The Problem With “IB for All”

This morning I read an article about a school that’s implementing an “IB for all” program despite having more than a third of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch. This was, of course, being lauded as a revolutionary and open-minded move.

As a high school teacher in an affluent district, this is really alarming–a large part of what makes IB inaccessible to some students is much bigger than income level. The courses are challenging and time consuming, yes, but specifically, they are abstract and complex (mores than most AP classes). I have plenty of students with a non-working, college-educated parent at home to help, availability of tutors, every comfort of upper-class suburban life (including the pressure to enroll in courses that are too challenging) that often comes with it. Just as it would seem absurd to read about a school that’s requiring everyone to run a marathon, it is misguided and disingenuous at best, cruel and demonstrates a huge misunderstanding of what an IB class is and should be. Either this classes will not–cannot–actually be IB level, or students will be forced to either transfer out of this school or struggle through classes in which they are struggling, not in the hard-work-is-good-for-you way, but in a really demoralizing way.

I’ll use myself as an anecdotal example. In 12th grade, I signed up for AP Physics. Partly because I’d liked regular physics the year before and partly because “obviously” I’d need to take an AP science class. I’d always been a good student, I went on to be a relatively successful, academic-minded person, and I had supportive parents. While they didn’t help me with my physics homework themselves, my mom actually hired a tutor for me, and once a week, I’d drive from my nice, suburban high school over to the local university and get extra help from a college physics professor. On Friday mornings, I’d get to school an hour early and go over my many, many questions with my wonderfully patient physics teacher. I did all my work. I never skipped class. I had a great teacher, focused classmates, state-of-the-art lab equipment, a history of academic success, additional resources, and I was committed to doing the best I could in the class. You know what happened at the end of the year? I got a TWO on the AP Physics exam. At first, I was shocked–I didn’t even know they gave scores like that–and then I was relieved. Considering how little I’d understood and how frustrating the entire year had been, I was surprised I didn’t get a one!

My husband, at a high school across Long Island Sound, was taking AP Physics before going on to major in Physics and get a PhD in astrophysics. I can’t imagine how frustrated he would have been, had he known me then, to see me struggling with the most basic of equations. The IB, or AP, or honors distinction in a class should mean something. It should mean a rigorous class that’s not accessible to everyone. Not because of socioeconomics, of course, but because of something that’s become increasingly taboo to even acknowledge in public education: talent.

I’ve often used a running example to try to convey the absurdity of assuming that all students should or can achieve “greatness” in all subjects. Would we expect that anyone regardless of size, health, lifestyle, and injury history could run a 6:00 mile? A 5:00 mile? Now, though, I realize that my own analogy is flawed. That’s not the direction we’re headed–toward true excellence or mastery for all. Instead, we assume that anyone can “complete” a cross country season, even if that means walking a good portion of every single novice race (where I coach a novice race is about a mile and a half compared with the typical 5k distance for varsity runners). Being on a sports team, even one that doesn’t have cuts should mean something. That’s the whole point. Taking an IB (or AP) class, even in a school with open enrollment, should, too.