They rode a school bus. They ate tater tots. They saw students engaged in a program that officials say is changing the way students learn and teachers teach in some county public schools.
Members of the governing board of International Baccalaureate visited and on Nov. 18 for a firsthand look at how IB programs are being taught in the county school system.
The presence of IB in county public schools grew dramatically under former Montgomery County schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. But in the early months of his tenure, new county schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr so far is reluctant to declare expansion plans for IB.
“I think the future’s bright,” Starr said of the county’s IB program. “But it’s always about whether the school community wants to do it and sees it as valid.”
An international reach and a global view
IB governing board members—heads of schools, business leaders and education officials—came to Montgomery County from Paris, Singapore, Australia and elsewhere around the world for an annual board meeting. They marked International Education Week with a daylong tour of the two Rockville schools.
“It’s always good, instead of being trapped in a meeting room for two days, to have them reminded and also experience and spend time in IB schools and IB classrooms,” said Drew Deutsch, director of IB Americas.
Governing board members ate lunch in the Rockville High cafeteria with students in the school’s IB program, saw a Latin dance demonstration and visited classrooms.
IB offers “student-centered learning where the teacher is more of a guide and asking questions rather than ‘I talk. You listen,’” said Jeffrey Beard, IB’s director general.
A visit to a Rockville High history class demonstrated the critical thinking skills and global outlook that IB programs seek to develop, Beard said. Students studying World War I discussed not only the American view of the war, but also the viewpoints of Russia and other foreign countries.
Board members also visited a French class. Language plays a key role in an IB education as a cultural component that helps students better understand “who you are and how others see you,” Beard said.
The growth of IB
The visit put a spotlight on an education organization that has grown its presence in Montgomery County in recent years, both in county public schools and in the community. Last year, IB opened its American headquarters in Bethesda after a global site search. The IB Americas Global Centre is expected to grow its staffing to 200 employees in the next few years.
IB first arrived in the county in 1987, with 400 students at , an IB magnet school that selectively admits students from schools around the county.
Today, more than 9,200 county students in 16 schools participate in IB programs, including the Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme and the Diploma Programme. Internationally, the organization offers the three programs to about 972,000 students, in 3,294 schools across 141 countries, according to the IB website.
IB expects to grow to 2.5 million students and 10,000 programs worldwide by 2020.
As the program grows, so does its scope. Rockville and high schools are offering the new IB Career-related Certificate. The certificate program requires students to take at least two highly rigorous Diploma Programme courses of their choosing and an “approaches to learning” course. Students also must take language courses and complete a reflective project and community service. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for life in the global workforce.
There are 56 seniors and 42 juniors in the IB program at Rockville High. The school's IB career program combines the Diploma Programme with curriculum offered through Project Lead the Way, a four-year regimen of math and science courses designed to prepare students for college courses in engineering.
A recent study by the Education Policy Improvement Center found that the IB Diploma Programme has “a very high degree of alignment” with U.S. college readiness standards that predict student success. Students who score high on IB exams often have high grades in college courses on the subject, the study found.
“There’s been a big focus on the national level for college and career readiness,” Deutsch said.
In an increasingly competitive job market, “even high school students are becoming more savvy,” he said. “They’re savvy [in] that they know ‘Oh, hey, I’m interested in engineering. If I start at the high school level, I’m going to have one leg up on my competition or other people applying for those same jobs.'"
IB’s reach is not limited to students preparing for college. College Gardens Elementary offers the Primary Years Programme and a Chinese immersion program.
The future of IB
A small group of educators from international and private schools founded IB in 1968.
“Forty-three years later it’s interesting to note that over 50 percent of IB schools are actually hosted or run in public schools throughout the world,” Deutsch said. “And that really hits home the point that an IB education really is for everyone regardless of their personal circumstance.”
While IB is expanding its reach globally, “Every school’s not going to be an IB school,” county schools Superintendent Starr said.
But every student could benefit from IB, he said.
“Any student can do well in a classroom where there’s high expectations for kids, where there’s engaging material, where they’re being asked to work together and do things that are interesting," Starr said. "And IB does that.”
Starr has held a series of at schools across the county since taking helm of the school system in July. IB hasn’t come up much at those meetings with parents and students, he said.
“But everyone speaks positively about IB,” he said.
IB and charters
Still, a recent attempt to expand IB's reach in the county met resistance from the school system.
Early last year the county school board rejected an application to open a public charter school in the Kensington/Wheaton area that would offer an IB Primary Years curriculum to students in kindergarten through eighth-grade.
In September, the state school board found that the county board acted fairly when, earlier this year, it rejected Global Garden Public Charter School’s application for a second time, The Gazette reported.
The matter remains in litigation.
Starr was not yet superintendent when the application came before the board and said he couldn’t speak to specifics of the case.
“I’m certainly not opposed to charter schools, nor do I think they’re a panacea,” he said. “They need to add value to our current [school] choice portfolio. So if we’re already able to do IB within our public schools and we have that choice, I’m not sure where an IB charter would necessarily fit.”
The county school system has “a straightforward process for applying for a charter,” he said.
“But it’s a high standard that we have for our charters because we have a high standard for ourselves. And you’ve got to be able to meet that.”