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What is International Baccalaureate?

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By Gail Robinson

Is IB right for your child?

This depends partly on how your child learns. In an IB class, your child is less likely to take notes during teacher-led lectures and more likely to work on individual or group projects with the teacher facilitating. IB classes tend to be academically challenging, requiring students to take initiative, organize and complete projects, and speak in front of their classmates. Students who thrive in a demanding environment and like having options (like picking research topics and choosing how to present what they learn) would probably do well in IB. Others might feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the curriculum. Also, IB can be time-consuming. Children who struggle in school or have serious extracurricular commitments, such as playing a varsity sport or singing in a competitive choir, may not have the requisite time or energy for IB.

Another factor to consider is the IB curricula's emphasis on asking questions and searching for answers — no matter how controversial the subject. Questions on every imaginable topic — from global warming to gay rights — will be up for debate as teachers challenge students to ask questions and research their answers. As topics arise, the only rules are that questioning is okay and that students seek not only answers but to understand the cultural biases that exist in competing arguments. It’s all in the pursuit of IB’s mission to teach students that, “other people, with their differences, can also be right.” To some, these class discussions may seem politically charged or they may touch on points that are at odds with a family’s belief system, so you should take this into account when considering an IB program for your child.

From preK to graduation

For children ages 3 to 12, IB focuses on six themes: who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, and sharing the planet. Students examine these ideas through a variety of prisms, by considering works that focus on language, social studies, math, arts, science, and personal, social, and physical education.

The interdisciplinary approach continues in the Middle Years Program for students ages 11 to 16. Since this program doesn’t align perfectly with U.S. middle school ages, students may complete their Middle Years studies during their sophomore year of high school. Students consider IB’s five "areas of interaction" — approaches to learning, community and service, human ingenuity, environments, and health and social education — while learning the usual middle school subjects, plus technology and a foreign language. At the end, students do a personal project that usually springs from the student's interests. At one California high school, projects have included a board game, a skateboarding video, and a self-help book for teens. At Yonkers, one student interested in forensics created a (fake) murder scene.

High schoolers participate in IB with varying degrees of intensity, depending on the school’s offerings. Some schools allow students to take one or two IB courses; others may require students to work toward the full IB diploma. In the two-year diploma program, students must pass IB classes in six areas: language and literature, foreign language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, math and computer science, and the arts. At Yonkers, these classes include philosophy, psychology, and social and cultural anthropology, as well as standard high school subjects such as English, Spanish, and biology.

To earn their IB diploma, seniors write a 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choice. The senior project is designed to prepare graduating seniors for college-level research and writing. Recently, seniors at Yonkers tackled such topics as the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the U.S. debt's impact on the country's role as a world power, and the effect of social media on teenagers. A local adult (usually a teacher) supervises, but the final essays are sent to outside examiners who grade the work using criteria that apply to IB students around the world.

For high schoolers pursuing vocational or career and technical education (CTE), IB recently added the IB career-related certificate (IBCC) in which students take fewer IB courses but still meet other diploma-level requirements, such as studying a foreign language, doing community service, and completing a final project related to their vocational or CTE field.

What to look for in an IB school

If you are considering an IB school, find out what form of IB it offers. If it’s a school within a school and/or students are allowed to take IB classes without pursuing an IB diploma, ask how the program works for students at different levels of participation. How will student schedules align for academics, lunchtime, and breaks, for example, and what options do students have if they have trouble acclimating to IB classes? Schools offer different classes to meet IB requirements, so find out which foreign languages, arts, and electives are available. Also, some (but not all) IB programs have GPA or testing requirements for admission, so you’ll need to determine whether your child can meet them.

Depending on how the program is financed in your district, students may need to pay for their own tests. For example, students might be asked to pay a one-time fee of $145 plus $100 for each IB high school exam they take. Pursuing an IB diploma often costs hundreds of dollars.

IB is not a magic bullet. Like any program, its success hinges on the general school atmosphere and the quality of teachers, students, and facilities, so be sure to look at the whole package.

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.