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IB Deserves a Full Debate in Greenwich

The major expansion of the International Baccalaureate program in Greenwich Public Schools being considered by the Board of Education will bring far-reaching changes and could create unintended consequences. So it is important that it stands up to full public disclosure, scrutiny and debate, and that it receives board approval before implementation.

Superintendent Sidney Freund is pushing for expansion of IB to Western Middle School and the ninth and 10th grades at Greenwich High School; he wants to expand IB into 11th and 12th grades shortly thereafter.

Yet Freund has repeatedly said a board vote on IB expansion isn't necessary because IB is not a curriculum, but rather a "framework" of "international thinking." But it is curriculum, even IB oversight rules say it is. Under Connecticut law, a board vote is required for curriculum.

In Greenwich, education, especially curriculum and instructional methodology, has largely been under local control, subject to certain federal and state mandates. With IB, the school board yields inordinate control over educational content and methodology by contract to the International Baccalaureate Organization, based in Switzerland.

Though the IB program at the elementary level is generally less intrusive, it becomes increasingly restrictive in the middle and high school years. Loss of educational control was not an issue because Greenwich's IB experience was limited to Dundee, one of its 11 elementary schools.

At the middle and high school levels, the IBO requires that its strictly defined (and controversial) curriculum take precedence over any competing academic offerings. As a result, in other school districts, IB has squeezed out Advanced Placement courses. Yet colleges generally do not provide credits for IB as readily as they do for AP. And AP is less restrictive and not as costly.

The superintendent said publicly that the district is "several years away" from having a conversation about replacing AP with IB. It is the board's prerogative to decide when to discuss issues that may affect the school district. This conversation cannot be postponed, so that IB replacing AP becomes a foregone conclusion because of overall IB spending in the current budget.

If IB will supplant AP, let us know that now. I need to consider the long-term implications of IB on the delivery of AP, Advanced Learning Programs and the entire district. Parents and the community would want these answers as well.

IB is expensive. For WMS alone, initial IB costs, putting aside significant ongoing costs, were $270,000. Would expanding IB to another school double those costs? The IBO also requires that districts employ IB curriculum coordinators at each school and ongoing IB professional training. For 2011-12, the superintendent has budgeted $165,000 in IB professional training, mainly for the high school. By 2012, 37 percent of Greenwich Public Schools certified workforce would be trained in IB. Shouldn't the board and public know if the intent is to convert the entire district to IB?

We could invest millions in IB at the high school, only to graduate a small number (e.g., 30) of IB diploma high school students (of 2,800), as is common in many IB districts. Significant tax dollars would be spent to benefit a few, causing further inequities in per pupil expenditures in our school system. We should know more about other district's experience with this program.

The IBO also requires IB Diploma students to take expensive tests (about $900 per student), which are graded at its sites, with the final grade in the IBO's discretion. There is little to no local teacher input. Who will pay for such tests – the district or parents? These fees, expenses and costs make IB an increasingly expensive proposition that have caused some school districts to abandon it.

Once introduced, IB is difficult to remove because IBO Rules impose a poison pill. If a school district chooses to terminate IB, it still must pay fees to the IBO and provide IB teaching to IBO-registered students. The school district must give such students the "opportunity to obtain [IBO]-validated grades." Also, when a district has discontinued IB at fully authorized IB schools (which neither Western Middle School nor New Lebanon are yet), expensive lawsuits have ensued. In a Pennsylvania school district, the ACLU sued on behalf of pro-IB parents to reinstate IB.

Finally, by signing up to IB, school districts must comply with any prospective changes to the rules governing IB programs, and Swiss law governs any contract between a school district and the IBO. As a consequence, the rules of the game can change, without an open meeting, public say, or a school board or Representative Town Meeting vote in Greenwich.

Is that what Greenwich wants? Does our school system need more controversial initiatives on the heels of Superintendent Betty Sternberg's tenure and RISE? Rather than adopt an expensive prepackaged curriculum, perhaps the school district should develop its own new curriculum, such as in Scarsdale, N.Y., or improve its existing programs. We need to support student achievement wisely through a focus on the basics — core curriculum and better teaching.

Greenwich deserves a full debate, and needs to know what the implications are of adopting IB wholesale without further question. Nothing less.

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