The International Baccalaureate has long resided in the shadow of its more recognized cousin, the Advanced Placement program, at least in the United States. But now, the nonprofit organization known for its demanding curriculum and global outlook is seeking to capitalize on an endorsement from this country’s top elected official, even as it faces a challenge at the grassroots level.
President Bush is proposing a major expansion of a federal incentive program that encourages schools to launch or expand both the IB and AP programs, and prepare more teachers to teach those courses.
The IB program is offered in 623 schools in the United States, a small fraction of those served by the AP. But backers say the federal support underscores the IB’s strong reputation, especially among college-admissions officials, who admire its academic standards and its commitment to teach students about cultures besides their own.
“It may be the best-kept secret in high school reform,” said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Washington. The IB program, he said, is generally regarded as “the gold standard of high school curriculum in admissions circles.”
Such high praise has not insulated the program from occasional criticism on ideological grounds. That may have been the case last month, when a school board in a suburb of Pittsburgh voted to eliminate the program, a decision that has since drawn a lawsuit from a group of parents who support the IB. The lawsuit alleges that a board member who favored doing away with the program cited its inconsistency with “strong Judeo-Christian” values and American traditions.
Different From AP
The objectives and structure of the IB program differ sharply from those of the AP, which has become a fixture at American high schools.
The International Baccalaureate requires students to follow a specific curriculum in six subject areas, with a special emphasis on interdisciplinary study and understanding of foreign cultures.
By contrast, the Advanced Placement program, which is sponsored by the New York City-based College Board, is built around 35 tests covering 20 subjects. Unlike with the IB, decisions about the curriculum of courses with AP designations are left to individual schools and districts.
Although participation in both programs has increased steadily in recent years, the AP’S enrollment in the United States dwarfs that of the IB. In 2005, 1.2 million students at 14,587 U.S. high schools took at least one AP course. While IB participation is growing fastest in North America and the Caribbean, just 35,366 U.S. students were candidates to receive IB high school diplomas in 2005.
Outside the United States, 27,000 students were high school diploma candidates in IB. The program is popular among families of college-bound students both domestically and abroad.
The Bush administration has long recognized the academic merits of both programs, which have the capacity to increase the number of students with top-tier skills in mathematics, science, and foreign languages, according to Holly A. Kuzmich, the U.S Department of Education’s deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. In addition to the White House proposal, which Mr. Bush included in his fiscal 2007 budget request, several pieces of proposed legislation in Congress would boost support for AP and IB. (“Bush Proposes Math and Science Initiatives,” Feb. 8, 2006 and “Bush Math-Science Plan Gets Airing on Hill,” March 8, 2006.)
“We don’t see one as more valuable than another,” Ms. Kuzmich said. “What we’re really interested in is increasing the rigor.”
Established in 1968 and with headquarters in Geneva, the IB program today works with schools in 122 countries. Originally, it offered a two-year program exclusively for high school juniors and seniors, though it was expanded in the 1990s to the elementary and middle school levels and now serves students ages 3-19.
The curriculum is developed by a committee of international educators, though schools are given flexibility to shape much of that content. Students are required to study their home language, a foreign language, courses covering social sciences such as history and economics, math, science,and the arts. They also must complete separate assignments in writing and community service, along with a Theory of Knowledge course, which asks them to think critically and reflect on different ways of learning.
President Bush’s proposal would quadruple funding for an existing, $32 million-a-year program that awards competitive grants to states and districts to expand AP and IB offerings and cover test fees, especially in schools serving low-income students.
Education Department officials said only a fraction of that funding went to IB programs, compared with what it gave for the AP. The administration did, however, award a three-year, $1.1 million incentive-program grant in fiscal 2003 to the IB program’s North American offices to expand an existing high school IB program to middle schools in high-poverty communities.
The relatively low amount of federal support for IB schools can probably be explained in part by the relatively heavy commitment required of schools seeking to launch that program. The high school IB program, which serves 11th and 12th graders, typically requires a two-year planning process, so schools can revamp their curricula, scheduling, and teacher training, recruit students to the program, and be prepared to offer all six subjects at once.
The AP program has the advantage of allowing schools to establish a limited number of courses at first, in subjects such as math, science, or English, in which a cadre of teachers is already well prepared. Courses can be added over time, when other academic departments are ready for them.
Students seeking an IB diploma must complete a series of in-class assignments and exams, per subject, throughout the year, which their teachers grade. They must also take a separate group of “external” exams and assignments, which are graded by readers from all over the world, according to uniform standards. Students must average a 4 on a scale of 1 to 7, across six subjects on both the internal and external assessments.
The AP is “easier to scale up,” said Brad W. Richardson, the director of the IB’s North American office, in New York. “It allows a school to build strength and capacity at a rate it’s comfortable with.” Schools offering the IB curriculum, by contrast, can’t reserve the program for their strongest departments, he said. “Building a coherent curriculum is a lot harder than putting your best foot forward,” he said.
Questions of Ideology
Still, many schools are willing to take on that challenge. The Minnetonka district, a 2,600-student system in a suburb of Minneapolis, has offered IB courses for two years, after beginning the detailed planning process in 2002.
As is the case with many districts, Minnetonka already offered several AP courses when it decided to add the IB curriculum. While critics questioned the need for the IB program, district officials believed the IB would help lure students and families who sought several demanding college-preparatory options, said Superintendent Dennis L. Peterson. He likened the district’s reasoning to that of competing auto dealers clustering in one neighborhood.
“The shoppers come for the same thing,” Mr. Peterson said.
In 2005, some parents in the Minnetonka district objected to the IB’s Theory of Knowledge course, believing it did not include enough discussion of organized religion. Those objections have dissipated since then, he said.
Similar objections, however, emerged in force last month in Pennsylvania’s 4,300-student Upper St. Clair district, near Pittsburgh. On Feb. 20, the school board voted 5-4 to eliminate the IB from its elementary, middle, and high schools.
According to local press accounts, some board members questioned whether the program has an anti-Christian agenda. They also objected to the IB’s endorsement of the Earth Charter, a document originally called for by a United Nations commission and completed in 2000. The charter promotes human rights, sustainable development, and environmental protection, but some critics have interpreted its positions as promoting leftist ideology.
Mr. Richardson said it was a mistake to view the IB program’s requirement that students think critically about religious, cultural, and societal beliefs as a bias of any kind. He knows of five states in which local school officials raised ideological concerns about the IB program in recent years, though most did not result in schools dropping or modifying the program.
“We’re telling students, ‘Tell us what you think, what you believe, and why you believe that,’ ” the IB official said. “I don’t believe IB is promoting any kind of agenda.” Although the International Baccalaureate organization became a signatory to the Earth Charter in 2001, that document has no influence on the curriculum, he added.
Several Upper St. Clair board members who voted to terminate the program did not respond to requests for comment. Superintendent James D. Lombardo, who supported the program, said seniors would be allowed to complete it, but IB courses in other grades would no longer carry that designation after this year.
Many of the courses labeled as IB in Upper St. Clair were, in fact, combinations of the IB and AP programs, the superintendent said. The content and curricula of most of the courses now labeled as IB will remain the same, he said, though certain IB-specific lessons, courses, and objectives will be curtailed. For instance, the Theory of Knowledge course, which had drawn objections from the board, will be cut, he said.
“The district is used to achievement, and a high level of achievement,” Mr. Lombardo said. “With or without IB, I believe that’s going to continue.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as International Baccalaureate May Get Lift From Booster Bush