How Education is Cultural
Integrating benchmarks into the curriculum can affect a variety of cultural outcomes. On the one hand they act as a set of standards for which the schools as well as the students can measure their performance against other students, schools, states, and countries. Conversely, benchmarks have been criticized for creating a homogenous form of education that neglects the individual circumstances of particular learning styles and strategies. With this brief essay, I will highlight what I feel to be the major cultural issues of using benchmarks in the curriculum.
With the rise of globalization and increased educational competition, educational systems are increasingly being pushed to adopt and assess clearly stated benchmarks into their curriculum. Education Week published an article concerning this issue in which they argue for the integration of benchmarks. Author Michele McNeil writes that ‘top policy groups are pushing states toward international benchmarking as a way to better prepare students for a competitive global economy’ (McNeil). By adopting this strategy, schools are standardizing and quantifying their performance against the global competition in an effort to gauge their standings.
Additionally, benchmarks not only rank and measure the performance of educational systems; they provide direct results of where and how the system needs to improve in order to better compete. The University of Massachusetts is incorporating a benchmark system that will ‘provide an informed, more objective counterpoint to the sometimes incomplete praises and criticisms of standards-based education reform’ (Education). This objective strategy can lead to the implementation of educational changes that specifically target the shortcomings of a program.
For example, by examining the test results, schools and educators can pinpoint which demographics are succeeding and in which areas. With this knowledge, they can identify possible teaching methods that they can implement into their coursework in order to close that gap. Another benefit of studying the test results would be to see how social factors such as class and race affect testing habits and performance. If the tests showed that low-income minority students fared well in certain subjects, they could encourage these subjects to future classes as well as pick up on the areas that this group may not have done as well in.
On the other hand we need to ask what effects testing have on student performance. By stressing to students that what matters most in their education is how well they do on standardized tests, students learn how to succeed on test taking; not necessarily on gaining knowledge and understanding. This trend has increased during the past few decades with the importance of tests such as the ACT and SAT for getting into higher education.
A whole new industry of test-preparation education has developed in response to this growing need. Students learn to compete against other students in standardized tests in order to gain entry into the best colleges around the world. This can have dramatic effects on the ways students approach schooling. Perhaps the most important habit testing encourages is to simply learn the topics that will be on the test. This limits students’ ability to think across disciplines and their ability to problem solve in new situations where they do not necessarily know what to expect in real life situations that call upon a wide range of knowledge.
Another interesting phenomenon, that is not necessarily a new occurrence, is test taking anxiety. Some students who are quite intelligent are not great test takers. This is a common fact and comes down to a variety of determining elements. Many students place so much pressure upon themselves to do well on tests that they overhype themselves into thinking that acing a test is the only way they are going to get into the school of their choice.
Due to this anxiety, many students will develop nervous tendencies that distract them away from focusing solely on the questions in the test. They start doubting their ability and second guessing themselves which in turn perpetuates a cycle of negative thinking that inhibits instinctual responses and forces students into making last second guesses instead of informed best guesses. This can have a direct negative effect on the success of the student on their test taking success, especially in tests that have tight time restrictions such as the ACT and SAT.
Additionally we need to look at how test results influence the way teachers teach to specific students based on test results. In a variety of educational psychological studies, it has been shown that teachers tend to put more time and energy into students who have demonstrated a capacity to score well on tests (Dillon). They do this because they think that these students are more interested in the subject matter or that they have more potential than other students when in fact this is not necessarily the case. Students who have not scored well find themselves thinking that the teachers do not believe in them and therefore they tend to distance themselves from their education as a defense mechanism.
Obviously testing to improve educational achievement is a multi-dimensional issue. It sets goals and standards that can measure student performance and identify solutions to closing the education gap, on the other hand it encourages students to value a specific set of learning tactics at the cost of a multi-disciplinary and problem solving approach.
So what does this all mean for our educational culture?
It means that students become acculturated to a regimented structure of education that has clearly marked benchmarks that they must achieve in order to succeed. The whole of their education is based on the results of a handful of ‘objective’ tests. What this paper argues is that the objective is in reality a subjective measure instituted in an attempt to quantify knowledge.
This is a futile attempt despite the rallying cries of its proponents. What anthropologists and students of culture must determine is how best to change this culture of benchmarks and standards in education. One possible solution that radicals take up would be to abandon standardized tests altogether for the message it sends to students that they need to beat the competition by being the best test taker.
This is a short sided solution because these tests do provide administrators and educators relative indicators of where their programs are succeeding and where they are failing. A new system needs to be incorporated that places less emphasis on test taking ability and places more resources into multi-disciplinary approaches that values heterogeneity of thought and experience. This would open up teaching styles to be able to adapt to student’s individual capacities and would in turn benefit knowledge in general by including different and diverse perspectives into education.
“Education Benchmarks.” University of Massachusetts. 5 Dec. 2008. 5 Dec. 2008 http://www.edbenchmarks.org/
Dillon, Sam. “U.S. Students Achieve Mixed Results on Writing Test.” The New York Times. 4 April 2008. 5 Dec. 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/education/04writing.html
McNeil, Michele. “Benchmarks Momentum on Increase.” Education Week. 18 March 2008. 5 Dec. 2008 http://www.edweek.org/login.html?source=http://www.edweek.org/