International Baccalaureate: A Mother’s Final Notes From The Trenches

Sizzling drums. Drizzling tears. An unlikely alchemy.

Last week on a stage in Paris, while standing in a pocket of shadow off to the side of a big screen, I fingertipped away a couple of tears as I watched footage of my eldest son Parker, drumming. His jazz riff was hot, nothing but pure pyrotechnical spontaneous combustion. You’d have thought that was what was making my eyes burn.


The Paris audience, which erupted in applause for this filmed drummer they did not know, was made up of high school students, faculty and parents at the international school from which Parker graduated a few years ago. He graduated from there, in fact, only months after that drumming footage was taken. Invited to speak to this audience for a morning, I had brought as accompaniment that firstborn son of mine on film.  Our youngest, Luc, who looks a lot like his big brother, I brought in the flesh. Luc sat front and center, about where his brother had sat during graduation practice, June of 2007.

Luc, thumbs up

Luc, thumbs up

Dalton, our middle son, I couldn’t bring to Paris. Although he wanted to come, a single day away from full I.B. coursework this semester could be lethal, and having lost study time doing Benvolio in this school’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he was already begging for an extension on a deadline for another major I.B. project, the extended essay.  On that stage, I of course thought of Dalton and the pressure he’s under, pressure many of those students in front of me in Paris were under, too.  They are strivers, most of them, in a demanding curriculum, and some were candidates for the full I.B.

Dalton, extended essay

Dalton, extended essay

Extended ecstacy

extended ecstasy

There they sat, gorgeously alive, faces packed with promise. Concentrated, quizzical, study-weary, but leaning into my presentation as they are leaning into their future: ship mastheads tilting toward their oceanic tomorrows.

basketball champions

basketball champions

I was moved just looking at these kids. And some images I projected of Parker as co-captain of both basketball and volleyball teams made my nose sting and my throat tighten.  Because this was Parker’s school, his very stage. And I was speaking to these students in what was Parker’s life stage – late adolescence – that crescendo swell when everything is coming together, plumbing deep and blooming wide all at once, building for. . .

For what?

volleyball buddies

volleyball buddies

For most of those students in front of me, as had been the case for Parker, this high school stage –– both the literal one on which I stood as well as the metaphorical one in which they stood –– was a launching pad for the world stage. That’s how Parker treated it.  Life was ahead, huge and welcoming, his oyster, his clam bake, his personal “oceanic tomorrow.”

“So what are you all preparing for?” I asked my young, beautifully breathing audience. “Who’s preparing for this week’s exam? Midterms? Who’s preparing for SAT’s? ACT’s? That Extended Essay? Theory of Knowledge paper?”

Hands were shooting up everywhere.

“And college applications? Anyone here deep into those?”

More limp hands. A low groan from row 14.

“And what are all these numbers –– your test scores, I.B. or A.P. results, GPA –– telling the world about you? Telling you about yourself? Your aptitude? Your potential? Your worth? Your guaranteed happiness?”

Then in about row six, a girl with dark blonde hair and the huge eyes of a famished hawk, shifted, pulling her sweatshirt hood tighter around the nape of her neck. A flash of connection, and I wondered:  Is she happy?

drumming at trocadéro

drumming at Trocadéro

And for one breath, I choked as I tried to swallow that thought alongside the joy that exploded from that drumming boy, Parker. Then the rush of recollection: sitting in that school’s top administrator’s office in 2006, a couple of coaches next to me (at my request), the jazz band conductor standing in a corner.

“Listen,” I remember saying, “we have to pull Parker out of the full I.B., understand? Put him in a couple of I.B. courses, maybe, and maybe some A.P. I’ll go along with that. But what I’m saying is, his GPA is suffering, so I’m pulling him. And one more thing: no more drums. No more ball.”

for the school's cabaret

for the school’s cabaret

The athletic director hung his head and shook it, side to side. The headmaster let out a long sigh. The conductor lifted his brows. “Really? Just . . . pull him?”

“You do that, Mrs. Bradford,” the assistant basketball coach mumbled a bit, “and you’ll take away his oxygen.”

“Mrs. Bradford, I really do think he needs music,” the man in the corner spoke up. “It’s in him. He’ll be sick without it. Besides, he’ll drive his teachers nuts drumming on his desk.”

“Right. Right.” (I was impatient with their softness while I was trying to be ambitious for my son. After all, someone had to be.) “Honestly,” I continued, “they aren’t necessary, music and ball. They’re treats, rewards for hitting the grades.

The men were quiet.

“I know, I know,” I went on, “I’ll be unpopular with you folks, and okay, Parker’s good at these things. Really good. But don’t worry. I’ll be the one to break the news to him, not you. I’ll be the bad guy.”



To this day, and especially while viewing for the first time since 2007 that sizzling drumming footage, the memory of that conversation turns my insides into the hot slosh of the Ganges Delta.  Its tide climbs my torso like a whole year of “oceanic tomorrows.”  And I so want to weep.

Then I shiver with gratitude, relieved that, as it turned out, I buckled on that hardliner moment, and in spite of a sagging grade here or there, Parker was allowed – encouraged – to keep playing, both drums and ball.  He played because his well-meaning but short-sighted mom was overruled by a dad, whose philosophy was simple: the immeasurable is of more value than the measurable. As floppy and slovenly as it might sound (dad said) there is value in just doing what you really love doing. There is value, he said, and there is even achievement in just being happy.

parker, age 9, his school stage

parker, age 9, his school stage

Dad was aligned with insightful administrators, people who were more interested in the holistic picture of Parker’s educational experience – his obvious talents, his nature, his joy – than in insisting on acquiring certain statistical currency.  They were, in the end, focused on complete development, while I was caught in the pinch of the lie that tells us that hitting quantifiable markers of achievement alone – scores, rankings, admissions – equals education, which (the lie continues) will equal durable happiness.

The last week of Parker's life; shot taken at site of accident

The last week of Parker’s life; shot taken at site of accident

Months after the drumming riff, a month after high school graduation, ten days into a college preparation workshop, Parker lost his life. That loss changed everything. Everything. Because I know in my cells how brief the time is we get to spend with our children, how illusory those  “oceanic tomorrows” are, I have strong opinions about anything –– even a first class education –– that robs families of time together. Furthermore, I resent any outside element that imposes poisonous amounts of pressure (upwards of 40 hours of work each week outside of the classroom?) on youth, creating a toxicity that inevitably seeps into and affects the quality of that limited time these young people have remaining with their families.


