Feature                                                       Pages 44-51


Going Global, for Rich and Poor

International Baccalaureate programs fulfill varied purposes in school districts with differing socioeconomics


In Montgomery County, Md., one of the more affluent communities in America, the International Baccalaureate program began 25 years ago as a way to give the school district’s bright reputation even more of a luster. Demanding IB courses were installed at Richard Montgomery High School, reserved for high-scoring applicants from all over the county.

When the International Baccalaureate program came to Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., eight years ago, the administrators and teachers wanted nothing so fancy or selective. The new courses were just for their students, most of them low income and low performing. The goal: a chance to learn how much the students could achieve if they worked hard in a program known around the world for its excellence.

Students in the Washington Township District in Indianapolis, Ind., participate in an outdoor lesson as part of the International Baccalaureate program. 

For rich and for poor, for big schools and small ones, International Baccalaureate has become a way to add rigor and depth to public school curricula. But each school district has adapted IB for its own needs. Some use it in all schools for all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some limit it to just those high school students ambitious enough to strive for the demanding IB diploma, which requires good grades on six major tests, a 4,000-word research paper, a critical thinking course and community service.

However they use it, educators give much the same reason for adding IB to their schools. They say the program will give their students a head start in an era of intense international competition.

“Rather than focus merely on standardized test scores to show that our students are achieving, we are ensuring that they have the thinking and problem-solving strategies that they will need to thrive in the 21st-century’s global economy,” says Nikki C. Woodson, superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Ind.

Seeking Relevancy
The desire for courses that will help students deal with worldwide change has in most cases overridden concerns that IB is too expensive, too hard and so internationally oriented that it slights American values. A few efforts to install IB have been beaten back by teachers and parents who prefer the much more widely used Advanced Placement program sponsored by the College Board.

Nikki Woodson
Nikki Woodson is the superintendent of the Washington Township district in Indianapolis, Ind.

Nonetheless, IB continues to grow. At the moment, it is found in only 782 U.S. high schools, less than 4 percent of the nation’s total, but that is twice as many as a decade ago.

IB includes a Primary Years Programme (the organization uses the British spelling) for elementary schools, a Middle Years Programme for middle school and 9th and 10th grades, and an IB Diploma Programme for 11th and 12th grades. All IB programs require teaching and testing methods be monitored by international experts. At all levels, the programs involve major projects for students.

Like AP, the IB Diploma Programme includes courses comparable to introductory college courses and makes it possible for students to earn college credit. A new IB program being offered in a few schools would combine some of its academic courses with closely monitored career and technical instruction. (See related story, A Marriage of IB and Vocational Studies.)

The final exams for an IB Diploma are three to five hours long. Unlike AP exams, they rarely have multiple-choice questions. IB emphasizes writing more than AP does. The 4,000-word research paper required for the IB diploma takes several months to complete. It is often described by students as their most challenging and satisfying academic experience in high school.

“IB takes our students to levels many of them never thought they could achieve,” says Brenda Lewis, principal of Foothill High School in Bakersfield, Calif., where many parents are agricultural workers. “It prepares them for college in a very meaningful way.” As at many schools, Foothill students may take IB courses and exams even if they do not intend to earn the IB Diploma.

A Major Adjustment
International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement both were devised to serve affluent families. AP began in U.S. prep schools and public schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. IB was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and spread to world cities full of international businesspeople and diplomats who wanted a consistent, high-level program for their children as they moved from one assignment to the next. In the last two decades, both programs have blossomed in low-income U.S. public schools as teachers have found many students and parents welcome the chance to learn to think critically and write analytically.

Brenda Lewis
Brenda Lewis has emphasized the IB program as principal of Foothill High School in Bakersfield, Calif.

Paul B. Campbell, head of regional development for the IB Americas office in Bethesda, Md., says IB attracts schools with varying needs, but most are looking for improvement in the quality of their teaching and learning and the respect of their communities.

Some schools, such as Foothill and Luther Burbank high schools in California, want to shed the mediocre reputations that come from serving mostly low-income students and prove their students can handle a demanding curriculum. In affluent areas, some school administrators want to do more to meet their parents’ high expectations. These include South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Campbell’s alma mater, Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland. (See related story, Overcoming Doubts About IB’s Merits.)

The adjustment to IB in high school often requires school districts to improve instruction in lower grades. “We’ve learned that successful IB Diploma programs thrive best in schools that build strong pathways to success in middle schools and grades 9 and 10,” says Martin Creel, director of enriched and innovative programs for the Montgomery County, Md., schools. “We’ve found that building a whole school culture that is IB-oriented helps all students.”

This proved true at Foothill High School in Bakersfield when then-principal Joe Thompson rejuvenated an IB program that had been on campus since 1987 but was losing support. At one point, 60 percent of the school faculty had voted to drop IB. Only students designated gifted and talented were taking the courses.

