Why IB? (IB vs. AP)

IB DP or AP? The debate is a longstanding one as schools continue to grapple with how to best meet the academic and social/emotional needs of all students. The pandemic has only intensified this discussion. This was certainly a topic for us here in Dobbs Ferry when I started in 2011, and it is one that still surfaces from time to time with community members who are unfamiliar with the program and are naturally curious. As life-long learners who practice the very qualities outlined in the IB Learner Profile, including the need to be “reflective” and “inquirers,” it is important that we continue to assess our program, how it aligns to our strategic goals, and how we communicate this information to our school community. These discussions are ongoing for us at DFHS, and the “Why IB?” question is one that I’ve written about many times over the past ten years on this site. Here’s the latest version…

DFHS continues to be one of the few public schools in our region that is truly “IB for All,” and our instructional program includes both the IB MYP for students in grades 9-10 and the IB DP for students in grades 11-12. Our reputation as a successful IB public school, coupled with the fact that we were the first IB DP school in our county to be authorized all the way back in 1998, has allowed us to share our “story” with school leaders from across the nation. We are often the district for other schools to come visit when they want to learn more about the program, and we present annually at the IB Global Conference to share how a diverse public high school can allow for increased student access (and success) to both the MYP and DP.  

A typical question (and concern) that many school leaders pose during these discussions is how to fully balance two large competing programs such as IB and AP within one school building. For many, the idea of bringing on a new program such as the IB DP is an easy “sell,” but the challenge of phasing out a pre-existing program that many feel strongly about is a bit more complicated. The question, then, is do we need to have one or the other? The short answer that I always give to this question is “yes,” a school should go “all-in” with one particularly for students in the upper grades. Although having both might make some sense for schools that are phasing one program in and another out, a long-term plan that includes both a full IB DP offering and a full AP offering only serves to muddy the vision for the faculty and students, the professional development plan for the school, and the overall direction of the organization. The end result is likely a high school program that lacks direction and cohesion due to the differing philosophies that respectively guide each program. Instead, my recommendation is always to choose one and to do that one to its fullest potential. The direction will be clearer, the work will be more purposeful, and the overall results in terms of student access and overall performance will always be better.

Having worked closely with both programs as a teacher, an assistant principal, and for the past twelve years as a principal, I’ve been able to see and experience some of the differences between IB and AP first hand. While both have plenty of selling points, and the AP program when implemented well has its merits, my list of reasons that follow the question of “Why IB?” continues to grow. I actually started this list all the way back in 2013 when I started this blog, and while the list is pretty long, here are a few of the main ones that keep resonating for us here at DFHS: 

IB Philosophy: Regardless of the grade level or course, the IB philosophy and approach should be evident in any class in an IB World School. For example, an English 9 class that is taught in an IB School should look very different from the same course that is being taught up the road at a non-IB school. At DFHS, for example, all units of study and daily lessons are rooted in essential questions, Approaches to Learning (ATLs), Related and Guiding Concepts, a Global Context, and international mindedness. An added focus on the IB Learner Profile is embedded into all aspects of our school and serves as the underpinning for our academic and social/emotional programming. This philosophical approach helps to blend the IB MYP with the IB DP, and our teachers embed these “big ideas” and concepts into their daily lessons to ensure that students can make connections across the disciplines. At DFHS, our program is designed to ensure that all students are IB students who will ultimately choose to access the Diploma Program at varying degrees starting in grade eleven. This will range from students who enroll in a minimum of two IB DP courses (English and Math) to those who choose to pursue the full IB Diploma. With AP, there isn’t necessarily an “AP for all” philosophy in that way, and the program is more often better suited for a tracked population of students who will ultimately enroll in AP courses.

Access: To expand on the point above, the IB makes it much easier for all students to access DP courses in grades 11-12. They do this by offering both Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL) course options that are, in most cases, spread out over two years to allow for greater inquiry and exploration. In addition, all students at our middle and high school (grades 6-10) have been full IB students since our MYP authorization in 2016, and all students complete an IB Community Project in grade eight and an IB Personal Project in sophomore year. This alignment between the two programs has significantly increased the number of students who continue to successfully access the IB DP in grade 11. Furthermore, the IB requires that all schools have a clear special needs policy to ensure greater access for all students, and at DFHS all of our teachers receive IB training. In addition, many of our IB DP courses are co-taught with a special education teacher to ensure that our students are fully supported. While the AP program certainly accommodates the needs of all students, the greatest difference is with the difficult entry point and seemingly high level of exclusivity that exists for students who choose to enroll in AP courses. Simply stated, far more students will access IB courses in a full IB World School as opposed to the number that will access AP courses in a more traditional situation.  

“The Test”: When I attended AP training years ago, I was told flat out by the instructor that “the test” drives the course and that students who enroll should do so with the expectation that they will score at least a 3 if not a 4 or 5. Assessments, assignments, and other tasks must be “AP-based” and inquiry, analysis, and creativity should be limited to what is necessary for success on the AP exam. Conversely, IB DP courses are driven less by the pressure of one test and instead contain a blend of internal and external assessments over the course of two years. These types of evidence-based performance tasks are also embedded into all aspects of our curriculum in grades 9-12. This not only provides a more well-rounded picture of what students know and are able to do, but also allows for a deep understanding of the subject since more time is provided for inquiry-based authentic tasks. The benefit of this approach was on full display during the pandemic. As many tests were either canceled or, in the case of AP, administered remotely since the test determined the entire student outcome, the IB was able to easily pivot and provide a “non-examination” pathway that allowed students to receive a grade using the assessment measures that were used over the two years of the course. 

Community and Support: The IB community allows teachers to stay connected and to come together locally, nationally, and internationally. At DFHS, our teachers receive formal IB training before teaching an IB course, all teachers meet with colleagues from their respective regions via “roundtables,” and we connect annually with teachers nationally and internationally when we present at the IB Global Conference. In addition, our teachers share and acquire resources via the MY IB resource center, they receive ongoing formal training (online or in-person) along with informal school-based professional development, and of course they are re-trained when changes are made to the IB subject guides every seven years. All of this helps to ensure that IB teachers remain current, connected, and on the cutting edge. Similar opportunities exist for students, including IB World Student Conferences in locations around the world.

College Recognition: The mission of the IB is to promote the development of an international education while providing an opportunity for students to earn a diploma that is recognized around the world. Though the IB recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, it is not until the past ten years that the IB has become commonly recognized by United States universities as a benchmark for academic excellence. Universities are also awarding credit for IB HL courses that are on par with AP courses, and several are now awarding a full year of credit to full IB Diploma students. From an IB perspective, and for us at DFHS, the focus has never been on helping students to earn college credits in high school although that is a wonderful perk. Instead, our focus is always to provide students with a robust and versatile academic experience that the IB Program provides so that they are best prepared for college, the workforce, and beyond.

One final thought…

While both the IB MYP and DP are the right choice for us at DFHS, an important point that we always consider is what additional programs and/or courses are out there which might enhance our work as an IB School while maximizing the time spent with our students each day. This ongoing reflection has led us in the direction of adding courses and smaller programs that further support our established goals, including a three-year science research program that directly supports and enhances our IB DP science program, a course such as AP World History for students in grade ten that directly prepares students for IB DP History in grade 11, and our AP Computer Science elective that serves as an added option given the interests and academic needs of our students. In the end, the key for any school is to always understand its respective context, the resources associated with that context, and to choose and design a program that best supports its students respectively.


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