And so, as much as I praise the I.B. for its

1) multiethnic, multilingual, multi-philosophical approach to learning,

2) its emphasis on self-governance and time management,

3) its focus on debate and verbal defense,

4) its development of rigorous questioning, including the questioning of authority, and

5) its global grading practices …

And even if I have my third child of four enrolled in an I.B. program, I can only be grateful that my eldest son’s last two years of life were not weighted with the I.B. and the kinds of anxiety, distress, sleeplessness and self-flagellation that I have seen it engender in many youth.  Besides getting solid education, Parker had enough bandwidth in his young life for the things along with academic learning that brought him joy: his music, his sports, his friends, his family, his religion, and his hometown, Paris.

volleyball near the Eiffel tower

volleyball near the Eiffel Tower


International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 7; Extracurriculars


“Your high school had what? ” Dalton asks me, “A band that. . . marched?!”

My teenaged boys, schooled only outside of the US, are finishing off their cannelloni for dinner. As is often the case, Dalton our IB student is venting about the pressures of his program and the gravitas of his educational trajectory.  So I am diffusing things by telling him what an advantage he and his brother have when entering college and a globally complex world and. . . Let’s fact it: I also want my hear my boys laugh. Mom’s high school experience, paleolithic as it was, should be hilarious enough to get us hooting.  At least I think so.

“Marched? But. . .why?” Luc asks, fork hovering midair, suspicion flattening then raising his brow.

“And with that band –– get this!” I paint the full picture, still hoping for humor, “There was a marching squad.”

“A squ–odd? Like police? Military?” Dalton drags the edge of a napkin around his gaping mouth. He then plants both hands on his forehead, and slumps. Stumped. Not a whole lot of laughter yet.

“Marching squad! Marching band! Flag twirlers! People who did serial back flips across the whole gymnasium! A mascot in a fuzzy dog costume. We had theme days, homecoming royalty, best dressed contests, most preferred couples. We had girl’s choice dances, modern dance club, clubs and clubs and more clubs.  A whole parade of what we called extra-curriculars.”

Our cannelloni is going cold and crusty.  “Extra-curriculars?” one of them stutters.

“Extras. Um . . . Non-academics. Did you know Dad was in sports practice every single day after school and sometimes before school, too? And he went on ‘away trips’ with those teams? I was on the debate and public speaking team.  I had a lot of music and theater. We had a full-blown theater department and an award-winning choir.  As a high school senior with lots of time on my hands, I was recruited to make life-sized caricatures of what we called the ‘varsity basketball team’ for something we called ‘pep assemblies.’ Assemblies were needed to boost ‘school spirit,’ a big deal in most American high schools. I also decorated the gym for dances, which we had, it seemed, every other month or so. High school was –” (why does this feel illicit as it leave my lips?)  “– fun.

“But that sounds like . . . And . . .you. . .” Dalton’s voice, usually resonant, grows thin, “You both got into college?

“Kind of a good college?” Luc asks, pushing his plate away and staring me up and down. Shame singes up and through me from my shoulders right to the last hair follicle on my head. My eyebrows are even smoking.

“Dad had. . .a 3.99 GPA, right?”

Ah, that legend, yes.  But a true one.

“Hold it,” Dalton blurts, things clicking maybe too quickly in his eyes.”This means that there might be kids out there applying to get into the colleges I’m applying to.” He speaks slowly, while his dimples go from peachy to raspberry,  “And these kids, they’ve had time to learn how to do backflips? And they’ve gotten to wear . . . dog costumes? They’ve had time to go. . . to a dance? To dances? They’ve had time. . . to dance?”


And they all have 3.99 GPAs.

No amount of home-stuffed cannelloni is going to soften this blow.

ib profile

What my kids are grappling with is far bigger than a simple comparison of school systems; one kind that values bands, squads, mascots, dances, fun and pep, and another kind that doesn’t.  It’s also more than a comparison of IB vs. AP, of American vs. International schools, of supposed “fun” versus supposed “seriousness.”

Those comparisons are abstract. Concrete and even trickier will be applying to US universities, a process we are undergoing right now with Dalton.  Not surprisingly, besides GPAs, test scores, letters of recommendation and application essays, most US universities are highly interested in an applicant’s extra curricular involvement. Swim team. Concert master. Soccer goalie. Model UN. Thespian. Equestrian. Rodeo queen. Mascot. Back flips. You get the picture.

If you have followed a traditional US high school education, you will  have had not only a broad choice of extra curricular offerings embedded in your educational culture, but you will have had time and encouragement to do these things. The system, a reflection of the culture’s values, makes concessions for “fun.”

(Here I won’t bother delving into the millions upon millions of tax and private dollars that go each year to supporting US high school sports programs alone. But if that interests you, you might check here or here.)

So what happens if you are pursuing a program as rigorous as the full IB diploma in a bilingual international school, which academic demands don’t allow you to engage in many (if any) extra-curricular activities?  As crass as it sounds, you won’t have those strengths to pack your college application. Your “profile” as they say, will be weak.

Much more pernicious, in my opinion, is the threat on young minds, bodies and spirits when there is a blatant lack of bandwidth. They need to scream, cheer, run, make music, sing at the top of their lungs, run the court, do back flips or flip out, all in healthy ways. If not, they flip out in unhealthy ways.

And they need, oh do they need, adequate sleep.

Additionally and even more importantly, it is in these crucially developmental teen years that one learns about the value and satisfaction in service, about the profoundly binding language of music and theater and the building blocks of character, which begin with cooperation and camaraderie over competition.  All of these things can serve to develop compassion.

In response to a perceived imbalance of academics over non-academics, the IB developed what is called CAS (Creative Activity and Service) hours. CAS hours, which the IB website calls “a refreshing counterbalance to academic studies”, are a required element of the full IB.  What counts for CAS? You can tutor younger students, organize regional sports activities, direct a student production of Romeo & Juliet or play the accordion every weekend at a soup kitchen.  Or, as we’re learning, you’ll probably have to do all four to fulfill the CAS requirement.

high scool musical

The weakness I note here is that such activities are not built into the extant educational IB program as are extracurricular activities in a conventional US system. Perhaps CAS hours are more easily completed in US schools offering the IB because there is already in the US a cultural infrastructure that not only provides for but insists on sport, music, charitable engagement, entrepreneurial projects, student leadership.  My sense –– and it’s no more than a sense –– is that extracurricular involvement is more readily accessible, more robustly supported, more culturally self-evident within the American value system and therefore as part of the US educational approach than elsewhere in the world.

But it is all hard for me to judge how this plays itself out in today’s US schools. Hard to judge, at least, from where I sit. Fiddling with my now-brittle cannelloni.  Forcing some spurts of laughter with my boys. Making deliberate fun of my “fun” high school years.  Here, in the shadow of the wintery Swiss alps.



