Education

Reach for the Top

Two international programs offer high-school students a passport to opportunity

John Schofield December 13 1999
Education

Reach for the Top

Two international programs offer high-school students a passport to opportunity

John Schofield December 13 1999

Reach for the Top

Two international programs offer high-school students a passport to opportunity

Education

John Schofield

Stefan Atkinson is on a Harvard high. It seems Ivy League life agrees with the whip-smart son of celebrity economist Sherry Cooper and her economist husband, Lloyd Atkinson. Only months into the experience, the 19-year-old graduate ofToronto’s tony Upper Canada College is already playing for the Harvard rugby team, has performed a solo in a campus production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and is maintaining an A average, despite an enormous workload. The secret to his success? Atkinson credits much of it to UCC’s international baccalaureate program, an exhaustive, and often exhausting, high-school curriculum with a worldwide reputation for excellence. At public and private schools across Canada, thousands of students are lining up to pursue the same path, with hopes of using the IB program or its best-known counterpart, advanced placement, to win entry to some of the world’s top universities. “I worked harder in the IB than I’d ever worked before,” says Atkinson. “But I found a way to work hard and play hard at the same time, and that definitely prepared me for Harvard.”

As the debate rages over slipping standards and educational accountability, a growing number of Canadians are turning to the two programs as academic anchors in an increasingly competitive world. The equivalent of educational boot camp, both the IB and AP offer students an unparalleled challenge. But along with sophisticated content, the programs’ sterling reputations ride on the fact that final exams are set and marked externally, helping to ensure rocksolid standards. Even more appealing for many is the fact that universities give first-year credits for many IB and AP

courses. “There is an increasing globalization of our students, as well as our marketplace these days,” says Robin Geller, registrar and director of admissions at McGill University in Montreal. “And the IB is seen as a passport that opens doors around the world.”

Little wonder, then, that the competition for entry into the programs has become stiff. This year, McGill University received more than 500 applications from those with IB diplomas, an 80-per-cent jump since 1995. At Western Canada High School in Calgary, 302 students applied to the IB program this fall; about half were turned away. Schools are turning to both IB and AP in a bid to boost their academic profiles and attract students. Principal Neil Wyatt at Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa credits the introduction of the IB program with helping to ensure the school’s survival: more than half its students come from outside its official catchment area, drawn to their four-year-old IB program. And as education reforms in some provinces have reduced the number of enrichment programs available to high achievers, the AP and IB courses are being used at some schools to fill that gap.

Externally marked exams ensure the rock-solid standards of the IB and AP programs

Students seem to be thriving. In the IB diploma program alone, the Canadian pass rate is 94 per cent, among the highest in the world. Seventy-three schools offer the IB program across Canada, roughly three-quarters of them in the public system; 320 offer AP courses, an 85-per-cent increase since 1991. In the United States, the number of schools offering IB has almost doubled since 1991, while AP courses are offered in 12,229 schools, up 30 per cent since 1991. Politicians are beginning to take note. The biggest booster by far is Florida, which provides additional school funding for every AP or IB final exam that is passed. As well, the successful students automatically receive a four-year $14,800 scholarship to a Florida state university.

Of the two systems, the IB is decidedly the most comprehensive and cosmopolitan. Developed in Switzerland in the 1960s for the children of globe-trotting diplomats and executives, the entire program takes a holistic approach to fostering well-rounded individuals with a global outlook. The rigorous two-year diploma program requires candidates to complete six courses a year distributed over six areas: English or their mother tongue, a second language, math, science, social studies, plus one optional course, often in the arts. Three courses must be at the higher level, requiring 240 hours of

classroom study over two years. Grads must also have completed a 4,000-word essay on a topic of their choice, as well as a philosophy course called the Theory of Knowledge, designed to promote critical thinking. The final hurdle comes with the Creativity, Action and Service program: students must log 150 hours of activity divided equally among voluntary service, sports and the arts. Ultimately, the IB program nurtures attributes increasingly in demand in the world at large: communication skills, critical thinking and the ability to speak a second language.

Advanced placement lacks some of the same bells and whistles. Schools can adopt individual courses by simply registering and obtaining, curriculum materials free-of-charge from the New York City-based College Board, an association founded by several northeastern U.S. universities in 1899 to promote proper preparation for higher education. Launched in 1955, the AP program offers bright highschool students the equivalent of first-year university courses. Students can earn a credit simply by passing the exam, without taking the actual course.

