Biblitz delivers advise

ASK Biblitz about International Baccalaureate (IB).

'An IB is viewed as more demanding than A levels, as pupils are required to study six subjects, write a dissertation and take part in community service.'

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What is this IB program for super-achievers all about? Who qualifies and how? Any experience?

TeaMan90 Note: A facebook group for IB grads of Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C. declined April 11/10 to include old Biblitz, who is trying to collect more information about this super-elite, super-achiever program. So much for IB's commitment to 'community' and inclusiveness! Any comments/suggestions? Whom is he shielding and from what, exactly? Weigh in!

More on a few U.S. initiatives that would go a long way toward improving public education here.

A lighthearted look at B.C. Billies.

More on why school staff cuts announced April 6/10 are not such a tragedy: See p. 6, which shows execs making about $200K, not including an embarrassment of riches in benefits! See also teacher salaries, which in Vancouver hover mostly between $50+K and $75K, not including dream vacation and other fabulous benefits - and these are just the B.C. Teachers' Federation's 2007 figures! There was a 2.5% increase in 2009 and another 2% in 2010. The collective agreement expires June 30/11. Look, too, at the two-page Typical Costs per School. Is this anyone's definition of good value when straight As in the regular academic program no longer satisfy entrance requirements at our top university?

'He's got 'em on a list, and they'll none of them be missed!

Biblitz replies:

Yes, actually. Quite a bit. Read on.

A Vancouver parent's view of the IB Diploma Programme:

The IB Diploma Programme, available in only a few local high schools, is essentially a re-gentrification of B.C.'s public school system, which 'dumbed down' academic standards the last decade or so probably in response to new legal obligations requiring schools to open their doors to all children regardless of special needs, a designation that remains open-ended. Ill-conceived federal immigration policies also added an unexpected surge in the number of English as a Second Language (ESL) students competing for teacher attention. Did decisions regarding the implementation of these policies exploit the increasing absence of mothers no longer available as school watchdogs? Probably. One way and another, the system was stressed. Something had to give.

In our case, something was a decline in both academic and teaching standards. Hard to say which was worse. Our first inkling of trouble came in first grade when teachers simply sent home the daily math sheets, spelling lists and reading assignments with express instructions to parents to work through each later that night with the kids. Shift work? Too tired? Kid too tired? Too bad. Parents who could became unpaid teachers. But what did they do at school all day, we wondered? Several times a week most weeks, kids were assembled uncomfortably on the gym floor to yawn through endless presentations on Respect or Recycling, or they were in a stranger's car (no more funding for a school bus) on their way to another field trip to gaze at pond scum.

Even worse, there was no longer any opportunity to discuss the child's progress or complain about offloaded teaching duties at a quarterly parent-teacher interview. Teachers simply changed the rules! Parents instead were herded into the classroom in groups of four or five not to discuss learning but to admire with the child the child's work books and artwork. The Parent Advisory Council (PAC) similarly ix-nayed criticism by expressly forbidding any discussion of classroom issues at meetings!

The B.C. Teachers College is a formidable union adversary, as parents soon learn. Its membership has effectively contracted out of any accountability. Parents are advised to take up complaints against a teacher exclusively with the teacher, a policy that no doubt contributed to the Quest sex scandal. The principal has no interest in such matters, although a tersely-worded letter to each school board trustee cc'd to the B.C. Ministry of Education has occasionally yielded a response. There are no teacher evaluations by parents, department heads, principals, students or anyone at all anymore, it seems! In addition, union discretion to withhold publication of certain complaints and discipline proceedings means quite often that a teacher who is fired in one district maybe re-hired in another - even in the case of sexual misconduct!

One of the problems when standards slip is that many kids get bored. When this happens, boys especially start under-achieving. What to do? Typically, parents able to foresee the possibility try to circumvent it by securing whelp a hotly-contested place in French Immersion. Conventional wisdom suggests that if there's a new language to puzzle over, the lure of Pleasure Island may hold less appeal. True, but here's what we also found: outdated, often irrelevant textbooks supplementing third-rate curriculum focused almost exclusively on naming (nouns, adjectives) rather than doing things (verbs, the heart and soul of every language), probably because most of the teachers aren't francophones. Frankly, it's a mystery how many were able to obtain certification. Not surprisingly, quite a few spend the summer at Alliance Francaise boosting language skills in case they run into a parent who is likely to catch them out and say so loudly as Biblitz famously did, which may or may not have led to the demotion of a certain grade two teacher. All we know is that she left both the school and the French Immersion program.

Before this, however, we fell victim to the covert three-step B.C. teachers' scam aimed at reducing class size. It works like this: Each September, certain students are identified as 'challenged' in some nebulous, unexplained way - and who wouldn't be with mostly third-rate language instruction? Typically, the kid announces s/he was sent without reason or notice to the special ed teacher for some remedial one-on-one. Before long, the kid is regularly missing several hours a week of class time at special ed. Lessons not completed in class become homework, which begins to pile up, and it's only grade one! This triggers the third often fatal step, in which parent is asked to attend a panel of teacher, special ed/remedial teacher and the principal, who together plead their case to remove kid from the program. If parent appears unmoved, there are threats of recourse to the district psychologist.