International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

My first university professor taught a course on Medieval Europe while wearing house slippers and nursing a tall mug of Postum. He did this while standing in front of the blaze we students had built in the fireplace of the former drinking hall of a converted, ochre yellow farm manor – the Gasthof Zieglau – in a village called Elsbethen-bei-Salzburg. Yes, this was Austria, so as you correctly suspected, outside the lecture hall windows there were actually goats grazing. . . and lonely goatherds lazing.

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

This professor (we called him Herr Doktor Professor) ate all of his meals with his 35 students. But to me, his only 14-year-old pupil, he gave a weekly allowance, daily personal advice, and a nightly bedtime kiss. He was my Dad.

Herr Doktor in Madrid

Herr Doktor Professor Dalton in Madrid

On three occasions during my upbringing, my Dad, a university professor, and my mother, a university instructor, and three or four other faculty members, led “Semesters Abroad” in Europe. These were concentrated foreign study experiences where Herr und Frau Doktor Professor’s children got the perks of not only tagging along on travels, but also taking college courses. Maybe not surprisingly, I did as well or better in those college courses than in most I took in high school. At least I liked them more.  I was challenged, respected, turned on to learning, free from the math gulag, and I racked up both high school and college credit.

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof's Kaminzimmer

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof’s Kaminzimmer

When students of the full IB diploma complete two full years of rigorous pre-university training –no house slippers, goats or paternal kisses – it is not always guaranteed that they will receive university credit. I first became aware of this over 15 years ago, when I met a family in France whose daughter, an excellent IB student, had been given a generous scholarship to large private university in the US.  After a whole year battling with admissions and administrators, she had still not been given college credit for any of her three Higher Level courses (in which she’d done exceptionally well.) Her Standard Level IB courses were not even taken into consideration for college credit.

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

As explanation: full IB students are required to take six two-year courses, three of which are Higher Level; three of which are Standard Level.  Our Dalton, as a real-life example, is currently in Higher Level History, English and French, and Standard Level Math, Biology and German courses. For an idea of the rigor of a Standard Level course, his last German assignment was to write, (in German, obviously) a researched essay on the United Nations High Council for Refugees.  Standard stuff. In addition to those HL and SL courses, Full IB diploma candidates take a TOK  or Theory of Knowledge course, write a research / TOK paper, complete an EE  or Extended Essay of 4,000 words, and show initiative in doing substantial (hours upon hours of) Creative, Active and Service projects, which must be of an approved nature and then catalogued in journal form. There are also frequent IA’s, or Internal Assessments, similar to midterm exams.

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London. . .

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London

Taking all of that into consideration, you can understand how aggravating it was for this full IB student from France to have to fight for university credit for her HL IB courses (let alone her SL IB courses.) Worse, though, was learning that her roommates, who had graduated from monolingual schools, were given without as much as a twitch of an eyelid college credit for any and all of their AP courses.

First visit to the Loire Valley

First visit to the Loire Valley

And are these bizarre, isolated scenarios? Apparently not, if you read this, from which the following quote is pulled:

Lisa McLoughlin … is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island’s North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, “Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools.” We still communicate often by e-mail. Jay Matthews

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Discovering Renoir

Discovering Renoir

Or this:

Normally three of the IB program areas are studied at the “higher level,” which is considered equivalent to college work. Students typically must attain at least a score of 5 out of 7 points on an exam for a higher-level course to be eligible for college credit. Most colleges recognize the academic value provided by the rigors of the IB program, but each college has its own policies about granting credit for IB exams.

Or this:

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the “Higher Level” (“HL” in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (“SL”). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college’s credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy’s!

Or this:

The AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, while the IB program has more limited acceptance within the U.S. but is growing in popularity.

Discovering Degas

Discovering Degas


I’ve kept a (sometimes twitching) eye on the patterns of university admissions across the US, and have been encouraged over the last decade to see that the IB, as it gains familiarity (if not yet out-and-out popularity) in US secondary schools, is becoming a known entity to college admissions personnel.  Whether this trend will continue, and whether those now completing full IB programs will benefit from such change is yet to be seen.

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 5; Weighted Grades

You’re reading a post by a high school drop out.

In a manner of speaking. I more or less stopped going to high school half way through my senior (final) year. I wasn’t a vagrant (I wasn’t a “flunky”) nor was I brilliant (a savant heading off to MIT on scholarship.) It’s just that I’d turned 16, and according to the basic requirements of my school, I was done anyway. So I took only one academic course (AP English) while spending the rest of my time involved in student government, (elected positions of leadership.) Busy with non-core courses until June, I then donned the synthetic gown, the shiny mortar board, and walked up to get my diploma. Easy.



What classes did I take to fill my time? Student government, symphony orchestra, special string ensembles, A Capella choir, debate, public speaking, released time for religious instruction and an hour-long lunch break. I spent much of my time in rehearsals for drama and musical productions. With other students, I traveled regularly and regionally for orchestra, theater and competitive speech competitions. I got “A’s.”

And I took Driver’s Education.  I got an “A” in that class by mastering parallel parking on a couple of acres adjacent to the school, a swath of asphalt decorated with fluorescent safety cones like oversized candy corn decorating a gray cake. Cruising that parking lot was like visiting an amusement park. This meant that at the same time I got that high school diploma,  I also got a newly-minted US driver’s license.  When I tell this to my non-American friends, they just can’t fathom it. They also squint at me, and nod at why I’m such a weak mathematician. 

do something

do something

In many places outside of the US, getting secondary education degrees, like getting driver’s licenses, is designed without much amusement (or fun) in mind. Instead, it’s the great sifter.  It’s designed to be rigorous, even ruinous.  Just ask the woman who stood in front of me in the line in Singapore where we were filing in to take the written exam to qualify for that country’s driver’s license.  “My sixth time,” she whispered while sweat shimmered on her forehead and she rocked on her heels a bit, arms clenched against her belly as if she was birthing an alien.

Or ask the South Korean, Polish, and Finnish high school-aged students profiled by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. (I will return to this book and the linked article in my upcoming posts. Thanks to Janina, one of our readers here, who sent me the link. Provocative reading!)

the smartes kids

This year, US colleges will receive more applicants than ever before. What’s more, these applicants will come from more diverse secondary schooling systems than any previous year. Some will probably come from South Korea, Poland and Finland. I get dizzy (and for a moment just the slightest bit anxious) learning about what other cultures deem as “best and bright,” and when I skim the statistics about other US college applicants.  Thank goodness I do so only for these posts on education; normally, I’m not a rabid follower of such graphs and predictors. I’m no way a Tiger Mom. In our home, whenever we speak the word “Ivy” it’s about leaves, not League. 

