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An Inside Look at the International Baccalaureate in the U.S.

By Dr. Blake Spahn, Vice Chancellor of Dwight School

DwightSchoolViceChancellorBlakeSpahn.jpgThe philosophical underpinnings of the International Baccalaureate trace back to Kurt Hahn, a British educator of German origin who worked for a negotiated peace after World War I. He believed that implementing an international curriculum around the world could abolish national and racial prejudices, thereby wiping out the main cause of war. His thinking influenced Alec Peterson, Director of the University of Oxford's Department of Educational Studies, who aimed to broaden the British A level curriculum, enabling children to develop to their fullest potential. His work to reform the A levels ultimately took shape in the late 1960s as the universal IB curriculum, independent of any government and national biases and systems.

I took an initial interest in the IB when my own high school, Dwight School, adopted the curriculum. I saw first-hand how the IB impacted our school and its culture, and was struck by the transformation in such a short period of time. I later delved deeper while pursuing my DPhil in comparative international education at Oxford. My doctoral thesis focused on the development of the IB in the U.S., through the lens of four case-study schools. My goal was to answer the following questions through extensive research:

  • Why would an American school adopt the IB? The primary reasons were the curriculum's high academic standards across a wide array of integrated subjects and a school's desire to raise its academic standards. Additionally, the IB enhanced the school's ability to attract foreign students and to increase diversity within its community.
  • How is the IB implemented in a U.S. school? It was clear that prior to implementation, a school must understand its own core values to ensure compatibility and that successful implementation relied on the leadership of a senior faculty member, such as an IB coordinator or principal, to help smooth the way. Implementation also required that the school gain consensus among senior faculty by making them part of the decision-making process. Once on board, everyone needed to steer clear of creating a division between IB and non-IB students. 
  • What is the effect of the IB on the institution? The predominant impact was improved academic standards and increased pride in the school both for its enhanced reputation and for being part of a larger global group.

I published these research findings in greater detail in America and the International Baccalaureate: Implementing the International Baccalaureate in the United States in 2001. Since that time, the IB has grown exponentially nationwide for many of the same reasons and with even more enthusiasm in today's globalized world ─ an ever-evolving world in which employers seek internationally minded, multi-lingual, culturally sensitive and agile employees. The IB provides the best academic preparation available anywhere for graduates to enter this global marketplace equipped with the requisite skills and knowledge to succeed ─ and, in the spirit of Kurt Hahn, to build a better world through intercultural understanding and respect.  

Dr. Blake Spahn is Vice Chancellor of Dwight School, the first school in the Americas to offer all four IB programs for students from preschool through grade 12. Founded in 1872, Dwight School is dedicated to igniting the spark of genius in every child.

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