For Kimberly Lebovitz and a growing number of Chicago Public Schools educators, there’s only one answer to the question of the best school curriculum available: the International Baccalaureate program.
Successful implementation of the program is difficult, requiring resources and strong commitment from a school community. However, Lebovitz, the IB Primary Years Programme Coordinator at the Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies in Edgewater, said the benefits of IB’s transdisciplinary framework and emphasis on conceptual learning are worth it.
“By being in this program, students will become better thinkers,” Lebovitz said. “They’ll become more invested in their own education and truly take their learning to another level.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS apparently agree. Over the past few years, there’s been significant citywide expansion of the IB Primary Years and Middle Years Programmes, which together span preschool to 10th grade. These programs are designed as pathways into the IB Diploma Programme, a two-year college preparatory course for high school juniors and seniors.
From the primary years to the high school level, the IB program – quite controversial in some circles – has a highly global and inquiry-based nature. Compared to other curricula, students are given more responsibility for their own learning. They devise their own projects and actively critique their peers’ work, while teachers act more as facilitators and mentors rather than lecturers. The program also emphasizes research and writing skills, proficiency in a foreign language and active community service.
CPS’s IB network is currently the largest in the nation. It reaches more than 15,000 students, the majority of whom are from minority, low-income or first-generation college families. This number is expected to grow to 16,500 students by the 2017-2018 school year.
The city’s interest in IB was reinvigorated after a 2012 report on postsecondary outcomes of CPS graduates. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that Diploma Programme students were 40 percent more likely to attend a four-year college and 50 percent more likely to attend a selective college. They also had significantly higher college persistence rates and reported feeling prepared to excel in their coursework.
Despite this research, the expansions have still caused concern over CPS’s rapid, seemingly top-down method of implementation, as well as the substantial time, professional development and interschool collaboration required to receive and maintain IB authorization. IB World Schools must also pay considerable fees for the program – an issue given the Chicago Board of Education’s current $6.4 billion outstanding debt.
Throughout the fall of 2012, CPS designated six neighborhood high schools to become the city’s first wall-to-wall IB schools, in which all freshmen and sophomores are enrolled in the Middle Years Programme without application. These schools currently run the gamut of standardized test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment rates, ranging from well above to far below CPS averages. (Story continues after the map, which includes scores and other vitals on the city’s IB schools.)
Some greeted the development with excitement, but issues arose as teachers who weren’t already IB-trained were made to reapply for their positions. This culminated in May 2013 with the firing of eight teachers from Lincoln Park High School and an ensuing student walkout in protest.
Jennifer Johnson, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and former IB teacher at Lincoln Park, praised the attributes and impact of IB but criticized CPS’s approach. She said CPS hadn’t sufficiently involved school communities, particularly faculty, in its “heavy-handed decisions” and created “unnecessary chaos.”
“School communities weren’t given the opportunity to choose in to these programs, and whether or not IB is successful largely depends on community support,” Johnson said. “If the school buy-in isn’t strong, there’s going to be cracks, and students might not make it all the way through.”
Johnson also pointed out that many neighborhood schools could use improvements like better facilities and smaller class size. She questioned whether IB, which requires annual fees upward of $7,000, should have been the budgetary priority.
CPS did not return repeated requests for comment.
The Chicago schools further grew the city’s IB network in April 2014, announcing that five neighborhood elementary schools would begin establishing new Primary and Middle Years Programmes. The expansion also ensured that each wall-to-wall IB high school has a partner IB elementary school, with the goal being for students to enter 9th grade with prior exposure to the program.
Jillian Estanich, the Middle Years Programme Coordinator at Peirce Elementary, said the need to thoroughly coordinate curricula between grade levels and across schools has proven difficult. Peirce was one of the five schools included in the April expansion, adding a Primary Years Programme to its existing Middle Years Programme. It has partnered with Nicholas Senn High School in Edgewater, which was the first Chicago school to go wall-to-wall.
“It would be great in a small school where teachers have all their planning time together, but that’s just not realistic in Chicago,” Estanich said. “A lot of it has to be done on teachers’ own time.”
Yet while Estanich, Lebovitz and David Gregg, the Middle Years Programme Coordinator at Senn, all acknowledged the pitfalls of IB implementation, they were also quick to defend its merits. Gregg called IB a “very wise investment of resources” and said the school partnerships would be highly beneficial to student success.
“When elementary and high schools are put in a situation where they’re forced to work with each other, it puts us all on the same page. That can only be good for students,” Gregg said. “IB or no IB, good teaching requires that kind of collaborative work.”
Gregg also expressed excitement for the extension of Peirce’s IB program to the preschool level and defended the wall-to-wall high school expansions. He said increasing both the length and magnitude of exposure to IB prior to junior year would help more students qualify for the Diploma Programme and reap the postsecondary benefits found in the University of Chicago research.
“If students get used to a conceptually-focused model of learning as opposed to fact-based, that’s only going to make them more prepared to be successful in the upper grade levels,” Gregg said. “It’s definitely a goal to have as many students as possible do the Diploma Programme.”
Ultimately, emphasis was placed on the need for proper timing, planning and communication from CPS so that future IB implementation occurs with fewer negative consequences.
“It’s really not an overnight change, and I think politicians and people that aren’t in education need to understand that,” Estanich said. “Nobody wants to wait six years for results. But we know that good things come when we patiently do what we need to do and we don’t rush it.”