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What is International Baccalaureate?

Is IB right for your child? Learn how International Baccalaureate schools, programs, and classes work for elementary, middle, and high schoolers.

By Gail Robinson

Standing in front of the room, the speaker veers backs and forth between two disparate works of literature: Shakespeare's Macbeth and Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In both works, gender roles advance the plot, he says, offering an array of examples to illustrate his point. It’s a typical English class at Yonkers High School. The speaker — holding the attention of a couple dozen students — is a high school junior.

In-depth discussion controlled largely by students is what International Baccalaureate (IB) is all about. Created in Switzerland in 1968 for students in international schools, IB is now offered in 3,460 schools across 143 countries — with 1,370 public and private schools (and counting) in the U.S. IB has gained popularity for setting high standards and emphasizing creative and critical thinking. IB students are responsible for their own learning, choosing topics and devising their own projects, while teachers act more as supervisors or mentors than sources of facts. IB emphasizes research and encourages students to learn from their peers, with students actively critiquing one another's work. Beyond preparing students for critical thinking and college-level work, the full IB program calls for students to express themselves through writing, requires community service, and aims "to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect."

Understanding what IB schools are all about

Technically, any school with an IB program is called an “IB school.” Since “IB school” is used as shorthand, it’s important to ask how students participate in IB at any given school. It’s most straightforward at IB elementary schools, where IB is part of every class school-wide. But in middle school and high school that may not be the case. Some middle and high schools are 100 percent IB, but not all. For example, at many high schools there is an IB program that kids may opt into, much like attending a school within a school. If that’s the case, students may participate in IB at different levels, ranging from taking a single IB course to earning an IB diploma, which involves taking a full course load of IB classes and meeting a series of requirements. Given this range, it’s crucial to ask what your local school offers and allows.

The difference between IB and AP

Although widely seen as an alternative to Advanced Placement [AP] classes, IB’s different for a few reasons. For one, IB is offered at the elementary and middle school levels. AP is not. What’s more, IB can be the curricula for a handful of classes (like AP) or it can be an intensive school-wide program (unlike AP).

The AP comparison only fits in a high school with an IB diploma program where students are allowed to take one or more IB classes in their strongest subjects. Even then, IB and AP classes tend to differ in teaching method and testing. Some see AP as more focused on rote learning and standardized tests. In contrast, IB classes and assessments tend to involve more research, writing, and hands-on evaluation. A key difference is the final exam. IB exams are set up to challenge students to apply what they’ve learned in new scenarios, such as analyzing a case study, in an effort to test students’ ability to react to new information in a limited period of time. The tests (often essays) are then sent to one of 6,000 trained international examiners to be graded alongside work from other IB students worldwide.

However, AP courses may carry extra benefits that not all IB courses do. For instance, AP class grades may be weighted (check with your local school), which boosts students’ GPAs for college applications, and passing grades on AP exams can provide college credit, whereas passing grades on IB course exams may not. As a result, many students who take IB courses and exams also take the related AP test (but not the class) in order to secure college credit.

An inquiry-based approach

At all levels, IB takes a global approach, looking at big ideas across disciplines, such as examining connections between the early 20th century novel The Jungle and communism or considering visual depictions of music. No matter what they’re studying, students dig deep into subjects and try to find answers. In a Florida middle school, students reading The Diary of Anne Frank considered the implications of being a perpetrator, a bystander, and a witness of the Holocaust. In Yonkers, biology students develop their own experiments — a process that can leave classrooms stinky at times.

Gail Robinson is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer specializing in education and other public policy issues. Her work appears in many publications, including Inside Schools and the Huffington Post. She has two children who went through the New York City school system.