David Knuffke is the Curriculum Associate for Science & Technology in Deer Park UFSD. Prior to this he taught high school science at Deer Park High School, in Deer Park, NY for the first 13 years of his career.
Evidence for a ceiling of teacher competence effects on standardized test scores.
Here's a thing that I see repeatedly: A teacher gets their scores after their students sit for some sort of standardized exam (ex. An AP Exam). They are not pleased with the results. So they turn to their professional network to express their frustration. They want their kids to do better. Maybe they have made various changes to their course in keeping with curricular shifts, but they haven't seen scores improve in line with those changes. Or maybe kids are doing pretty well, but the same number of kids are doing well year-over-year, and that number doesn't seem to be shifting. Whatever the symptoms, relief is sought.
The typical approach to replying to this type of post is to spitball ideas for what a teacher can do to improve their instruction. Replying teachers might talk about what they are doing in their classes that seems to be working for their students, or maybe they ask the posting teacher what sorts of things they might want to implement that they haven't yet. All of this is fine (and I would argue a necessary part of the reflective process). But all of this also ignores another critical aspect of student exam scores:
A lot of how students do on standardized exams is outside of the control of the teacher.
There is only so much that a teacher can do that will affect something like the standardized test scores of their students. Let's focus on AP scores since it's score-release season, and since the AP Biology exam is the only standardized exam that I still have to interact with in my own teaching. Let's leave aside issues the utility of AP exam scores as a useful metric for gauging the success of a student's experience in an "AP" course (spoiler alert: I think that utility is quite low). Let's also accept the hypothesis that the pedagogical choices of the teacher are the most significant influencer of student exam performance. I think that's probably supported by research. Taking that as a given, what is the effect size of the impact of the teacher once the teacher has hit a certain level of what I'll term "teacher competence?" I think that once you get to a certain level of competence, further gains in effect on something like student standardized test performance tail off pretty quickly.
Here are three possible relationships between teacher competence and standardized test performance:
Pick a model, any model.
Our usual conversations around topics like this assume that something like relationship 1 holds true; If students aren't scoring the way we'd like them to, then the solution is to do more things that help them to score better. I'll suggest that the reality of the relationship is much more like relationship 2 or 3; Once a particular level of instructional competence has been reached, there is not too much else that the instructor can do to continue to boost the standardized test performance of their students.
Maybe you reject my thinking here, in which case you probably want to stop reading now, and possibly leave me a note explaining why you think I'm wrong. But I think I'm actually in a position this year to offer some evidence to support my contention. As you know if you read a lot of what I write here, this past year I moved jobs. Whereas I was previously employed in a lovely and still-functional public school in NYS, I'm now teaching at a Fancy International School in Singapore. But usefully for this discussion, I'm teaching the same courses in the new job that I did in the old one. And I'm teaching them in the same way.
Actually, we could make a pretty compelling argument that I taught them less competently this first year in the new job than I did for many years in the old one. Rather than see my AP students for 80 minutes every day, as I did back on Long Island, this past year, I saw my AP students for 80 minutes every other day. We did start a bit earlier, so I did have a bit more than half of the prior student contact time than I used to, but it was still significantly shortened. Also, I had to take a course that was designed for every day and reconfigure it for every other day (not an insignificant shift). Also, it was the first year in a new school and a new culture, so there were unavoidable growing pains and learning experiences. Also, I taught the course to more than twice as many students as I've ever had before, which couldn't help but limit the amount of 1:1 feedback and intervention that I could provide. I'm okay acknowledging that each of these unavoidable changes meant that this past year's AP Biology students got a less-steady version of my course than the one that I used to teach.
So how did they do?
I find it disagreeable to talk about specific numbers, but I am okay saying that this year's group did significantly better on the AP exam than any group of students I ever taught the course to in NYS. How significant? On average more than a full point higher (the exam is scaled from 1-5) than the running average of my NYS students, with more students scoring a 4 or 5 this year than the total number of 4s and 5s recieved by all years of students that I taught AP Biology to, combined. This year's "numbers" for my students are among the best most teachers will ever see in their classes.
