Head of the Class

(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Chicago Public Schools is expanding the reach of International Baccalaureate high school programs after a study shows how well they serve low-income students

A program in Chicago’s neighborhood high schools is better preparing some students for college than the city’s most selective high schools, a recent study found.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) program enrolls predominantly minority, low-income students in 13 Chicago neighborhood high schools. Compared to similar students graduating from the highly selective public schools around the city, IB graduates were 40 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college and 50 percent more likely to attend a selective one. They were also far more likely to remain enrolled for the two years that were measured.

The International Baccalaureate system dates to the late 1960s, when it was created as a common curriculum for preparing the highly mobile children of diplomats overseas to enter elite colleges world-wide. It features a demanding course load and an emphasis on analytic writing.

The results of “Working to My Potential: The Postsecondary Experiences of CPS Students in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme” are even more significant when you consider that IB students start high school with test scores well below those required for elite selective enrollment high schools, explains study co-author Melissa Roderick, SSA’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor, who published the report through the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

“You’ve got a group of middle-achieving kids who would never get into top schools and [you’re] engaging them in a really intense curriculum that is designed for diplomats’ kids,” Roderick says.

She points out that the report also shows a sharp contrast between IB and recent research on Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which offer high school students a chance to earn college credit and impress college admissions officers. “AP gets you into college; once you’re there, it has no impact on your performance,” she says. “IB is totally different.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was so impressed with the Consortium’s findings that he has announced a plan to eventually double the number of International Baccalaureate students citywide from 3,500 to 7,000, according to Beth Swanson, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for education.

In fall 2013, four Chicago neighborhood high schools will launch school-wide IB programs, which include two years of IB-prep before beginning the formal curriculum in 11th grade. Previously IB programs in Chicago had only been available to students with above average achievement.

The program’s success with a student population that is about 75 percent African-American and Latino and 77 percent low-income made the results especially compelling, Swanson adds. “It was phenomenal news that we in our own district had something that helps us level the playing field for all of our students.”

According to the Consortium, Chicago’s widespread adoption of IB in 1997 was on the largest scale that any city had yet attempted. Paul Vallas, then the district’s chief executive officer, rolled out 13 IB programs in neighborhood high schools, mostly at the edges of the city, in areas with well-prepared students who lacked easy access to the district’s most selective high schools. 

The 13 IB programs went on to show strong results, and research from other cities also found evidence of good college outcomes for IB students. The Consortium study, however, is far more ambitious, Roderick explains.

IB students outside of Lincoln Park were compared to similar students in other neighborhoods based not only on demographics and elementary school achievement, but on their individual responses to the Consortium’s annual district-wide student surveys, which include questions about academic motivation and parent support for education.

To uncover reasons for the program’s success, Consortium researchers visited IB classrooms and interviewed graduates. Many IB alumni reported that their high school workload, assignments and writing had been more demanding than what was required in their first two years of college.

Students’ personal development is also a goal of the IB program. IB teachers pushed students to work in teams and ask questions, habits that carried over into college, Roderick says. “We had so many incidents of IB students taking control of their lives... They form a study group, they go to the same class twice to hear [the material] again.”

Although Chicago Public Schools didn’t consider it at the time, the international content of the IB program also seems to hold a special appeal to minority students. “Inadvertently, not by design,” Roderick says, “it ended up being a good match for urban kids.”

— Elizabeth Duffrin