Thomas Friedman’s 2005 bestseller, The World is Flat, argued that technology has leveled the global playing field by giving even small countries a chance to participate in the world economy. He stressed the importance of teaching our children a global outlook on the world, not only to make them competitive in an international workplace, but to give them perspective on the shifting powers and issues of our time. Still, most of our high schools continue to teach the same curriculum they’ve been teaching for fifty years. Recently, however, several U.S. schools have adopted an exciting program that offers students the chance to graduate with an internationally recognized diploma and a solid understanding of globalization.
The International Baccalaureate Program is a non-profit foundation whose mission is to help students “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional, and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” It was founded in 1968, and runs in over 3000 schools in 141 countries. Its Diploma Program is designed for high school juniors and seniors, and offers classes in the same areas as traditional schools: math, science, English, foreign language, social studies, and the arts. Additionally, students have three extra requirements: a class about the theory of knowledge, a community service obligation, and an extended essay on a research topic of their choice. Along the way, students complete assessments that help them prepare for the final written exams, which are graded by external examiners. Upon graduation, students earn a diploma that is respected worldwide.
Bonnie Hansen is the Principal at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA. Sequoia is one of the first high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area to adopt the IB curriculum, and Ms. Hansen is very excited about its impact. “The International Baccalaureate program promotes a world view,” she explains. “Its writing-based curriculum follows international standards and the reading lists are not US-specific. The program encourages students look at problems from multiple and diverse viewpoints.”
Freshmen who enter Sequoia can take ICAP classes that prepare them for the IB classes they’ll take later. These classes familiarize students with IB terminology and writing preparation for IB assessments. Beginning their junior year, students can take IB classes, and if they choose, may pursue the IB diploma.
In addition to its international focus, the IB program appeals to principals like Ms. Hansen for many reasons. For instance, each IB school has an IB coordinator who checks in with the teachers to make sure that no two classes have major projects or assessments due on the same day. Hansen has found that teachers appreciate the curriculum because it allows them to study a few topics in-depth rather than skimming over multiple subjects. Even math classes require written explanations, which challenges students to ask “why” and explores the business side of math beyond just completing equations. This focus on exploring and understanding concepts through written explanations prepares students for the writing-heavy world of college—not to mention, gives them a leg up on the college application essays.
Because it's new, some parents wonder about the IB program’s status with colleges. Ms. Hansen says that Sequoia’s college acceptances have been top-notch, and that several students have come back to tell her that high school was harder than college. IB assessments can be used for college credits just like credits earned by taking AP classes. Colleges also seem to appreciate the program’s focused community service requirement: students pursue one interest thoroughly instead of dabbling in various activities.
“Students are encouraged to pursue projects that appeal to them,” says Ms. Hansen. “Our coordinator helps line up students with areas of interest. For instance, we have several students tutoring new readers at the public library. Another student with a passion for horses is doing equine therapy with disabled children.” Many of these students use these experiences to write their extended essay, furthering their expertise in the area.
Sequoia has a real mix of students—over half of the student body is Latino. Ms. Hansen says that the IB program has been great for the school’s diverse population. One advantage is that the IB program allows Sequoia to teach the Spanish version of some courses. But even if Spanish-speaking students don’t take IB classes, they appreciate that the school promotes the value of variety. “We embrace international differences,” she explains. “The IB program teaches that it’s not only OK to consider things from other viewpoints, but it’s better.” It creates an atmosphere of acceptance and brings the students together in a positive way. In addition, because the program is the same across the world, Sequoia has attracted international students who transfer to the Bay Area. “We have students from all over the world coming to our school because they can transfer seamlessly.”
Based on its international success and its growing popularity in the U.S, the International Baccalaureate program is an exciting alternative to our standard curriculum. The IB curriculum offers our students a valuable perspective on international affairs, which is more important than ever in our newly flat world.