A year ago Mount Vernon High School, with one of Fairfax County's most economically and racially diverse populations, held a curriculum fair, a night for students and parents to learn about the courses available to them in the next school year. The principal, Cathy Crocker, was about to retire and had practiced what to say to them. She was promoting one of the most difficult academic programs in the world, the International Baccalaureate, and she had to get the words right:
"When you sign up your child to be in the IB diploma program, you are not signing up to see how many credits they are going to get in their freshman year of college. You are signing up to see how well can we develop critical thinking skills, how well can we educate your child in all facets of education. If you are signing up to earn college credits, you have chosen IB for the wrong reason."
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the parents were confused by this, but as they learned more about IB, they began to understand what she was talking about. IB, like Advanced Placement, was a collection of college-level courses that impressed college recruiters and could earn college credit. But it had many other features that AP did not have, such a 4,000-word extended essay in the senior year, a public service requirement, and a philosophy course for all students called Theory of Knowledge.
The idea was to build academic skills and thought processes so that Mount Vernon students would not only get to college, but graduate. Only half of American students who started college ever finished, and most of the dropouts lost heart when they could not handle the rigors of freshman year.
Still, it was difficult to explain at the curriculum fair why the school wanted to put such stress on these students. American parents and students, if asked, would say they wanted their high schools to be challenging, but they did not complain very much if that was not what they got. A UCLA survey showed that two thirds of students going to college averaged no more than an hour of high school homework a night. A University of Michigan study showed they spent three or four hours each day watching television or playing with their computers.
I have spent the past two years talking to students, educators and parents at Mount Vernon High, trying to find out why and how an otherwise ordinary American school has had such success with the extraordinary demands of IB.
I have written a book, "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools," about the rise of IB in the United States, and at Mount Vernon High, with the help of Ian Hill, the deputy director general of the International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva. It is coming out next week, and has helped me see how schools that have been written off by many parents and teachers -- as Mount Vernon once was -- can rise to the occasion if given a program that deepens their children's thinking, and doesn't just raise their test scores.
International Baccalaureate was created by a small group of parents and teachers at the International School in Geneva in the 1960s and 1970s. They wanted a rich curriculum that could set the standard for all international schools in the world, so that as they moved their families, their children could steadily progress. In the generation since this very elitist concept has evolved into a way of energizing even mediocre public schools, with some students taking the full program, in which they receive a special IB diploma, impressive to universities around the world, after passing exhaustive examinations in six subjects, and other students sampling just a few IB courses, as is done with AP, and receiving a certificate for each exam they pass.
The program for high school juniors and seniors is now used in 116 countries. There are 426 IB high schools in the United States and 89 in Canada, slightly less than half of the world total of about 1,100 authorized to offer the IB diploma. The IB Organization is still based in Geneva, but the exams, written by experts, are graded by educators around the world who do not know the students they are assessing. Much of the administrative work, such as granting new schools the right to use IB, is done by volunteers, including many of the very active IB teachers and principals in the United States.
The American IB total is less than 2 percent of the total number of high schools in the country, but IB's influence on American education has grown out of proportion to its numbers, at least as measured by media attention and prominence in the growing movement to reform high schools. The IB exams in particular have been embraced by educators for their emphasis on writing and depth -- almost all the questions are essays, with many choices of topic -- and their focus on thinking about the subject at hand, not just memorizing it.
William Kolb, director of admissions for the University of Florida, found in 1996 that IB students were better prepared for the shock of college academic demands and suffered less of a drop in grade-point average their first year of college compared to what they had done in high school. The IB students on average had a GPA decline of from 3.8 to 3.3, only a 0.5 drop, while AP students dropped 0.8, from 3.9 to 3.1, and regular college prep students lost a whole grade point, from 3.6 to 2.6.
In the upper level chemistry course sequence at Florida, the percentage of freshmen who received Bs or better in the course after being admitted because of their IB credit was nearly twice as much as the percentage of Bs among all students in the course. Kolb found similarly superior performance for IB students in the university's expository writing, technical writing, pre-calculus and analytic geometry and calculus courses. Studies at Marquette University in 1996 and 1997 and the College of William and Mary from 1990 to 1997 found higher college grade-point averages for IB students when compared to the general student body.
Linda M. Duevel, in her 1999 doctoral dissertation at Purdue University, said 87 percent of IB diploma graduates at 12 selective universities earned bachelor's degrees in five years or less, significantly above the average completion rate for those colleges. IB students reported very high levels of satisfaction from what they had learned in the program, she said, particularly in their ability to understand complex assignments (91 percent), ability to work independently (88 percent) and ability to organize their time (91 percent). A survey by IB North America, the non-profit organization that runs the program in this county, found the acceptance rate of IB diploma candidates at 20 selective colleges much higher than the acceptance rate for all applicants.
