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Education in the United States
Educational oversight
Deputy Secretary
U.S. Department of Education
Margaret Spellings
Raymond Simon
National education budget $69.4 billion (2006)
Primary language(s) English; some Spanish
Federal system

October 17, 1979
May 4, 1980
Literacy (2003)
 • Men
 • Women
 • Primary
 • Secondary
 • Post-secondary
76.6 million
37.9 million1
16.4 million
17.5 million 2
 • Secondary diploma
 • Post-secondary diploma

1Includes kindergarten
2Includes graduate school

Education in the United States is provided mainly by the government, with control and funding coming from three levels: federal, state, and local. At the primary and secondary school levels, curricula, funding, teaching, and other policies are set through locally elected school boards with jurisdiction over school districts. School districts can be (but are not always) coextensive with counties or municipalities. Educational standards and standardized testing decisions are usually made by the states through acts of the state legislature and governor, and decisions of the state departments of education.

Children are required to attend school until the age of 16-18 depending on the state. Many more states now require children to attend school until the age of 18. Students may attend public, private, or home schools. In most public and private schools, education is divided into three levels: elementary school, middle school, and high school. Grade levels in each vary from area to area.

The United States has an educated population although the attainment is lower, and the dropout rate in the USA is the highest among developed nations. The United Nations assigned an Education Index of 99.9 to the United States, ranking it number 1 in the world, a position it shares with about 20 other nations.[1] 76.6 million students were enrolled in nursery through undergraduate study. Of these, 72 percent aged 12 to 17 were judged academically "on track" for their age (enrolled in school at or above grade level). Of those enrolled in compulsory education, 5.2 million (10.4 percent) were attending private schools. Among the country's adult population, over 85 percent have completed high school and 27 percent have received a bachelor's degree or higher. The average salary for college graduates is $45,400, exceeding the national average by more than $10,000, according to a 2002 study by the U.S. Census Bureau.[2]

However, the country has a low literacy rate as compared with other developed countries, with a reading literacy rate at 86-98% of the population over age 15,[3] while ranking below average in science and mathematics understanding.[4] The poor performance has pushed public and private efforts such as the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, the ratio of college-educated adults entering the workforce to general population (33%) is slightly below the mean of other developed countries (35%)[5] and rate of participation of the labor force in continuing education is high.[6]

School grades

The U.S. uses ordinal numbers for naming grades, unlike Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom where cardinal numbers are preferred. Thus, when asked what grade they are in, typical American children are more likely to say "fourth grade" rather than "Grade 4." The following are the typical ages and grade groupings in public and private schools.[7] Many different variations exist across the country.

The question surfaces on ISED-L, the Independent School Educators List, from time to time. Which grade scale does your school use? The grade scale which seems to be most common is this one:

Grade scale
+ - + - + - + -
100-96 95-92 91-90 89-87 86-82 81-80 79-76 75-72 71-70 69-66 65-62 61-60 Below 59


Education in United States
Post Doctorate PD
Doctorate Q4
Master's degree G2
Bachelor's degree T4
High School
Ages 14-18
Middle School
Ages 11-14
Elementary School
Ages 6-11
Ages 5-6
Ages <5

There are no mandatory public preschool or crèche programs in the United States. The federal government funds the Head Start preschool program for children of low-income families, but most families are on their own with regard to finding a preschool or childcare.

In the large cities, there are sometimes upper-class preschools catering to the children of the wealthy. Because some upper-class families see these schools as the first step toward the Ivy League, there are even counselors who specialize in assisting parents and their toddlers through the preschool admissions process.[8]

Primary and secondary education

See also: Primary education in the United States and Secondary education in the United States

Schooling is compulsory for all children in the United States, but the age range for which school attendance is required varies from state to state. Most children begin primary education with kindergarten at the age of 5 or 6, depending upon eligibility requirements in their district, and complete their secondary education at the age of 18 when their senior year of high school ends. Typically, mandatory education starts with first grade and many times in kindergarten. Some states allow students to leave school at age 16, before finishing high school; other states require students to stay in school until age 18.[9]

Most parents send their children to either a public or private institution. According to government data, one-tenth of students are enrolled in private schools. Approximately 85% of students enter the public schools,[2] largely because they are "free" (tax burdens by school districts vary from area to area). Most students attend school for around eight hours per day, and usually anywhere from 175 to 185 days per year. Most schools have a summer break period for about two and half months from June through August. This break is much longer than in many other nations. Originally, "summer vacation," as it is colloquially called, allowed students to participate in the harvest period during the summer. However, this is now relatively unnecessary and remains largely by tradition; it also has immense popular support.

