Schools on Trial by Nikhil Goyal

Schools on Trial by Nikhil GoyalSchools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikhil Goyal
Published by Doubleday on February 16, 2016
Pages: 320
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
IndieBoundBarnes & NobleAmazon

Schools on Trial is an all-in attack on the American way of education and a hopeful blueprint for change by one of the most passionate and certainly youngest writers on this subject.
Are America’s schools little more than cinder-block gulags that spawn vicious cliques and bullying, negate creativity and true learning, and squelch curiosity in their inmates, um, students? Nikhil Goyal—a journalist and activist all of twenty years old, whom The Washington Post has dubbed a “future education secretary” and Forbes has named to its 30 Under 30 list—definitely thinks so. In this book he both offers a scathing indictment of our teach-to-the-test-while-killing-the-spirit educational assembly line and maps out a path for all of our schools to harness children’s natural aptitude for learning by creating an atmosphere conducive to freedom and creativity. He prescribes an inspiring educational future that is thoroughly democratic and experiential, and one that utilizes the entire community as a classroom.


In Schools on Trial, Nikhil Goyal attacks the public school system with zealous gusto, often employing shocking and exaggerated language to get his points across. It’s a turn-off that definitely detracts from his message, but it helped me to remember that he is only twenty years old, and very passionate about his topic; it explains the fervid tone throughout the book.

From my own (selfish) perspective as a homeschooling mom, especially as unschoolers, I enjoyed this book. I felt inspired, reading examples of children being encouraged and given the freedom to become self-directed learners. Goyal features a handful of free and democratic schools; the ways they put their philosophies in action gave me ideas we could use here at home, and sometimes validated my own gut feelings and observations about how children learn (which was a nice boost).

But when I thought outside my own corner of the world, I was frustrated. It’s easy to implement these ideas if you homeschool, but that isn’t the answer for everyone. And Goyal’s examples of brick-and-mortar schools based on these philosophies seem out of reach for many families due to tuition costs, location/accessibility, admission requirements, or a combination of all three. I went into Schools on Trial expecting some resolutions to the same issues I had with Peter Gray’s Free to Learn [my review]: Is there a practical way that this philosophy can be implemented in public schools? What about in low-income and/or violence-prone communities?

At least Goyal scratched the surface with a few possibilities, I did appreciate that. But I was overwhelmed thinking about how much it would cost to implement those ideas, and how many changes would need to be made within the school system, and honestly, outside of the school system, too. There are so many books on this topic, extolling a handful of schools where children who are privileged enough to attend, thrive, but neglecting to suggest practical, concrete solutions on how to fix our education system as a whole. I’m not sure Goyal says much in Schools on Trial that hasn’t already been said (and he does quote Gray, Holt, and many more, often), but his perspective as someone who has just come out of the current school system was worthwhile.

I came to this book as a homeschooling mom in a state that makes it pretty easy to school my child however I wish. Shannon at River City Reading actually works in education, though! So be sure to check out her thoughts on this title.


  • I’ve read a few reviews on this one and they all seem to agree that it is heavy on the zeal, but light on the solutions. As a mom who does have a child in public school, I think I will look for some more helpful reading!

    • Yeah I don’t blame you. It’d be nice to see public schools incorporating even just a few of the ideas in the book, but with the heavy focus on testing, I just don’t see how it’s possible.

  • “children being encouraged and given the freedom to become self-directed learners” Why is this not the norm??!?! I never felt I enjoyed school until my senior year of college, where I was finally free to take what I wanted. I’d love to have more of that year, even now at 38. And I wish I could get it for my kids, but, alas I can’t afford to quit work to homeschool. It’s so hard to win.

    • Right?! I went to school all up and down the East coast, and overseas in a very small DoDDS school. All of the great moments I remember were in alternative settings, in an elementary school, before testing was super huge.
      My work schedule is really flexible (and odd haha), plus I’m working at the house most of the time, and can bring C along with me when not. I know there are people who work traditional full-time hours and still homeschool but honestly, I don’t think I could be one of those people if my work situation was different.