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IB or Not IB

by Cynthia Lardner

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Over the last several years, the references to “IB” schools seem to be just about everywhere. IB, or International Baccalaureate, Schools are schools certified by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO). President George W. Bush cited IB programs as a model for boosting student achievement in science and math. The U.S. Department of Education started a pilot program to bring IB programs to low-income students. The Michigan Department of Education, in its 2006 recommendations to the State Board of Education for College Credit Earning Opportunities, recommends that Advanced Placement (AP) or IB courses be made available to every student in every high school in Michigan. University admissions offices are working to determine their scoring or ranking for students matriculating with an IB diploma. Oakland University is spearheading an IBO teacher certification program. This article will look at the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, explain its roots, mission, programming, and try to assess whether an IB program is a good fit for gifted students.

International Baccalaureate Organization

An understanding of IB programs starts with the International Baccalaureate Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, with regional offices scattered around the world. The IBO is a nonprofit educational foundation founded in 1968. Its IB program was originally created to provide children of diplomats, businessmen abroad and international families with a standardized, internationally recognized curriculum and diploma.

Today, any public or private, national or international school may become an IB World School if it meets the IBO’s intense and extensive requirements. Presently, there are over 1,700 schools around the world that offer the Diploma Program (607 in the United States) with a total of over 2,258 schools (859 in the United States) offering one or more of their three programs. A recent tally indicated over 602,000 students aged three to 19 were enrolled in IB programs in 126 countries. These numbers go up 10-20 percent each year.1

This growth can be seen in Michigan. According to Bert Okma, principal and founder of Bloomfield Hills’ International Academy, “The IB’s direct link to world class standards uniquely matched to preparing students for the rigorous demands of selective universities and the 21st century world of work is gaining increased attention throughout our state. The IB brings the benefits of external benchmarking to standards that really matter in students’ educational, personal and vocational lives.”

The IBO’s mission is:

 …to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end the IBO works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (www.ibo.org/mission/index.cfm)

IB World Schools must be authorized by the IBO through a process which can take several years. The IBO approves curriculum, provides teacher training, and requires student assessment using IBO-developed tools. The schools must also be evaluated by the IBO and pay annual school and assessment fees. Fees range from $5,220 to $8,850 per year depending on which programs are offered, with reduced fees for schools offering multiple programs.

What Programs Does the IBO Offer?

While the IB program started with and is best known for is its two-year Diploma Program for high school students aged 16 to 19, the IBO now offers three successive programs for students aged 3 through 19. The three programs can be offered individually or as a continuum. Each program is anchored by the IB Learner Profile, a set of “…ideals that can inspire, motivate and focus the work of schools and teachers, uniting them in a common purpose” ( www.ibo.org/ programmes/profile). The IBO’s stated goals are to develop learners who are Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced and Reflective. It is against the goals of this Learner Profile that programs and curriculum are measured. These Learner Profile ideals are geared not only to the acquisition of knowledge but to the holistic development of each student as a global citizen.

The Primary Years Program (PYP) for ages 3 to 12, or preschool through fifth grade, stresses the development of the whole child in the classroom and the outside world (www.ibo.org/pyp). The PYP focuses on three vital questions:

bulletWhat do we want to learn? The written curriculum.
bulletHow best will we learn? The taught curriculum.
bulletHow will we know what we have learned? The learned curriculum.

The Middle Years Program (MYP) is a five-year program for students, aged 11 to 16, in sixth through tenth grades. The IBO website states that the MYP “provides a framework of academic challenge and life skills, achieved through embracing and transcending traditional school subjects.” It is based on “five areas of interaction: approaches to learning, community and service, homo faber [man the maker], environment, and health and social education.” (www.ibo.org/myp).

Because middle school in the United States is typically sixth through eighth or seventh through ninth grades, the IBO has created an exception for some three-year middle school programs. For those students completing the full five years of MYP programming, students may or may not apply for an official MYP certificate of achievement.

Both the PYP and MYP are focused on a guiding question or curriculum model during which information is taught in a nondidactic, interdisciplinary fashion. In a recent interview by Michigan Radio’s Tracy Samilton with Bloomfield Hills’ IB coordinator at Lone Pine Elementary, Jean Ramseyer, Samilton explains, “The schools also break down the proverbial classroom wall and require teachers to compare notes and plan classes together. Rote learning of facts and figures still has its place. But ‘higher-order thinking’ is really the goal—how to draw connections among facts, and understand one's place in the world. Jean Ramseyer says children can do that at a surprisingly young age.”2 Many feel that a solid PYP or MYP program can handle students of all ability levels including outliers at either end of the bell curve.

