Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, is a cleverly written story about workers who weave a fine garment for the Emperor. The weavers claim that their garments are made from the rarest and finest cloth imaginable, visible only by the smartest and most excellent individuals. Those who were not smart or excellent would see nothing at all. Believing in his own majestic nature and brilliance, the Emperor will not admit that he cannot see the beautiful garment sewn by the weavers, who are, in actuality, clever swindlers. The Emperor proceeds to wear the garment in the grand annual parade, where all his subjects line the streets to admire their ruler. Knowing that only the smartest and most excellent people can see the magical cloth from which the Emperor’s garment is made, the subjects admire the invisible robes and stay silent about the fact that the Emperor is naked. No one will admit that they cannot see the garment and are, therefore, not smart and excellent. Everyone invests in the fairytale advocated by the Emperor, the person in power, and the masses deny what they “know” in favor of that which is deemed “smart” and “excellent.” This is an example of cultural hegemony. The Emperor and his subjects are all investing in the hegemony, buying in to a reality that is advocated by the power structure and “sold” to the people.
There is a similar fairytale being told in the public education system. It is labeled “standardized testing,” and it is, in fact, naked educational hegemony. This can be defined as a leadership or dominance of the policy makers and testing corporations over their consumers, advocating a standard of knowledge or ideology that is based on that which maintains their power. In this case, standardized tests are advocated and promoted as adequate measures of intelligence, knowledge and capability, and are maintained as the status quo among public educational leadership. This educational hegemony is dominating a generation of children.
The roots of cultural hegemony are found in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. Gramsci defined cultural hegemony as an ideology that maintained a capitalist state, which thereby normalized the ideas of those in power and maintained the current power structure. Power is not achieved through force, but rather the advancement of an ideology that becomes the “common sense” of the masses. Educational hegemony in the public system is built on an ideology that is largely constructed for the purpose of maintaining a power structure, using the vehicle of standardized tests. This practice of testing and test preparation has now fully clothed the public education system, enveloping a large portion of the time that a student spends in school. According to the Washington Post article, Confirmed: Standardized Testing Has Taken Over our Schools. But Who is to Blame? (October 24, 2015), this initiative, brought about in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act, consumes 20–25 hours of child’s life, every year. This does not include test preparation time. The average student will take 112 standardized tests from Pre-K through 12th grade. The standardized testing industry is a 1.4 billion dollar industry. That is not including the test prep industry, computer industry, tutoring, coaching, and the assortment of services that are necessary for the implementation of the standardized tests. And the results of standardized tests have never been shown to improve student achievement or teacher performance. In short, the Emperor is, in fact, naked!
So what does this mean for the child in the public education system? The answer, it depends on the child. For the child who is a relational thinker, who learns by insight and seeing relationships, standardized tests reduce learning potential. When too much of the school day is spent on test prep, getting the “right” answer, and learning to acquire “knowledge” and regurgitate what is “learned,” the end result is an imaginary cloth that serves to cloak the learner in a false sense of mastery. Acquisition of knowledge is important to learning, without question, but to make knowledge acquisition the end goal of learned material is promoting an ideology that will leave some children “left behind,” while simultaneously eroding their sense of self and learning capacity.
What can be done? Perhaps those 25 hours spent each year on test taking can be used to develop inquiry-based learning that helps foster connections between ideas. Perhaps time can be spent on developing a relationship with each student to determine interests, leadership potential, or community projects that will serve the common good. The end result would be action taken within the community of learners to provide a foundation and motivation for future action and continued learning. The child is thereby, not left with a collection of data and numbers supposedly indicating achievement, but rather a concrete manifestation of knowledge gained and used. In this way, the question of the grandness of the Emperor’s clothes is removed as a question to be answered, and the children are left cloaked in valuable learning experiences that will shine a light on the world they will eventually be living in.