But my kids are heading to college. Two already have, two will yet. And the younger ones are facing an even more competitive college application scenario than the oldest two did, just 5 and 8 years ago. It is impossible to escape the roiling undercurrent of competition in today’s college entrance process, or the fact that the admissions process, complicated and unreliable as it is, depends primarily on numerical indicators to sift through the thousands of profiles piling up this very hour. Those numerical indicators seem to favor (who’s surprised by this?) numerical or quantitative skills!  Many colleges don’t even consider the written part of the SAT, a major disappointment for someone like our children, whose strengths (and who’s surprised by this?) lie in languages, critical thinking and verbal/written expression.

This all colors one’s GPA, of course. GPA is, for most if not all universities, the first numerical benchmark to determine a student’s ranking. But the problem with GPA is that while some post-secondary institutions have manpower and time to consider the nuances of such numbers, many do not. Certain classes, like instructors, like high schools, like countries – will produce widely varying grades. I pointed to this in my last post.  Not all these differences can be justly weighed.

Stop and think for just a moment: You and I know, while peacefully reading this post, that an “A” given for Driver’s Education (or student government or cheerleading) in an average US public high school is lightweight – featherweight – an easy “A”. We understand it’s nowhere on the same weight scale as a 7 (A+) given to a Full IB Diploma student in a HL (Higher Level) Chemistry course in a college prep school. The problem is that many colleges do not make the distinction between heavy, welter or featherweight.

(Should they first distinguish that driving or cheering not be part of any high school’s academic curriculum? That such grades not be included in the GPA in the first place?)

To simplify the process, college admissions personnel are looking first at the cumulative GPA and test scores.  A high number on either can be a foot-in the admissions door. When heavy (rigorous, college-level, mercilessly graded) courses combine for a lower GPA, that can mean the admissions door is summarily closed. The fundamental problem, I believe, is that weighting grades (or courses or instructors or overall high school or even country reputations) is too nuanced and subjective an undertaking to be carried out fairly. 

So what can one do? The response I hear often is to counterbalance a “weak” (below 3.5) GPA by building a portfolio of leadership and extra-curricular strengths. Design solar powered homes in Costa Rica, they say. Start a soup kitchen in Detroit. Run for office. Discover a planet. Whatever you do, you’d better stockpile your extra-curriculars. Theater. Speech. Orchestra. Cheerleading. Driver’s Ed.

And you see we’re back where we started.

The International Baccalaureate, Notes From Trenches Part 4: Grades

KotterRight about when the ’70’s were warping into the ’80’s, when TV shows like “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Happy Days” made up the popularized school template, and when, according to observers of the US educational system, grade inflation was just puffing its bellows, sending the hot air balloon of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” into the clouds, I graduated from a US public high school. I’d just turned 16. I had solid enough grades. And, hello world? I was done. 

happy days

But was I educated?

On paper I was. I had a GPA that merited entrance into a solid university. But what did that GPA mean? From the broad palette of course offerings in my school, I’d chosen classes in which I knew I could get an “A.”  Symphony orchestra. Student government. String ensemble. Debate and competitive speech. Theater Arts. And a favorite: Driver’s Education. In these classes, an “A” was doled out to all the squarely solid students, folks who showed up and did the course requirements. A “C” was the same as failing.  A “B” was saggy.  Given that I showed up, I didn’t sag too much.

I passed high school without much sweat. I could have taken more challenging classes, but one AP English course was enough for me. The system didn’t demand that I be extra academically inclined or even terribly hard-working. It was designed, I’ve come to conclude, to give me choices, including the choice to pass. As such, it meant I could pick courses that matched my natural gifts, and I’m quite sure I rode the crest of grade inflation. Part of the logic of that early grade inflation, as I have come to understand it, is that the US had lots of babies from our post WWII Baby Boom, and we had to get them through the system. Scholastic standards softened then sunk. People like 16-year-old me waltzed through the diploma line, but not necessarily with the world’s most rigorous education under our belts.


I knew kids in high school who, when they didn’t get an “A,” (the top grade in the US system) plea-bargained. They would actually approach an instructor. With cookies. And negotiate.  I didn’t do this as a high school student (I lacked the nerve, not to mention the baking skills) but I experienced this on the other side of the equation when I taught on the university level and later instructed at a college on the eastern seaboard of the US.  Students came to me every week, it seemed, contesting grades. Their pluck (and illogic) struck me. In European universities, as I’d witnessed it, professors rarely if ever even spoke privately with students. Contesting grades? There were none to contest: you received exactly one for the course, and that was for the final exam. Negotiations, like addressing a professor without her or his full title (Herr Doktor Professor Spinkelfürstenmeyer)? Never.



Now the US finds itself in a different phase from that of Vinnie Barbarino and Richie Cunningham. With the “globalization” of the world (the speed and ubiquity of technology and concurrent political shifts) and with the precipitous economic rise of the four Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea) plus the emergence of the fifth Tiger (India), the worldwide market is a far more competitive place. US high school students are not only competing for slots in college, they are in a race against the whole developed world for jobs.

What’s happening now in the US high school system in terms of rigor/ease? In terms of grading procedures and weighting of performance? In terms of that (darned almighty) GPA? In a 21st century which has some kids white-knuckling it through high school, others groveling for college admissions, many fearful that there will not be employment at the end of the tunnel of formal education, is there another kind of grade inflation going on?

Two recent conversations come to mind.

The first, was last week’s lunch with Irina and one of Irina’s three adult sons, Nicolas. Irina is Bulgarian-Czech-Russian-Swiss, and all her sons are a handsome composite of the same, with a big dose of English and Italian thrown in. The younger two boys attended, for some time, an American international school in Paris, which is where I first met them all. Having known a broad variety of educational approaches, they are able to make comparisons.  Irina, for instance, at 18 and freshly arrived from eastern Europe, enrolled at the Sorbonne.  Later in life, both she and her oldest son instructed in international schools.

ib diploma

“This full IB track is so intense,” I launched in, hoping for sympathy, “and it feels more intense here, I’m finding, in a Swiss context than it has been elsewhere like France and Germany. There’s no breathing room at all. And not quite as much support as I’ve seen elsewhere.”

“But that makes total sense,” Nico said, “It’s Swiss. You’re supposed to manage solo. But you want to see really ruthless? Try the Swiss Maturité,” Nico went on. “Twelve killer classes. High level proficiency in three languages. Loads and loads of memorization. That’s why it takes a whole extra year beyond the IB to even finish the basic coursework of the infamous Maturité.”

At which point I didn’t bother describing to them my own high school days.

Another talk was just this morning with Valérie.  Raised and schooled in central Europe (Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland) and in Vermont, she is now a teacher at the international bilingual school where my two youngest are enrolled.