By comparison, IB schools are an exclusive club, and membership does not come easily. Prospective schools are subjected to a two-year-long qualification process, which includes a voluminous written application and an inspection by a team representing the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization. The inspectors’ mission is two-pronged: to confirm that the school has the

proper facilities for the program and, through in-

terviews, to ensure that administrators, teachers, parents and students are completely on board. I Canadian schools pay $10,220 a year to the International Baccalaureate Organization, with some institutions downloading the cost to their students, along with modest exam fees. At Upper Canada College, for instance, the total works out 3 to $750 over the course of the two-year diploma program, on top of regular tuition.

Despite their differences, both the AP and IB programs share a commitment to excellence. The material goes far deeper than conventional courses: geography classes include more field studies, history places a larger emphasis on primary documents; even science and math involve a substantial amount of written work. Students typically face at least twice the load of homework, and that’s why brains alone are not enough. Motivation and crack time-management skills are perhaps even more important. “It’s not just about being an egghead,” says Cristina Bacalso, 16, studying at the first-year IB level at Father Lacombe High School in Calgary. “I’ve never met more hardworking, determined people in my life.” Being around like-minded peers stimulates students to reach higher, adds Trade Kenyon, a 15-year-old studying second-year IB math and first-year IB physics at Father Lacombe. “Everyone around me understands what’s happening,” says Kenyon, who plans to pursue a business degree at the University of Calgary. “People really care what their marks are. In my regular classes, no one really cares.”

Expanding horizons

The top 10 countries offering international baccalaureate and advanced placement courses in 1999, by number of schools

International baccalaureate Advanced placement United States 294 United States 12,229 Canada 73 Canada 320 Argentina 39 Switzerland 11 Australia 33 Jap. an 10 Great Britain 33 I Netherlands I 27 United Arab Emirates 26 Thailand Sweden 17 Hong Kong Mexico 16 Taiwan Chile 15 South Korea 3

For teachers, the programs can be rewarding as well. Since exams are marked externally, teachers and students are bound by a common cause, creating a special sense of community. The sheer concentration of keen minds keeps teachers on their toes. Those who fail to prepare do so at their own risk, says

Michael McMaster, who teaches an advanced calculus AP course at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto. “There are incredible subdeties in some of these courses,” he notes. “If you can’t explain it, they’ll eat you alive.”

The degree of difficulty explains why virtually no school in Canada offers IB or AP courses without an academic safety net. Even Upper Canada College, which made the international baccalaureate diploma program compulsory for all students in 1997, has devised a method of converting IB courses into regular Ontario academic credits for the minority of students who cannot make the grade. “I think it would have been difficult, if not impossible,” says David Matthews, UCC’s director of university relations, “to convince our community to enrol every boy in the IB program if we didn’t have that fail-safe system.”

For many parents, university access remains the primary concern, and officials from both programs have worked closely with schools to boost recognition. Faced with a rising number of applicants, most universities have developed their own guidelines on granting credits for IB and AP courses. But officials in both programs would like to see a more uniform approach. “There’s no general rule on what universities will accept,” says David Kelly, IB co-ordinator at Western Canada High in Calgary. “It’s a matter of negotiation when you go into certain faculties.”

With double the homework load, brains alone are not enough: motivation and time-management skills are also crucial

While advanced standing is increasingly accepted, universities do little to encourage it. At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., the opportunity to live in residence and participate in clubs or student government is considered key to helping first-year students gain the maturity they need to excel. “While we find these students to be well prepared academically, they’re still young,” says Queen’s registrar Jo-Anne Bechthold. “These are pretty critical years of life.” It’s exactly for that reason that some students decide against advanced standing. “I’m in no rush,” says Atkinson, who was eligible for advanced standing in three of his Harvard courses, but turned it down. “I need the time to decide what I want to concentrate in.”

When it comes to deciding who actually gets in to certain programs, universities are reluctant to say that IB and AP students are actually favoured. The risk of alienating students from regular high-school programs is too great. Still, university interest in the programs is clear. Five years ago, McGill conducted a study of IB grads from the province’s CEGEP system and found they performed better academically than non-IB students. At the University of Alberta, there are now established separate scholarships for IB students. UCC’s Matthews says the very fact that universities offer advanced standing for IB courses is a nod to their superiority. “The facts are there,” he argues. “The recognition is in place.”

No one has to sell Rehana and Syed Zaidi on the merits of the international baccalaureate. The Saint John, N.B., couple have sent three sons through the IB program at Saint John High School, and a fourth is on the way. All three went on to university—one to pursue a double degree in engineering and management, the second to study electrical engineering, and the third economics. “Wherever they applied, they were accepted,” says Rehana, who came to Canada with her family from Pakistan in 1981. “It opened the door for them to so many choices.” For the thousands following in their footsteps, it’s a dream that still burns bright. CU