Education Dept Snafu is Lesson for Rest of Us

Today's New York Times has a story about a very embarassing snafu at the US Department of Education that is a lesson for all of us: "For Want of a Proofreader, or at Least a Good One, a Reading Exam Is Lost" at

What happened is that US scores on an international reading exam were invalidated because there was a serious typo in the exam booklets, so students were told to look on the wrong page for text. The company printing the booklets did not catch the mistake and the department also failed to spot it. A copy editor could have found the mistake in 10 seconds according to a spokesperson from the department.

Many people have done something similar, though on a much smaller scale. I may even have sinned myself in this way a long time ago. The root cause of this problem is very simple: failing to define who is responsible for the proofreading and fact checking. It's a classic scenario where everyone thinks someone else is checking.

I remember once working on a program for a conference in Italy and I never checked the exact address of the venue, assuming that the company hired to handle the logistics would check everything. They didn't and the house number was wrong. Luckily there were no consequneces since the building was so big and obvious it didn't need a number -- like the White House or the Pentagon.

The lesson from all of this is that you must always define exactly who in a project is responsible for proof reading and fact checking, otherwise there is a danger that everyone else assumes someone else is doing it. If you are not sure who is doing it then ask the person who is doing it if they are really responsible then make sure that they actually confirm that they are.

Pilots do something like this when they pass the controls from one to another. So that there is never a situation where each pilot thinks the other is flying the plane -- or when both are pulling the controls in opposite directions -- the custom is that the pilot taking control says "It's mine" but then the other pilot answers "It's yours". In this way both pilots are sure the other knows who is in control.


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