Superintendent's Notebook: Book club will discuss teen's view of school

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I’m starting a book club, and you’re invited to participate. At our first meeting in September, we’ll discuss a provocative book about American education written by a 17-year-old high school student.

“One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School” was published last fall. Since then, the author, Nikhil Goyal, has become a media sensation, appearing on TV, in national newspapers and in a TED Talk.

Goyal makes a compelling case that schools must change to meet the needs of today’s students. He calls for throwing out grades, lectures, most standardized tests and Advanced Placement courses, and replacing them with curriculum that engages students in real-world problem-solving, creativity and collaboration. He advocates for students learning through interdisciplinary projects, the approach that is used at several Portland public schools.

“For kids, school is irrelevant and boring as hell,” Goyal says. For example, he says, “Math is taught as computation, instead of a means of exploration and discovery.”

He cites a 1998 survey showing that more young Americans could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government, then suggests an overhaul of how history is taught. Instead of using textbooks that emphasize facts and dates, he suggests focusing on controversies that shaped world events.

Goyal calls on schools to instill a love of reading and writing in students, to teach science through hands-on experiments and visits to museums, to emphasize the arts and to give students opportunities to create their own businesses. He points out that students can learn a lot by trying something creative even if they ultimately fail.

“When students love going to school,” he says, “we will finally know the system is working.”

Goyal’s own high school education exemplifies his approach. He spent a year independently researching the history of U.S. education, examining studies about what does and doesn’t work around the world and exploring ideas for improvement.

He interviewed more than 100 people, including students who dropped out of school, educational experts and some of the world’s most innovative thinkers in science, business, linguistics and other fields. In the course of writing the book, he became an active learner who took on big challenges – exactly what we want from our students in Portland.

The book is chock full of quotes about education from everyone under the sun. One of my favorites comes from singer Eartha Kitt: “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.” That reflects our district’s goal of creating lifelong learners.

I don’t agree with everything in the book, and I doubt you will, either. But Goyal presents lots of compelling information in a readable format that will get you thinking. I had to keep reminding myself that the author was only 17.

The Superintendent’s Book Club will meet on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in Monument Square. You don’t have to sign up for this free event; just show up. You can order a copy of “One Size Does Not Fit All” for $19.95 plus tax from Longfellow by calling 772-4045 or by visiting You also can buy the book at other online sites.

The Superintendent’s Book Club is an opportunity for area residents, parents and staff members to discuss timely and provocative books about public education. I will hold future meetings on an occasional basis to discuss books about schools, teaching and related topics that are relevant to the Portland Public Schools. To find out more, please visit

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read his blog at