by Ralph Lelii, English department
When I speak with parents of prospective IB Diploma candidates, I am asked this question most frequently: “What is the difference between the IB and the AP?” My answer reflects differences in assessments, curricula, and philosophy, but I do not think it is the most significant question one might ask about the two programs. I believe instead that a far more interesting query might be centered on what justification we might offer for featuring both programs here at George School.
The respective histories are worth mentioning first. After WWII, the Ford Foundation supported the formation of a committee to study innovation in secondary education. It was called the “Kenyon Plan” because it originated at Kenyon College. The first study was conducted by three prep schools—the Lawrenceville School, Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy—and three universities—Harvard University, Princeton University and Yale University. They concluded it was possible to teach rigorous, college level material at the secondary level and offer college credits. The Advanced Placement program has been in existence continually since 1955.
The IB has a more complex genesis. Though the idea for the IB began in 1948, it was at an international conference in Geneva in 1962 that the plan gained traction. It was actually an American history teacher, Robert Leach, who organized the Geneva conference. UNESCO became interested and funded the ongoing development. Coincidentally, a Ford Foundation grant funded the final study at Oxford University in 1966. The participants looked at the A level system in the UK and studied the Advanced Placement program as well. In 1969, the IB began its Diploma with a six year test program, and the IB Diploma was formalized in 1975.
Both the AP and the IB stress academic rigor above all else, and interested readers can explore their respective philosophies and curricula readily online. For me, the justification for our participation in both programs resides in two ideas about human nature and our existence as an International Friends School.
The term “confirmation bias” was coined in a paper published in 1960 by British psychologist Peter Wason. It stated that people will tend to support their own hypothesis in a one-sided way by searching for evidence which supports their beliefs, and selectively excluding evidence which tends to disprove it. This idea is hardly new; Aristotle spoke of our desire to select our side in an argument on the basis of what we already believe and to eschew principles which seem to contradict them. These studies have been repeated again and again with similar results. Because any teacher worth his or her salt has a passion for the job, it seems likely to me that we will at least occasionally see things in ways that reinforce what we want to be true in our pedagogy. For me, the IB and the AP are like referees on a basketball court. Left to their own devices, players might begin to justify their own fouls and diminish the claims of the opponents. These two programs provide an outside pair of eyes, not perfect by any means, but rigorous and standardized.
The second idea about human nature that I reference is the “observer effect” first stated about physics. It suggests that by the mere act of observation, we change in some degree the things we see. In a small, highly personal school community, it seems at least possible to me that our perceptions of our students’ work, by virtue of our constant close observation, might influence the production of it and our evaluation as well. Having the outside assessments of the IB and AP on hand give us a way to balance our own perceptions. Again, it is not that one is right and the other wrong. It is a system of checks and balances, I believe, that can lead to a greater level of intellectual accuracy concerning our notions of what students actually learn. I would never be in support of a school curriculum composed entirely of AP or IB classes. Here at George School, students who take these externally assessed components still receive the full GS experience and most of their classes are mixed right through senior year.
Finally, George School is an international Friends’ institution with young people in attendance from forty-eight different countries. That staggering number is a testament to the extraordinary ambition and energy of our Admissions Department. For me, it seems right that we acknowledge and reward the trust of those parents around the world by having the humility to temper our academic autonomy at least a bit with assessments constructed internationally and administered in all of the their respective homelands.
In 2007, I was a guest examiner in Cardiff, Wales at the IBO assessment center. The supervisor of my discipline, English Literature A1, was a Moroccan educated in Moscow and London. There was a Peruvian on my team, as well as a Canadian and a Saudi. I was the sole US representative, and I was not afforded any special status. I was treated equitably, charitably and professionally as was everyone else, and I came away with a sense that this collaboration was something worth modeling for our students, destined as are we all, to live with empathy and compassion in a world they never made.