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Topic: What's the real purpose of educational benchmarking?
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
What's the real purpose of educational benchmarking?
Posted: Aug 25, 2014 2:15 PM
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From The Washington Post / The Answer Sheet - Valerie Strauss,
Monday, August 18, 2014. See
Answer Sheet

What's the real purpose of educational benchmarking?

By Valerie Strauss

"Benchmarking" is a word that is now everywhere in the world of
education. There's even a Center on International Education
Benchmarking, a program of the National Center on Education and the
Economy, which over 20 years has benchmarked the education systems of
more than 20 countries in what is said to be an effort to find out
what works and what doesn't in educational practice. Could there be
another purpose of benchmarking? Andy Hargreaves, the Brennan Chair
in Education at Boston College, asks and attempts to answer this
question in the following post. His just-published book is "Uplifting
Leadership," coauthored with Alan Boyle and Alma Harris.

By Andy Hargreaves

In the summer of '69, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I was
taking steps of a different kind - down into the bowels of the earth,
to map the decaying sewer system of my old Victorian mill town in
Northern England. The new map I was helping to construct would enable
engineers to locate and repair blockages and breaches and improve the
public sanitation of the town.

Four of us, all university students, worked over several summers to
assemble this new map. Without helmets or harnesses (it was the
1960s, after all), we descended underground with an assortment of
measuring rods to calculate sewer pipe widths and determine the
direction of flow. Every so often, about 30 seconds after we heard a
flushing sound in the distance, noxious substances would flow past
our feet. It was a metaphorical forerunner of the top down
educational reform process we would witness in the years to come.

Back on the surface, we also had to establish the exact height of the
point of our descent. At every "manhole" cover as they were called
then, one of us looked through a surveyor's theodolite towards a
calibrated metal staff held by a partner. The staff was initially
positioned next to a nearby house that had a notch on the corner of
it. The exact altitude of each notch was recorded in a data archive
in the town hall's records.

The notches were known as benchmarks. They helped us survey, measure
and locate where we were in relation to our surroundings. This
process of benchmarking and map-making contributed to the improvement
of public health in our town. But the purposes of benchmarking are
not always so benign.

In a brilliant short story, novelist Andrea Barrett describes the
precise yet perilous work of a surveyor and mapmaker on the North
West frontier of India, during the days of the British Raj. Barrett
describes the detailed work of the technical assessments along with
the personal privations endured by her protagonist as he works
through intense cold at energy sapping altitudes to benchmark the
team's position in relation to staffs held high by colleagues on
surrounding peaks and glaciers. The determined and dedicated
surveyors described themselves as "the Servants of the Map".

But what map was it and whose purposes did all this benchmarking
serve? Suddenly Barrett's narrative takes a violent and tragic turn
as it takes its readers into a village where, on the walls of the
huts, children's shoes have been hung, tiny lopped off feet still
inside them, dripping with blood. The British are in the midst of
war, and so, in a way, are the mapmakers.

Some time later, Barrett's protagonist comes across a disheveled
European who has been wandering through the mountains for many years.
The wanderer asks the surveyor about the purpose of his work. "I
never make maps," the wanderer responds. "They might fall into the
wrong hands" to be distributed to governments, armies and merchants
to plan or prevent invasions.

Whenever we benchmark, we are also always servants of some larger
map. Benchmarking is everywhere in education now. We benchmark
students in relation to standards, schools in relation to each other,
or the educational performance of our own country against higher
scoring competitors. In the midst of all our detailed measurements
and data-driven conversations, whose map are we making? What is it
for? For what greater purpose are we the willing or unwitting

Is the purpose of our educational benchmarking to further the public
good, to raise the standards of education for all, to elevate the
poorest and most disadvantaged students to the greatest heights of
accomplishment? And once we have done our calculations and made our
maps, what pathways will be opened up, and what people and resources
will be pulled along them in this worthy quest for equity and
excellence? The White House announced earlier this summer that it
would address educational inequities by collecting data to help
pinpoint where they existed, but there seemed to be no plan to bring
up the people and resources to correct them.

Is there a second purpose of educational benchmarking then? Is it to
delineate the weak from the strong, inciting nation to compete
against nation, Americans against Asians, and school against school.
After we have pinpointed schools that are failing, does this just
make it easier for invading opportunists to set up charter schools in
their place, or to market online alternatives, tutoring services and
the like?

As in surveying, benchmarking in education should be about
discovering where we stand and learning about who we are and what we
do by observing those around us. It should be about improving public
education, just as the sewer maps for my hometown contributed to
public sanitation. Benchmarking should not be about fomenting panics
about performance in relation to overseas competitors. And it should
not be about dividing schools, families and communities from each
other to create easy pickings for the educational market.

Whenever we are engaged in the data-driven detail of educational
benchmarking, these are the greater questions we should be asking. Of
what map or whose map are we the servants?
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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