how they're succeeding.

GOYAL: I don't know if they're very worried about that. I mean, I visited several of them and I'm friends with one of the co-founders, Ann Cook. So I think they, they seem a little bit receptive to media, but I understand the sentiment behind that.

But yeah, the evidence shows, there was a number of reports done on these Consortium schools. And these schools, yes, they have lower drop-out rates, higher graduation rates, and very much so, very high levels of student engagement at the schools that I visited. And the kids are happy. I mean, the kids are very happy to be in school. And I think, and even when you compare them to the traditional public schools, I think they do an incredibly good job.

And the point is, I mean, what my book is really trying to emphasize, that we need to bring these kind of progressive, innovative models of schooling into the public system, because that's where the kids are. Ninety percent of kids go to public schools. And this system cannot just be remaining in a private sphere, which are oftentimes reserved for the most affluent and elite families. And so we need to bring these models into the public system, and I think the Consortium schools are an excellent example and model to look to.

NOOR: All right. Well, Nikhil Goyal, thanks so much for joining us. His new book is Schools on Trial: How Freedom And Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. Thanks so much.

GOYAL: Thanks.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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