I taught a largely-unchanged (marginally-worse!) course and my scores went up significantly. Assuming you are okay agreeing that I am a reasonably competent teacher of the course, this is what should be expected if there is a strong teacher-competence effect ceiling on standardized test scores. Fortunately for me, my personal situation has moved the ceiling higher. But given how we talk about these things every scoring season, I'm not at all sure that many other teachers or administrators in many other systems understand that they have their own ceilings beyond which very little is going to make a difference in how their students score on standardized tests.
Of course, this thinking could be extended to suggest that teachers should stop trying to boost the standardized test performance of their students. I think that only logically follows once a teacher has maximized their instructional competence to the point that the ceiling effect is evident. I also think it would be folly for any teacher ever to stop developing professionally, or reflecting on the work that they are doing with and for their students. The idea that whatever efforts you are investing in your work will not be reflected in the standardized test scores of your students should simply be understood, accepted, and ignored. So much of what teachers do can't be usefully measured. That doesn't make any of it any less worthy of our efforts.
Do you see a teacher-competence ceiling in your own work? Or perhaps you have been roused to violent disagreement with my entire thesis? Leave me a comment or drop me a line if you yearn to let me know.
Efforts to improve American education must begin by improving the working life of American teachers.
So much of the conversation around education in America focuses on improvement. Improvement in student outcomes, improvement in teaching quality, improvement in "global standing." There is a general sense that American education (and here, I'm speaking specifically of American public education) needs to do better.
The purpose of this piece is not to argue over how much of the perceived need for improvement is reflective of reality. In the interest of being upfront, it's my personal belief that various strains of the improvement conversation are reflective of reality in various degrees. But let's leave all of that aside. For the purpose of this argument, let's pretend that every improvement-related gripe that is voiced is uniformly valid and well-considered. I'll cede each and every one of those arguments to make a larger point:
Any large-scale improvement in American education is not possible as long as American teachers are treated poorly.
This seems like a painfully obvious point to have to make. Maybe I'm not looking very hard, but I don't see it being made very often, or very loudly. So much of the conversation around education in my sphere relates to ways to improve that don't explicitly acknowledge the primacy of improving the work of being a teacher. My larger digital PLN is overripe with teachers and other educators sharing improvement strategies and ideas of all types; new (and new-again) pedagogies, resources, and reflective practice-focused conversations. This is lovely, but as long as many American teachers teach in systems where they are poorly treated, it's also inherently limited. It seems to me that conversation about improvement in contemporary American schools can only occur among the minority of teachers. If you are focused on improvement, you are either working in the ever-diminishing number of functional American school systems, or you have such a strong focus on your internal drive to improve that you can tolerate the dysfunctions of the system that you are working in. For the duration of my own 14-year career in an American public school, I was decidedly in the former group. Suburban Long Island public schools are not without problems, but they remain places where teachers make low-six-figure salaries after 10 years, where tenure is robust, and where the associated benefits (403b, well-funded pension, "Cadillac" health plan) do much to remove the day-to-day survival concerns that permeate teaching in many other places in the country. I always tried to focus on my own improvement because my personal teaching situation gave me the freedom to do so by minimizing the other concerns related to keeping myself and my family fed and well-cared for.
My large-ish virtual PLN is such that I have been able to interact with many teachers in the second category-- teachers that clearly have it professionally worse-off than I do, but who still have a strong drive to improve. My hat is off to each and every one of them. I hope I would be similar in similar circumstances, but I'm also glad that I've always had the privilege and good luck not to have to test this. One thing I do know is I do not have any judgment or ill will toward any teacher in a dysfunctional system that isn't able to focus so fully on improving their work. It's unreasonable to expect you to have any bandwidth to devote to anything other than simply surviving and trying to do the best you can to help the children in your charge do the same if you can't make enough money teaching those children to survive, or if the system you work in is literally falling apart around you. And yet, the conversations in American education space continue to revolve around how to improve things, while largely ignoring the fact that most American teachers are treated so poorly.
