Education in the United States

Education in the United States is provided mainly by government, with control and funding coming from three levels: federal, state, and local. School attendance is mandatory and nearly universal at the primary and secondary levels (often known inside the United States as the elementary and high school levels). At these levels, school curricula, funding, teaching, and other policies are set through locally elected school boards with jurisdiction over school districts. School districts are usually separate from other local jurisdictions, with independent officials and budgets. Educational standards and standardized testing decisions are usually made by state governments.

The ages for compulsory education vary by state, beginning at ages five to eight and ending at the ages of fourteen to eighteen. A growing number of states are now requiring school attendance until the age of 18.

Students have the options of having their education held in public schools, private schools, or home school. In most public and private schools, education is divided into three levels: elementary school, junior high school (also often called middle school), and senior high school. In almost all schools at these levels, children are divided by age groups into grades, ranging from kindergarten (followed by first grade) for the youngest children in elementary school, up to twelfth grade, which is the final year of high school. The exact age range of students in these grade levels varies slightly from area to area.

Post-secondary education, better known as "college" in the United States, is generally governed separately from the elementary and high school system, and is described in a separate section below.

In the year 2000, there were 76.6 million students enrolled in schools from kindergarten through graduate schools. 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 or university graduates is greater than $51,000, exceeding the national average of those without a high school diploma by more than $23,000, according to a 2005 study by the U.S. Census Bureau. While the United States presently leads the world with over 5,000 Montessori schools, China has expressed ambitions to replace much of their school system with the Montessori method's pedagogy. As part of a trial run towards achieving this objective, China's Minister of Education called for 1,000 teachers to receive certification from the Association Montessori Internationale in 2007. The U.S. Department of Education has no formal plans to compete against China on similar initiatives at this time.

The country has a reading literacy rate at 98% of the population over age 15, while ranking below average in science and mathematics understanding compared to other developed countries. 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%) and rate of participation of the labor force in continuing education is high. A 2000s study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University concluded that "A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults".

School grades

In the U.S. the first year of compulsory schooling begins with children at the age of five or six. Children are then placed in year groups known as grades, beginning with first grade and culminating in twelfth grade. The U.S. uses ordinal numbers for naming grades, unlike Canada and Australia where cardinal numbers are preferred. Thus, when asked what grade they are in, typical American children are more likely to say "first grade" rather than "Grade 1". Typical ages and grade groupings in public and private schools may be found through the U.S. Department of Education. Many different variations exist across the country.

Level/Grade Typical age
Various optional programs, such as Head Start Under 6
Pre-Kindergarten 4-5
Kindergarten 5-6
Elementary School
1st Grade 6–7
2nd Grade 7–8
3rd Grade 8–9
4th Grade 9–10
5th Grade 10–11
Middle School
6th Grade 11–12
7th Grade 12–13
8th Grade 13–14
High school
9th Grade (Freshman) 14-15
10th Grade (Sophomore) 15-16
11th Grade (Junior) 16-17
12th Grade (Senior) 17–18
Post-secondary education
Tertiary education (College or University) ages vary (usually four years,
referred to as Freshman,
Sophomore, Junior and
Senior years)
Vocational education ages vary
Graduate education
Adult education


There are no mandatory public prekindergarten 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.

Elementary and secondary education

See also: Elementary 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 elementary education with kindergarten (usually five to six years old) and finish secondary education with twelfth grade (usually eighteen years old). In some cases, pupils may be promoted beyond the next regular grade. Some states allow students to leave school between 14-17 with parental permission, before finishing high school; other states require students to stay in school until age 18.

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, largely because they are "free" (tax burdens by school districts vary from area to area). Most students attend school for around six 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.

Elementary school

Elementary school is a school of kindergarten through fifth grade (sometimes, the first eight grades or up to fourth grade or sixth grade), where basic subjects are taught. Elementary school provides 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. There are (as of 2001) about 3.6 million children in each grade in the United States.

Typically, the curriculum within public elementary education is determined by individual school districts. The school district selects curriculum guides and textbooks that are reflective of a state's learning standards and benchmarks for a given grade level. Learning Standards are the goals by which states and school districts must meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) as mandated by No Child Left Behind. This description of school governance is simplistic at best, however, and school systems vary widely not only in the way curricular decisions are made but in how teaching and learning takes place. Some states and/or school districts impose more top-down mandates than others. In many schools, teachers play a significant role in curriculum design and there are few top-down mandates. Curricular decisions within private schools are made differently than in public schools and in most cases without consideration for NCLB.

Public Elementary School teachers typically instruct between twenty and thirty students of diverse learning needs. A typical classroom will include children with identified special needs as listed in Individuals with Disabilities Act IDEA to those that are cognitively, athletically or artistically gifted. At times an individual school district identifies areas of need within the curriculum. Teachers and advisory administrators form committees to develop supplemental materials to support learning for diverse learners and identify enrichment for textbooks. Many school districts post information about the curriculum and supplemental materials on websites for public access. Teachers receive a book to give to the students for each subject and brief overviews of what they are expected to teach. 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. Learning standards are identified for all areas of curriculum by individual States, including those for math, social studies, science, physical development, the fine arts as well as reading. While the concept of State Learning standards has been around for some time, No Child Left Behind has mandated standards exist at the State level.

