Classroom observations: what’s the best fix for a good but not perfect measure?

Imagine having someone follow you around, observing you for just a fraction of a day, to assess your capability on the job.  Sounds nerve wracking.  This is how many teachers are evaluated, and new research suggests that these observations are not altogether reliable.

Although observations as a means of teacher assessment may be favoured over other methods such as gains in pupil standardised test score, we should be wary of relying too heavily on observations as they currently stand.  A new paper out by the Brookings Institute reports that an assessment of teachers via observations is biased based on the existing ability level of the pupils in the class. That is, if the same teacher was dropped into in a better-performing class, he would be rated more favourably than if he had been dropped into a group of lower-performing pupils.

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Look, for goodness sake just start cycling!

January 30, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

This morning, the Department for Transport are announcing a £62m investment in cycling infrastructure. Sounds like good news – investment in cycling is badly needed in the UK (although before we get too excited, £62 million is roughly what it would cost to build two miles of motorway, so falls short of whole-hearted commitment to change the way we travel). We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport. Compare this to the Netherlands (75%), or Germany (30%), and we look pretty pitiable.


We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport.

But is investment in infrastructure going to be enough to encourage more of us to take to two wheels? Much of the money will be spent on improving road access for cyclists, and increasing the number of bike parking spaces at railway stations and in cities. These infrastructural improvements are certainly much needed, and I fully support investment to facilitate them. But I think it’s also important to consider other barriers, including attitudinal ones, which prevent people from cycling.

One of these barriers is almost certainly perception of danger. In their report on Climate Change and Transport Choices for the Department of Transport in 2011, Alex Thornton and colleagues found that nearly two thirds of Britons think that it is too dangerous to cycle on roads, with around half saying that they simply will not cycle on roads, under any circumstances. Roads are dangerous places, but government statistics show that fewer cyclists are killed on the roads than either car users or pedestrians. So, if the reality is that it is far more dangerous to travel on the road by car than by bike, then why have we convinced ourselves that it is so perilous?

Despite the fact that they are more dangerous, cars offer a kind of cocoon, which I suspect makes us feel protected from danger. On a bike, there is a sense of exposure, which feels hazardous and that feeling is very difficult to override by overlaying it with facts. For the significant majority of British people who feel that cycling is unsafe, no amount of bike parking spaces is going to change things.

There are also unhelpful stereotypes which suggest cycling requires specialist equipment, clothing and paraphernalia, as this blog post points out. Hi-visibility tabards, helmets, gloves, panniers – none of these things are actually essential, and in a way, they only serve to make cyclists appear like a sort of out-group clique. For cycling to genuinely be for everybody, it needs to be normal to cycle around cities wearing whatever clothes you happen to wearing, and without any special preparation.

Other barriers include things like status – the car as status symbol isn’t really rivalled by bicycles. For women, concerns about the impact on appearance (helmet hair!), personal dignity and vulnerability have also been cited as reasons not to cycle.

Personally, I’m a bit of an evangelist for cycling and most of these barriers seem pretty trivial. I firmly believe cycling is hard to beat when it comes to health, equality and sustainability. Rearranging a few details of your life in order to make it feasible to cycle to work, or to the train station if you have a longer commute makes such good sense on so many levels. Cycling is unquestionably one of the most equitable means of transport, having very low direct user costs and therefore being affordable by pretty much everyone.

cycling is hard to beat when it comes to health, equality and sustainability

Cycling causes basically no pollution and consumes very little in the way of non-renewable resources, especially compared to motorised forms of transport. The only energy needed to cycle is generated by the cyclist, and the very use of that energy gives the cyclist the opportunity for beneficial cardiovascular exercise.  Sedentary office workers are chronically under-exercised, and wasting an hour a day sitting passively on a bus, tube or train, when you could spend the same amount of time doing good things for your body, the planet, not to mention your wallet seems plain crazy to me.

Albert for Albina: lessons for us?

