Internationally Educating Students

by curtissmith003 / Jul 06, 2013 / 0 comments

OK, you are all set to go abroad and have everything figured out! At least you think so. Job secured, check. Passports obtained, check. Visas granted, check. One way airplane tickets purchased, check. Luggage purchased and packed, check. Place to stay, check. Education for the children planned, oops. Where are they going to go to school? Maybe you need to reconsider education options for them. So, what options do you have as new outward adventure bound parents? This is an extremely important question that needs to be answered before you head out. There are several options for children living abroad in foreign countries. Much depends on your specific circumstances and preferences. I have written in previous posts about adjusting schooling to the unique needs of each child, but want to address the differences in certain programs. Having homeschooled our boys for a while and taught in international schools around the world, I hope I can shed some light on the subject. There is a significant amount of confusing information on the internet about international education.


Basically, you have two options, homeschool your children or put them in a formal program of some type. Let me give a very brief overview of each. Homeschooling can be a wonderful option for families. However, it is fraught with difficulties. Teaching is not as easy as it may sound. Considerable research has been done over the last several decades on child development. Ignoring the progress that has been made in pedagogy (the art and science of learning) can hinder your child’s development. Even the most dedicated and well-meaning parent might not be able to navigate these tumultuous waters and unknowingly and unintentionally deprive their child of a quality education, which can harm them in later life. Also, once a child gets into advanced high school level courses, the challenge to meet the level of academic rigor becomes much greater. Homeschooling is a contentious topic that usually sparks spirited debates. 


Formal programs can be broken down into two broad categories, online and onsite. Online has become increasingly popular with access to emerging technology. Originally, online courses were little more than watered-down versions of their onsite counter parts with no accountability or over sight. Due to advances in programing and content development, this has changed considerably. Today, quality online schools are on par or even surpass some traditional ones. More and more government agencies, private companies, and consumers look to online education as a viable option. Indeed, online education is definitely changing education. There are K-12 online accredited schools that children can enroll in from all over the world. They take classes anywhere there is internet connection: on the beach, in the mountains, in jungles, or even on boats. They meet the best of both worlds, homeschooled but being in an organized program. My wife has been a teacher and administrator for an international high school for the last eight years and absolutely loves it. 

Onsite is often called traditional education. Like all traditions, some are good and some probably need updating or letting go of. However, if they are your preference, then there are some things to know. First, the term “international school” is a loose designation for any school anywhere that caters to an international clientele. They are mostly private, though some are government run, and can be non-profit or for-profit institutions. Some are accredited and some are not. Consequently, some are amazingly good and some are beyond bad. You need to research them before you enroll your children. Accreditation is a quality standard unique to the United States. Since America is one of the few developed nations that does not have a national government controlled education system to regulate standards of quality, it has developed a different method for ensuring minimal standards. Accrediting agencies are private, non-profit organizations that act as watch-dogs over education. They are not government agencies. Contrary to popular belief, by the U.S. Constitution the federal government may not intervene in education; it is delegated to the individual states. Therefore, accreditors evaluate and approve schools based on their own criteria so that students have a sense of the education quality of a particular school. Accreditation is not mandatory, but needed if the school wants U.S. tax dollars since all states and the federal government will not release funds otherwise. Many international schools seek U.S. accreditation solely because they cater to a U.S. market and want to be competitive, even though they are not eligible for U.S. tax revenue. Accreditation may or may not be important to you depending on your child’s plans. Some U.S. colleges and high schools will not accept students from non-accredited institutions. Government-sponsored schools are usually not an issue because they are endorsed under a national government education system, like in most of Europe. International schools teach a wide variety of curricula. The four most common programs are the American Advanced Placement (AP), the Swiss International Baccalaureate (IB), the British International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), and an independent one. Each has strengths and weaknesses and devout followers. I highly recommend going with a school that subscribes to one of the big three, AP, IB, or IGCSE, and staying away from an independent one. All three rely on rigorous standards based teaching with external examinations. External Examinations are written assessments that are created by a third party educational company and provide a globally recognized scoring system. All colleges will accept all three scores for entrance requirements. Debates abound over which is the best. I am trained and have taught all three curricula for biology and chemistry. I do not think that one is necessarily better than the others. I think that individual schools make the real difference.


In U.S. schools the most arduous classes are the notorious APs. They were originally conceived in the early years after World War II as America was quickly rising in global status and wanted a more educated and internationally competitive citizenry. The College Board, a non-profit organization based in New York City, has run the AP program since 1955. All exams are given over a two week period during the first part of May. The exams may qualify students for college credit. The AP was not intended as an entire school program, but rather as specific subject courses for high achieving students. College Board now offers an AP International Diploma for students outside the U.S.


The IGCSE has the oldest roots of the three. It was developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations in 1985 based off of the old GCSE. Since the former British Empire once spanned the globe, obviously its education system dominated. More common, does not translate into better, however. The IGCSE is highly regarded. Since it is widely adopted, scores obtained under it are universally recognized. The courses are fairy rigorous. In science, for example, students are required to design, conduct, and analyze their own experiments. Similarly to the AP, the IGCSE is designed around specific courses and not a school program.


The IB is fast becoming the global curriculum. It has been huge in Europe for decades since its creation in 1968 and now is spreading through North America and Asia. In order to be an IB World School, the school must apply for and be accepted into the organization. With acceptance comes thorough evaluations and teacher training by the IB Board. This helps to ensure consistent quality. The curriculum includes an integrated teaching of subject, global outlook, Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class and lessons, Creativity, Action, Service requirement (CAS), and final exams. Students can take the Standard Level (SL) or Higher Level (HL). Schools can opt to provide one or all of the Primary Years Program (PYP), Middle Years Program (MYP), and Diploma Program (DP). While the IGCSE and the AP are stand-alone courses, the IB is an entire school-wide program. IB graduates receive an IB Diploma in addition to the school diploma.


Which one is better? As I have noted, this debate has gone on from day one. What is widely misunderstood by proponents of the IB is that the AP and IGCSE were never intended to supplant a school’s existing program, where the IB was. A good comprehensive school should be doing what the IB dictates anyway. In Europe, having the entire program created for you by an outside agency is culturally preferred. In the U.S., American school faculties greatly prefer local control of programs so they can tailor instruction for their areas. Academic Freedom versus imposed standardization. The IB is a truly well thought out, crafted, and implemented education program. A student graduating with an IB HL Diploma will get into most schools around the world. However, so will a student with 4’s and 5’s on multiple AP exams or high marks on multiple IGCSEs. I know (sorry not think, I have taught them all) that for the science classes the APs are by far the most in depth mastery of the material. For example, AP Physics is calculus based while IB HL Physics is not. In addition, AP Chemistry covers nuclear and quantum chemistry whiles the IB and IGCSE do not. I do like the integrated and application approach of the IB, though. The AP is the only one with a distinct advantage for home schoolers because anyone can take the exams regardless of attending an AP course. The IB and IGCSE require successful completion of an approved course to sit the exams. Remember also, European countries only have compulsory education to age 16. Only university bound students stay on for the final two years (European schools count American kindergarten as grade 1, so they go grades 1-13 instead of K-12, but the ages are still the same). Years 12 and 13 are highly focused college preparatory years where students only take classes in their areas of specialization. This skews some of the comparison among different international programs. The IB and IGCSE were both designed with that system in mind, where the AP was designed for an age 18 compulsory system. Some international school offers exclusively one or all three.


Students should enroll in what will meet their needs. Essentially, if you are going to go to college in the UK, take the IGCSEs, if in Europe take the IB, and if in the U.S. or Asia the APs. In the end, colleges look at grades first, programs second.