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More U.S. Schools Try Cambridge for College-Prep Curriculum

When people think of Cambridge, images of the prestigious British university come to mind. Increasingly, Americans want a touch of that for their own students.

In a new Education Week story, "Cambridge Makes Inroads in U.S. Schools," I take a closer look at the Cambridge offerings and its growth in the United States. 

Cambridge International Examinations, part of a nonprofit division of the University of Cambridge, now has programs in 230 U.S. schools, up from 80 in 2009. Nearly 50,000 Cambridge exams were taken by high school students here this year, a 50 percent increase from 2012. Officials anticipate continued growth, as families clamor for choices in how to better prepare students for college and schools search for curriculum that the meet new Common Core State Standards. (Cambridge officials say its offerings are a good fit with the common core.)

The Cambridge curriculum is known for being heavy on critical thinking and analysis, with high school students wrapping up their courses by taking rigorous, two-day exams. It is being offered alongside Advanced Placement and International Baccaulaurate courses as an alternative college-prep pathway, but its reach is still small compared with those programs in the U.S. market. While the vast majority of Cambridge programs in the United States are in high schools, elementary and middle schools are also trying out the approach to prepare students earlier in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Cambridge promotes its new Global Perspectives program with an event in Orlando this week and another in New York City next week. The course is being pitched to principals and educators as a chance for high school juniors and seniors to develop skills in research, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking in global topics critical for college success.  Assessment at the end of the course includes analysis, writing, and a presentation. It is one of about 70 Cambridge courses that high school students can take in a range of subjects.

Cambridge is eager to share its story with U.S. educators. Michael O'Sullivan, who joined Cambridge International Exams last spring as the new chief executive officer, said the United States is its fastest-growing market and someday it may be another "home" for the organization. Cambridge operates in 160 countries and is the largest provider of educational programs for 5-19 year olds.

Sherry Reach, the organization's regional manager for the Americas, who worked at the first Cambridge high school in Florida to adopt the program in 1995, said the organization is in the process of expanding support services and staff in the United States.

"I fully believe in the next five to 10 years you will see Cambridge being a household name and growth will continue," she said.

While embraced in more states, some experts caution schools to look at the value of the program versus the allure of the brand. The curriculum and the exams do cost money and distircts should conduct evaluations to see if the investment is paying off in students success, as research on the Cambridge program is limited.

Still, one of the country's largest districts, Miami-Dade, has offered the program for years to its students, who come from a variety of international backgrounds, and announced this spring it will expand from 16 to 70 schools over the next three few years.

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