Those numbers were impressive, but what interested me most was how the Mount Vernon faculty had brought the program to every part of that school. The percentage of minorities in IB at Mount Vernon reflected their percentage in the student body, about 33 percent African American and 15 percent Hispanic. It was not, as IB and AP programs in other diverse schools often are, just an enclave for middle-class white kids.
Crocker and her faculty knew that one thing that scared students away from a difficult program was other students. Seniors loved to terrify freshmen with tales of endless homework assignments and impossible tests. So Crocker and her IB coordinators found successful members of the IB program who would help underclassmen see IB as a prize, rather than a curse. They developed a network of seniors and returning graduates who would talk to new students about the program. The older students gave speeches -- or sometimes wrote e-mails -- that recalled how scared they had been of IB's reputation and how they had found a way to get the work done despite their fears.
Crocker and her counselors told freshmen and sophomores who were on the fence that they were not going to be trapped in IB. If it proved to be too much, they could switch to a more normal schedule. But it would be nearly impossible to move them up to IB from the regular courses after the beginning of the year, so why not keep their options open and sign up now?
The program was not cheap, and the Mount Vernon IB educators were happy that the school board picked up all the fees so that no student could cite cost as a reason for not enrolling in the courses. The school paid IB an annual subscription fee that by 2004 had reached $8,180, the same fee paid by every IB school in the United States. In addition, IB charged $142 over two years for every student seeking the full diploma and $79 for every junior or senior student seeking a certificate. There were also test registration fees of $73 for every diploma candidate and $51 for certificate candidate. The IB received in addition $55 for every test taken and $35 for each extended essay submitted. In 2004 those student and test fees totaled $47,726, or a total Mount Vernon payment to IB of $55,906 for that year.
Fairfax County being more financially secure than many districts, there was also extra money to train IB teachers and pay a portion of the IB coordinator's salary. Some years Crocker even had enough to hold a two-week session in the summer for freshmen who were interested in seeing what the IB program might be like. She made sure minority students knew about the summer institute -- she had one of the flyers done in Spanish -- but it was open to all. Students were given a taste of a science lab, shown what it meant to be a critical thinker, and given other activities to reduce their fear of the unknown.
One of the secrets of expanding IB was working with the families. If a Mount Vernon IB educator had a conversation with a parent, she would ask if there were younger children who might also be interested. If a freshman or sophomore said he wanted to sign up for IB, and the pre-IB courses in ninth and tenth grade, the teacher would widen the invitation: "How about your three friends here? They can do it too." Students did not want to be in classes full of people they did not know, so signing up an entire group of friends made sense.
There would be lots of hard times during the year, Crocker knew. At some point in the spring when the exams loomed and the extended essays were due, at least one student -- usually a senior -- would decide to take a stand. Crocker had heard the school's first IB coordinator, Betsy Calhoon, deal with this more than once.
The student would say, "I am not going to turn in that essay, Mrs. Calhoon. I have written it, but if I don't turn it in I can't earn the IB diploma."
"Come on, you can turn that in."
"Nope, I've made my decision. You can't make me earn the diploma." His point was, I know this is good for me, but I want to show I am still in control of my life. Calhoon was often successful in bringing these rebels around, but if she failed to do so, the student still had gotten the best of what IB had to give.
And there were occasional moments in May when some students balked at taking the IB examination, although the Mount Vernon teachers had a number of ways to handle that too.
"I'm not going to take that exam."
"Tell me why."
"Well, my college isn't going to give credit for it."
"No, that's not an acceptable answer. We need to know how good you are going to do against others. We need to know what you have learned. So you need to sit down for me and take that."
If the student still resisted, IB teachers would play their loyalty card. How could you do this to me? "These scores are going to come back here, you know, and show how well I have done, both in teaching you and making sure you take the exam. And you aren't going to take it?"
Sometimes even that didn't work. Brandon Hieskill, who graduated from Mount Vernon in 2001, said he liked the IB program and enjoyed all his teachers, particularly Cathy Scott in computer science, who remained a close adviser even after he went to college. But when he learned in January of his senior year that he had won a full scholarship to Washington and Lee University, he did not see any further need to get the full diploma. More specifically, he no longer wanted to endure the torture of trying to get his Spanish up to IB level.
His college application success "clouded my judgment," he said, so he dropped out of Spanish. He passed all his other IB tests, he said, and could still get college credit for some of them, even without the full IB diploma. As he admitted many years later, he found the experience helped him greatly in college.
IB administrators and teachers at Mount Vernon expected that some seniors would blow off an exam or an essay. That was part of being a teenager. But they had to keep making their point, again and again and again, that hard work had its rewards.
Not only did it take a while for the power of commitment to sink in with young people, but the school had a very high mobility rate, with students leaving and arriving all the time, so there was always someone who had not yet gotten the word.
And that was the point, the Mount Vernon educators said. American teenagers keep changing. You have to stay with them, giving them more quiet time for study, reminding them of the benefits of focused attention, and pretending you don't hear when they say you can't make them get that diploma.