Fundamentally, this issue is why I'm skeptical of any voice that speaks about ways to improve education that doesn't explicitly acknowledge the need to improve the working life for teachers as the first and primary concern. If you want to talk about a particular pedagogical strategy or the utility of a given resource, that's fine as long as you're also upfront in acknowledging that until such time as America starts treating all of its teachers like the professionals that they are, anything done outside of that goal is definitionally going to be done at the margins.
This isn't to say that the conversations that happen around other aspects of being an American teacher aren't necessary or useful, only that we should acknowledge that they will always be limited in their impact until such time as the teachers who need to do the work we talk about are valued enough to be able to do it. Until they are, the effects of these conversations will never be as robust or far-reaching as they deserve to be.
Personally, I'll look to the educators I find most resonant and the politicians that I plan to vote for always to acknowledge that the major problem facing American education is the treatment of the teacher corps, and expect them to have clear and concrete plans to address that issue. Unless that is an ever-present concern, and until such time as it doesn't need to be anymore, I'm always going to have less time to listen to your "other thing" about how to improve the work of teaching kids than I have for this one.
Is there any utility to determining who is the fastest test-taker?
If you have paid a lot of attention to my thinking about tests, you know that I find them to have absolute utility for helping learners learn, and almost no other utility whatsoever in the learning process. This is at odds with the testing culture of American-style education, which uses tests as much as sorting devices for students as it does for anything even approaching useful testing pedagogy.
One of the joys of moving to Fancy International School is that I no longer have to pay attention to almost any standardized or otherwise time-limited testing experiences for my students. I still give tests, but I have virtually unlimited leeway to give students as much time as they need when testing to recapitulate their knowledge to the best of their ability. It's incredible how good the ability to not care about test time-pressure feels when coming from 14 years of American publication education, where time-pressured tests are functionally devotional in their placement within a course of instruction.
There is only one time-pressured exam in my FIS life— the AP Biology Exam. The exam is a three-hour endurance fest of multiple choice questions and free response "essays." It's a beast of an exam and has been ever since the College Board redesigned it in 2012. Its beastliness is not universal for all students. The quickest readers and writers in the room are going to be able to finish it and feel like they have completed it on a level that comes pretty close to their best effort, as long as they haven't dawdled for too long during the experience. But many students are going to feel less-good about their effort because they will get caught out; their reading|processing|thinking speed is not as fast as it needs to be to complete the thing comfortably in the time they are given.
Until this past year, I hadn't really focused on the time issue. I'm not sure why that is, but I think that in my pre-FIS situation, many of my amazing students were hitting the time-concern but also had other issues related to the exam that commingled with the timing thing. As a teacher, if a student indicates that exam timing is a problem while also demonstrating knowledge|skill gaps in various other contexts, it's pretty natural to focus on the later. This year, my students generally had fewer knowledge|skill gaps, and so I think that the timing issue became a more common sole-source of exam-related grief. This led to some pretty lame "exam training" that I found myself doing, which mostly revolved around speededness of taking the test. As an educator, I didn't love that I was doing this, but as a teacher of this group of kids, it was what they needed to feel like they had as good a shot as possible to demonstrate their best thinking on this over-stuffed exam.
All of which is why I found thesetwo recent episodes of "Revisionist History" so interesting. Malcolm Gladwell frames a discussion of this paper on the role of speededness in LSAT performance through a gimmick-attempt to do better than his research assistant on the same exam. Among the most resonant points are the discussions that he has with test-prep experts, who proffer a variety of strategies for LSAT success that sound a whole lot like the kinds of approaches I was teaching my own AP Biology students when dealing with their exam. All of which leads me to wonder:
Do time-limited exams serve any actual purpose in the learning process?
