Educators Tout IB’s Links to Common Core

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 21, 2012 7 min read
Jayden Davies, from left, Gaby Porcaro, Makenna Sammons, and Marlena Grant work on a 4th grade Floods PowerPoint presentation during a science unit at Kate Sessions Elementary School in San Diego, Calif.

As districts nationwide scramble to translate the Common Core State Standards into concrete curricula and lesson plans, Principal Sue DeVicariis of Kate Sessions Elementary School in San Diego considers herself ahead of the game.

Her school is one of 342 nationwide to follow the Primary Years Program of the Swiss-based International Baccalaureate organization. Earlier this school year, Ms. DeVicariis and teachers met with colleagues across grades throughout the district to use IB inquiry-style units to create mathematics and English/language arts common-core curriculum units for San Diego.

“It’s the exact same intent, and in some cases the same wording as well,” said David Weber, an IB math teacher at the Preuss School-University of California San Diego, in La Jolla. “I would say IB has been well ahead of the common core in [math] in particular … One of the funniest and most interesting [differences] is that the IB objectives call for our students to actually enjoy math, which is starkly absent in the common core.”

While the common core—so far adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia—is intended to bring a universal rigor to high school diplomas nationwide, the IB has been an established international benchmark of college readiness for more than a half century and is in more than 3,500 schools worldwide.

Opportunity Seen

IB educators and researchers view America’s foray into voluntary national standards as an unprecedented opportunity to share lessons from the prestigious—but at as much as $10,000 per student to implement, expensive—diploma and preparatory programs. IB’s standards, structured into interdisciplinary and multigrade lines of inquiry, were one of the models on which the common core was based, and the drive to meet the common core is drawing interest in IB even in the current tight school budget environment.

Lily Van Winkle uses a wooden ball to illustrate a planet in our solar system while Jenna Lane, in back, uses a flashlight to illustrate the sun, during a science unit at Kate Sessions Elementary School in San Diego.

“The common core is moving away from the mile-wide-inch-deep curriculum ... [with] scattered topics that don’t build upon a foundation to coherence, thinking across grades, and linking to major topics,” said Christine Tell, the director of state services for Achieve’s American Diploma Project, a major nonprofit driver of the common-core initiative. Speaking at a summit in Bethesda, Md., this month on aligning IB and the common core, Ms. Tell said, “The standards have been adopted, and I would maintain that was the easy part. IB is an incredibly important, critical part of the way forward.”

Speaking at a summit in Bethesda, Md., last month on aligning IB and the common core, Ms. Tell said, “The standards have been adopted, and I would maintain that was the easy part. IB is an incredibly important critical part of the way forward.”

In connection with it’s sponsored, the International Baccalaureate, based in Geneva, released a policy statement on the common core, announcing that the group will conduct linking studies between the two sets of standards and provide professional development for teachers.

“The IB will continue to draw upon school reform initiatives—such as the [common core]—to ensure that the IB continues to lead the way in providing pedagogically current international education based upon research in education and best practices available,” the group said.

For example, under Kate Sessions Elementary School’s existing IB-based lesson plans, 4th graders at Kate Sessions Elementary “inquire” into how changes in people’s physical and economic environments affect how and where they live and how they are governed. In the process, they study natural selection, civic responsibility, and how economic and political systems work together, among other topics. These could all link to similar standards in the common core.

Many educators in the program see their work as “not aligning IB and the common core, but the common core catching up to IB,” said Drew Deutsch, IB’s regional director for the Americas.

Price of Preparedness

IB’s diploma, originally developed to provide an internationally standardized education for diplomats’ children, has in the last 15 years added prediploma programs for elementary and middle schools, as well as a career certificate for high school students interested in technical fields such as engineering. All of the IB programs have ballooned in popularity in the United States and worldwide, expanding to include nearly 3,500 schools now.

With the school motto emblazoned on the wall, Mia Keighan does a cartwheel on a balance beam while Angelena Resete looks on at Kate Sessions Elementary School in San Diego, Calif.

Price of Preparedness

IB’s rising popularity has not been without controversy. Earlier this year, New Hampshire lawmakers attempted to ban IB for “indoctrinating students to be world citizens” and interfering in state control of education. And districts in Idaho and elsewhere have cut IB programs as being too expensive to sustain.

The cost to implement the program varies based on the number of teachers trained and subjects offered, but IB reports each school pays an initial $4,000 fee to apply to join, plus $9,500 annually; it also costs $141 per exam and $104 per subject for each student participating. Costs to train teachers and provide materials, field trips or other things associated with the program vary by school.

Principal DeVicariis of Kate Sessions Elementary agreed that cost is always an issue for administrators: Her district’s program costs a total of $10,000 per student for the diploma program and $3,600 for the elementary and middle school programs. “We’ve got 200 schools, and there’s no way financially we could support it for everyone,” Ms. DeVicariis said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford it without a strong parent group.”

“We’ve got 200 schools, and there’s no way financially we could support it for everyone,” Ms. DeVicariis said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford it without a strong parent group.”

In fact, she and other IB advocates hope IB will be able to influence curriculum through the common core even in districts that could not afford the program itself.

Assessment Perspectives

Ms. DeVicariis said San Diego expects to roll out its new lesson materials in September 2013 and collect feedback from teachers. “We’re trying really hard to get going on this, because we are already really concerned about the assessment piece coming down the pike,” she said. In comparison to the IB’s use of portfolio assessments—including skits and creative writing—she believes new tests developed for the common core will be “just another standardized test. It does give you a dipstick of what students know and are able to do at that point in time, but the real learning is in the body of work, and always has been.”

Sharon Chaney, the coordinator of advanced academics, including IB, for metropolitan Nashville public schools, agreed. “We’re quite concerned about the effects the common-core assessments could have on IB assessments,” she said. “We want to retain the beautiful ways IB allows students to show what they can do.”

Unlike the common core, IB integrates social and emotional learning into its academic standards, gauging students’ progress through projects, presentations, and other means. Several educators and policymakers have voiced concern that the common core might box in the more holistic approach that IB typically uses.

“The common core seems to be uniquely American, very results-oriented,” said Brian W. Crane, a mathematics-content specialist with Montgomery County public schools, in Maryland, “and the IB seems to be very concerned with the person as a whole and the results of knowledge.”

That is likely to be a culture shock for teachers who are more used to teaching content separated by grade level and subject, according to Christie L. Fox, the scholars program coordinator at the Utah System of Higher Education. “Our teachers really need to become instructional designers, which they have not done in the past. We’ve never really asked teachers to do that, unless we are talking about” IB’s middle and primary years programs, she said. “Once we start to do that, I think we’ll start to see a really interesting elevation in instruction. Our teachers will themselves have to be global thinkers.”

Mr. Weber of the Preuss School and Ms. DeVicariis both mentioned the need for more collaboration during professional development for teachers across both grade levels and disciplines.

“It’s very clear what level you expect kids to read at, but it’s still open-ended so that every school and every teacher can put their own spins on it so it is right for their kids,” Ms. DeVicariis said. “One of the beauties of IB is that it is open-ended; if it was lock step, teachers wouldn’t want to buy into it.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as IB Supporters Tout Program’s Links With Common Core


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