Parents may also choose to educate their own children at home; 1.7% of children are educated in this manner.[2] Proponents of home education invoke parental responsibility and the classical liberal arguments for personal freedom from government intrusion. Few proponents advocate that homeschooling should be the dominant educational policy. Most homeschooling advocates are wary of the established educational institutions for various reasons. Some are religious conservatives who see nonreligious education as contrary to their moral or religious systems. Others feel that they can more effectively tailor a curriculum to suit an individual student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, especially those with learning disabilities or gifted students. Still others feel that the negative social pressures of schools (such as bullying, drugs, crime, and other school-related problems) are detrimental to a child’s proper development. Parents often form groups to help each other in the homeschooling process, and may even assign classes to different parents, similar to public and private schools.

Opposition to homeschooling comes from varied sources, including teachers' organizations and school districts. The National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States, has been particularly vocal in the past.[10] Opponents' stated concerns fall into several broad categories, including fears of poor academic quality, loss of income for the schools, and religious or social extremism, or lack of socialization with others.

Elementary school (Kindergarten through Grade 5/6)

File:US school bus.png

Many students in the United States use school buses.

Elementary school, "grade school," "grammar school,", and "public school" are all interchangeable names for schools that begin with kindergarten or first grade and end either with fifth or sixth grade. Elementary school provides a common daily routine for all students except the most disadvantaged (those with learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or those students who do not speak English). Sometimes gifted or advanced students receive separate education as well. Students do not choose a course structure and often remain in one or two classrooms throughout the school day, with the exceptions of physical education ("P.E." or "gym"), music, and/or art classes.

Education is relatively not standardized at this level. Teachers, most of whom are women, receive a book to give to the students for each subject and brief overviews of what they are expected to teach.[11] In general, a student learns basic arithmetic and sometimes rudimentary algebra in mathematics, English proficiency (such as basic grammar, spelling, and vocabulary), and fundamentals of other subjects.

Social studies and sciences are often underdeveloped, largely because most elementary teachers have a degree in English or education. Social studies may include basic events and concepts in American and world history and, in some places, state or local history; science varies widely.

Middle school (Grades 6, 7, and 8)

Leonia Middle School, in Leonia, New Jersey

"Middle school," "junior high school," and "intermediate school" are all interchangeable names for schools that begin in 6th or 7th grade and end in 8th, though they sometimes include 9th grade as well. The term "junior high school" and the arrangement beginning with 7th grade are becoming less common. Intermediate schooling in some locations is known as something that precedes the middle school and follows the elementary schooling.

At this time students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take classes from several teachers in a given day, unlike in elementary school where most classes are taught by the same teacher. The classes are usually a strict set of science, math, English, and social science courses, interspersed with a reading and/or technology class. Every year from kindergarten through ninth grade usually includes a mandatory physical education (P.E.) class. Student-chosen courses, known as electives, are generally limited to only one or two classes.

High school (Grades 9 through 12)

High school runs from grades 9 through 12. Some school districts deviate from this formula. The most widely seen difference is to include 9th grade in middle school, though it is a relatively old practice which is disappearing. Also, many districts will use an older high school as a separate campus for 9th grade, allowing these students to adjust to a high school environment. In high school, students obtain much more control of their education and often may even choose their core classes.

Miami Springs High School, in Florida.

Basic curricular structure

Most students in the United States, unlike their counterparts in other developed nations, do not begin to specialize into a narrow field of study until their second year of college. However, some schools encourage students to take electives in the areas they are considering for a career. Generally, at the high school level, they take a broad variety of classes without special emphasis. The curriculum varies widely in quality and rigidity; for example, some states consider 70 (on a 100-point scale) to be a passing grade, while others consider it to be as low as 60 or as high as 75.

The following are the typical minimum course sequences that one must take in order to obtain a high school diploma; they are not indicative of the necessary minimum courses or course rigor required for attending college in the United States:

  • Science (biology, chemistry, and physics)
  • Mathematics (usually three years minimum, including algebra, geometry, algebra II, and/or precalculus/trigonometry)
  • English (four years)
  • Social Science (various history, government, and economics courses, always including American history)
  • Physical education (at least one year)

Many states require a "Health" course in which students learn anatomy, nutrition, and first aid; the basic concepts of sexuality and birth control; and why to avoid substances like illegal drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. Foreign Language and some form of art education is also a mandatory part of the curriculum in some schools.


Many high schools offer a wide variety of elective courses, although the availability of such courses depends upon each particular school's financial resources and desired curriculum emphases.

Common types of electives include:

Additional options for gifted students

The 2005 Presidential Scholars with President Bush and Secretary Spellings.

