Superficial treatment of IB and AP keeps public in the dark

In his May 18 Sun Newspapers commentary, "New programs create better schools," Minnetonka Community Editor Joe Kieser points to the results of Newsweek magazine's annual "Top 1200 High Schools" survey as evidence that the advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs "are becoming a necessity rather than a luxury." He concludes, "The days of reading, writing, and arithmetic are over, having been replaced with analyzing, theorizing, and philosophizing."

"With our Best High Schools list," said the magazine, "Newsweek recognizes schools that do the best job of preparing average students for college. By dividing the number of AP and IB tests taken at a school by the number of graduating seniors, we can measure how committed the school is to helping kids take college-level courses. We think kids at those schools have an edge..."

In its June 12 editorial, "Don't mess with success: support IB," the Star Tribune points to state and federal support for AP and IB programs.

While AP and IB provide do provide additional choice and academic rigor to high school students, including Newsweek listers from the west metro (St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, Wayzata, and Armstrong), they are not identical twins. Even as the popular press conveniently lumps them together for their busy readers, more information is needed for parents, students, and taxpayers to make informed decisions.

Is the presence of AP and/or IB the best indication of which schools are a "top school" and which are not, as the popular press seems to be saying?

The origins of AP and IB

In May 1951, a group of educators from three elite preparatory schools — Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville — and Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities met to discuss the best use of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. In 1956, after a successful pilot program, The College Board took over administration of what is now known as the College Board's Advanced Placement Program.

AP was and still is a partnership between high schools and colleges. It is based on encouraging high school students to engage in college-level work, and the achievement exams that allow students to enter college with advanced standing. The AP Program currently offers 35 courses in 20 subject areas, including calculus, computer science, statistics, environmental science, chemistry, French literature, music theory, art history, and world history.

The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) was founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968 to facilitate the international mobility of the children of diplomats preparing for university by providing schools with a curriculum and diploma recognized by universities around the world. The IBO now offers its programs to middle schools and elementary schools, in addition to its original and better-known high school program (formally known as the "Diploma Programme" or DP).

According to its web site, IB programs help schools to:

  • add international perspectives to their academic offerings

  • measure teaching and learning against an international standard

  • satisfy the educational needs of culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse student populations

  • build students' confidence in their learning abilities

  • develop students' capacity to think critically and act compassionately in a complex, ever-shrinking world

  • implement the most effective classroom practices from around the world

Who favors IB, and who opposes it?

While the AP program and other accelerated coursework such as post-secondary enrollment options (PSEO) seem to be uncontroversial, IB has attracted controversy from interest groups and political parties.

  • Tonka Focus - a Minnetonka citizen group formed after two members of the school board had second thoughts about approving IB at the high school. Its web site refutes many of the arguments against IB.

  • EdWatch - a Minnesota parent group that opposes IB for academic and national sovereignty reasons, notably for emphasizing the United Nations and the Earth Charter over U.S. sovereignty, the U.S. Constitution, and locally-created educational standards.

  • Pennsylvania school district groups - Citizens for Responsible Education, an anti-IB parent group in Upper St. Clair school district (Pittsburgh, PA); and USC WAVES, a pro-IB parent group, frame the IB debate in the Pittsburgh area.

  • The Republican Party of Minnesota - recently approved a plank in its standing platform "Prohibiting state and federal support of International Baccalaureate (IB) and the adoption of IB by local school districts."

  • Elected officials - elected officials from both parties, including Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and President George W. Bush support government funding for IB programs.

Is IB right for our schools?

Parents, schools, and taxpayers should carefully consider whether IB will meet (or is meeting, in the case of established programs) the needs of local students, and their associated costs (startup and operational, to the district and individual students and parents). IB does take a different approach to teaching, with different goals, than AP. How does the cost-benefit analysis compare with locally-controlled curricula, PSEO, and other alternatives? What does IB bring to a school district that does not already exist there?

Although AP and IB programs might land a school on a magazine or newspaper's "top high schools" list, how are other local factors (parental involvement, teacher quality, community support) being addressed at the school or district-wide?

Community groups such as Tonka Focus and EdWatch are sources for detailed independent research on IB. Parents and taxpayers have an obligation to work with public schools to help them reflect local values and priorities. Leaving big-picture curriculum direction entirely to education elites and the media is an abrogation of this responsibility.

Minnesota families can take advantage of school choice when the default public school isn't meeting their needs.

UPDATE: Check the comments for a clarification from Judy Budreau about the group Tonka Focus, and visit their web site for further information.

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