The Diploma Program (DP) is an intensive eleventh and twelfth grade program with rigorous academic standards. The average student in a DP will receive at least three hours of homework nightly, perform community service, attend extra events to broaden their range of knowledge, take four years of a foreign language, complete a Theory of Knowledge class, write a 4,000-word thesis, and take six challenging examinations.3 The payoff, however, can be vast since most college admissions offices have or are devising new criteria for evaluating students with an IB Diploma, regarded by some as more coveted than any number of the College Board’s 24 Advanced Placement courses.

Only a few years back, the only DP choices in Michigan were Detroit Country Day School (DCD), a private school, and Bloomfield Hills’ International Academy (IA), the first public school in Michigan to offer an IB diploma. Using these two schools as an example of how the IB Diploma Program might work in a school district, progression into either the DCD or IA's Diploma Program is not automatic. For instance, Bloomfield Hills has an IB middle school (West Hills Middle School) which is sixth through eighth grade. Upon finishing there, students take one of two paths:

bulletThose not interested in continuing into the Diploma Program, including many bright or gifted students, complete the last two years of the MYP (ninth and tenth grades) at Andover High School. After completing the MYP, depending on grades, the Andover students are offered a menu of options during their junior and senior years—AP classes, taking classes at the Model High School or dual enrolling in college.
bulletThose interested in entering the IB Diploma Program finish their IB programming at the International Academy. If this is the route chosen, a student must (1) submit an application and recommendation, and (2) take a math placement class (and either receive the requisite score for IA placement or remediate any deficiency during summer school before starting ninth grade). If there are more qualified applicants than positions, a lottery is held. Once accepted, a student is part of the IA for their freshman and sophomore years. Acceptance and the maintenance of good grades is the path to completing the Diploma Program during eleventh and twelfth grade. Presently, the IA accepts about 160 or so students for each incoming freshman class from its home district and districts in its consortium.

Similarly, not every junior and senior at Detroit Country Day is enrolled in an IB Diploma Program. DCD’s website notes that it only “…offers qualifying students the opportunity to enroll in the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) program.”4

Admission into an IB program does not guarantee the receipt of the coveted IBO Diploma. The success rate world-wide, in 2005, was 81 percent, the North American rate was 78 percent, and the International Academy boasts that 95 percent of its graduates receive an IB Diploma.

The IBO in Michigan

According to the IBO website, there are nine IB Diploma Programs currently operating in Michigan, including public high schools in Bloomfield Hills, Lansing, Midland, Portage, and Saginaw Township, and two private high schools (Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills and Notre Dame Preparatory and Marist Academy in Pontiac).

Bloomfield Hills currently offers the only fully certified PYP and MYP programs in Michigan; several others (including Troy and the Marist Academy in Pontiac) have been accepted as IB Candidate Schools and  have begun using the PYP and MYP curriculums with full acceptance expected within the next year. 

At last count, school districts in the process of becoming certified as IBO programs or considering adding IBO programs (including PYP, MYP and/or DP) included Berkley, Clarkston, Fenton, Grand Rapids, Grosse Pointe, Livonia, the Macomb Intermediate School District, Novi, Owosso, Rochester, Royal Oak, and Utica.5 There may be other districts that should be a part of this list; and the number has probably grown since this article went to press. 

To help insure quality IBO teachers in Michigan, Oakland University, in conjunction with the IBO in Cardiff, Wales, is offering a five-semester, 20-credit-hour certificate program described as an “an in-depth, graduate level, program that prepares educators to become teachers and administrators in K-12 international education. A credential that adds value and strengthens teaching practice...”6 Educators delving into this program will gain experiential insight into the theories and methodology and those completing it will earn a Level I or initial endorsement. Mary Otto, Dean of the School of Education and Human Services at Oakland University, explained the significance of this curricular addition, stating, “The [IBO] approval makes Oakland the only university in the world to offer an IB Level 1 program spanning the entire K-12 curriculum.”

To improve practice and share teacher training, a number of public and private schools and school districts have formed a regional association, the International Baccalaureate Schools of Michigan. Its stated mission is “to improve university recognition, to spur legislative action in support of our work with students, to serve as a liaison with the state Department of Education, and to offer symposia and information sessions on a variety of topics concerning the Primary Years Program, the Middle Years Program as well as the Diploma Program.” (www.ibsom.org).

Are IB Schools Appropriate for Gifted Students?

While IB World Schools are neither designed specifically for gifted students nor called gifted programs, many believe that all learners, including outliers at either end of the spectrum, can learn in the PYP and MYP if teachers are properly trained and curriculum modules well-designed. A key component to achieving this goal is common planning or prep time for teachers. As for the Diploma Program, its curriculum is designed to be rigorous, multidimensional, internationally standardized and available for any student who can meet admissions criteria and who has a strong desire to work hard and excel. The curriculum for all three age groups—PYP, MYP and DP—focuses on the development of critical thinking skills and inspires independent inquiry, and is thus potentially a wonderful opportunity for gifted students.

