The "Other" Advanced Program: International Baccalaureate Offers a Cross-Cultural Alternative to Advanced Placement

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THE INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE MAY SOUND LIKE IT involves some sort of foreign exchange and a college graduation ceremony. But the IB is actually a comprehensive, demanding, and increasingly popular diploma program for high school juniors and seniors, with a strong academic focus on the world around them.

While the IB was created 40 years ago by a Geneva-based educational organization to provide a standardized, high-level curriculum for the children of itinerant diplomats--and while it can be found in 125 countries today--U.S, schools have become the program's biggest consumers by far. As of last November, they comprised 556 of the almost 1,300 schools worldwide offering the two-year IB diploma, and their numbers are increasing by about 10 percent annually.

At the heart of the curriculum is a course in the theory of knowledge, which examines different ways of knowing, the role of knowledge in culture, and the connection of knowledge to responsible action.

The diploma requires the study of two foreign languages, advanced courses in everything from history to social sciences to the arts, a 4,000 word essay, 150 hours of community service, and a battery of five-hour exams in each subject--graded by an international panel--at the end of the school year. (The program also fulfills regular high school graduation requirements.) Along the way, the IB helps to open doors for college admittance and provides an alternative to traditional AP courses.

"As more and more word gets out, it piques attention, and other schools say, 'What can it do for us?'" observes Brad Richardson, the International Baccalaureate Organization's regional director for North America ( ibna). To hear satisfied IB customers tell it, the IB is doing plenty.

"We looked at it as bringing together best practices, not just in the country, but in the world," says John Murphy, the associate principal and IB coordinator at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., which became one of the nation's earliest IB schools in 1981. "The bellwether came in 1997, when all 30 students in the program earned diplomas and then came back telling the underclassmen how successful they had been in college." This year, 125 seniors and 169 juniors are working toward the diploma at South Side High, which houses a total of 1,150 students evenly divided among four grades.

"It's not so much the curriculum per se. It's what the curriculum forces students to figure out through in-depth and rigorous thinking," adds Ellen Linky, the assistant superintendent for the Office of Accelerated Learning in Philadelphia, which--along with Chicago--is one of the largest districts to adopt the program. Five Philadelphia high schools have been offering the IB diploma over the past two years.

The increased rigor of the IB diploma appeals to Doug Nelson, the superintendent of Oregon's Bend-LaPine Schools, which embarked last fall on the two-year approval process to incorporate IB into Bend High School. "One of the things we've been looking to do over the last seven or eight years is increase aspirations and expectations," explains Nelson, whose district is also expanding its menu of AP courses. "Our graduates will be competing in a much more. global society. We want them on the same footing with others not just from Seattle and Portland, but from China, Singapore, Korea and India."

An International Education

What also sets the IB program apart, its adherents say, is its deliberate worldview. "Our mission is to make a better world through intercultural learning," emphasizes IB's Richardson. Instead of standard American history, for instance, IB schools teach History of the Americas. (Students at some IB schools can take European or East Asian history as well.)

At South Side High, "the international component of the IB program asks students to place their own historical and literary heritage in context," says Murphy, and the social studies offerings include Information Technology in a Global Society. …