I've felt for a long time that the answer to this question is "not a lot," but these days, I think the answer is "not at all." I'm not sure what the role of a time-limited exam is, except to select out those students who are the best at taking time-limited exams. And I'm not sure there's any research that suggests that the quickest students at doing well on a subject's time-limited exams are the students who best learn the subject. Certainly, there is some degree of overlap, quite possibly even a large one, but the suggestion that there's a causal relationship does not seem to be supported by anything, even at the level of the LSAT. What is supported is the notion that placing a large value on time-limited exams in determining a student's grade in a subject is pretty damaging for those students who don't do well on time-limited exams.
Of course, what is time-limited is the amount of time a course meets, and that includes the duration of testing periods. So even if you agree with me that time-limited testing is a stupid thing to do to students, we still need to be able to administer assessments within the constraints of the school environment. How do we accomplish this? I have some thoughts:
Design any exam to be shorter than the time you have allotted for it. I think a good rule of thumb here is to design your exams so that they will occupy approximately half of the allotted testing period for approximately half of the students in a "general" education level course. The designed length can probably be increased as the level of the course "advances," as long as you hew to rule #2 that follows below. The point of doing this is to make sure that any unavoidable timing considerations for your exams have as little effect as possible on the ability of your students to complete the exam without feeling rushed.
Never take an exam away from a student who hasn't finished it. Let's say that even with your best efforts to be mindful of designing an exam that can be completed by all of your students within the time you have to administer it, you still find yourself with a student or two who have not finished the exam at the end of the allotted time. This happens. And when it happens, don't take the exam from the kid at the "end of time." Or if you have to take it (to avoid burdening a colleague with a late student), set up a time for the kid to come in to finish the exam. If you don't do this, you're going to be grading an exam that isn't actually reflective of the student's understanding; it's reflective of the ability of that student to demonstrate their understanding within an arbitrary time-period. Unless somehow your course is explicitly constructed so that speededness is a skill you are working to develop, this is not something you should be evaluating.
Balance the impact of assessments on a student's grade. Grading has its own host of issues, but I'm not going to get into any of that here. Let's assume you need to generate a grade for a student, like the vast majority of teachers do. If that's the case, then don't give any single type of assessment undue influence on a student's grade. This isn't just good practice for dealing with time-limited exams. It's good practice more broadly.
Train for unavoidable standardized tests with compassion. Even for all of the above, your teaching situation may be such that at the end of your course, your students are going to need to take a time-limited exam. In that case, it's not wise to totally ignore the reality of the thing. You definitely want to give your students the kinds of skills they will need to do as well as possible on that exam. This is going to involve training them in all the sorts of exam-taking skills that they will need. But even so, you have the power to do this training compassionately. You have the ability to decide that you aren't going to use the exigencies of a standardized test to determine your in-class testing protocol. And you have the authority to let kids know just how terrible an idea it is to test in the way that \ is going to require them to. Test-taking skills definitely have a place in a class that is going to end in a time-limited test, but nothing requires us as teachers to give that place more prominence than it's worth.
These are a few of the ways that I think teachers can navigate the reality of having to give time-limited tests even while knowing just how terrible an idea time-limited tests are for assessing the extent of a student's knowledge. I'm sure there are others, too, but I haven't thought of them here. One thing I do think of a lot these days is just how unfortunate it is that we have decided that time-limited exams are anything worth using when trying to establish a picture of student knowledge. That seems like a shame, but in the era of needing to do more with less in education, it's also completely understandable how we got here. It's hard to think of something easier to use than a time-limited exam when measuring student learning. But as is often the case, the easiest things don't always work the best.
Sometimes, they barely work at all
Have I made a convincing argument against time-limited tests? Or maybe my commentary has roused you to their robust defense? Leave me a comment or drop me a line if you yearn to let me know. I do not check social media..
As my first year at Fancy International School has wrapped up, I have tried to think about the major things that I “got wrong” in my thinking about what the move to working in a place like FIS would look like. On the whole, most of them aren’t really worth writing about, and are generally quite positive (ex. it’s even easier to teach at FIS than I could have possibly imagined it would be). There’s only one thing that I can think of that I didn’t understand before I showed up that I think is worth some words on a page:
Privilege does not look like what I thought it would.