Not all schools require the same rigor of course work. Most high and middle schools offer "honors" or "gifted" classes for motivated and gifted students, where the quality of education is usually higher and more demanding. There are also specialized magnet schools with competitive entrance requirements.[13]

If funds are available, a high school may provide Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, which are special forms of honors classes. AP or IB courses are usually taken during the third or fourth years of high school, either as a replacement for a typical required course (e.g., taking AP U.S. History as a replacement for standard U.S. History), a continuation of a subject (e.g., taking AP Biology in the fourth year even though one already took Biology in the first year), or a completely new field of study (e.g., AP Economics or AP Computer Science).

Most postsecondary institutions take AP or IB exam results into consideration in the admissions process. Because AP and IB courses are intended to be the equivalent of the first year of college courses, postsecondary institutions may grant unit credit which enables students to graduate early. Other institutions use examinations for placement purposes only: students are exempted from introductory course work but may not receive credit towards a concentration, degree, or core requirement. Institutions vary in the selection of examinations they accept and the scores they require to grant credit or placement, with more elite institutions tending to accept fewer examinations and requiring higher scoring. The lack of AP, IB, and other advanced courses in impoverished inner-city high schools is often seen as a major cause of the greatly differing levels of postsecondary education these graduates go on to receive, compared with both public and private schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

Also, in states with well-developed community college systems, there are often mechanisms by which gifted students may seek permission from their school district to attend community college courses full time during the summer, and during weekends and evenings during the school year. The units earned this way can often be transferred to one's university, and can facilitate early graduation. Early college entrance programs are a step further, with students enrolling as freshmen at a younger-than-traditional age.

Extracurricular activities

File:High school football.jpg

High school football games in the United States are major events for the school and often the community.

Many students, mostly in middle and high schools, participate in extracurricular activities. These activities can extend to large amounts of time outside the normal school day; homeschooled students, however, are not normally allowed to participate. Student participation in sports programs, drill teams, bands, and spirit groups can amount to hours of practices and performances. Most states have organizations which develop rules for competition between groups. These organizations are usually forced to implement time limits on hours practiced as a prerequisite for participation. Many schools also have non-varsity sports teams, however these are usually afforded less resources and attention. The idea of having sports teams associated with high schools is relatively unique to the United States in comparison with other countries.

Sports programs and their related games, especially football and/or basketball, are major events for American students and for larger schools can be a major source of funds for school districts. Schools may sell "spirit" shirts to wear to games; school stadiums and gymnasiums are often filled to capacity, even for non-sporting competitions.

The North Mesquite High School band performs at a marching band competition, one of many types of extracurricular activities engaged in by American students

High school athletic competitions often generate intense interest in the community, though a greater prevalence is seen in rural areas. Elite high school athletes command significant media attention and fierce competition between university athletic programs for their skills. Many state high school championship tournaments in these two sports are attended by tens of thousands each year.

In addition to sports, numerous non-athletic extracurricular activities are available in American schools, both public and private. Activities often include student government, school newspapers, and various academic groups such as writing clubs, debate teams, quiz teams, peer groups, among others.

Standardized testing

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all American states must test students in public schools statewide to ensure that they are achieving the desired level of minimum education,[14] such as on the Regents Examinations in New York or the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA); students being educated at home or in private schools are not included. The Act also requires that students and schools show "adequate yearly progress." This means they must show some improvement each year.

Although these tests may have revealed the results of student learning, they may have little value to help strengthen the students' academic weakness. For example, in most states, the results of the testing would not be known until six months later. At that time, the students have been promoted to the next grade or entering a new school. The students are not given a chance to review the questions and their own answers but their percentile of the test results are compared with their own peers.

During high school, students, usually in their junior (That is, third) year (11th grade), may take one or more standardized tests depending on their postsecondary education preferences and their local graduation requirements. In theory, these tests evaluate the overall level of knowledge and learning aptitude of the students. The SAT and ACT are the most common standardized tests that students take when applying to college. A student may take the SAT, ACT, or both depending upon the college the student plans to apply to for admission. Most competitive schools also require two or three SAT Subject Tests, (formerly known as SAT IIs), which are shorter exams that focus strictly on a particular subject matter. However, all these tests serve little to no purpose for students who do not move on to postsecondary education, so they can usually be skipped without affecting one's ability to graduate.

Education of students with special needs

In the United States, education of the learning disabled, blind, deaf, and emotionally disturbed is structured to adhere as closely as possible to the same experience received by normal students. Blind and deaf students usually have separate classes in which they spend most of their day, but may sit in on normal classes with guides or interpreters. The learning disabled often attend for the same amount of time as other students; however, they also usually spend most of their day in separate classrooms, commonly known as special education or special ed; here they often receive extra instruction or perform easier work. The goal of these programs, however, is to try and bring everyone up to the same standard and provide equal opportunity to those students who are challenged. Some students are identified early on as having dyslexia or being significantly slower learners than other students. The federal government supports the standards developed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004.[15] The law mandates that schools must accommodate students with disabilities as defined by the act, and specifies methods for funding the sometimes large costs of providing them with the necessary facilities. Larger districts are often able to provide more adequate and quality care for those with special needs.