“I got to Vermont,” said Valérie as we strolled with her daughters around a local lake,  “and it looked just like here. Gorgeous. Pines. Mountains. All that nature. I thought, ‘No brainer, I can slip right in here.’ But I struggled at figuring out how things worked with grades in high school. Where I’d come from, a ‘C’ was a totally respectable grade. It meant you were faring well, meeting course expectations. Where I’d just been in central Europe, a B or an A [or their European equivalents] were rare, reserved for ‘extreme’ students. When I got a ‘C’ in one of my classes and didn’t totally flip out, it was my American classmates who flipped out. ‘You mean you’re okay with that?! A. . .a  ‘C’?'”


Irina, Nico and Valérie know that what merits a top grade in one system, country, or course won’t necessarily do the same in another. On the other hand, they also know that “hard” or “ruthless” or “overload” doesn’t always equate with a healthy education.  All of them, having experienced it, appreciated the sports, arts and leadership opportunities afforded by a system which, one could perhaps argue, can be comparatively “soft” on the “hard” subjects.

But let’s pretend we take identically “hard” courses and administer them as equally as possible. When it comes to grading procedures, they are subject to cultural influences as well. Here is another conversation, this time with my husband, based on research gleaned from the business world:

One measurement of corporate effectiveness relies on country-wide employee engagement surveys. You take the managers from individual countries (let’s say Mexico, Japan, the UK and the US) and ask them to “grade” a recent corporate initiative. From purely quantitative scoring (let’s say a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the high end) which country do you think tends to score highest on such surveys? Which lowest? Which in the top quartile? Which always toward the bottom?

History has shown that in these surveys, respondents from Mexico nearly always give the highest numerical scores. Qué bueno!



Japan nearly always rates at the very bottom. A 44% for the Japanese might be considered, in their eyes, generous, even complimentary.

In contrast, a 78% in Mexico would be considered a low or unsatisfactory score.

The UK is quite exigent, as is Japan. Interpreted, the British like the Japanese are not easily impressed, are temperate in their judgment, slow to score something off the charts. Reserved.

And the US always scores (wait for it) in the uppermost quartile. What could that mean? Does something in the water feed an inflated expression of satisfaction? Or do Americans by nature lean towards optimism, cheerleading, exuberance. Even faith?

ib globe

I’m not saying that either mentality is inherently bad or good. What I’m saying, (with caution, because I hate to paint in sweeping strokes) is that when you get a panel of  Japanese, British, Mexican and American teachers together, they might very well grade according to certain cultural norms. Some will give you a well-deserved C. Some, for the same work, will give you a well-deserved A.

And now. . . for my final “conversation” with Heather, one of my readers who has commented in a pervious thread here on the blog.  In her 7th year raising children as expatriates, and going through the IB, she notes some basic concerns I have felt:

One frustration we have is that my daughter is competing, on paper, with US students who might have the same GPA as she has, but don’t nearly have the same academic intensity. Some universities weight the more rigorous classes, some don’t. Yes, they want to see core classes on report cards, but comparing an IB SL* class with a US AP can be tricky. I have a niece in an AP English class in Utah. Her teacher sends her out for donuts at least once a week. Whenever she feels like it, she asks her teacher if she can skip to work on her student government job or to go home to nap. She gets an “A” in that class. How do you weigh that “A” against my IB HL* English daughter’s “A” with all the IA’s*, orals and World Lit papers? Some university admissions are sensitive to the differences between schools, but some are just looking at the numbers. What’s ironic is that she qualifies for the best universities in the UK, including Oxford, St. Andrews and Kings College University of London because of her predicted IB scores, but US universities don’t care about her predicted test scores! These are tricky things about the IB that international school students deal with that US based students don’t. 


What have your experiences been, if any, moving from school system to school system?

What does it take to be well-educated in today’s world? And what does a “hard” education have that a “soft” does not?

How has your own education differed from the education you are providing for your children?

What is your personal philosophy regarding “intelligence”? What is it? How does one gain/increase/apply it? What is its value?


The International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 3, College Apps

ibThat high school senior of ours I mentioned in the last post, in addition to slaying the dragon of the full IB, is simultaneously in the throes of completing college applications. One or the other, IB or college apps, is a lot. The two at once is a recipe for nutso.  I know he’ll make it – we’ll all make it – and I can say so in good faith because with this, our third child, it’s my third time visiting the Land o’ College Applications.  Still, you’d think by now I’d have this college app thing down, well, to an app.

(I’ve checked. No such thing exists.)

If you’ve not yet done college applications with your child, you’ll want to listen carefully as I describe in a sentence or two what I could easily spend several posts discussing. It is here where essentially three qualifications bear sway: the accumulated grade point average (GPA), college entrance exam scores (SAT and ACT), and supplementary strengths. These are a strong personal essay, glimmering letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities including awards of all sorts, i.e., your nomination for a Nobel or Pulitzer, or receiving either a Fields or Olympic Medal. Or getting both (or all four – hey, go for it!) is better. Anything helps.

college mortarboard

Combined, such quantifiers and qualifiers make up the filter for sorting students into schools where they will, 1) merit entrance, 2) be a positive contributor to that community, and 3) thrive. In theory at least, and more than any other factors, those GPA and college entrance exam numbers are supposed to effectively sort applicants with certain strengths (including academic capacity) into the appropriate universities.

Side note: you know as well as I do that standardized tests cannot describe the galaxy-wide breadth of differences in intelligence. And you know from reading this interview that while I value education and lifelong learning, and am a vocal advocate for education as a means of contributing to the welfare of humankind, I do not revere academic achievement for its own sake, meaning in isolation from moral training (including social responsibility) and emotional/spiritual well-being.  And I am wise to know that quantitative measurements not only cannot measure a human being’s worth and potential contribution, but might even distract us, if they become a fixation, from some of the greatest concerns.

Can make us unwell. Sick. Addicted. Even, in the extreme, morally and ethically corrupt. Ignorance and sloth breed a certain corruption. Myopic focus on external measures breeds another.

We’ll come back to that world of thought in future posts. Can hardly wait.



But for now, back to the IB.

Considering the rigor and depth of a program of its sort, you’d expect it would be of practical advantage for the young learner when considering colleges. But this is not necessarily the case.  Why? There are several reasons, and I’ll begin one here:

Grading procedures specifically during the junior year

When one applies for US universities, one normally begins the process of applying now, in the autumn of the first semester of one’s senior (or final) year of high school.  College and universities in the US will in turn respond to these apps by early winter.  The grades that “count” are from the junior year, since the first semester senior year grades come in late, sometimes too late to count for many US college applications.  While those senior grades are relatively important for US-bound students, they are clearly not as important as those junior grades.


