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Overcoming Doubts About

IB’s Merits  


Mark Freeman
Mark Freeman

Our staff had considered the International Baccalaureate program at various times, but it became a real possibility six years ago in Shaker Heights, Ohio, when the Chinese guest teacher program, sponsored by the College Board and Hanban, introduced Mandarin language study in our elementary schools. That met the IB world language requirement, so in 2007-08, we began investigating the program in earnest.

As physicians are cautioned, “first, do no harm,” we moved carefully to ensure the adoption of International Baccalaureate would not jeopardize Shaker Heights’ reputation. Chiefly, we wanted to understand how selective colleges and universities viewed IB diploma candidates and to ensure the IB program could coexist with our exceptionally strong AP program. We also wondered about the quality of professional development offered by IB staff.

To get answers, we sent teams of educators from our 5,500-student suburban district near Cleveland to IB schools around the country to observe and question colleagues. We enlisted our guidance counselors to check with their contacts in college admissions offices. We talked extensively with officials of the International Baccalaureate Organization to gauge the program’s fit.

Heading up our exploratory team was a well-regarded, experienced teacher of Advanced Placement history, someone with a keen interest in protecting the integrity and viability of our AP program. Ultimately, the team satisfied our concerns and moved forward on implementation, beginning with staff training in 2008-09.

Meeting in the Middle
Many school districts choose to implement only the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, a rigorous elective program serving 11th and 12th graders. For us, the thought of adopting IB across all grade levels was immediately appealing: IB offers a solid pedagogy, it’s well-recognized worldwide, and the program enriches all students. Admittedly, implementation carries a lot of challenges, but the benefits for students and faculty already outweigh those.

We began our adoption of International Baccalaureate at both ends of the grade continuum, with the Primary Years Programme serving our preK-4 students, and the diploma program in high school. In 2008, the high school became an IB candidate school and was authorized two years later as an IB World School. Our first class of IB Diploma candidates graduated this past June.

Adopting the Middle Years Programme, now under way, poses a special challenge because it involves three buildings: upper elementary (grades 5-6), middle school (grades 7-8) and early high school (grades 9-10). Each building has a different organizational structure and culture, yet the Middle Years Programme guidelines must be applied consistently across the board.

By and large, our teachers have embraced these challenges with a positive attitude, and they are finding great value in the collaboration with their colleagues required by this process.

Management Tips
Our recent adoption experiences suggest a few pieces of advice from a management standpoint.

GETTING FACULTY ON BOARD. It took some effort at the outset to help faculty understand that IB is not a rigid curriculum imposed by bureaucrats at the International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. While many jumped on board quickly, more than a few were skeptical and resistant. Of course, none of our teachers wanted to pursue an educational fad or lose the creative freedom in teaching that historically has characterized the Shaker Heights schools.

Through open and frequent communication, we have worked hard to underscore that IB actually encourages teachers to collaborate and create lessons that engage students. Most skeptics now have come around, discovering IB provides a framework for the kind of instruction they want to provide.

IMPLEMENTING ACROSS THE DISTRICT. Being European in origin, the International Baccalaureate Organization does not fully understand how U.S. schools are governed, structured and operated. The organization is not set up to facilitate districtwide adoption and discourages collaboration among schools.

In Shaker Heights, with five K-4 elementary schools, an upper elementary school, a middle school and a high school, we would benefit greatly from a streamlined process toward authorization as IB World Schools for all of our buildings. As it stands, the leadership team in each building must work toward this goal in relative isolation, but our building-level IB coordinators communicate frequently to deliver a unified approach.

We dovetailed the implementation of International Baccalaureate with our districtwide strategic planning process, which enables us to stay on the same page when implementing the program at each building.

COMMUNICATING THE BENEFITS TO PARENTS. The International Baccalaureate Organization provides good materials for educators but less support for communication with parents than American schools normally provide. This may have to do with the fact that European parents tend to be less involved than American parents in the details of curriculum development.

To the organization’s credit, it has been receptive to feedback from U.S. administrators about the need for more parent-focused information. We found it necessary to create our own support materials, both in print and on our district website, to help parents get their arms around the program’s operation and its benefits. The main messages we communicate up front are these:

IB does not replace anything in the current curriculum. We continue to teach all the same core subjects and meet all state standards. Rather, International Baccalaureate enhances what is already in place.

The IB Diploma Programme does not replace our robust Advanced Placement program. We are fortunate to have a large number of capable, ambitious students, so we can support both offerings.

IB is not an enrichment program just for selected students; it provides enrichment for all students, in every building.

A Magnet Force
Despite challenges, we are reaping dividends. As I visit schools, I consistently see evidence of our students truly “owning” their learning and cultivating valuable problem-solving skills that will serve them well at college and beyond.

International Baccalaureate is proving to be a point of distinction for the Shaker Heights schools and a proven attraction for families who are relocating here from all over the country and around the world.

Mark Freeman is superintendent of the Shaker Heights City Schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio. E-mail: freeman_m@shaker.org. He acknowledges the help of Peggy Caldwell and Jennifer Proe in preparing this article.


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