In late May, the International Baccalaureate (IB), a nonprofit educational foundation, introduced its 4,000th program worldwide at an international school in Wuxi, China. The rapidly growing program has doubled in size over the past five years, even as U.S. high schools face budget cuts.
Founded in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland, the IB Diploma Program was formed to prepare students for college, with a focus on creating "world citizens" who would be able to live and work internationally. Today, the program is being used by 3,288 schools in 141 countries (some schools that teach students of all ages operate more than one type of IB program, as there are programs for elementary and middle school students as well). High school students completing the diploma program can receive college credit if they pass IB exams, much like students who pass Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
IB is more encompassing than AP. Whereas students taking AP courses are able to select classes à la carte, students earning an IB diploma must take six interdisciplinary courses, write a research paper, and complete community service.
Siva Kumari, chief operating officer of IB, says the purpose of the program is to give students a knowledge base that they can apply to many types of jobs in many different nations. "We're creating learners," she says. "We teach a canon of knowledge we think students should know, so that it doesn't matter what job they have or where they go, students are able to adapt to any context."
The organization held an event Thursday at its American headquarters in Bethesda, Md. to celebrate the launch of a new book, The Changing Face of International Education, edited by George Walker, former director general of IB. The book is about IB's expanding role in the global community and the importance of teaching students to live in a globalized world.
As IB grows, the organization is setting up three "global centers," or headquarters, to manage demand. The Maryland office serves the Americas; an office in The Hague, Netherlands will serve Europe, Africa, and the Middle East; and an office in Singapore will handle programs in Asia and Oceania. Kumari says the move to centralize headquarters will allow the organization to continue to grow at its rapid pace.
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"People are wanting us more than we thought they were," she says. "This is a response to that demand."
Though IB's influence is growing, AP classes are still much more popular in American schools. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, 16,000 American high schools offered AP classes. Currently, there are only 752 high schools in the United States offering the IB diploma program.
Critics of IB say that IB programs in the U.S. are expensive and that IB students do not outperform students who take AP courses. In 2008, for instance, after Utah cut funding for IB programs in state schools, state senator Margaret Dayton wrote a blog post praising the move. "I don't want to create 'world citizens' nearly as much as I want to help cultivate American citizens who function well in the world," she wrote.
Despite its critics, IB continues to grow. Both Kumari and Drew Deutsch, director of IB's presence in the Americas, say globalization is making IB a more popular program. IB tests are graded not by students' teachers, but by a third party. Exams are the same worldwide, whether a student lives in Singapore or New Jersey.
"Forty years ago, international education was a 'nice to have,'" Deutsch says. "Now, it's a necessity."