Furthermore, many of our family’s high school seniors’ friends do something called Early Decision, which means they apply this month (November) to a single university, (not to four or six or more, as many high school students do) with the understanding that this is the only university they are hoping to attend. Their applications rests solely on a GPA gathered from their junior year. All eggs are in that precarious academic basket, so to speak. The kids know it. The college admissions gatekeepers know it.

The students who’ve done Early Decision find out by December if they are accepted. If they are not, they then begin the scramble for applying to a number of other schools, if perhaps a little bit late. Lots of stress during those holidays, I can tell you. And all that, by the way, while swinging away at the IB dragon.

dragon slayer

If applicants’ grades from their sophomore and junior (and not senior) years are used to prove their academic standing, what happens if a school espouses an IB system, which, as I’m learning can happen, is keenly attuned to European and UK schools? For European and UK universities, the senior – not junior – year grades are most relevant. And in order to motivate the students to up their scholastic game the final, or senior, year, teachers tend to grade harder (lower) in the junior year.

A US-bound student, then, could potentially end up with a lower overall GPA – could end up disadvantaged – with respect to his or her junior year grades, the ones US universities will look at most closely.  Consequently, he or she is submitting grades which might be among his or her lowest.

I have been part of an IB school community where US-bound college applicants, recognizing this tendency to intentionally grade harder in the junior year, have petitioned faculty and administration for to review if not revise that grading approach in that too-telling year. That shift, from what I’ve gathered, has not yet occurred.


Next IB-related posts:

Grades: Inflated? Intentionally Tempered?

To Weight or Not to Weight?

College Prep, But No College Credit?

Extra Curricular. . . Whuh?

Multiple Choice vs. Essay, Dialogue and Debate

Multicultural, Multidisciplinary, Multi-philosophical

A Mother’s Perspective: 5 Reasons Why I Like / Dislike the IB

The International Baccaluareate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 2



Some explanations to springboard this discussion on education:

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently used by over 1 million students speaking 74 languages across 145 countries.  These students attend 3,600 schools, both private and public.  In the US, the IB is present in 700 schools, 90% of which are public.  This brief profile should dispel the misconception that the IB is elitist, or that it is a system created exclusively for and useful only to UN diplomats.  And this fact page might help dispel other misinformation.

That notion of “privilege and exclusivity” and UN affiliation arose from the IB’s origins.  I can speak with a bit of authority about said origins, since our family lives in Geneva, Switzerland, seedbed of the UN. I’ve stood in the buildings and rooms where the IB was designed and first implemented, yes, in conjunction with many of the UN’s lofty and valuable peace-making objectives.  In fact, our two youngest children now attend the very school, which developed the IB in the late ’60’s of post WW II Europe.

You might say we have come to the mount.

Which would explain, I suppose, the dragon (I wrote of in my last post.)

My current proximity to the IB’s epicenter and the fact that, when we moved to this area, we specifically (and energetically) targeted this, the IB’s “Urschool,” helps as I discuss the IB in this and my ensuing posts.  I come from a posture of support, even enthusiasm. As global nomads, all four of our children have participated in the IB to one extent or another, and have done so in three different schools across Europe. So while it’s maybe a small sample size,  I do have contextual reference (four children, three schools, over ten years) from which to judge the program, or as least its central European iteration.

In one school, a son took a couple of individual IB courses. This is essentially IB à la carte, and is recognized by educators as similar in level of difficulty to taking a menu of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

In another school, our daughter graduated with the full IB, more challenging than IB à la carte, and recognized as tougher than even a complete menu of Honors or  Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP on steroids, some say. The full IB means that in addition to all coursework being college-level, (as opposed to selecting only certain IB classes), she had to complete major additional projects, an extended research essay, service hours and several targeted assessments. Today, our youngest is doing the middle school IB, and the third  of our four children, Dalton, is slogging through his final year of the full IB diploma program, as did his sister.

ib diploma

Again, my opinions of the IB stem from a sample size of only three schools from central Europe.  But from that sample size I’ve noted the consistencies and inconsistencies, and know that experiences vary, as I have noted, not only from one country/cultural context to another, but from one school to another. The overall coursework is administered differently from school to school. Weekly workload, variety and aggressiveness of courses offered, day-to-day and month-by-month grading practices, quality of classroom instruction and consistency of faculty guidance have varied. There have been truly stellar teachers and administrators. There have also been some less-than-stellars.

In these upcoming posts, I’ll focus on what I judge are the outstanding strengths or weaknesses of the IB. Sometimes, as you’ll see today, they are one and the same.

Time and Stress Management

Given the dragon slaying metaphor from my last post, IB students must, above all, learn time and stress management skills. Our high school senior, now in the middle of his second year of the 2-year diploma-targeted arc,  often says that IB success (meaning just completion, not necessarily top scores) hangs on one’s ability to “study while running.” You start your junior year at a dead sprint, and can’t stop running for two years while task upon task gets piled in your arms. You can’t drop one task, or it’s nearly impossible to catch up. You must study and run at once.

Stress/time management is important, even vital. And hear me: I’m all for a program that puts pressure on my kids to effectively govern their use of time.  They will need this in college. They will need this in work, in family, in life.

But I do question what it means for young minds to associate learning primarily with breathlessness, sleeplessness, burned-eyeball revisions until midnight, high-pitched anxiety, gulping down information from a fire hydrant, a 2-year nonstop scramble. As an educator myself, (I have instructed German, English writing and literature, and the Humanities on the university level; my current activities have me lecturing to small and large audiences; I am a writer) I would wish that my kids also associated joy, discovery and creativity with learning.

ib profile

I also question the notion of “balance,” which, as you see here in purple, is part of the IB learner’s profile. Frankly, I’m searching for it, but I’m not seeing balance in the life of my IB student. How can there be when one’s running as this son is just to keep on top of basic coursework?


(And what does it mean when students say the IB stands for Insane Burnout, I’m Busy and Intellectually Brutal?)

My oldest son, who took individual IB courses (as one might take AP courses) and not the full diploma, had time to participate in sports and music alongside his academic courses. Our second son, now neck-deep in the full IB, is feeling mostly anxiety because he’s been cast in a supporting role in the school’s upcoming student-directed Shakespeare. He’s wondering: will playing Benvolio be my demise? Can I do theater and run carrying all this coursework?

(I’ll let you know in a few months.  In the meantime, I’m taking it as a good omen that Benvolio is the only character from the younger generation to survive in “Romeo and Juliet.”)


Still, I have to ask: is this program fashioned, as it asserts it is, to prepare young minds for the rigor not only of serious university studies, but further for the demands of a complex, diverse, rapidly shifting, international environment? Are the hot breath and licking flames of the dragon intended to motivate students toward a passion for intellectual rigor, high-level holistic learning, life-long curiosity, a broad (global) world view, and encourage a whole wonderful list of learner’s qualities that is part of the IB’s original charter?

