World-Class Rigor Spreads in US High Schools

International Baccalaureate diploma assures students they are meeting a global education standard

Like a lot of parents, Sue Edwards of Denver yearned for stronger academic courses for her children when they reached high school age. She didn't have to look far: A rigorous honors program that could potentially help her kids skip their freshman year of college was as close as the local public high school.

Known as the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, it has been called the academic equivalent of boot camp - without the mud and colorful language.

"It's one tough program, let me tell you," Mrs. Edwards says, recalling the late nights her children spent studying. Often, she says, messy bedrooms were accepted as casualties of their two to five hours of homework a day. "I was pleased to see the level of commitment by my kids. It was their desire that made it work."

As an intensive honors program, it is not designed for every student. But many educators say IB promotes excellence more broadly in a school as IB teachers learn to teach college-level courses and then begin to expect higher performance from students in their regular classes.

Originally created in 1965 to serve children of diplomats and other students who needed academic credentials accepted worldwide, the Geneva-based IB "diploma" program requires students to take a full complement of honors-level courses in their junior and senior years. In addition to hours of homework, students must write a 4,000-word thesis, pass exams geared to top international standards, and devote 150 hours to community service. They also must become fluent in a foreign language.

Fast growth since 1990

Academic rigor is the appeal, proponents say. IB has grown particularly fast in the United States since about 1990. Although only 238 IB diploma programs exist in US high schools, about 50 schools each year are being accepted into the program, IB officials say. There are more than 790 schools with "diploma" programs in 94 countries.

Bradley Richardson, IB North America's regional director based in New York, says the program does more than boost the fortunes of a small group of motivated students. All IB teachers retool to teach at college level and most use elements of that approach in non-IB classes.

"Initially school faculty say: 'Do we really have students that can do this?' " says Mr. Richardson. "But once the program is in place, and once teachers raise their expectations, the students do it."

In an era of "magnet" schools and growing school choice, some schools are adopting the program to gain an edge in drawing top students.

That's essentially what happened with Stephanie Terry. Dissatisfied with her nearby high school in Denver, she moved to one with an IB program. She vividly remembers her first day of freshman biology class at George Washington High School - the school Edwards's children attended.

It was a lecture class. As in college, students who wanted to ask questions had to come in on their own time.

"Certain classes give you the shock of your life - like that biology class did for me," says Stephanie, now a senior, recalling how she scrambled to take comprehensive notes for the first time in her life. "It was more difficult than I expected. But it has been wonderful, too."

Some worry that IB may undercut other honors courses, such as the popular Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are comparable in difficulty. A key difference, however, is that students may take AP courses a la carte, picking classes in their areas of strength. IB students must take honors courses across the spectrum of subjects and pass tests in six subjects to gain their diploma.

Like AP courses, a key IB feature is that many colleges give credit for courses. Unlike AP, however, IB diplomas require enough courses that a student can often begin college as a sophomore - as Stephanie hopes to - which is no small issue with college tuitions at stratospheric levels. The official line is that IB will not help a student get into a better college - but college-admissions experts say it can help a lot if a student does well.

Schools seeking to offer the IB program go through a formal application process that usually takes 18 months to three years. Each member school pays a $7,300 annual membership fee, which pays for curriculum development and updates it every five years. Students sometimes split the $525 cost of the final year's examinations with their school. It is left up to individual schools to screen students to determine which ones are likely to succeed in the program.

Battling elitism

Critics sometimes charge that the IB fosters "elitism" and may lead to divisions within a school, especially among faculty. At George Washington, for example, just 370 of the school's 1,900 students are in the program. Unlike many schools where teachers split time between IB and non-IB classes, George Washington's IB teachers are full time.

"There is a risk of alienating students and teachers and having IB labeled as elitist," says Suzanne Geimer, the school's IB coordinator. "We work hard every year to overcome that. It's not a big problem among students - it is more so with faculty." She says IB faculty attend regular staff meetings and sponsor school clubs.

Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga., has just adopted IB. But unlike George Washington in Denver, its IB teachers also teach non-IB classes with the idea that IB may lift all students' academic standards - and avoid friction over alleged elitism.

So far there are 113 students in the Campbell High IB program. This year 240 students applied for 100 openings in the freshman pre-IB program - a 45 percent increase over the year before.

"It does kind of set you apart," says Jessica Evans, a pre-IB student who moved from Delaware to attend Campbell High's IB program. "But most of the time, it's not people calling you a nerd, it's more, 'Hey, there's an IB kid, they're smart, they'll help me with my homework.' "

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