How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools
by Jay Mathews and Ian Hill, (Open Court, 255 pages, $29.95)
Compared with the advanced placement program, which is taken by tens of thousands of high school students each year, the international baccalaureate program, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is a minor entity. But it’s a growing and influential one: Among Newsweek magazine’s 2003 list of the 800-plus best high schools in the nation, 113 had IB programs.
The reason for the program’s increasing prominence, according to Washington Post education writer Mathews and IB deputy director Hill, is its accessibility and rigor. Once a school commits to an IB program, any student with a C average or better can participate, making it much less exclusionary than AP. And while the authors don’t dispute advanced placement’s rigor, they see distinct advantages in IB. For one, unlike AP’s a la carte approach, it encompasses all core subjects, including a theory of knowledge class in which students ponder such philosophers as Plato and Kant. The IB program also eschews the multiple-choice questions that are such an integral part of the AP exam; instead, students must respond to five hours’ worth of essay questions like “Compare and contrast the causes of the first and second world wars.” Students also write an in-depth essay of at least 2,500 words on a topic of their choice.
While the authors are sanguine about IB’s future, they acknowledge that the program faces obstacles. Colleges, for one thing, have not yet given IB the kind of recognition they accord to AP. And some parent groups are wary of a program that emerged from a European peace movement following World War II. (The majority of IB schools, in fact, are still in Europe.) My feeling is that international baccalaureate may simply be too intense for most students. As popular as it is now to lobby for ever more academic rigor, I, for one, am glad I was cut some slack in high school. Can’t we save some hard work for college and beyond?