The current principal, Brenda Lewis, says this changed when Foothill High adopted the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, known as AVID. Instructors in AVID teach study and time management skills. They try to give average students tools to tackle difficult courses like IB. The influx of those students into the IB program at Foothill and the appointment of a young Foothill graduate, Rebecca Farley, as IB coordinator in 2005 reversed the decline, Lewis says.

“In 2001, we had only 28 kids sitting for IB tests,” she says. “In 2011, 169 kids took IB tests. We’ve had as many as 184 test takers in some years.”

A Personal Interest
The Washington Township district in Indianapolis is using IB to transform all of its schools. The district’s high school, North Central, has long been one of Indiana’s academic powerhouses, offering both AP and IB courses. But school leaders decided just before Woodson was hired as an assistant superintendent in 2009 that the elementary and secondary schools also needed to raise the level of instruction across all grades.

“The old way of doing school was not going to be enough to prepare our kids” for rapid changes in the world, Woodson says.

She says she accepted the job in part because the school board had authorized bringing IB’s Primary Years and Middle Years programs to every elementary and middle school in the district. She was planning to enroll her two elementary school children in the district, “and there is no other program for my own children that I would choose.”

The IB approach includes making connections among subjects, such as science, literature and history, with more emphasis on international topics than is found in most American schools. Beginning in elementary school, every child in the 11,000-pupil Washington Township district studies a foreign language.

Special projects also are encouraged. Woodson pointed to the mock trials of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and South African leader Nelson Mandela conducted by middle school students this year. Some students played attorneys and others played witnesses as they examined controversial stances and actions taken by the two famous men. Learning at Washington Township schools “is no longer opening your textbook and then answering the questions in the back,” says Woodson, who was promoted to superintendent earlier this year.

Selling Students
Some school leaders considering the merits of starting an International Baccalaureate program hear worries expressed by parents and teachers that the demands on students might be too much.

When the IB program was introduced to Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., Creel says, “staff felt that the program would be too challenging for many students in grades 11 and 12.” So the rigor of 9th- and 10th-grade classes was stepped up to prepare students for IB.

Even in well-established programs, IB coordinators say they have trouble convincing students to sign up. Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, Va., among the top 10 percent of U.S. high schools measured by participation in college-level tests, suffered a sharp drop in IB participation. Because of staff shortages, Mount Vernon failed to recruit as many sophomores for the IB program in the fall of 2008 as it had in the past.

By 2011, the consequences for Mount Vernon were obvious. Only 337 IB exams were given that year, compared to 493 the year before. The participation rate recovered in 2012, IB Coordinator Dan Coast says, but the downturn underscored the need for energetic recruitment. 


Overcoming Doubts About IB’s Merits

A Marriage of IB and Vocational Studies

For College Admissions, Does an IB Diploma Make a Difference?

The Contrived Debate Between IB and AP

Additional Resources

Financial support also has been a problem for IB schools. A high school of about 1,600 students spends about $50,000 a year on the training of teachers, administration, and grading of tests and other IB activities. Some schools ease the load by charging students for the final tests. Washington Township was able to tap private sources of funds for IB because local businesses wanted the local schools to be successful and parents wanted their students prepared for college. A recent Washington Township campaign for IB raised more than $800,000 in just 10 months.

Even schools such as Foothill in Bakersfield find ways to raise extra money. “Fortunately for us,” says Lewis, the principal, “there were some parents within our school who had some financial savvy and formed a foundation to raise money for IB. Many of our faculty members contribute through automatic payroll deduction. They feel strongly enough to donate from their own paychecks to keep the program going.”

Sharing Opportunities
Wausau, Wis., established IB courses at Wausau East High in 1978, making it one of the first IB programs in the country. Advanced Placement did not begin at its sister high school, Wausau West, until 1988. Thom Hahn, the school district’s director for secondary education, says families like having a choice. The IB program is more expensive, but a local foundation has been helping offset the additional costs, he adds.

Whether a high school takes IB students from outside its boundaries, as many do, or restricts the program to just its own students, the parents, students and teachers involved say the benefit is the same. IB provides great teaching backed by rigor and depth that cannot be dumbed down because an independent international organization sets the curriculum, then writes and grades the final exams.

Luther Burbank High is the only school in the Sacramento City Unified School District with an IB program, according to Principal Ted Appel. Those classes have done much for his school, where 90 percent of the nearly 2,000 students receive free and reduced-price lunches. Almost half of this year’s graduates had some exposure to IB. And thanks to IB and other efforts to familiarize students and parents with college opportunities, the percentage of Burbank graduates going to two- or four-year colleges has doubled.

However, Appel has resisted opening IB up to the rest of the district, saying, “We don’t want talented students from outside our boundaries coming in and taking away positions in IB from our own students.”

Instead, he and his teachers focus on building the skills of its many disadvantaged students, few of whom previously have encountered such demanding instruction. It remains difficult to persuade some of them, but Appel says his best argument is the same one students hear everywhere.

“We say to kids here, ‘You can take classes here that will make you competitive with anyone in the country,” Appel says.

Jay Mathews is a Washington Post education columnist and blogger based in Pasadena, Calif. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com. Linda Mathews is a retired editor at USA Today.


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