Public and Private schools

Unlike most other industrialized countries, the United States does not have a centralized educational system on the national scale.[16] Thus, K-12 students in most areas have a choice between free taxpayer-funded public schools and private schools.

Public school systems are supported by a combination of local, state, and federal government funding. Because a large portion of school revenues come from local property taxes, public schools vary widely in the resources they have available per student. Class size also varies significantly from one district to another. Generally, school in more affluent areas are more highly regarded. Curriculum decisions in public schools are made largely at the local and state levels; the federal government has limited influence. In most districts a locally elected school board runs schools. The school board appoints an official called the superintendent of schools to manage the schools in the district. The largest public school system in the United States is in New York City, where more than one million students are taught in 1,200 separate public schools. Because of its immense size - there are more students in the system than residents in eight US states - the New York City public school system is nationally influential in determining standards and materials like text books.

Lawrence Academy is a private boarding school in Groton, Massachusetts.

All public school systems are required to provide an education free of charge to everyone of school age in their districts. Not every individual public school, however, is open to all interested students. Large cities often have "magnet schools" which cater to gifted students or to students with special interests, such as science or performing arts.[13] Admission to some of these schools is highly competitive.

Private schools in the United States include parochial schools affiliated with religious denominations, non-profit independent schools, and for-profit private schools. Private schools charge varying rates depending on geographic location, the school's expenses, and the availability of funding from sources other than tuition. For example, some churches partially subsidize private schools for their members. Some people have argued that when their child attends a private school, they should be able to take the funds that the public school no longer needs and apply that money towards private school tuition in the form of vouchers; this is the basis of the school choice movement.

Private schools have various purposes: Some cater to general education students; others are for gifted students, for students with learning disabilities or other special needs, or for students with specific religious affiliations. Unlike public school systems, private schools have no legal obligation to accept any interested student. Admission to some private schools is highly selective. Private schools also have the ability to permanently expel persistently unruly students, a disciplinary option not always legally available to public school systems.

The United States Department of Education released a statement recently detailing the average cost per pupil in public and private schools and found that the average public school cost was approximately USD$7,200 per student while the average private school cost per pupil was just USD$3,500. The Department of Education also stated that less than 25% of private schools are considered "elite," costing more than $10,000 a year. In contrast, private schools in East Asia average around USD$1,400 per year.

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College and University

See also: Universities in the United States

Post-secondary education in the United States is known as college or university and commonly consists of four years of study at an institution of higher learning. Like high school, the four undergraduate grades are commonly called freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years (alternately called first year, second year, etc.). Students traditionally apply to receive admission into college, with varying difficulties of entrance. Schools differ in their competitiveness and reputation; generally, the most prestigious schools are private, rather than public. Admissions criteria involve the rigor and grades earned in high school courses taken, the students GPA, class ranking, and standardized test scores (Such as the SAT or the ACT tests). Most colleges also consider more subjective factors such as a commitment to extracurricular activities, a personal essay, and an interview. While numerical factors rarely ever are absolute required values, each college usually has a rough threshold below which admission is unlikely.

The Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.

Once admitted, students engage in undergraduate study, which consists of satisfying university and class requirements to achieve a bachelor's degree in a field of concentration known as a major. (Some students enroll in double majors or "minor" in another field of study.) The most common method consists of four years of study leading to a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), or sometimes (but rarely) another bachelor's degree such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.,) Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.,) or Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) Five-Year Professional Architecture programs offer the Bachelor of Architecture Degree (B.Arch.)

Unlike in the British model, degrees in law and medicine are not offered at the undergraduate level and are completed as graduate study after earning a bachelor's degree. Neither field specifies or prefers any undergraduate major, though medicine has set prerequisite courses that must be taken before enrollment.

Some students choose to attend a community college for two years prior to further study at another college or university. In most states, community colleges are operated either by a division of the state university or by local special districts subject to guidance from a state agency. Community colleges may award Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree after two years. Those seeking to continue their education may transfer to a four-year college or university (after applying through a similar admissions process as those applying directly to the four-year institution, see articulation). Some community colleges have automatic enrollment agreements with a local four-year college, where the community college provides the first two years of study and the university provides the remaining years of study, sometimes all on one campus. The community college awards the associate's degree, and the university awards the bachelor's and master's degrees.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Graduate study, conducted after obtaining an initial degree and sometimes after several years of professional work, leads to a more advanced degree such as a master's degree, which could be a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Master of Business Administration (MBA), or other less common master's degrees such as Master of Education (MEd), and Master of Fine Arts (MFA). After additional years of study and sometimes in conjunction with the completion of a master's degree, students may earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or other doctoral degree, such as Doctor of Arts, Doctor of Education, Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Pharmacy, Doctor of Physical Therapy, or Doctor of Jurisprudence. Some programs, such as medicine, have formal apprenticeship procedures post-graduation like residency and internship which must be completed after graduation and before one is considered to be fully trained. Other professional programs like law and business have no formal apprenticeship requirements after graduation (although law school graduates must take the bar exam in order to legally practice law in nearly all states).