Teaching highly-privileged youth does not resemble my naive thoughts on what it would be. In fact, when compared to the reality of the situation, my initial thoughts on the topic are pretty cringey in retrospect, and they are almost insulting to my students. I think I knew enough to expect that my students would not exhibit the type of caricatured “spoiled brat” behavior that characterizes popular representations of the well-heeled, but I also know that had I witnessed such behaviors, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In my mind, these kids were going to be somewhat warped by the money and resources of their lives, and that was going to show up in unfortunate ways. Maybe they would regularly whine about “first-world” problems. Maybe they would treat the support staff (or even their teachers) as somehow less-than. Maybe, they would generally be insufferably tone-deaf to the ways that the rest of the world lived.
One year on, I haven’t seen any of that. My kids aren’t snobs, and they don’t complain about their lives. Generally speaking, they all recognize that they are incredibly fortunate to exist in their circumstances, though this is only really when you ask them about it directly. More often, their day-to-day is spent like every other group of kids I’ve ever worked with. It would be rare to see them overtly talking about their privilege, if only because they all seem to understand just how gauche such a conversation would be. Fortunately, I think, the money isn’t usually mentioned, but it’s also not hidden. My students know that they occupy special space.
It goes quite a bit beyond just how they act on the day-to-day. FIS is the most socially-conscious organization that I have ever worked for. Service is a central part of the mission of the school, to the point that service is a requirement for graduation. The school has myriad service clubs that do good, genuine work for people and organizations in Singapore, and throughout the region. The amount of fundraising and participatory service work that FIS does is unlike anything I have seen anywhere else. The school is continuously engaged in the work of improving what we might call its social conscience. This year, student-generated assemblies focused on recognizing the work and contributions of our administrative assistant staff, and to broadening the inclusive nature of dialogue among the student body.
Student-agency, more broadly, is remarkable. In my prior school, students would participate in clubs, etc., but the expectation was that the adults in the room would spend a lot of effort to helm things and make sure they happened correctly. At FIS, the students really do the work of these things. In my year as co-sponsor of the Science National Honor Society, I had to oversee two different events: A symposium and a retreat. In both instances, the students of the SNHS planned and executed the entire projects, down to cleaning up at their conclusion. I even had to convince the early arrivals that it was okay to start eating some of the pizzas before everyone showed up. This is how every club works. I attended a prom where adult supervision was not really required for anything. The students were uniformly well-behaved and more appropriate than most weddings than I have attended. At the end of a concert that I attended, the final remarks were by the student leadership of the Tri-M music honor society reminding every member in attendance that it was their responsibility to help break down the stage and equipment.
Have you ever had a room full of students thank you at the end of a lesson? I have. It happens every day at the end of every class that I teach.
This is what privilege looks like at FIS. It’s not a snobby distaste for the lives of others, it’s an active interest in being the best people that students can be. In retrospect, this makes sense. You don’t generally become a person of means by looking down your nose at the rest of the world. The circumstances in which my students live are a function of parents and cultures that pretty actively encourage them to make the most of themselves. What’s different for my students, and really where their privilege shows up, is that they have the time, space, and material support necessary to give themselves over to their self-improvement as fully as they can, without worrying about anything on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. They are free to work as hard at the project of bettering themselves as they wish, and most of them choose to work very hard at it.
It’s a fortunate life for them to live. Fortunately, they know it.
I have not written a lot this year, but what I have written has mainly been positive about our expat experience. Which is appropriate, as the experience of our move overseas has mainly been positive. I don’t expect that’s going to change for a long time, particularly since outside of family and friends there is absolutely nothing attractive to us about the prospect of moving back to the United States. Seriously, here is what the US looks like from outside of it right now.
