How an International Baccalaureate Education Cuts Through the ‘Noise’ on Banned Topics

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The Riverview High School seniors in James Minor’s International Baccalaureate English Language and Literature class broke into groups to fill out concept maps. They addressed questions rooted in the concept of existentialism—a topic they had been studying over the last few days.

Students connected themes in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” and Albert Camus’s book The Myth of Sisyphus to other works covered in class. These other materials included the poetry of Margaret Atwood, which explores gender and identity, Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, a critique of European colonialism, the Marvel movie “Black Panther,” which addresses neocolonialism (a situation where powerful countries indirectly control or influence the economies of less powerful countries even when those countries are officially independent and sovereign), and comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime which explores his childhood in South Africa’s era of apartheid.

Many of these works, or other works by these authors, have generated passionate debate about whether they should be taught in schools, included in reading lists, or made available in libraries—part of the larger discourse on how to teach about topics of race and gender in public schools. At least 18 states, including Florida, have enacted legislation restricting instruction on these topics.

Florida’s Sarasota County school district, including Riverview High School, drew national attention recently due to school board member Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of the conservative parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty, who vocally supports such legislation. Ziegler left the group sometime in 2021 and is no longer affiliated, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. (As of February 29, Ziegler faces calls for resignation from the school board due to a sexual assault investigation into her husband.)

Students walk to class across the courtyard at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., on Jan. 23, 2024.

The new restrictions in Florida have impacted schools offering certain advanced courses—particularly the College Board’s Advanced Placement program—that cover topics of race and gender. But in the IB classrooms of Riverview High, students continue to engage in lively evidence-based discussions and presentations on complex philosophical concepts, all while abiding by state law, according to school officials. Part of why Riverview High educators are continuing their approach to teaching is because they are following the IB framework.

“There is a lot of noise externally,” Minor said. “I’m not foolish enough to think that education is not political outside these walls. I know it is. But I’m not a politician. Whatever’s happening in that realm is what it is. The day-to-day? We keep doing what we’ve always done, which is educating kids.”

How IB works in Florida and beyond

The International Baccalaureate organization offers four different program models for schools in the United States and abroad. There’s the primary years program for ages 3-12 and the middle years program for ages 11-16. The most widely known programs at the high school level are the diploma program, typically completed between junior and senior year, and the career-related program, which offers students additional career-related studies to shape their post-graduation plans, said Amy Osborne, a national spokesperson for the IB organization.

IB programs are in more than 5,700 schools across 160 countries, with approximately 2,497 programs and 1,903 authorized IB World Schools in the United States.

Students can get college credit for individual courses within a school’s IB programs, and for completing a full IB diploma. Not all students at Riverview High complete an IB diploma, but a majority of seniors take at least one IB course as part of a school initiative to promote IB for all, Minor said.

Each IB program has a set of core components and various subject areas with course options. For instance, the diploma program requires an extended essay project and courses on the subject of individuals and societies which include history, geography, psychology, and more. The IB organization must authorize schools to offer IB programs.

Of the U.S. IB World Schools, 1,708 are in the public school system, and 213 are private.

Choice is a big selling point for districts. Unlike other advanced learning programs—such as the College Board’s AP courses—the IB program is less prescriptive when it comes to teachers setting their own syllabi and curriculum. Teachers simply must abide by a framework set internationally, said Pam Stewart, the executive director of the nonprofit Florida League of IB Schools. She served as the commissioner of education for the state from 2013 through 2019.

The Florida League of IB Schools helps bring the state’s IB educators together for quarterly networking and professional development opportunities. Many of the 189 Florida IB schools are members. The nonprofit also helps make a case for any new course to receive state approval and it informs IB coordinators about any new state education legislation.

Stewart credits the IB framework model in helping Florida IB schools ensure they remain in compliance with shifting state standards and laws over the years, including the newer restrictions on race and gender.

In Florida, schools now cannot teach “divisive concepts” such as that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”

The state also banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

“With IB, we have not found anywhere that something has been taken away from a school or from a school district that would prevent them from being able to teach the IB courses,” Stewart said.

In 2023, more than 86,000 Diploma Program students took the IB exams in the United States. Among them, over 17,000 students successfully earned the Diploma Program certification.

