The Effectiveness of IB

Each year, we see the high school “rankings,” finding that those schools with a high preponderance of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB ) programs tend to do the best.  The greater the penetration of such programs and priorities, the higher a high school ranks.  Over the years, though, the education community has begun to ask the question about true results or the true impact of these programs. 

A decade ago, many a high school student collected AP courses like baseball cards, knowing that AP today meant college credit tomorrow.  The eduwife actually entered Stanford University as a sophomore because of all of the AP classes she took (and the fives she secured on the exams), allowing her to spend her fourth year out at the Farm gaining her master’s degree.
But times have changed.  Many colleges are now saying that even a five on an AP course is not the same as successfully completing the college course.  We’ve shifted from awarding college credit to simply allowing students to waive out of core requirements.  
The situation has always been even more murky with IB.  IB was never intended to provide college credits in a way AP does.  Designed decades ago, the program was created to ensure that students received a rigorous, comprehensive, and relevant high school learning experience.  By maximizing the time in high school through the IB curriculum, young people would become better students, better scholars, and better citizens.  
So how does all that translate when it comes to postsecondary education?  Many a college admissions officer knows that an IB graduate means a strong college candidate.  They are prepared for postsecondary work.  They are motivated.  They’ve been challenged.  They are inquisitive.  And they are able to do more than fill out bubble sheets or choose from a list of five answers.  They are scholars and learners, not merely the processors of information.
In past years, Eduflack has had the privilege of working with IB on a number of issues.  Being me, I would always ask about the research.  How do we know IB is working?  IB would say that the proof is in their alumni network.  One knows IB works when you see the complete IB graduate.  It is not just what they know, but how they apply it.  Those who complete an IB program usually move on to college.  And the IB high school instructional model has been so successful in teaching and motivating students that it has resulted in the development of both elementary and middle grades IB programs.
IB has never been about longitudinal research models.  They know the program works.  Their scholars know it works.  Their teachers, who undergo rigorous training and ongoing support, know it works.  And the schools that adopt it know it works.  They don’t need a medical-style research model to prove what they already know.  No, IB isn’t for everyone.  But those who do adopt it are better for it.  And despite the urban legends, IB isn’t just for the rich schools in the suburbs or for the uber-motivated.  IB works for all students who are motivated enough to seek a high-quality, rigorous educational program that provides the content and the skills to perform well after the IB program is completed.
But this is an era of research and of doing what is proven effective.  One’s word or one’s track record isn’t enough.  We need third party data to prove our effectiveness.  And now, IB has some of that as well.  In recent days, IB announced the Education Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) findings of its International Baccalaureate Standards Development and Alignment Project.  What did EPIC find?  
* IB is “highly aligned” with the Knowledge and Skills for University Success (KSUS) college-ready standards
* The IB Diploma’s key cognitive strategies — critical thinking skills, intellectual inquisitiveness, and interpretation — were found to be fully aligned with the expectations of university faculty
* IB math (algebra, trigonometry, and statistical standards) were completely aligned with KSUS
* IB science (chemistry, biology, and environmental science) were completely aligned with KSUS
Alignment is important.  But the data on results is even more compelling.  As part of the EPIC announcement, IB revealed that more than 80 percent of those completing the IB high school program graduate from college within six years, a rate leaps, bounds, and high jumps above the national average for high school students.  IBers are college graduates.  And there are few, if any programs, we can make that statement about with higher certainty.
IB has been one of the best-kept secrets in school improvement and innovation.  We don’t talk about it, but IB’s year-on-year growth in the United States over the last year has been the stuff on which folks write Harvard case studies.  Those teachers who have gone through the training are true believers.  Those students who secure the Diploma are real-life success stories.  And those districts who make the investment quickly realize that the cost is worth it, gaining both quantitative and qualitative return on investment almost from the get-go.
Perhaps IB’s greatest challenge is how it fits into the current environment of improvement, reform, and innovation.  IB succeeded in the NCLB years, in part, because of the misperceptions of who it was targeting.  Since many didn’t see its applicability for those students who were being left behind (despite some tremendous case studies of how IB programs have turned around schools and really helped students from historically disadvantaged groups), the program was left to operate on its own.  It connected enough with AYP and with state assessments that it was a viable alternative for those wishing to pursue it.  But it simply wasn’t seen as a solution for that bottom quartile of students, particularly with NCLB’s focus on the elementary grades.
Today, IB is at a crossroads.  As a nation, we have set hard goals for improving high school graduation rate and college attainment numbers.  The EPIC data demonstrates that IB could be one of those solutions custom-made for rising to the occasion.  The IB training and development model is one that can be used as we look to new ways to improving instruction and preparation for all teachers.  The real challenge, though, is how IB fits into the new call for common standards.  How will the IB framework align with the high school standards currently being pursued?  How do IB assessments dovetail with the assessments that will come out of common standards?  How does IB demonstrate value-add, and not add-on?
Only time will tell if IB is up to the challenge.  It has the opportunity.  It has the track record.  It can display its strengths.  Now is the time for International Baccalaureate to show it is an exemplar of best practice, and not merely a niche program.  It has the pieces.  IB just has to bring them all together for a compelling story that solves the problem so many school decisionmakers are facing.

172 thoughts on “The Effectiveness of IB

  1. Elisa, I assume your school is in the U.S. From your description it sounds like a move that is all too common: adopting the IB as a public relations ploy. The main purpose and function of the IB is to provide a diploma to students living outside their home countries that will be recognized at home and gain them admission to universities in their home countries. Thus for domestic schools to offer the IB is a bit odd. Why would they do it? Ideally, they would recognize that the IBDP offers a more challenging program that does a better job of preparing students for university. Alas, this is rarely the case.The AP was designed as a program for elite students, whereas the IB was designed for all university-bound students, but the IB is ironically viewed as ‘superior’ to the AP, or more prestigious, and it is this prestige that motivates most schools to adopt the IB: students and parents believe that “IB” on their transcript will enhance their chances of admission to a selective college. Administrators believe that adding the IB will persuade students and voters that their schools are doing a good job.I have taught in Canada, in the U.S., and overseas in a number of international schools. I have taught domestic curricula, I have taught A.P. English, and I have taught IB English and Theory of Knowledge. To my mind the IB provides a better, well-rounded program, but to achieve its full benefits all, or nearly all students in a school should do the full diploma, including CAS and TOK and the Extended Essay. Doing certificates significantly dilutes the program’s integrity and effectiveness, and offering the IB only to a small number of ‘elite’ students seriously distorts the spirit of the program and decreases its benefits for everyone. When a whole school does the IB, all students are challenged to work harder, think more deeply, and learn more, and all students at all levels of ability are improved by the atmosphere of achievement that results.The quality of work done by students and teachers will be reflected every year in the results your students achieve on their IB exams, but one year’s results are not always representative: a more reliable pattern will emerge over several years. As for GPA: don’t get me started! GPAs are calculated in such a variety of ways that they are in effect meaningless, along with class rank. You should look into alternative ways to represent students’ achievements and abilities to university admissions offices.

  2. What independent, objective evidence exists that an IB based H.S. diploma is “better than” a diploma based on a school’s AP program. From what I have read, the IB is another educational gimmick similar to hundreds of gimmicky management consultant programs (ISO9000 being a big one).IB takes advantage of the difficulties in measuring academic achievement, school-wide. Educationists are suckers (I used to teach school) for new and exciting programs…buzz of the month stuff. Our already cash-strapped schools are getting flim-flamed by gullible school boards and administrators. Teachers, who will be charged with implementing IB, will natrually be blamed for its failure to deliver. In most schools teachers have had no say about IB implementation.

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