Entrance into graduate programs usually depends upon a student's undergraduate academic performance or professional experience as well as their score on a standardized entrance exam like the GRE (graduate schools in general), the LSAT (law), the GMAT (business), or the MCAT (medicine). Many graduate and law schools do not require experience after earning a bachelor's degree to enter their programs; however, business school candidates are usually required to gain a few years of professional work experience before applying. Only 8.9 percent of students ever receive postgraduate degrees, and most, after obtaining their bachelor's degree, proceed directly into the workforce.[17]


The vast majority of students (up to 70 percent) lack the financial resources to pay tuition up front and must rely on student loans and scholarships from their university, the federal government, or a private lender. All but a few charity institutions charge all students tuition, although scholarships (both merit-based and need-based) are widely available. Generally, private universities charge much higher tuition than their public counterparts, which rely on state funds to make up the difference. Because each state supports its own university system with state taxes, most public universities charge much higher rates for out-of-state students. Private universities are generally considered to be of higher quality than public universities, although there are many exceptions.

The courtyard of Balch Hall at Cornell University

Annual undergraduate tuition varies widely from state to state, and many additional fees apply. A typical year's tuition at a public university (for residents of the state) is about $5,000. Tuition for public school students from outside the state is generally comparable to private school prices, although students can generally get state residency after their first year. Private schools are typically much higher, although prices vary widely from "no-frills" private schools to highly specialized technical institutes. Depending upon the type of school and program, annual graduate program tuition can vary from $15,000 to as high as $40,000. Note that these prices do not include living expenses (rent, room/board, etc.) or additional fees that schools add on such as "activities fees" or health insurance. These fees, especially room and board, can range from $6,000 to $12,000 per academic year (assuming a single student without children).[18]

College costs are rising at the same time that state appropriations for aid are shrinking. This has led to debate over funding at both the state and local levels. From 2002 to 2004 alone, tuition rates at public schools increased by just over 14 percent, largely due to dwindling state funding. A more moderate increase of 6 percent occurred over the same period for private schools.[18]

The status ladder

Memorial Hall at Harvard College

American college and university faculty, staff, alumni, students, and applicants monitor rankings produced by magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, Academic Ranking of World Universities, test preparation services such as The Princeton Review or another university itself such as the Top American Research Universities by the University of Florida's TheCenter.[19] These rankings are based on factors like brand recognition, selectivity in admissions, generosity of alumni donors, and volume of faculty research.

In terms of brand recognition, the United States' best known university is Harvard. Seemingly, Harvard alumni often gain prominence in American business, education, and society; for this reason, it has become entrenched in popular mind as America's 'top' school. Various Hollywood movies depict Harvard as the ultimate example of the academic "ivory tower," (e.g., Legally Blonde, Soul Man, The Paper Chase, etc).

In the popular mind, approximately twenty-five institutions compose the "top tier" of American higher learning. Most would cite the eight universities that compose the Ivy League and a small number of elite, private research universities (e.g., Caltech, the University of Chicago, Duke, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern, Stanford, etc.)[20] [21]

A small percentage of students who apply to these schools gain admission. [22] Many Americans would also cite the "Little Ivies," a handful of elite liberal arts college known for their high-quality instruction. These include Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan, Swarthmore, etc. Others would cite all-female institutions such as Wellesley and Smith, former members of the "Seven Sisters."

A woman walks across the University of Chicago.

This "ladder" is not absolute, however. Top public universities (sometimes referred to as "Public Ivies"), such as the University of California, Berkeley, University of Michigan and the University of Virginia actually perform better than various private universities in many measurements of graduate education and research quality [23]. Among engineering schools, Ivy League universities are outranked by multiple public and other private universities.[24]

Each state in the United States maintains its own public university system, which is always non-profit. The State University of New York and the California State University are the largest public higher education systems in the United States; SUNY is the largest system that includes community colleges, while CSU is the largest without. Most areas also have private institutions which may be for-profit or non-profit. Unlike many other nations, there are no public universities at the national level outside of the military service academies. A few states (like California and Minnesota) have two (2) separate state university systems. The faculty of the more prestigious system are expected to conduct advanced cutting-edge research in addition to teaching (e.g., University of California and University of Minnesota), while the less prestigious is focused on quality of teaching and producing the next generation of teachers (e.g., California State University and MnSCU). The second-tier university systems are often the descendants of 19th-century normal schools. Note that Texas has six (6) separate state university systems, the University of Texas System, the Texas Tech University System, the Texas A&M University System, the University of Houston System, the University of North Texas System, and the Texas State University System.