Last year new Florida laws impacted AP courses in the state. Former presidential candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis banned the pilot AP African American Studies course for defying state law, pointing to the inclusion of topics such as intersectionality. The state education agency initially questioned then backtracked on whether schools could offer AP Psychology, which includes instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Florida department of education did not respond to multiple requests for comment from EdWeek ahead of publication, including questions on whether any complaints had been filed by the public or parents against IB schools for allegedly defying state laws.

Riverview High also offers AP courses, and was initially unsure whether to offer AP Psychology this school year. (It ultimately did once the state clarified its position.)

Some new national surveys have found teachers across the country are self-censoring in response to the shifting political climate around teaching certain topics. But the new laws in Florida haven’t altered IB instruction at Riverview High, said Minor, who is the IB coordinator for the school.

Students and teachers alike benefit from IB programming

Since 1999, when the school first offered IB, Riverview High educators have taught in a manner that gives students ownership of their learning while building critical thinking skills to help them in college and beyond.

The bulk of class time is not dedicated to lectures. Students often find themselves in group activities, working on papers and projects on topics of their choosing, and in Socratic seminars where students lead discussions and debates on an academic topic. The topics they cover are more akin to what one might study in higher education.

In Minor’s Language and Literature class, he posed a question to the class that arose from a group presentation: “Do you need a degree of selfishness to pursue your dream?”

Multiple hands went up.

One student said yes, because it is ultimately your own life. Some peers agreed, giving credit to that first student. But another student said they would never want to harm their family and friends in the name of pursuing a dream. Others agreed.

Yet another student posed a third take: You control your own life and choices but can also discern who can help you on the path to pursue your dream and who can weigh you down. Students cited examples from course texts in their discussion.

In a theory of knowledge class—a core course for the diploma program—students were asked to determine how bias can impact an investigation, whether criminal, medical, or archeological. One student raised her hand to point out that when you have limited evidence you can only come to certain conclusions. She connected that to how social media algorithms are tailored to individual users, showing limited perspectives of the world.

Students in Jason Means’s economics class were preparing for their internal assessment paper on global economics. Students choose their own topics to research: One student tackled former President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs on Chinese imports, while another tackled President Joe Biden’s own proposal on these tariffs.

For Means, also the school’s social studies department chair, teaching IB effectively means creating a classroom culture where students can express their opinions backed by facts.

“I ask my students at the end of the school year, ‘What’s my political affiliation?’ And it’s always fun to listen to them argue about it,” Means said. “They’re always like ‘We don’t really know.’ And that’s what should be happening in this classroom. An examination of the study, and you take this information that you’ve been given, and the way to find more information about things, and you apply it to your own life and your own perspective.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for constructive arguments, he added.

“I walked in some days ago, [saying] ‘I’d like to hear a good argument today. Let’s hear something else, something you read related to economics.’ I mean, economists argue about economics,” Means said.

Students work on an assignment in Sarah Hu's IB Theory of Knowledge class at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., on Jan. 23, 2024.

Gathering multiple perspectives from peers and sources is part of what senior Henry Fioriglio, 18, likes about his IB classes. He also spoke of how teachers seem more flexible in how deeply or quickly they go through topics in IB courses versus the AP courses he’s taken.

“I’d recommend IB because I believe that it gives you the best opportunity for success,” Fioriglio said. “Not even necessarily to go to college, although it does [help]. But just to develop yourself as a person.”

Riverview High’s IB program also engages parents, Minor said.

“Very purposefully, since the beginning of this program, we’ve had a very active IB parent organization,” he added. “We are constantly educating our parents. We have so many evening events, monthly socials where it’s just informal teachers and parents hanging out in a social setting, because this is a community.”

And the benefits to students don’t end after graduation. Through collaboration with IB parents and alums, the school offers mentors to graduates as they begin life in college and even created a fund to financially support students in need of textbooks or laptops, Minor said.

The school regularly welcomes visiting educators from across the state looking to match Riverview High’s IB programming, Minor said.

To date, Minor hasn’t seen any direct conflict between statutes and orders from the state that would overtly stop his school from teaching the IB framework completely, in large part because of how much choice IB offers teachers and students.

And he and his fellow educators have no intention of changing a research-backed approach to instruction.

“I think what the IB does is it systematically build a framework of voice and choice,” he added “You should see that everywhere, because that’s just good teaching and learning.”


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