Of course, largely positive is not uniformly positive. Singapore is a place, and all places have problems, no exceptions. Here, at the end of the first year of this life, a question that has come my way a few times has been “what don’t you like about living here?”, so I’ve been thinking about it. Here’s the list:
Personal Space Etiquette in Public. This is easily the biggest day-to-day annoyance of life in Singapore. Notions of personal space are quite different from what I’ve come to expect after 38 years of life in the US. People squeeze into spaces, even when those spaces are very close to your space. This isn’t really an issue because generally, things aren’t too crowded. But when things are crowded (particularly busy MRT rides, or elevators), you’re going to have a lot of people in what you might consider “your” space. As annoying as that is, it would be more tolerable if the rules of loading and unloading from confined spaces worked the same way here, but they don’t. We have spent most of the past year moving around the island with a baby in a stroller. Typically in the US, babies in strollers and the parents that tow them are given a wide berth and a default priority of movement. Not here. While the Singaporean culture is one that absolutely adores babies, you don’t get any exemption from the default space-impingement for having one with you. Again, this wouldn’t really be a huge problem either, except that loading and unloading from confined spaces are handled quite differently, too. A life spent in NY has impressed upon me that the natural order of how one enters a confined space (ex. an elevator) is to wait for those people who are exiting to do so BEFORE you load on, and to do so in the order that you arrived in the queue to make your particular movement. This is not how it works in Singapore. Here, people entering don’t care if you need to leave, or if you were there first. They just push past you (SUPER fun when you have children with you). It’s lame. And it’s weird because generally speaking Singaporeans have much better manners than Americans. But this particular behavior would get you spoken to in New York City (not typically known as a bastion of politeness). In Singapore, it’s just how things work.
Elevator Logic & Usage by the Able-Bodied. Similar to #1, but slightly different are two items related specifically to elevators. The first is that I swear that the logic of elevator programming here is different from how they are programmed in the US. Frequently we will hit a button for an elevator, and watch the floor display indicate that the elevator is on the way to us, only to see the elevator stop before it gets to us, and then reverse direction. This happens a lot, and for the life of me I can’t figure out the logic of the program that it’s following. It would be one thing if the elevator was coming to me, and stopped before my floor due to an input-priority issue, but that would explain why the elevator might change course once. It doesn’t explain why it would change course several times in a row without ever getting to my floor, or at least it doesn’t explain it to me. A related issue that makes this all the more difficult is that elevators are generally used by everyone here. I have never seen more able-bodied people using elevators in facilities with perfectly functioning escalators (to say nothing of stairs) than I have in the time that we have been in Singapore. So when the elevator gets to you, it’s generally full of people who sure don’t seem like they need to use the elevator. Combine this with the previously-discussed lack of loading & unloading etiquette, and elevators become pretty annoying spaces.
Particular and specific foodstuffs. You can pay a good sum of money and get a decent, European, Artisan-style pizza here (the kind of thing I used to eat on the regular as I made my way through France and Italy as a kid). Or you can pay normal prices and get “pizza” made by a chain restaurant (Pizza Hut, and it’s Asian equivalents). But you can’t get NYC-area-style pizza, which is inarguably the best pizza in the world. Similarly, this place has high-priced, decent bagels (overly chewy, but decent), but it has pretty terrible cream cheese. And it’s the only place in the whole country that even comes close. Dairy products, more broadly are either less-than what you would get in America, or just really weird. You can get an okay burrito if you want to pay a premium for it, but it’s not going to approach the caliber of what you’ll get for much cheaper in the states. And let’s not even talk about burgers or other beef options. They just don’t exist at a typical US price. Beer and other alcohol? Super pricey. Iced Cream? It has to be imported, so it’s ~US $10 a pint when it’s on sale (that number is NOT a joke). Singapore is not a place where you are going to eat these foods a lot. Of course, Singapore IS a place where you are going to eat incredibly well, as long as you are willing to dwell firmly in the realm of Asian/Southeast Asian/Indian cuisine. You're also going to need to do so with the understanding that what those cuisines actually are is not what you think of when you think about Western-style “Asian” food. If you’ve lived in the US your entire life, there are things in Singapore that are essentially the national dish, that you have never heard of. So as long as you are cool with chicken rice, nasi lemak, and laksa, you’ll eat well for cheap.
