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The IB Bug

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Parents, Schools Covet Global Rigor Of International Baccalaureate Programs

Tough, disciplined, global and coveted — that just about surmises the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which blend academic rigor with a worldwide focus. And parents throughout the Washington area have clearly been bitten by the IB bug. In fact, they’re all but clamoring to have the world-renowned learning model placed in their children’s public and private schools. The District alone already has three IB schools — two private and one public — and is applying to add IB to five more public schools, a taxing process that takes two years.

In all, 87 public and private schools in the Washington area offer IB, part of a nationwide IB boom fueled by both parent and school interest.

Only 37 years old, the International Baccalaureate is a Swiss-based nonprofit organization that offers rigorous, globally oriented programs for children ages 3 to 19 at some 2,400 schools in 129 countries. The majority of those schools still only limit IB to the last two years of high school — but that’s changing fast. Over the past decade, IB primary programs for younger learners have zoomed from just six locations to 417 locations.

Myra McGovern, public information director for the National Association of Independent Schools, called this development “fascinating,” noting that while upper-level IB courses are taken to help students get into good colleges, the early IB programs clearly show that parents “have an interest in its global perspective.”

Sandra Coyle, IB regional marketing and communications manager for North America, also offered another fascinating statistic: The majority of IB programs around the world are in private schools, but in the United States, 92.5 percent are found in public schools.

This means that public school students in this country can take advantage of an internationally renowned education system reserved mainly for elite private schools in most other countries.

Worldwide, most IB schools are located in North America, according to Coyle, who attributed the rising American interest in IB programs to an overall increased international awareness — the global village phenomenon — especially the knowledge that a second language is more important than ever. She said parents are also drawn to the rigorous IB curriculum that offers “thinking skills” that teach children to ask questions rather than just answer them.

According to Mary Gable of the Maryland State Department of Education, “IB engages students in the content. It excites children about learning.”

That engagement trickles up: “Those of us in IB are passionate about it because we have seen how it changes lives,” said Linda Hutchison, president of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coalition of International Baccalaureate Schools. Added Gable: “It’s an exciting option for schools to offer.”

IB Broken Down The International Baccalaureate is a set of uniform school programs for elementary, middle and high school students taught in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and other languages worldwide. Most familiar and oldest among these is the IB Diploma Program, which is offered to students in the last two years of high school.

The programs are all notable for their global curriculum. For instance, from age 3, students are encouraged to “express ideas … confidently in more than one language,” according to program material, and by age 11, middle school children study their “best language” along with a second one that becomes their “gateway to another culture.”

IB programs also emphasize personal responsibility and community engagement as secular obligations built into the learning process. For example, students are taught to listen carefully to other people and to search for “nuance.” Community service at the Diploma level is presented as an antidote to “self absorption.”

The curriculum has six to eight core subject areas depending on level. In the early years, these are dubbed “Who We Are,” “Where We Are in Space and Time,” “How We Express Ourselves,” “How the World Works,” “How We Organize Ourselves” and “Sharing the Planet.”

Later on, middle school students complete a “personal project” that is the equivalent of a term paper or science fair project. The IB describes this as a significant piece of work done over an extended period of time that must meet strict, published and globally applied standards. But students can follow their passion and, within limits, pursue a topic that interests them.

Meanwhile, high school students can take individual IB courses for a course certificate or complete the entire Diploma Program, in which students study six subjects, three at the standard level and three at the higher level. IB Diploma courses, like Advanced Placement (AP) courses, can count as college credit, although IB is not as widely recognized.

But that’s changing, experts say, because IB is becoming increasingly noticed by U.S. colleges for its globally applied standards and quality control. For a school to even be approved to provide IB courses, its administrators and pertinent teachers have to, among other requirements, take IB workshops or complete school-wide IB training. The process typically takes two years, after which they must be re-approved from time to time.

But one of the most striking features of IB is the “external assessments” for its students. At the middle and upper levels, major IB exams are graded by evaluators in other countries, explained Robert Snee, upper school principal at the Washington International School, a private school in the District. Additionally, a sampling of “internal” teacher assessments — quizzes, student essays and lab books — are shipped off around the world for IB evaluation and teacher feedback, which can be stressful for new IB teachers, Snee noted; however, it makes IB credentials valid worldwide.

Raymond Kern, an IB coordinator at a public D.C. high school, also pointed out that, an evaluator in Singapore, for instance, can change grades in a D.C. classroom, adjusting them up or down if Singapore thinks a local teacher is too strict or too lax by the global standard. And even the evaluators are evaluated — mentored and monitored from an IB academic “nerve center,” with 400 employees strong in Wales.

