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May 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 8
Reshaping High Schools
Jeffrey Beard and Ian Hill
For more than 40 years, the International Baccalaureate has prepared students to compete and cooperate on a global stage.
In a 2005 New York Times opinion piece, Suketu Mehta offered this perspective on schooling in India and the United States:
In Bombay, math was my worst subject, and I regularly found my place near the bottom of the class rankings in that rigorous subject. But in my American school, so low were their standards that I was—to my parents' disbelief—near the top of the class. If I were now to move with my family to India, my children—who go to one of the best private schools in New York—would have to take remedial math and science courses to get into a good school in Bombay.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates (2005) has said that U.S. "high schools—even when they're working exactly as designed—cannot teach our kids what they need to know today" (p. 2). Scores on the Trends in International Math and Science Study and Program for International Student Assessment show that U.S. students in 4th and 8th grades are ahead of their international peers in math and science, but 15-year-olds are behind (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Putting it bluntly, U.S. students appear to be getting dumber as they go through school.
The United States is increasingly realizing the need for more international awareness, as seen in the president's foreign language initiative, which identified 22 critical languages for increased funding support. One important avenue by which high schools can both increase international awareness and prepare students to compete in the 21st century has actually been in existence in for more than 40 years: the International Baccalaureate.
According to its mission statement, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Organization "aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect" (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2007). The IB Diploma Program was developed in the 1960s at the International School of Geneva. Students pursuing an IB diploma take six major subjects in 11th and 12th grade. These must include one of around 70 first languages, one of 21 second languages, and at least one subject from each of the following categories: individuals and society, experimental sciences, and mathematics. An arts subject is optional but encouraged. Three additional requirements are central to the program: the extended essay, which develops research skills; a theory of knowledge course, which develops critical-thinking skills; and involvement in activities promoting personal development in creativity, action, and service.
At the end of the program, students pursuing the full diploma take standardized written examinations to determine whether they have met the program's requirements. These exams are complemented by in-school assessment tasks that are either initially graded by teachers and then checked by external IB moderators or sent directly to external examiners for grading. Assessment tasks include written assignments, oral presentations, portfolios, research projects, practical work, and examinations. Student results are determined by performance against set standards.
Thanks to technology, the world is now a highly interconnected playing field, with the developing nations as players. Jean-François Rischard (2002), the World Bank's vice president for Europe, advises that overcoming our current national mindsets will require new methodologies, instincts, and politics to enable each one of us to think and act like "a concerned global citizen" (p. x). Bringing an international perspective to education will be essential to ensuring high standards and equitable outcomes for all students.
The IB program promotes a global perspective by
Recent reports by the National Center on Education and the Economy (2006) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007) identify the following essential skills for the 21st century:
These skills are evident in the IB learner profile, which lists 10 attributes that IB programs seek to develop in students:
IB programs are designed to stimulate young people to be intellectually curious and equip them with the knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills, reflective practices, and attitudes needed to become autonomous lifelong learners. Central to IB's approach is the use of guiding or key questions like these from the IB Theory of Knowledge Guide (2006):
The act of framing these open or generative questions causes teachers to focus on why they are teaching particular information; this helps them ensure that the knowledge and skills they are teaching are relevant and meaningful.
This comprehensive public school of some 800 students has offered the IB Diploma Program since 1981. George Mason allows nearly unrestricted entry to its IB program; students can pursue the full diploma or just take IB courses in individual subjects. About 70 percent of the school's 11th and 12th graders participate in the program to some degree. These students include those who have learning disabilities and immigrant students who are learning English.
Early on, teachers noticed a "challenge creep" that spread to non-IB classes. Students across the board have responded positively to the higher expectations. Principal Bob Snee puts it this way:
I've heard countless educators referring to this "rising tide lifting all boats" phenomenon in describing what the IB's effect has been on their schools. … The IB is what made our school community start to speak openly about the need for students to challenge themselves academically.
George Mason annually sends 25 students and a few teachers to Santiago, Chile, and a similar number to Toulouse, France, as part of an exchange program that also brings students and faculty from those cities to George Mason. The school is looking to establish an exchange with a high school in Nanning, China.
Henrico High School is a large urban school in Richmond, Virginia. Sixty percent of its 1,800 students are from low-income families. Librarian Alice Ann Ellis notes that IB's creativity, action, and service requirement has raised awareness of important issues. For example, one student created an informative video about diabetes, and another highlighted the plight of children kidnapped as child soldiers in Africa.
IB coordinator Nancy LaVier credits the IB program with "a revived spirit and a return to an era of pure enthusiasm" in the school. She believes that the program has restored the school's reputation so that parents and students vie for spots in the program after a decade of what LaVier calls "derision." The program's high-achieving students have brought their involved parents into the school, and these parents have become active volunteers.
The addition of an IB program has brought about improvements that benefit the entire school. When IB students requested more advanced placement classes to augment their IB studies, non-IB students also benefited from the new offerings. Highly trained IB teachers use IB practices in their other classes. Teachers across Henrico County now use guiding questions to focus instruction in many subjects.
Binghamton High School, a Title I school of 1,800 students in upstate New York, started its IB program in 1996. Principal Al Penna says,
The International Baccalaureate program gives students from the poorest neighborhoods in our city the opportunity to have the same academic experiences as those students who attend the most elite schools in the world. It "levels the playing field," yet at the same time it also challenges the most gifted students in our schools. It offers hope to many; but more important, it shows that our students can compete academically on a global stage.
Contact with other schools in the IB family has enabled Binghamton to establish sustained international partnerships with schools around the world. The school has exchanged students and faculty with Hiram Bingham, the British International School of Lima, Peru. Another partnership is being forged with high schools in the Shanghai region of China. These school partnerships allow students to experience other cultures, customs, languages, and international perspectives. Through IB, Binghamton High School students are learning about a world beyond Binghamton.
The International Baccalaureate is well positioned to respond to the global challenges of the 21st century. As people increasingly wake up to what it's going to take to compete in this new flat world, the IB is increasingly viewed as one of the best education systems to prepare young people for that future. Our programs are shaped around creating a better and more peaceful world with a core determination to develop students who can create this better world through intercultural understanding and respect.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2007). College learning for the new global century. Washington, DC: Author. Available: www.aacu.org/advocacy/leap/documents/GlobalCentury_final.pdf
Gates, B. (2005, February). Prepared remarks at National Education Summit on High Schools. Available:
IB Theory of Knowledge Guide. (2006). International Baccalaureate Organization: Cardiff, Wales.
International Baccalaureate Organization. (2007). Mission and strategy. Geneva, Switzerland: Author. Available: www.ibo.org/mission/
Mehta, S. (2005, July 12). A passage from India. The New York Times. Available:
National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Special analysis 2006: U.S. student and adult performance on international assessments of educational achievement. In The Condition of Education. Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2006/analysis/index.asp
National Center on Education and the Economy. (2006). Tough choices for tough times: The report of the new commission on the skills of the American workforce. Washington, DC: Author.
Rischard, J-F. (2002). High noon: 20 global problems, 20 years to solve them. New York: Basic Books.
Jeffrey Beard is Director General and Ian Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Deputy Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
Copyright © 2008 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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