Prospective students applying to attend one of the five military academies require, with limited exceptions, nomination by a member of Congress. Like acceptance to "top tier" universities, competition for these limited nominations is intense and must be accompanied by superior scholastic achievement and evidence of "leadership potential."

Suzzallo Library at University of Washington

Aside from these aforementioned schools, academic reputations vary widely among the 'middle-tier' of American schools, (and even among academic departments within each of these schools.) Most public and private institutions fall into this 'middle' range. Some institutions feature honors colleges or other rigorous programs that challenge academically exceptional students, who might otherwise attend a 'top-tier' college. [25] [26] [27] [28] Aware of the status attached to the perception of the college that they attend, students often apply to a range of schools. Some apply to a relatively prestigious school with a low acceptance rate, gambling on the chance of acceptance, and also apply to a "safety school,"[29] to which they will certainly gain admission.

Low status institutions include community colleges. These are primarily two-year public institutions, which individual states usually require to accept all local residents who seek admission, and offer associate's degrees or vocational certificate programs. Many community colleges have relationships with four-year state universities and colleges, (or even private universities, e.g. Suffolk University) which enable their students to transfer relatively smoothly to these universities.

Regardless of perceived prestige, many institutions feature (at least one) distinguished academic department, and most Americans attend one of the 2,400 four-year colleges and universities, or over 1,700 two-year colleges not included among the twenty-five or so 'top-tier' institutions. [30] For this reason (among others,) America's higher education status ladder remains highly controversial, and certainly not beyond reproach. For example, prestigious Reed College famously refuses to participate in institutional rankings, insisting that one cannot quantify the qualitative. Similarly, Bard College president Leon Botstein said of U.S. News' annual rankings; "it is the most successful journalistic scam I have seen in my entire adult lifetime -- corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and revolting."

Contemporary education issues

See also: Education reform

Major educational issues in the United States center on curriculum, funding, and control. Of critical importance, because of its enormous implications on education and funding, is the No Child Left Behind Act.[14]

Curriculum issues

Curriculum in the United States varies widely from district to district. Not only do schools offer an incredible range of topics and quality, but private schools may include religious classes as mandatory for attendance (this also begets the problem of government funding vouchers; see below). This has produced camps of argument over the standardization of curriculum and to what degree. Some feel that schools should be nationalized and the curriculum changed to a national standard.[How to reference and link to summary or text] These same groups often are advocates of standardized testing, which is mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Aside from who controls the curriculum, groups argue over the teaching of the English language, evolution, and sex education.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

President George W. Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act

A large issue facing the curriculum today is the use of the English language in teaching. English is spoken by over 95% of the nation, and there is a strong national tradition of upholding English as the de facto official language. Some 9.7 million children aged 5 to 17 primarily speak a language other than English at home. Of those, about 1.3 million children speak English "not well" or "not at all."[31] While a few, mostly Hispanic, groups want bilingual education, the majority of school districts are attempting to use English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to teach Spanish-speaking students English. In addition, many feel there are threats to the "integrity" of the language itself. For example, a growing number of African Americans are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English (it is known colloquially as Ebonics (a portmanteau of "ebony" and "phonics")). While it is not taught in any American schools, there has been debate over its place in education.

In 1999 the School Board of the state of Kansas caused controversy when it decided to eliminate testing of evolution in its state assessment tests.[32] This caused outrage among scientists and average citizens alike, but was widely supported in Kansas. However, intense media coverage and the national spotlight persuaded the board to eventually overturn the decision. As of 2005 such controversies have not abated. Not surprisingly, most scientific observers stress the importance of evolution in the curriculum and dislike the idea of intelligent design or creationist ideas being included, since they are not scientific whatsoever. Fundamentalist religious and "family values" groups, on the other hand, stress the need to teach creationism in the public schools. While a majority of Americans approve of teaching evolution, a majority also support at least the mention of intelligent design and/or creationism in the curriculum of science courses. [33]

Today, sex education ("sex ed") in the United States is relatively underdeveloped. Because of the huge controversy over the issue, many schools attempt to avoid the study as much as possible in health classes. Contrary to popular depiction by the media, there are few specifically sex education classes in existence. Also, because President Bush has called for abstinence-only sex education and has the power to withhold funding,[34] many schools are backing away from teaching or instructing students in the use of birth control or contraceptives.