According to the organization, IB was started as “a way to establish a common curriculum and valid university entry credentials for students moving from one country to another” — and for the most part it still serves that purpose.

“We don’t recommend one program or school over another,” said Susan Frost, deputy director of the Family Liaison Office at the U.S. State Department. “But we do offer families facts and answer their questions. Many overseas schools, especially in Europe, honor the IB, so it offers transportability.”

Benjamin Banneker Basks in IB Glow Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Northwest D.C. has offered IB Diplomas since 2001. Newsweek magazine’s annual listing of the best public schools in the United States ranked the school 153rd out of the top 200 this year. The head of the school’s IB program, Raymond Kern, proudly declared: “My Banneker IB students are wonderful.”

Banneker has 280 IB students and unlike most public schools, students have to apply to be admitted into the program, explained Kern, who is also the school’s AP coordinator. “We take about 35 of the 11th grade students into the IB Diploma Program each year,” he said, noting that the rest go into the AP program.

Asked to compare AP and IB, he explained that in terms of workload, IB is more rigorous because it involves additional topics and subject matter, but in terms of content, “AP courses are just as rigorous.” Nevertheless, IB students have to be very good at time management, he added. For instance, instead of studying English composition and then English literature, IB students take world literature and must master analysis, oral presentations and writing skills all at once.

Kern specializes in history and taught for 15 years in Europe, working at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va., when he returned to the area. He noted that IB programs follow a European model of emphasizing connections throughout the curriculum. For example, there is only one middle school math course — but it teaches the “five branches of mathematics: numbers, algebra, geometry and trigonometry, probability and statistics, and discrete mathematics,” Kern said, whereas in a traditional American school, topics are unitary. “Calculus equals calculus. But in IB, the different branches of knowledge are integrated.”

Kern, like Robert Snee of the Washington International School, goes to great lengths to deflate IB’s elitist image. “The IB curriculum was developed for the average student,” Kern stressed, although he said it does require commitment, hard work, discipline and enthusiasm. Neither administrator likes the term “college prep,” but Kern said that any student who gets an IB Diploma, whatever their country or life choice, “is well prepared for college.”

Kern’s Banneker High School may soon have some company in the form of “feeder schools” that graduate middle school students familiar with the IB approach. Alice Deal Junior High School, a public school in Northwest D.C., is currently applying to offer an IB middle school program, which if all goes to plan, could be approved by summer 2010. Younger children won’t be left out either. In a local reflection of the national explosion in IB primary schools, four D.C. public elementary schools are in the first stage of pursuing IB authorization.

IB Spectrum at WIS The Washington International School (WIS) and the British School of Washington are the two private schools in D.C. that offer IB programs. The British School (profiled in The Washington Diplomat last month) offers the IB Diplo-ma only, making WIS the only school in the District, Maryland and Virginia to have the entire range of IB offerings for ages 3 and up.

The IB Diploma Program at WIS also stands out. According to IB headquarters, about 80 percent of students worldwide pass all their exams to earn the IB Diploma. But at WIS, over the past 10 years, an average of 93 percent of students have received their IB Diplomas. And in 2008, the pass rate at WIS was 96 percent — “phenomenal,” according to Snee, the WIS upper school principal.

Snee is new to WIS but comes from a strong IB background as principal for 16 years of George Mason High School, which had one of the first IB programs in the state of Virginia and ranked in the top 100 of Newsweek’s best schools list this year, coming in at 59th.

Like Kern, Snee describes the IB Diploma Program as intended for “the motivated student, the student who likes to learn and is willing to work hard.” However, he added, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to succeed in the program: “If you can read critically and express yourself you’ll do fine.”

Snee said the advantage of a school like WIS that features an IB component for its elementary, middle and upper school students is that with all three in place, students learn the IB subculture “from the get-go, and so do the parents.”

Snee advises that foreign parents who are moving to the area and have a choice of IB schools at their destination weigh the different options offered by larger versus smaller schools. Small schools may have advantages in teacher attention and ambience, he said, but there may be a wider choice of languages and more resource-demanding courses, such as science courses that tend to be expensive, at bigger schools.

Whatever the size or whether it’s a public or a private school, it’s clear IB is making the grade with parents and educators alike as a challenging yet rewarding educational experience for students, whether they’re just learning to read or about to move onto college.

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999