“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 servants?

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?