Proximity to home. Home (the east coast of the US) is very far away from Singapore. Almost exactly as far away as you can get on the globe. Which sucks. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks much less than it ever has in human history up to this moment. Until 100 years ago, this trip would have taken months, and you would have maybe made it twice in your lifetime. Now, you can get there in ~17.5 hours of non-stop air travel. Even when you break it up, you’re still basically looking at only a single day's worth of travel to journey 10,000 miles around the planet. It’s incredible. It’s also a long time to be in airplanes, especially with small children, and the incumbent amount of jet-lag that you are going to experience. So even though you’re connected to friends and family via all of the normal, modern methods, you’re still pretty far away. It’s not unmanageable, but it’s difficult. Then again, I’m writing this fresh on the heels of a Singapore --> London --> Boston travel-fest, so plane-related unpleasantness (and airport-related unpleasantness, as Heathrow’s security line is perhaps only rivaled by Logan’s passport control system for sheer stupidity) is pretty fresh in the brain. Give it a few weeks and give the kids a few years, and I imagine it won’t seem quite as bad to me as it does at this particular moment.
The weather. It’s always 82 degrees with 90% humidity. 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. I mean, it’s not ALWAYS this, but it’s pretty darn close. Seasons aren’t a thing in Sing. Sweating through your clothes absolutely is. If variety is the spice of life, the climate of Singapore is maybe the most boring one available on Earth.
There are the "big" annoyances of living in Singapore for this American expat. And really, they aren’t that terrible. For each one of them, there are multiple benefits for myself and my family that clearly outweigh the difficulties. And any other place on Earth is going to have its own problems (not least of all my ancestral homeland). Pound for pound, Singapore is better than most places. It's just not perfect.
I have been taking a look at the new "Course and Exam Description" document for AP Biology, mostly to make sure that I can basically pay no attention to it at all for my own course. As part of that, I needed something a bit more analyze-able than the source .pdf.
Note: I had posted the focus of this piece as part of a list of curricular supports for educational videos, but I think this one deserves its own spotlight, so that's what follows.
A few years back, I realized that keeping a longitudinal google-doc-based course agenda for my students was a useful exercise for me, too. And then I realized that I could share it with the larger AP Biology Teaching Community. So I did that.
This year, with the move to FIS, I had to change some things about my course. Specifically, I had to figure out how to fit something that approximated my historical, 90-minutes-per-day course into a new schedule where I see my students for 80-minutes-every-other-day (also known as "slightly less than half the time").
The equity of course time issue is a perennial discussion in AP Biology Teacher circles. The College Board does not provide firm recommendations on just how much time an AP Biology course "should" be given, so the variation between schools can be quite extreme. In my experience, my prior situation was pretty extravagent. Most people teach their course in something that is more like the FIS time-allotment. So I knew it was possible to teach the course this way before I started doing it this year. But it still took a bit of thought, and a pretty rigorous scaling back of many in-class experiences that were not essential to teaching this course to my new population.
My better half had to go to the ER on Tuesday. Before we get into the rest of it, let’s establish that she is absolutely fine. She gets terrible migraine headaches, which occasionally trigger nausea that can then trigger some minor cardiac rhythm issues. It’s a wicked positive feedback loop. So when that loop started Tuesday morning, we didn’t wait around to see what would happen. She went to the ER.
The health system in Singapore is divided into a “public” and a “private” system. Both are really good, but our insurance incentivizes us to use the public system (which are generally viewed as as-good-if-not-better-than the private network, anyway). So she went to the nearest public hospital, a ten-minute cab ride away from our condo. I mention this because you should understand that she went to the same hospital that most Singaporeans would use in similar situations.