November 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

Albina Ruiz was last night awarded the Albert Medal for a life-times worth of work in environmental management. With her help, her organisation Ciudad Saludable has grown out of its humble origins in Lima, Peru to become what is now an international force for improving waste management and sanitation. So successful is their approach that they are now making headway as far afield as India.

In a nutshell, Ciudad Saludable helps turn local people into self-reliant micro-entrepreneurs, enabling them to earn a tidy profit from collecting and processing urban waste where they live. According to Albina, these are often unemployed women who go door-to-door collecting waste, while at the same time educating people about how they can take better care of their environment. The real strength of their model lies not only in addressing the growing issue of waste disposal, but also in its ability to create jobs and empower those working within the schemes. Albina often retells her conversations with the women working with Ciudad, highlighting the personal transformation that many appear to go through as part of their work. As she has said previously:

“One time, we invited 59 women to join this project . . . and 700 women responded! Some of them were already working with garbage and other informal activities. The first day, we asked them how they were feeling about their lives. The overall response was that they were feeling badly, and they didn’t even make eye contact while speaking because they were ashamed of their situation.

One year later, we asked them the same question, and the responses included: “I am an enterprising woman,” “I am business woman,” “I am happy,” and “I feel I am a good mother.” In addition, they not only looked us in the eye, but they also smiled and hugged us.  The fact is that this change also brings dignity at the family level, because similarly, when children are asked about their mother’s job, they answer: “She is a micro entrepreneur.””

As we witnessed last night, Albina seems to have that rare ability to turn what is ostensibly a dry and unromantic topic into something warm and thoughtful. How many people, for instance, can pepper a talk about waste management with phrases such as “from the heart” and “together we can really change”?

That said, it didn’t stop her from offering some interesting and practical insights for us to take away. These included:

  • Many people harbour an entrepreneurial mind-set which needs only a small amount of encouragement to emerge – while many in the developed world idealise entrepreneurs as having an in-built capacity to run a business successfully, the model run by the likes of Ciudad Saludable illustrate that with a little encouragement and collective willpower nearly everybody can make a go of running their own enterprise.
  • Financial incentives are critical in persuading people to take up pro-social behaviours – in her lecture Albina told the story of how residents in Lima were reluctant to play a part in putting out and separating their waste for collection until it was explained that they would receive a tax-break. The notion that financial incentives are one of the most powerful weapons in changing behaviour is echoed in other stories emerging from across the developing world. For instance, Brazil has a cash transfer scheme, Bolsa Familia, which pays a nominal fee to families on the condition that children stay in school until 17. Is there a back-to-basics lesson here for the UK’s approach to welfare and behaviour change?
  • Vested interests are often very nuanced – Albina mentioned in yesterday’s Q&A session that while paying for Ciudad Saludable’s waste management services is very cost-effective, the 10 per cent commission which local officials take from investing in new infrastructure means they are more likely to want to buy large and expensive garbage trucks than the tools which her waste pickers use. This is despite them being a huge drain on resources in both the short and long term. While the UK enjoys relatively low levels of corruption, perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere for us around paying closer attention to vested interests, as opposed to simply citing a lack of willingness, funds or skills as key barriers to achieving positive change.
  • Changing the law is half the battle – related to a discussion of vested interests is that of legal matters. Albina mentioned that they had to campaign and persuade politicians to change the law so that it allowed for the kind of micro-enterprise model which Ciudad Saludable is based on. The UK Government has taken what is sees as radical steps towards reducing the bureaucratic burden for small organisations, yet for many this is still too much (see Luke Johnson’s critic of the Coalition’s new company law as a case in point). There is also perhaps a lesson here for foundations and other agencies funding charities and social enterprises – could they also assist organisations that have innovative new models to change the law? It takes a funder with a really long-term vision to support a drawn out campaign for a change in the law, but without being able to do so the likes of Ciudad Saludable may not be around today.