However, according to a 2004 survey, a majority of the 1001 parent groups polled wants complete sex education in the schools. The American people are heavily divided over the issue. Many agreed with the statement "Sex education in school makes it easier for me to talk to my child about sexual issues," while a similarly large proportion disagreed with the statement that their children were being exposed to "subjects I don't think my child should be discussing." Also, only 10 percent believed that their children's sexual education class forced them to discuss sexual issues "too early." On the other hand, 49 percent of the respondents (the largest group) were only "somewhat confident" that the values taught in their children's sex ed classes were similar to those taught at home, and 23 percent were less confident still. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percent.)[35]

In addition, it is reported that astronomy is not taught enough in schools.[36] It is also reported that geography is not taught enough in schools.[37][38][39]


Funding for schools in the United States is a delicate and muddy issue. The current controversy stems much from the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act gives the Department of Education the right to withhold funding if it believes a school, district, or even a state is not complying and is making no effort to comply. However, federal funding accounts for little of the overall funding schools receive. The vast majority comes from the state government and from local property taxes. Various groups, many of whom are teachers, constantly push for more funding. They point to many different situations, such as the fact that in many schools, teachers, especially those at the elementary level, must supplement their supplies with purchases of their own.[40]

Property taxes have been a problem for years; California residents used their state constitution's clause for public initiatives to enact limits on property tax increases by a direct popular vote. Many communities across the country are dealing with what has become a major issue. Many parents of private school and homeschooled children have taken issue with the idea of paying for an education their children are not receiving. However, tax proponents point out that every person pays property taxes for public education, not just parents of school-age children. Indeed, without it schools would not have enough money to remain open. Still, parents of students who go to private schools want to use this money instead to fund their children's private education. This is the foundation of the school voucher movement.

One of the biggest debates in funding public schools is funding by local taxes or state taxes. The federal government supplies around 8.5% of the public school system funds, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The remaining split between state and local governments averages 48.7 percent from states and 42.8 percent from local sources. However, the division varies widely. In Hawaii local funds make up only 1.7 percent, while state sources account for nearly 90.1 percent.[41]

At the college and university level, funding becomes an issue due to the sheer complexity of gaining it. Some of the reason for the confusion at the college/university level in the United States is that student loan funding is split in half; half is managed by the Department of Education directly, called the Federal Direct Student Loan Program (FDSLP). The other half is managed by commercial entities such as banks, credit unions, and financial services firms such as Sallie Mae, under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP). Some schools accept only FFELP loans; others accept only FDSLP. Still others accept both, and a few schools will not accept either, in which case students must seek out private alternatives for student loans.


There is some debate about where control for education actually lies. Education is not mentioned in the constitution of the United States. In the current situation, the state and national governments have a power-sharing arrangement, with the states exercising most of the control. Like other arrangements between the two, the federal government uses the threat of decreased funding to enforce laws pertaining to education.[16] Furthermore, within each state there are different types of control. Some states have a statewide school system, while others delegate power to county, city or township-level school boards. However, under the Bush administration, initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act have attempted to assert more central control in a heavily decentralized system.

The U.S. federal government exercises its control through the U.S. Department of Education. School accreditation decisions are made by voluntary regional associations. Schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia teach in English, while schools in the territory of Puerto Rico teach in Spanish. Nonprofit private schools are widespread, are largely independent of the government, and include secular as well as parochial schools.


The national results in international comparisons have often been below the average of developed countries. In OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment 2003, 15 year olds ranked 24th of 38 in mathematics, 19th of 38 in science, 12th of 38 in reading, and 26th of 38 in problem solving.[42] In addition, many business leaders have expressed concerns that the quality of education given in the US system is generally below acceptable standards, and should be adapted in order to conform to the needs of an evolving world. Bill Gates has famously stated that the American high school is "obsolete".[43]


Colonial schoolhouse in Hollis, New Hampshire

The first American schools opened during the colonial era. As the colonies began to develop, many began to institute mandatory education schemes. In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made "proper" education compulsory.[44] Similar statutes were adopted in other colonies in the 1640s and 1650s. Virtually all of the schools opened as a result were private. The nation's first institution of higher learning, Harvard University, opened in 1636. Churches established most early universities in order to train ministers. Most of the universities which opened between 1640 and 1750 form the contemporary Ivy League, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and several others.[45] After the American Revolution, the new national government passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside a portion of every township in the unincorporated territories of the United States for use in education. The provisions of the law remained unchanged until the Homestead Act of 1862. After the Revolution, a heavy emphasis was put on education which made the US have one of the highest literacy rates at the time.

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Education reformers such as Horace Mann of Massachusetts began calling for public education systems for all. Upon becoming the secretary of education in Massachusetts in 1837, Mann helped to create a statewide system of "common schools," which referred to the belief that everyone was entitled to the same content in education. These early efforts focused primarily on elementary education.