Whenever this issue happened in the US, we have followed a similar process. Of course, the US doesn’t have “public” and “private” systems in the same way that Singapore does. But they do have ER’s. And we did have insurance. Excellent health insurance by US standards. Whatever the hospital would wind up charging, we would co-pay something between $20 to $80 when it was all said and done. I think the cost of delivering both of our children was less than $100 in total. Which is both wonderful, and relatively rare. Most people in the US do not have a level of insurance coverage that is anywhere near as robust as what we had.
Over here, I’ve been a bit less impressed with the level of care from our family’s health insurance. While we pay less up-front for our plan (we pay 0% of the cost of the plan to the school, in NY we paid 20% withheld from my paycheck), we have paid more at point-of-care. Not much more, but more (a doctor’s appointment might cost us S$100— about $70 US). I’ve had to fight with my insurer a bit more to get some items covered. Some things have been covered for colleagues, but not for me. As far as I can tell, we have still paid less for our health needs than we did in the US, but it hasn’t seemed that way (if that makes any sense at all).
All of this is the context in which we tested the ER services of Singapore this week. Our insurance has an S$700 annual in-patient deductible for the use of public hospitals. And I had no idea what this week’s visit was going to cost until it happened. Now I know. Here’s what it looks like:
Time from Admission through to back home: 4.5 hours.
Total pre-insurance cost for all aspects of care: S$146 (US $108).
As this is under our deductible, I assume we will pay all of this cost.
To compare this to the US, here’s what an ER visit from May 2015 for the same issue looked like:
Time from Admission until back home: 12 hours.
Total pre-insurance cost for all aspects of care: US$3485
Note: Given how US insurance works, this isn’t entirely accurate. This absolutely was the billed balance but billed balances are basically a negotiating tactic used by hospitals to get adequate payment for services rendered from insurers. So this initial cost was adjusted downwards, and our insurance company only paid US$1807.05 for the ER visit. We paid a US$40 co-pay, which was our total cost as the end-user.
Look at these numbers, and try to make a cogent argument that the US healthcare system is anything worth feeling good about. What can we call a system where a small percentage of people pay almost nothing to access adequate-but-not-world-leading healthcare, while most people have to deal with significant costs (and associated debts)?
I’ll suggest the best descriptor is “broken.” Totally, maybe irrevocably, broken. And the next time anyone suggests otherwise, I invite you to simply stop listening to them. Because they either don’t know what they are talking about, or they do, and they are lying to you. Neither of which is worth your time, attention, or effort.
What do you think about the state of US healthcare? Should we burn it to the ground and start again? Maybe you burn to let me know how I’ve gotten it wrong above? Leave me a comment or drop me a line if you want to have a conversation. I do not check social media.
An often-missing piece of the educational video puzzle.
One of my biggest complaints about most “educational” video series is the lack of curricular resources that surround them. So in my own work, I’ve tried to correct that as much as possible. The completion of my AP Biology video series is the third time I've worked through a "course's worth" of videos, and each time, I've tried to be increasingly mindful of providing freely-avaialable curricular supports for the videos I've made. In that spirit, here are the supporting materials that I have mede available to help anyone who wants to use my work in their own teaching|learning:
Scaffold handouts that a viewer can use to capture information while watching a video.
All of which is great, and helps to illustrate how I built my own curriculum around these materials, but I think it’s important to point out that even taken altogether, it’s still not a curriculum. Even when a school buys a product that is marketed as a “curriculum”, it still isn’t really that. The curriculum of a course emerges from the teaching of the course, and the use of those materials. So while the supports that I’ve created for my own videos help to illustrate what an AP Biology curriculum that uses them can look like, the work of building an actual curriculum out of them is left to the teachers and students who might decide to use them.
Which is really the way that it should be, right?
Have you seen any particularly well-developed (free) educational videos with curricular resources? Do you have any ideas for other supports I could make? Leave a comment or drop a line if you want to have a conversation. I do not check social media.