Is the IB shaping minds and spirits that are thirsty, elastic, joyful about the magnificent possibilities and electrifying privilege of gaining an education?

Or is the dragon dragooning students into constant worry and apprehension about keeping up? How to cut corners? Whether or not they can really afford to be so frivolous as to participate in one drama production their senior year?

Are the students finishing an aggressive program with minds that are not thirsty but fried, not elastic but overwrought, not joyful about learning, but  wrung out, wrung dry, and convinced (as is our IB senior,) that he’s bottom rung?


The International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 1


A typical scene in our home lately:

Dalton, our high school senior, normally an energetic, cheerful young man, walks through the front door sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., visibly bulldozed.  His eyes are gloopy and glazed.  He slumps under his backpack. His day began twelve hours earlier: Up at 6:00. Bus at 7:00.  Courses started near 8:00.  One 30-minute lunch break.

“Dinner at 7:00,” I tell him, giving him a hug, “Unless . . . do you need to eat over your books again?”

“Books,” he signals much of the time, “but right now I just need 20 mins.”

He’s running on fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day, so now he’ll flop into a 15 minute nap, then brisk-shower himself back to consciousness in order to head right into homework. Until midnight.


Why? Because, as coordinators of the full International Baccalaureate diploma program at his high school have informed us, you don’t just complete the IB. You conquer it.

“It’s a dragon,” we were told by a school administrator at this year’s orientation, “and your job is to slay it.”

“You’ll have to do whatever you can,”  another faculty member addressed us parents, “to not let your senior student devote more than 45 hours per week to homework outside of class.”

ib banner

Hmm. Let’s see. Quickie calculation tells me that. . . more than 45 hours per week is exactly what Dalton is doing, and just to keep ahead of the deadlines and keep his head from the dragon’s fiery jaws. From 6 p.m. to midnight every weekday, and then Saturdays all day long for another eight hours, and on Sundays, any remaining literary reading. He does precious little but hunker over his books, papers, and laptop. (A big luxury for him? Playing his guitar for 20-minute break. For that, he always sets a timer.)

students 2

It has been this way since fall of 2012. And it will be this way until spring of 2014. While he got to step back from formal studies during July and August (except for the daily math tutoring, the extended essay for which he was researching, and preparing for a second round of college entrance exams), he re-launched in September with the following caveat from an IB advisor given at a senior assembly: “Look, you guys’ll have break downs. Just prepare for that.  Come about November, the pressure will be so great, you’ll crack, some of you.  So go out right now and line up a massage. Or something.”

“Or line up some weed,” mumbled the student next to Dalton.

(In truth, the full IB is more than a fire-breathing, wingéd monstrosity, and though this IB dragon smokes big time, I’m not suggesting some oversimplified causal link between those academic pressures and the pronounced drug and booze problems that have existed in all three of the IB high schools my kids have attended. Someone else can write that post.)

ib globe

What I’m suggesting, is that the dragon’s stressors are mythic.  There are websites, established by students, called things like “Surviving the IB” and “IB”  But crazy as it seems, our family keeps signing up for the IB everywhere we live. Why on earth do that? you’re asking.

Believe me. There are times I’m asking, too.

In the next posts, I’m going to delve into the reasons why I have strong feelings – both positive and negative – about the IB. I’ll be analyzing what I believe are the program’s many strengths, but will also question whether this kind of dragon battle actually gains the specific and immediate as well as the broad and long-term results we parents hope for in our educational choices for our children.

So if you are at all curious about the IB, or if you are invested in education and your children’s ability not only to slay some dragon, but to live intelligently and even nobly in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, you’ll want to come back and comment.



Scaling Today’s Educational Landscape: A Moral Dilemma?



Our son Dalton is scaling a Swiss mountain today.  This is a day trip shared with his graduating class, an extremely rare communal activity meant to symbolize the sort of synergy and determination needed not only to survive, but to have success in the academic gulag they’re participating in.

Hiking is going to get these kids well-oxygenated, too, I’m told. They’ll need it, since they’re doing the “full I.B.” meaning the International Baccalaureate diploma.  This means they’re going under for nine months straight. That’s a lot of breath holding.

“If you possibly can, don’t allow your child to do more than 45 hours of homework outside of class per week,” parents were warned last week in a parent orientation course for this, the last year of the I.B.  “And beyond that, don’t  plan on any travel, not even for a morning, between now and June.” We’d counted on as much.  In fact, all meals will be eaten over textbooks, and if that fails, we’ll serve Dalton intravenously.

He must, must, must make it to the summit. This is the I.B.’s driving mantra.



As promised here, from time to time I’m going to be posting on what the International Baccalaureate is specifically, and what our kids’ international schooling over the years has been like generally. We’ve known over a dozen approaches to education – local, public, local language, bilingual, English, private, Norwegian, British, American, French, with or without uniforms, with or without recess time, with or without a single drinking fountain within the zip code.  Additionally, Dalton is our second child to undertake the full I.B., and it so happens that the school our boys now attend is the oldest continuously operating international school in the world.  And it created the I.B.

Should that background give us all some sort of advantage with this I.B. beast? And does the I.B. beast give young learners an advantage when considering colleges in the United States? And the more pressing question: do universities in the United States welcome/prefer/penalize/or not know what to do with an internationally-focused education? Start formulating your thoughts, because we’ll want to hear them all.

In the mean time, I found this NYT article by Ruth Starkman that should stimulate some responses:


New York Times, Published: August 1, 2013

A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? Perhaps others had perfect grades and scores? They did indeed. Were they ranked higher? Not necessarily. What kind of student was ranked higher? Every case is different.

The reason our budding engineer was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) has to do with Berkeley’s holistic, or comprehensive, review, an admissions policy adopted by most selective colleges and universities. In holistic review, institutions look beyond grades and scores to determine academic potential, drive and leadership abilities. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

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Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself. And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world.

WHILE teaching ethics at the University of San Francisco, I signed on as an “external reader” at Berkeley for the fall 2011 admissions cycle. I was one of about 70 outside readers — some high school counselors, some private admissions consultants — who helped rank the nearly 53,000 applications that year, giving each about eight minutes of attention. An applicant scoring a 4 or 5 was probably going to be disappointed; a 3 might be deferred to a January entry; students with a 1, 2 or 2.5 went to the top of the pile, but that didn’t mean they were in. Berkeley might accept 21 percent of freshman applicants over all but only 12 percent in engineering.

My job was to help sort the pool.

We were to assess each piece of information — grades, courses, standardized test scores, activities, leadership potential and character — in an additive fashion, looking for ways to advance the student to the next level, as opposed to counting any factor as a negative.