Just to be clear, whelp had no behavioral issues. He was a bit shy in class but had lots of friends and so on. He listened attentively to instructions, did his best to puzzle out what was required and applied himself accordingly. Ditto various classmates, who were similarly targeted, as parents learned from one another! Happily, unmoved by any this nonsense, the kid, taking heart from Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and weekly visits by a fabulous tutor from Marseilles, soldiered valiantly on, distinguishing himself eventually as the top student in Pre-IB French!

Ultimately, we learned that if Vancouver parents want children to be able to compete for sought-after university positions anywhere, they must be prepared to advocate aggressively against the education establishment and supplement public school fare with tutors and summer courses - probably both.

Unfortunately, none of this is common knowledge. A three-part conspiracy consisting of: (a) the gag order on PAC discussion, (b) a circular Kafkaesque complaints process shielding teachers from criticism and (c) a lazy school board that quite often posts last year's information at its web site - all make it very difficult especially for working parents to determine which academic stream is most likely to yield the best post-secondary opportunity. The elementary schools provide no information - zip! - about secondary and post-secondary options and requirements even though this is where the prep work necessarily begins.

There was no information at all about IB online or anywhere else. In fact, we learned about it only by chance thanks to an earnest, informed tutor from Alliance Francaise, the French language authority from the mother ship whose input B.C. French Immersion teachers have summarily and repeatedly rejected. Thanks to our tutor, we even found out which school nearest our catchment area offered the best program.

Trouble with math? Supplement lessons with the excellent Kahn Academy videos!

An IB diploma puts students on the fast-track to university, the path to success just about everywhere. We discovered to our horror that even straight As in the usual core subjects in the regular academic stream are no longer sufficient to assure students a place in either of the local universities! Who knew? An IB Diploma with merely passing grades, however, pretty much guarantees entry to arts or science at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the province's top school, often on a scholarship.

IB curriculum is interesting and challenging - more like the high school old people like Biblitz remember - and swimming with sharks keeps the exercise competitive and the campers trim. Also, people on the lookout for interesting educational and work opportunities tend to find them and bring their friends along for the ride, so quality networks emerge and thrive.

Students are actually given instruction in how to study effectively and prepare for long exams required later on. In addition, a deliberate excess of assignments forces students to learn how to set priorities and make effective time management decisions.

Not the regular IB fare but the supplementary textbooks - especially math and physics - are excellent! They provide plenty of typical high-octane, exam-strength problems, so they're truly useful. This is high praise from the family electrical engineer, who rarely takes wooden nickels.


In our jurisdiction, IB students are required to provide close to $1,000 in what are, in fact, illegal school fees. Most of it covers the cost of three camping trips intended to indoctrinate campers with IB's politically-correct 'community-first' philosophy and to inspire the sort of team spirit better suited to an athletic team. If your kid hates this stuff, give it a pass. Aside from that, all that's left is an overnighter on the Island in second year to work as a group on some sort of science experiment. As the great British humorist P.G. Wodehouse might have put it, easy money!
Group work and quasi-theatrical oral presentations continue with a vengeance yielding the same typically subjective results, which rouses suspicions about claims that head office really does assess local marking schemes to ensure program integrity and quality control. Frankly, it's hard to imagine local teachers giving up that much control. These are people who have successfully fought off every effort to allow anonymous student evaluations even in the wake of a major sex scandal!

There's so much that's interesting here but too little time to fully explore it. Why aren't IB subjects offered in earlier grades to give students a taste of what's to come?

The Creativity Action Service (CAS) component in this jurisdiction, anyway, is meaningless, excessive and most likely to be either stringently regulated or excised altogether. The latter, one hopes. Surely high school is tough enough without having to forge time sheets to suggest participation in a Saturday car wash to raise funds for the Viper Anti-villification League or some equally dubious cause.

On the other hand, a group of local IB seniors one spring were invited to address world leaders in Japan at the climate change summit as a result of the information/advocacy Web site on the issue they developed to satisfy CAS requirements. Still others spent the summer before grade 12 in developing nations, helping with local construction, farming and clean water initiatives.


"Oh, no, Psmith. Did you hear? Still another oral presentation, this time turning the immortal words of the bard in Macbeth into some sort of spaghetti western production!" Can't be true! "Oh, yes, too true. ... Anyone got a kid brother with a toy set of six guns we can borrow? How about a kid sister who could be coerced into coloring some stupid sets for a few bucks? ..."

Alas, not even the dazzling academic gentry of the IB Diploma Programme can escape the endless series of banal presentations local teachers prefer to old-fashioned written assignments - for all the obvious reasons, no doubt: no arduous checks against plagiarism, which is ever on the rise here, and so much easier to mark!