But for the gifted student or their parent evaluating the Diploma Program, there is no such thing as “one size fits all.” While the DP presents advanced content and offers greater challenge, it may not be the best fit for every gifted learner. The International Academy in Bloomfield Hills cites the ability to accept personal responsibility and to function as a self-starter as key personality traits needed for success. Many IB classes mimic college-level seminars and emphasize oral and written analysis and argument. This may, depending on the curriculum at a particular school, leave something lacking for gifted students who are visual-spatial learners as opposed to auditory-sequential learners.

Thus, whether a DP program is best for your gifted child depends on your child’s learning style, motivation and preparation. Duke University, well-known for its commitment to gifted education, answered a parent inquiry about the appropriateness of IB and AP classes for accelerated learners as follows:

Students who are likely to succeed in AP and IB programs have a record of high achievement, are willing to work hard and to devote much out-of-school time to absorbing knowledge, have developed the prerequisite skills for the courses, are confident and self-motivated multitaskers, and manage their time well. Those for whom AP and IB are not suitable options seem to be nonconforming students who resist the strict curriculum that is set forth. They dislike following inflexible syllabi driven by the goal of high performance on the tests that measure success. Students who question the structure of a fixed curriculum or who wish to explore new ideas or  concepts through research or applied knowledge may be uncomfortable in AP courses or the IB program.7

In sum, while the auditory-sequential learner might be the best fit, the motivated visual-spatial learner might also fare well in a DP. It is, however, the underachiever who may not thrive in the DP environment.


While one size never fits all in education, the growth of IB programming in Michigan is a positive addition to the former array of educational options. For years, educators and parents alike have searched for an alternative for middle school education, sometimes viewed as the weakest link in the educational chain. The MYP program, whether the standard five years, as is the case in part of Bloomfield Hills, or the abbreviated three-year MYP program, such as that in part of Troy, offers a new option for middle school students to become critical, divergent thinkers and global citizens. For the ambitious, hardworking high school student, the growth of International Baccalaureate programs adds to the Advanced Placement and dual enrollment options that existed previously.

Overall, the studied and structured growth of IBO schools in Michigan should be embraced even if it is not the answer for every gifted learner. As school districts or individual schools begin the IBO certification or conversion process, it is important to remember that IBO education represents a paradigm shift from top-down education to an interactive experience with a mutual exchange of information and ideas. The key word here is “process.” As with any major institutional change, some results will be readily apparent and others will take more time, more effort and more compromise. A key factor to a smooth transition is that parents, students, teachers and administrators buy into and own the experience.


1While fully certified schools are listed on the IBO website, schools in the multi-year process of becoming certified are not listed there. In addition, the International Academy, an Oakland County IB Consortium High School (serving 12 districts) which is on the IBO website, is opening two additional DP campuses: the International Academy West in White Lake Township (serving seven districts) and the soon-to-open International Academy East in Troy (serving students from Troy Public Schools as well as students who are serviced by intermediate school districts [ISDs] that border the Oakland ISD [Macomb, Genesee, Lapeer, Washtenaw, Wayne and Livingston Counties]).

2Samilton, Tracy. “Grading Michigan Schools: International Baccalaureate Schools,” Michigan Radio (November 25, 2007). Retrieved from www.publicbroadcasting.net/michigan/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=1188381&sectionID=1

3See, for instance, the International Academy website, www.iatoday.org/studentprofile.html, for a description of what is expected of a Diploma Program student.

4Pertinent Detroit Country Day School webpage: www.dcds.edu/page.cfm?p=57

5The International Baccalaureate Schools of Michigan’s website contains one of the most comprehensive list of schools involved at some level with the IBO. See www.ibsom.org/memberschools.aspx.

6For more information about this program, please visit Oakland University at: www4.oakland.edu/?id=4034&sid=56

7Callahan, Carolyn M. (Summer 2006). Consultant’s Corner, “Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate?”, Duke Gifted Letter for Parents of Gifted Children. Retrieved from www.dukegiftedletter.com/articles/vol6no4_cc.html

Cynthia Lardner, M.A.,LLPC,  has been a Board Member for the Alliance for many years. While first a practicing attorney, she has now completed her Master’s Degree in Counseling and is looking forward to doing personal counseling and educational consulting in the private and public sectors with individuals and families in Southeast Michigan. She may be reached at cindilardner@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission of the author and the Michigan Alliance for Gifted Education, 5355 Northland Drive, NE, Ste C-188, Grand Rapids, MI 49525. Originally printed in Images, the Michigan Alliance for Gifted Education Newsletter, Volume 18, Issue 1, 2008. For more information on the Michigan Alliance and gifted children, please contact the Alliance at 616-365-8230 or visit our website at www.migiftedchild.org.

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