The common-school movement began to catch on. Connecticut adopted a similar system in 1849, and Massachusetts passed a compulsory attendance law in 1852. By 1900, 31 states required 8- to 14-year-olds to attend school. As a result, by 1910 72 percent of American children attended school and half of the nation's children attended one-room schools. In 1918, every state required students to at least complete elementary school. Lessons consisted of students reading aloud from their texts such as the McGuffey Readers, and placed emphasis on rote memorization. Teachers often used physical punishments, such as hitting students on the knuckles with birch switches, for incorrect answers. Because the public schools focused on assimilation, many immigrants, who resisted Americanization, sent their children to private religious schools. Many of these were Roman Catholics. Though the new private schools met opposition, in 1925 the Supreme Court ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that students could attend private schools to comply with compulsory education laws.

Secondary education progressed much more slowly, remaining the province of the affluent and domain of private tutors. In 1870 only 2 percent of 14 to 17-year-olds graduated from high school. The number rose to 10 percent by 1900, but most were from wealthy families. The introduction of strict child labor laws and growing acceptance of higher education in general in the early 20th century caused the number of high schools and graduates to skyrocket. Most states passed laws which increased the age for compulsory attendance to 16.

Higher education

At the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 colleges with 160,000 students existed in the United States. Explosive growth in the number of colleges occurred at the end of the 1800s and early twentieth century. Philanthropists endowed many of these institutions. Leland Stanford, one of The Big Four, for example, established Stanford University in 1891.

Many American public universities came about because of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890.[46] During the rapid westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century, the federal government took control of huge amounts of so-called "empty" land (often after forcing the previous Native American residents into reservations). Under the Morrill Acts, the federal government offered to give 30,000 acres (121 km²) of federal land to each state on the condition that they used the land (or proceeds from its sale) to establish universities.[46] The resulting schools are often referred to as land-grant colleges. Founded in 1855, Michigan State University is the pioneer land-grant institution. Other well-known land-grant universities include Pennsylvania State University, The Ohio State University and the University of California system. Some states have more than one land-grant institution, one often being an historically black university. Three states, Alabama, Massachusetts and New York, designated private universities as one of their land-grant institutions. Respectively, these are Tuskegee University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University.

Following World War II, the GI Bill paid for the college education of many former service men, and helped to create a widespread belief in the necessity of college education and damaging the belief that higher education was only for the wealthy.[47] As such, attendance at institutions of higher learning has grown ever since.

Segregation and inequality

For much of its history, education in the United States was segregated (or even only available) based upon race. For the most part, African Americans received very little to no education before the Civil War. In the south where slavery was legal, many states enacted laws which made it a crime for blacks to even be able to read, much less attend school alongside white classmates. After the Civil War and emancipation, blacks still received little help from the states themselves. The federal government, under the Radical Republicans, set up the Freedman's Bureau to help educate and protect former slaves and passed several civil rights bills, but neither survived the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

After the end of Reconstruction, many southern states began to enact so-called Jim Crow laws which mandated racial segregation between blacks and whites. The Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 legalized the segregation of races as long as each race enjoyed parity in quality of education (the "separate but equal" principle). However, very few black students actually received equal education, often with low funding, outmoded or dilapidated facilities, and deficient textbooks (often ones previously used in white schools).

Segregation laws in the United States prior to Brown v. Board of Education

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s helped overturn such laws; in 1954 the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education unanimously declared separate facilities inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964 further helped end the period of segregation. Integration itself was a long and drawn out issue; although required by law, the first integrations of minute numbers of black students met with intense opposition across the south. In 1957 the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas, had to be enforced by federal troops; this was after President Dwight D. Eisenhower had federalized the National Guard, which the governor had called in to prevent integration. Throughout the 1960s integration continued with varying degrees of difficulty, including a period of forced bussing, popular during the administration of Richard Nixon.

Although full equality and parity in education would take many years (many school districts are technically still under the integration mandates of local courts), technical equality in education had been achieved by 1970.[48] The actual equality of education, however, is still often the subject of dispute. It may also be argued that the transformation of the Pal Grant program to a loan program in the early 1980s has caused the gap between the growth rates of European and African American college graduates to widen since the 1970s.[49]

See also

US related topics


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  4. Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), OECD, reading literacy, science literacy and mathematics literacy all rank near the bottom of OECD-countries.
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  18. 18.0 18.1 Tuition Levels Rise but Many Students Pay Significantly Less than Published Rates. The College Board (2003). URL accessed on June 20, 2005.
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  26. Schreyer Honors College
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  48. Madison Desegregation Hearing To Be Held Tuesday. URL accessed on February 14, 2006.
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