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Taking sides on college-prep learning program

Battles over the increasingly popular global education program known as International Baccalaureate have been popping up in towns across the country.
Students and parents of students in the International Baccalaureate program protest Feb. 17 at the entrance to a school in Upper St. Clair, Pa. Battles over the increasingly popular global education program have grown across the country. Christopher Rolinson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

School board members in a Minnesota district call it anti-American and anti-Christian. In New Jersey, members of one school board argue it’s a waste of money. Now, a suburban Pittsburgh school district is abolishing it over questions of politics and cost.

Supporters of the increasingly popular college preparatory curriculum known as International Baccalaureate are firing back with some of the same arguments — saying efforts to quash IB are about the beliefs and politics of the program’s opponents.

In Upper St. Clair, outside Pittsburgh, parents say they are preparing to fight the school board in court.

“I do think that this is just another example of sort of the culture wars being fought out in classrooms across the country with a potential negative impact on students,” said Francisco M. Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

Started in 1968 in Switzerland, IB’s original focus was educating the children of diplomats, who traveled often and needed an education recognized worldwide.

IB mushrooming globally
The program is offered to children ages 3 to 19 at more than 1,700 schools in 122 countries, including 677 schools in the United States. The number of IB students worldwide grew 73 percent between 2000 and 2005, to 62,885, according to the International Baccalaureate Organization.

High school students pursuing an IB diploma study subjects from six groups: language, individuals and societies, math and computer science, the arts, experimental sciences and a second language. The core of the curriculum is a 4,000 word-essay, a theory of knowledge class and a community service requirement.

President Bush has called for Advanced Placement and IB programs to be expanded.

Critics, however, have argued that IB’s multicultural themes promote values that conflict with traditional Judeo-Christian values. Some opponents have called it Marxist because the International Baccalaureate Organization is a signatory to the Earth Charter, a collection of global principles created in France in 2000.

Last year, two school board members in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka unsuccessfully pushed to get rid of IB because they said it was anti-American and anti-Christian.

IBO director general Jeffrey Beard, a U.S. citizen, said IB emphasizes critical thinking and a global world view and has raised teacher performance and standards.

“We’ve tried to develop a curriculum that is truly international,” Beard said.

Most college admissions officers view IB as the “gold standard,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

High cost of curriculum
IB’s curriculum, instruction and assessment can be expensive, though, running into the tens of thousands of dollars.

That cost, and the idea of giving up local control of school curriculum, upsets some school board members, like Susan Badaracco of Cherry Hill, N.J., where the program has been offered for about seven years.

Badaracco and another board member in Cherry Hill are pushing to get rid of IB, saying they would rather see the money put into other programs or into expanding less costly AP programs.

Outside Pittsburgh, the five of nine school board members in Upper St. Clair who voted last week to abolish IB cited a gamut of reasons, including cost and the IBO’s relationship with the Earth Charter.

Parents battle back
Parents upset over losing the program have vowed to fight back, and Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Witold Walczak, who lives in the area and whose child was in IB, has assembled a legal team to challenge the board.

Walczak compared it to the recent court fight over teaching evolution and “intelligent design” in Dover: “You had a majority that ascends to power and runs roughshod over the administration, the teachers and the students to impose its own political agenda.”

Katie Lohrenz, 22, an IB diploma graduate and now a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said IB exposed her to perspectives she might not have otherwise considered.

“I suppose bias can leak into certain topics, but for the most part you can’t make psychology anti-American or math anti-American,” Lohrenz said.