A world-class diploma. Two-year course prepares students for universities

`SMORGASBORD,'' ``cafeteria style'' curriculum: school programs that lack focus, rigor, and academic content; a multiplicity of miscellaneous courses offered to high school students in the United States. International Baccalaureate, ``the IB'': educational equivalent of a power breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a two-year course of study recognized by college admissions officers in the United States, as well as universities around the world, for its high standards, tough exams, and unified scope.

In simple terms, the IB is a pre-university diploma program geared to motivated and often gifted students. The IB endeavors to develop competency in writing, mathematics, and a foreign language during the last two years of secondary education, while at the same time giving students a broad introduction to the liberal education - the humanities, social science, and laboratory science.

``We find the IB has become extremely attractive, not only to American colleges and universities, but to American students and America-bound students here at school,'' says R.T. Shade, the IB coordinator at the 'Ecole International de Geneve (Ecolint), in his office here in Geneva. Students find an ``attractiveness in the way the subject matter is presented. It allows a student experiences which are far from those in the rote learning system,'' he says.

Six courses are required. Three for two years each and three for one year each. Subjects include: two in language, one's native tongue and a second language; the study of man in society (which includes history, geography, economics, philosophy, psychology, and social anthropology); experimental sciences (chemistry, biology, physics, physical science); mathematics; and a sixth elective, which might include art/design, music, computer science, Greek, or Latin.

But in addition to the mandatory six subjects, a diploma candidate must take a unique course known as ``Theory of Knowledge.'' This two-year program is the key element in the educational philosophy of the IB, linking the other courses into a unified intellectual experience.

``It is not easy to put into place, you need top quality staff in all the subject areas,'' says Roger Peel, current director general. ``It is where one can find the strongest and weakest components of the IB,'' he says.

One example - teaching how morals and religion shape thought - gives an idea of how great a task the IB sets for itself in the Theory of Knowledge course, said A.D.C. Peterson, one of the founders and a former director-general of the IB, during an interview in his London study.

The IB traces its roots to both the practical and educational concerns of the post-World War II period and the international school setting. As more and more diplomats and business executives were given overseas assignments, concerns grew about the course of study for their children. Would they gain access to the better colleges and universities in their homelands?

School authorities found that the need to prepare 16- to 18-year-old university-bound pupils for separate national examinations required either a large number of very small classes, or a large class segregated according to national groups. It seemed tragic that when students were mature enough to learn from one another, especially national and cultural differences, says Peterson, it became necessary to segregate nationalities in order to prepare for national university entrance examinations.

The IB grew out of the need to guarantee high standards that would be recognized across national boundaries while taking advantage of the rich mix of student backgrounds, he says. It sought to take the best from all national education systems, without being too specialized like the British, too encyclopedic like the Germans, or so open as to lack certain standards like the Americans.

In 1971, 51 students from six schools in England, France, and Switzerland were the first to be awarded IB diplomas. Since then, more than 12,600 have earned diplomas. The vast majority have continued their education in colleges or universities. Currently, 333 schools from 55 countries use the IB program in its entirety or as a supplement to a national program. The rapid growth in IB programs in the US and Canada (126) since 1980 was unexpected by its European founders, says Peterson.

``What makes the IB stand out from other university entrance credentials is that it manages to achieve all of a number of different goals,'' says Elizabeth G. Vermey, director of admissions at Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. It ensures breadth (through the distribution requirement), provides coherence (through the theory of knowledge requirement), teaches writing, analytical, and research skills far beyond what is usually asked of a student in high school (through the extended essay, a major thesis required for graduation), and demands that the student transcend his narrow national/cultural perspective (through the second language requirement).

``We have quite a few students from other countries and the IB serves their needs very well,'' says Peter Vasaturo, IB adviser at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass. Asked how he would compare the IB with the better known advanced placement (AP) programs sponsored by the College Board, he says, ``We saw the IB as a unified approach, whereas the AP was course by course.'' ``Our better students often take both,'' he adds.

The higher-level courses are technically first-year college level work and accepted as such by many American universities, Mr. Shade says. But the cost to a school is considerable, he says. A $5,000 annual fee is paid by each participating high school and fees totaling $350 to $400 per diploma student are assessed. At Wellesley, the student picks up that cost, Mr.Vasaturo says.

For further information, consult: ``Schools Across Frontiers - The Story of the International Baccalaureate and the United World Colleges'' by A.D.C. Peterson (Open Court, La Salle, Ill.); orwrite: International Baccalaureate North America, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.

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