External readers are only the first read. Every one of our applications was scored by an experienced lead reader before being passed on to an inner committee of admissions officers for the selection phase. My new position required two days of intensive training at the Berkeley Alumni House as well as eight three-hour norming sessions. There, we practiced ranking under the supervision of lead readers and admissions officers to ensure our decisions conformed to the criteria outlined by the admissions office, with the intent of giving applicants as close to equal treatment as possible.

The process, however, turned out very differently.

In principle, a broader examination of candidates is a great idea; some might say it is an ethical imperative to look at the “bigger picture” of an applicant’s life, as our mission was described. Considering the bigger picture has aided Berkeley’s pursuit of diversity afterProposition 209, which in 1996 amended California’s constitution to prohibit consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in admissions to public institutions. In Fisher v. the University of Texas, the Supreme Court, too, endorsed race-neutral processes aimed at promoting educational diversity and, on throwing the case back to lower courts, challenged public institutions to justify race as a factor in the holistic process.

In practice, holistic admissions raises many questions about who gets selected, how and why.

I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members. First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine.

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In norming sessions, I remember how lead readers would raise a candidate’s ranking because he or she “helped build the class.” I never quite grasped how to build a class of freshmen from California — the priority, it was explained in the first day’s pep talk — while seeming to prize the high-paying out-of-state students who are so attractive during times of a growing budget gap. (A special team handled international applications.)

In one norming session, puzzled readers questioned why a student who resembled a throng of applicants and had only a 3.5 G.P.A. should rank so highly. Could it be because he was a nonresident and had wealthy parents? (He had taken one of the expensive volunteer trips to Africa that we were told should not impress us.)

Income, an optional item on the application, would appear on the very first screen we saw, along with applicant name, address and family information. We also saw the high school’s state performance ranking. All this can be revealing.

Admissions officials were careful not to mention gender, ethnicity and race during our training sessions. Norming examples were our guide.

Privately, I asked an officer point-blank: “What are we doing about race?”

She nodded sympathetically at my confusion but warned that it would be illegal to consider: we’re looking at — again, that phrase — the “bigger picture” of the applicant’s life.

After the next training session, when I asked about an Asian student who I thought was a 2 but had only received a 3, the officer noted: “Oh, you’ll get a lot of them.” She said the same when I asked why a low-income student with top grades and scores, and who had served in the Israeli army, was a 3.

Which them? I had wondered. Did she mean I’d see a lot of 4.0 G.P.A.’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of Jewish and Asian applicants (Berkeley is 43 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)?

The idea behind multiple readers is to prevent any single reader from making an outlier decision. And some of the rankings I gave actual applicants were overturned up the reading hierarchy. I received an e-mail from the assistant director suggesting I was not with the program: “You’ve got 15 outlier, which is quite a lot. Mainly you gave 4’s and the final scores were 2’s and 2.5’s.” As I continued reading, I should keep an eye on the “percentile report on the e-viewer” and adjust my rankings accordingly.

In a second e-mail, I was told I needed more 1’s and referrals. A referral is a flag that a student’s grades and scores do not make the cut but the application merits a special read because of “stressors” — socioeconomic disadvantages that admissions offices can use to increase diversity.

Officially, like all readers, I was to exclude minority background from my consideration. I was simply to notice whether the student came from a non-English-speaking household. I was not told what to do with this information — except that it may be a stressor if the personal statement revealed the student was having trouble adjusting to coursework in English. In such a case, I could refer the applicant for a special read.

Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? I think I got lost in the unspoken directives. Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known. Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky.

It’s an extreme version of the American non-conversation about race.

I scoured applications for stressors.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Should I value consistent excellence or better results at the end of a personal struggle? I applied both, depending on race. An underrepresented minority could be the phoenix, I decided.

We were not to hold a lack of Advanced Placement courses against applicants. Highest attention was to be paid to the unweighted G.P.A., as schools in low-income neighborhoods may not offer A.P. courses, which are given more weight in G.P.A. calculation. Yet readers also want to know if a student has taken challenging courses, and will consider A.P.’s along with key college-prep subjects, known as a-g courses, required by the U.C. system.

Even such objective information was open to interpretation. During training Webinars, we argued over transcripts. I scribbled this exchange in my notes:

A reader ranks an applicant low because she sees an “overcount” in the student’s a-g courses. She thinks the courses were miscounted or perhaps counted higher than they should have been.

Another reader sees an undercount and charges the first reader with “trying to cut this girl down.”

The lead reader corrects: “We’re not here to cut down a student.” We’re here to find factors that advance the student to a higher ranking.

Another reader thinks the student is “good” but we have so many of “these kids.” She doesn’t see any leadership beyond the student’s own projects.

Listening to these conversations, I had to wonder exactly how elite institutions define leadership. I was supposed to find this major criterion holistically in the application. Some students took leadership courses. Most often, it was demonstrated in extracurricular activities.

Surely Berkeley seeks the class president, the organizer of a volunteer effort, the team captain. But there are so many other types of contributions to evaluate. Is the kindergarten aide or soup kitchen volunteer not a leader?

And what about “blue noise,” what the admissions pros called the blank blue screen when there were no activities listed? In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

IN personal statements, we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege.”

Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character — no small task in a sea of applicants. Less happily, many betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery. The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!

As I developed the hard eye of a slush pile reader at a popular-fiction agency, I asked my lead readers whether some of these stressors might even be credible. I was told not to second-guess the essays but simply to pick the most worthy candidate. Still, I couldn’t help but ask questions that were not part of my reader job.

The assistant director’s words — look for “evidence a student can succeed at Berkeley” — echoed in my ears when I wanted to give a disadvantaged applicant a leg up in the world. I wanted to help. Surely, if these students got to Berkeley they would be exposed to all sorts of test-taking and studying techniques.

But would they be able to compete with the engineering applicant with the 3.95 G.P.A. and 2300 SATs? Does Berkeley have sufficient support services to bridge gaps and ensure success? Could this student with a story full of stressors and remedial-level writing skills survive in a college writing course?

I wanted every freshman walking through Sather Gate to succeed.

Underrepresented minorities still lag behind: about 92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. A study of the University of California system shows that 17 percent of underrepresented minority students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

When the invitation came to sign up for the next application cycle, I wavered. My job as an application reader — evaluating the potential success of so many hopeful students — had been one of the most serious endeavors of my academic career. But the opaque and secretive nature of the process had made me queasy. Wouldn’t better disclosure of how decisions are made help families better position their children? Does Proposition 209 serve merely to push race underground? Can the playing field of admissions ever be level?

For me, the process presented simply too many moral dilemmas. In the end, I chose not to participate again.

Ruth A. Starkman teaches writing and ethics at Stanford and, from 1992 to 1996, taught writing at the University of California, Berkeley.