Gifted students approach their final years of high school eagerly anticipating the opportunity to take college-level courses. At 60 percent of our nation’s secondary schools, this opportunity is offered in the form of Advanced Placement courses. However, a growing number of secondary schools are considering another rigorous, multidimensional, learning program: the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
The IB program offers a challenging, internationally standardized curriculum uniformly accepted by top-ranked universities all over the world. School systems are attracted to the program because it focuses on the whole child and facilitates academic, cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social growth. It encourages multicultural knowledge and understanding. The universal curriculum, the examinations, and the diploma it confers ensure that universities around the globe accept it.
Created in 1968 in Geneva, the IB program was designed so that children of diplomats or internationally mobile families or businesspeople would find consistent learning objectives and graduation requirements at participating schools anywhere. The program requires students to study six subjects (individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics, arts and electives, and two languages) and take an interdisciplinary course called “Theory of Knowledge,” an independent research study with a 4,000-word essay and a community service requirement.
According to Mary Enda Tookey, former editor of Forum, the resource for “Theory of Knowledge” teachers, the program is particularly beneficial and appropriate for gifted secondary students, for whom it “creates a school climate and culture that is conducive to . . . continued academic, cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social growth.”
Tookey says that the program includes the following strengths:
- High standards and the “experience . . . of being challenged both academically and affectively with equally bright age-peers”
- Emphasis on working in a group toward academic goals, as well as on building multicultural understanding and acceptance
- College-level coursework in major curriculum areas, with “in-depth, sustained exploration that can awaken lifelong interest in a field”
- Teamwork, not just to cultivate social interaction but to complete a multifaceted, complex task
- Curriculum that is interesting because it is relevant and useful
- An international emphasis that “opens up the walls of the school to different traditions. The school’s and the student’s own culture are acknowledged and explored, but at the same time the student learns another language and looks at other cultures and their contributions”
- A community service component that gives students “a heightened sense of personal and social responsibility and self-esteem”
- Appropriate feedback that helps students “value what they have accomplished as well as set goals for further development”
- Options for students to demonstrate their ability and achievement through opportunities “outside the school community (competitions, publications, etc.)”
- An atmosphere that encourages thoughtful, penetrating questions and rewards hard work
High school counselors and administrators caution that the program is not for everyone and is definitely not for the underachiever. Some students, faced with the tremendous workload and community service requirements, find it necessary to drop out of one or more school activities. One IB coordinator notes that successful IB students are often the type who are happy only if they have a great deal to do and are highly motivated to do well in their studies and extracurricular activities.
While everyone agrees that IB graduates are well prepared for college, there is no clear evidence that participation in the program gives students an advantage in college admissions. Indeed, IB administrators stress that the program’s focus is not college admissions. “We’re training students for world leadership,” says a Denver administrator; “for engagement in a global society.”
To date, there are a limited number of venues; only 323 U.S. high schools offered the program in 2000. On the upside, it is also offered in primary and middle grades.
It is clear that universities around the world recognize the IB program’s high standards, because an ever-increasing number of them give credit or advanced placement for IB classes or an IB diploma. No studies have yet compared the IB program with the Advanced Placement Program or other preuniversity curricula. However, its focus, objectives, climate, culture, and experiences may approach those of an ideal gifted program.
—Teri Cooper Brown
Teri Cooper Brown is a veteran educator and full-time freelance writer on gifted education, child development, and family life. She is a former gifted/talented resource teacher and advocate for gifted children.
- “The Academic Challenge: High School Students Taking on Rigorous Programs to Discover How Far They Can Reach,” by Holly Kurtz, Denver Rocky Mountain News, October 24, 1999
- “The International Baccalaureate,” by Mary Enda Tookey, Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, winter 1999–2000