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.



Elementary School Cooperation, Pressure, and Harvard Cheating

On Friday the news broke that Harvard University is investigating what may be the largest student cheating scandal in its history. 125 students in a course titled “Introduction to Congress” are suspected of cheating on the take-home final exam. All jokes aside about it being sadly funny that a course about Congress was one which inspired cheating, how did we get here? How did students who are some of our nation’s best and brightest, students who will go on to lead in businesses, academics, and government, either cheat intentionally or fail miserably at understanding the basic social contract behind a final course exam?

The fact that the students collaborated on the exam and that their answers were similar is not under dispute. The students are defending their shared exam work, stating that they felt the professor and teaching assistants encouraged cooperation and collaboration, or tolerated it, or at least did not explicitly state it was against the rules. Some have even said they will sue Harvard if they are punished.

The defense the students are putting forth is that the course was represented to them (apparently by the professor and some other students) as an easy “A”. These students went into the class feeling as though attending lectures and doing the reading was optional. There were take-home assignments and exams during the course that did allow some collaboration. Then they got the final exam. Some felt the final was confusing with trick questions and at least one term that had not been obviously defined in class or in the readings. Students being questioned about cheating chatted about the exam specifics with each other and went to teaching assistants for guidance on how to answer the questions. Given the perceived unfairness of having to work hard for a grade in an “easy” class, deal with ambiguous questions, and think on their own, many students just chose to work together. No word yet on how the other 154 students in the course managed to complete their exam without outside help.

Students are claiming that the exam instructions were confusing and didn’t explicitly ban collaboration. This is a disingenuous argument. If the instructions were confusing, they should have clarified the instructions, not worked together on the answers. The exam instructions, as posted by the Boston Globe, explicitly state that the students may not discuss the exam. An open book, open note, and open Internet exam is not the same thing as a “discuss with your neighbor and write down your combined best answer” exam. Perhaps the students have never had true, in-class, proctored, open-book exams so they don’t understand what that means? Harvard has moved away from traditional in-class exams.

Clearly this extreme form of cheating does not suddenly emerge out of  a vacuum. Harvard graduates have, from time-to-time, spoken out about the culture of cheating occurs when kids used to success and under pressure to achieve high GPAs, start feeling like they might fail. This need to bend ethics and the truth to win is evident elsewhere in society from politics to the Libor interest rate scandal.

Yet the uptick of both cheating and rationalizing that cheating represented in the current Harvard scandal is something new. It is one thing to cheat, it is another to blatantly do so in mass numbers, threatening to sue a university if you are punished. To me this is the sad but natural progression of two trends that are taking over our school systems, starting at the elementary level.

The first trend is the growing worship of shared, group work over individual effort. Many, if not most, elementary school classrooms have desks arranged in collaborative workgroup “pods” rather than in straight lines, facing the teacher. In these pods the students face each other. This increases peer interaction (and distraction), minimizes the authority and role of the teacher in the classroom, and gives burgeoning bullies more opportunities to pick on classmates without getting caught. Teachers arrange their rooms this way to make it easier for students to work together. While everyone agrees that we want our future workforce to be excellent at getting along with each other and working together, is a heavy emphasis on group projects in school the right way to achieve that goal? Actual research shows that individuals perform better than groups.  People in groups tend to be lazy, letting others do more work than themselves. Rather than fostering more ideas, groups tend to create a type of groupthink where individual ideas are suppressed and peer pressure rules. The work and creativity of introverts especially suffers when they are forced to work in groups. By emphasizing group work so early in school we are de-emphasising individual effort and ability. We are encouraging the type of thinking that can lead to students at an Ivy League university seeing nothing wrong with a group effort on a final exam. We are short-changing our kids and their future employers by teaching them that there is no difference between an individual knowing the correct answer and that individual’s peer group knowing the correct answer. We are systematically reducing the numbers and quality of thoughts and ideas in our world just when we need an increase of creativity to find solutions to our 21st Century problems.

The second trend is more obvious and just as disturbing. It is the win at all costs, my child must be the best, of the best, of the best or he/she will be a failure, parenting style. When parents coach their kids to make sure they gain entry to gifted programs and call teachers to complain about test scores, their kids notice. Kids are learning that resources and success are limited and the stakes are so high it is permissible to bend the rules. The idea that your life will be irreparably ruined if you fail a course, in college or even K-12 is widespread. Parents, and therefore their kids, do not seem to believe that America is the land of limitless opportunity anymore. Instead everything matters, everything is life or death, and grades matter more than what you have actually learned. Our school system has created an environment where everyone is accountable, as judged by graduation rates and test scores, not by knowledge. Colleges used to hold the line on true academics, but they too are under pressure to turn out students with high GPAs and amazing resumes, regardless of actual learning. Grade inflation is rampant and frequently it isn’t until the stellar, always above average students gets into the workforce that the gaps in their ability and knowledge are obvious.

Getting into “the right” college isn’t as important and learning how to think and write. Statistics that show the amazing success of graduates of top universities fail to acknowledge that the smart, talented students accepted into those institutions will be successful no matter where they go to school. Parents all need to take a deep breath, stop worrying about the future and start teaching that integrity and hard work will be as important in the future as they were in the past.