More on what makes a great teacher great and a U.S. scheme to reward the good ones with merit pay, terminate the others based on student performance on standardized tests. Note that legislation was required in each state to give principals and superintendents authority to make those crucial cuts! Happily, a legislative stroke of the pen here in B.C. would similarly wrest quality control away from the teaching union's anxious death-grip. Biblitz is a fan!

More on teacher fatalities post-student evaluations - return fire! Biblitz is a fan!


Gradgrind is no more

From kettles in the loo to poker and dead swans, a schoolmaster's work is never done. John Humphreys recalls his days in charge and reveals a few secrets.
Autumn, 2008

More of the story.

Exams under the spotlight

Your child may now face BTECs, IGCSEs or a Cambridge Pre-U - but do you know what they mean? Janette Wallis demystifies school exams.

Time was when two Bs and an A on your A-level exams were more than adequate to win a place at the UK's top universities. Then came the Laura Spence row in 2000, when the girl with 10 As at GCSE and four predicted A grades at A level was turned down by Oxford. According to Gabbitas, Oxbridge now rejects more than 10,000 pupils a year with at least three As at A level.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, universities are allowed to see students' individual grades in each of the six modules that go towards an A-level result, and, from 2010, a new A grade for those achieving more than 90 per cent in A-level exams will be added.

Advanced Extension Awards (AEAs) can also help to identify high fliers, and, in addition, Imperial, along with Oxbridge, UCL and the Royal Veterinary College, require applicants for medicine and veterinary medicine to sit the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT).

International Baccalaureate (IB) the new gold standard?

The IB exam has been taken up by 131 British schools and is usually offered beside A levels. An IB is viewed as more demanding than A levels, as pupils are required to study six subjects, write a dissertation and take part in community service. Its increasing popularity could be because it boosts schools' league-table position, owing to the high points UCAS assigns to IB results. (-- p. 22)

About the program or Programme, as head office prefers:

From the IB Diploma Programme official site:

The IB Diploma Programme is designed as an academically challenging and balanced programme of education with final examinations that prepares students, normally aged 16 to 19, for success at university and life beyond. The programme is normally taught over two years and has gained recognition and respect from the world's leading universities. ...

IB Diploma Programme students study six courses at higher level or standard level. Students must choose one subject from each of groups 1 to 5, thus ensuring breadth of experience in languages, social studies, the experimental sciences and mathematics. The sixth subject may be an arts subject chosen from group 6, or the student may choose another subject from groups 1 to 5.

In addition the programme has three core requirements that are included to broaden the educational experience and challenge students to apply their knowledge and understanding.

The extended essay is a requirement for students to engage in independent research through an in-depth study of a question relating to one of the subjects they are studying.

Theory of knowledge is a course designed to encourage each student to reflect on the nature of knowledge by critically examining different ways of knowing (perception, emotion, language and reason) and different kinds of knowledge (scientific, artistic, mathematical and historical).

Creativity, action, service requires that students actively learn from the experience of doing real tasks beyond the classroom. Students can combine all three components or do activities related to each one of them separately. ...

Students take written examinations at the end of the programme, which are marked by external IB examiners. Students also complete assessment tasks in the school, which are either initially marked by teachers and then moderated by external moderators or sent directly to external examiners.

The diploma is awarded to students who gain at least 24 points, subject to certain minimum levels of performance across the whole programme and to satisfactory participation in the creativity, action, service requirement. The highest total that a Diploma Programme student can be awarded is 45 points.

How to apply:

Students at our school must apply for acceptance into the program, an outcome that is increasingly difficult as word gets out that IB grads are sought-after students just about everywhere.

In Vancouver, if none of the high schools in your catchment offers IB, you have make a cross-border application to one that does. Start early! Hint: A student who is already attending an IB school has a better chance of acceptance at that school, but s/he still has to write a Watson-Glaserish critical thinking entrance exam and submit a letter of application explaining why s/he seeks entry. Include anything that indicates somehow why this particular school / program is the only one of interest either because of proximity or availability of special courses in addition to IB, such as French Immersion, not offered in other IB schools. In all cases, evidence supported by the typical wow! transcript should indicate clearly that IB is the best academic stream for such a high achiever.

Although it's not a requirement, all the IB students Biblitz knows seem to come from families of well-heeled professionals who have participated actively in their children's education, and the apples haven't fallen far from the tree. These kids seem do just about everything they do brilliantly. Believe me, scholastically and personally, this is the gentry.

A few words about the pressure in IB to succeed:
The pressure to succeed academically - always intense with super-achievers - was tripled in our case by the preponderance of Asian students in the program. These are the quiet, well-behaved kids who take next year's math class in the summer to get a better grade next year. They are likely to have had more than one tutor in more than one subject since elementary school. And, alas, there is often tremendous pressure on them at home, which leads many to despair. Beatings are not unheard of for marks that fall short of expectations. We frequently heard the phrase 'Asian fail' to describe a mark below 90. A 'white kid fail' is considered the lowest of low. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many of these students end up listening to Prozac.