Customer Service Surveys and Nazis

I’ve just finished reading the book Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. It is the true story of  Eddie Chapman, one of the most fascinating and effective double agents working for Britain during WWII. Chapman, a career criminal, was the only wartime agent pardoned for his crimes by the British. The Nazis so valued his efforts during the war that they awarded him the Iron Cross.

Eddie Chapman was clearly talented when it came to telling stories and charming friends, romantic interests, and his spymasters. Yet there were times when his deception should have been flagged and investigated more carefully by the Germans. One reason this wasn’t done lies in what the book calls “the central defining flaw of the German secret service.”

The Germans tied the fortunes of the spymaster to his spy. Dependent on each other and competing with other German spies and spymasters, there was great pressure to provide information about the Allies. Chapman’s Nazi controller needed to believe the misinformation Chapman was feeding him. Having a productive spy increased his monitory rewards and kept him away from the Eastern Front.

In contrast, within the British secret services, spy case officers shared responsibility for multiple spies. The British knew that if a spymaster’s self-interest was tied to his agent, he would not see that agent clearly and that might compromise the spymaster’s personal integrity.

This problem with tying individual rewards and punishments closely to the performance or satisfaction of a third-party is something we still see today in businesses, government agencies, the news media, and public schools. One of the most annoying manifestations of this type of warped reward dynamic are in the ubiquitous customer service satisfaction surveys. Too many companies have clumsily tied some aspect of compensation of front-line employees to the results of customer satisfaction surveys. This results in front-line sales and customer service employees coaching customers to always “give a 5-out-of-5.” From car dealerships to carpet cleaners they repeat the mantra that if the customer isn’t completely satisfied and isn’t able to give a 5-out-of-5 (or a 10-out-of-10), the customer should immediately tell them and they will fix the problem *before* the customer fills out the survey. This creates an environment where senior management is kept in the dark. Hidden are possible systematic issues that would be obvious if customers filled out surveys without influence. Any problems are either fixed with a series of one-of solutions by the front-line workers or are swept under the rug because the front-line workers have pressured customers to only give perfect scores in the surveys. A perfect score on a customer satisfaction survey is basically worthless to the company who is trying to improve.

Throughout business, when managers run their departments with little outside input or objective analysis, misinformation is bound to creep into reports. In schools, the pay-for-performance movement and the penalties imposed by No Child Left Behind created an environment that encouraged standardized-test cheating scandals.

Of course, as the Nazi’s found out, glowing reports that fail to mention the negative, will eventually catch up with you. If you are a business, perfect customer surveys will not stop your customers from finding other venders when they are truly unhappy. In the schools, kids who are below grade level will eventually feel the negative effects of that, regardless of their impressively doctored test scores. In order to get quality information, we must be much more careful about introducing self-interest variables into our search for the truth.

Refocus on High-Stakes Educating, Not Testing

This morning in Minnesota, participating McDonalds offered a free breakfast to students in grades 3-11. Today is the first day of the high-stakes Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) and McDonalds was doing their part by trying to ensure students weren’t testing with the added distraction of empty stomachs.

In New York, students, parents, and teachers are especially stressed about testing this spring because their public schools have decided to test students on the new Common Core Standards, even though the standards have not yet made it into the curriculum. New York students will be tested on material they have not yet learned in class. This has led to after school and weekend test cram sessions which include test drills and the teaching of anxiety relief techniques. Formal test cram schools are thriving.

The Common Core Standards are specifically designed to make US students more competitive in the global economy. Especially when compared to other countries, we are still a nation at risk, ranking just 17th in the developed world for education. By testing students on the standards before they are incorporated into the curriculum, New York will know the weaknesses within their public education system. Hopefully they will use the information wisely.

Over the last several years, policy initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, have tried to improve US education and have widely missed the mark. We now have a competition between schools and school districts. We have allowed the results of high-stakes testing to determine distribution of the very limited resources allocated to education. We have rewarded schools and their administrators when their students performed well on the tests and punished them when the students performed poorly. This predictably has led to disturbing test cheating scandals and not much, if any, improvement in the actual education of US students.

We need to go back to the beginning to remember why we even have a public education system in the US. It is there to make us a better, more effective, more economically successful country. Your school, school district, and state is not, or should not be competing against my school, school district, and state for limited federal education dollars and resources. We, all of us, are competing against the world. Our students need to hold their own against students from Finland, South Korea, and Japan. We need testing to keep us honest about how we are doing compared to schooling around the world, not to pit schools against each other. The tests are more an indication of what is going on with our students, not our schools. Several factors influence results on standardized achievement tests including what is taught in school, a student’s innate intelligence, and a student’s out-of-school learning. Only one of these is under the control of teachers and schools.

In order to truly improve our schools globally we need to refocus on educating, not testing and:

  • Replace locally chosen tests with national standardized tests — ensuring that all students across the country are taking the same tests at the same time. Similar to administration of the Explore, ACT, and SAT tests. We must recognize that testing is not teaching and also limit the number of test and test prep days in a school year to less than 3.
  • Sever the ties between test scores and school funding, teacher salaries, and administrator salaries.
  • Recognize that hunger, poverty, stressful environments, and lack of upward mobility in the US contributes to poor educational outcomes. If we want to do better as a country, we need to stop viewing schools in isolation.
  • Attract better students to the teaching profession by making teaching a higher paid, more intellectually challenging and respected profession. Teaching colleges should be tougher to get into and classes in them more challenging.
  • Create national investigative teams to study schools and communities to determine how to improve educational outcomes. The national test score results will show which communities to study because their students score either significantly above or below the norm.
  • Study what has worked in the top global educational systems and then copy them.

There is no quick fix for the US education system. Nations whose students out perform US students have cultures that value education and teachers in a way that perhaps we do not in the US. We can change this though. The more we understand about student success and effective teaching techniques, the better chance we have to develop globally competitive students.