Elementary School teachers are trained with emphases on human cognitive and psychological development and the principles of curriculum development and instruction earning either a Bachelors or Masters Degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. The teaching of social studies and science are often underdeveloped in some elementary school programs and some attribute this to the fact that elementary school teachers are trained as generalists. However, teachers attribute this to the priority placed on developing reading, writing and math proficiency in the elementary grades and the amount of time needed to do so. Reading, writing and math proficiency greatly affect performance in social studies, science and other content areas. Certification standards for teachers are determined by individual States, with individual colleges and universities determining the rigor of the college education provided for future teachers. Some states require content area tests as well as instructional skills tests to be certified as a teacher within that state. Social studies may include key events, documents, understandings, and concepts in American only, and in some programs, state or local history and geography; science varies widely. Most States have predetermined the number of minutes that will be taught within a given content area. As No People Left Behind focuses on reading and math as primary targets for improvement, other instructional areas have received less attention. There is much discussion within educational circles about the justification and impact of singularly focusing on reading and math as tested areas for improvement.

Junior and senior high school

Junior high school is any school intermediate between elementary school and senior high school. It usually includes seventh and eighth grade, and sometimes sixth or ninth grade. In some locations, junior high school includes ninth grade only, allowing students to adjust to a high school environment. Middle school is often used instead of junior high school when demographic factors increase the number of younger students. At this time, students are given more independence as choosing their own classes. Usually, starting in ninth grade, grades become part of a student’s official transcript. Future employers or colleges may want to see steady improvement in grades and a good attendance record on the official transcript. Therefore, students are encouraged to take much more responsibility for their education.

Senior high school is a school attended after junior high school. High school is often used instead of senior high school and distinguished from junior high school.

Basic curricular structure

Generally, at the high school level, students take a broad variety of classes without special emphasis in any particular subject. Curricula vary 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 (usually two years minimum, normally biology, chemistry)
  • Mathematics (usually two years minimum, normally including algebra, geometry, algebra II, and/or precalculus/trigonometry)
  • English (usually four years minimum, including literature, humanities, etc)
  • Social Science (usually three years minimum, including various history, government/economics courses)
  • Physical education (at least one year)

Many states require a "health" course in which students learn about anatomy, nutrition, first aid, sexuality, and birth control. Anti-drug use programs are also usually part of health courses. In many cases, however, options are provided for students to "test out" or perform independent study in order to complete this requirement. Foreign language and some form of art education are 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:

Advanced courses

Many high schools provide Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. These are special forms of honors classes where the curriculum is more challenging and lessons more aggressively paced than standard courses. AP or IB courses are usually taken during the 11th or 12th grade of high school.

Most post-secondary 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, post-secondary 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 post-secondary 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 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.

Home schooling

Proponents of home education invoke parental responsibility and arguments for 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, or who wish to add religious instruction to the educational curriculum (and who may be unable to afford a church-operated private school, or where the only available school may teach views contrary to those of the parents). Others feel that they can more effectively tailor a curriculum to suit an individual student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, especially those with singular needs or disabilities. 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. 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. At this time, over half of states have oversight into monitoring or measuring the academic progress of home schooled students, with all but ten requiring some form of notification to the state.

Grading scale

In schools in the United States children are continually assessed throughout the school year by their teachers, and report cards are issued to parents at varying intervals. Generally the scores for individual assignments and tests are recorded for each student in a grade book, along with the maximum number of points for each assignment. At any time, the total number of points for a student when divided by the total number of possible points produces a percent grade which can be translated to a letter grade. Letter grades are often used on report cards at the end of a marking period, although the current grade may be available at other times (particularly when an electronic grade book connected to an online service is in use). Although grading scales usually differ from school to school, the grade scale which seems to be most common is as follows. The grading is based on a scale of 0-100 or a percentile. Note that in some jurisdictions, Texas or Virginia as an example, the "D" grade (or that below 70) is considered a failing grade. In other jurisdictions, such as Hawaii, a "D" grade is considered passing in certain classes, and failing in others.

Example Grading Scale
A B C D E, N, U or F
+ - + - + - + -
100-97 96-93 92-90 89-87 86-83 82-80 79-77 76-73 72-70 69-67 66-63 62-60 Below 60 Percent

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, such as on the Regents Examinations in New York, or the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT); 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 may have been promoted to the next grade or might be 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. To address this situation many school districts have implemented MAP. Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests are state-aligned computerized adaptive assessments that measure the instructional level of each student's growth over time. This research based testing allows elementary school teachers to have ongoing access to student progress. Teachers using this system can identify strengths and weaknesses of individual students and remediate where necessary. When a student fails to make adequate yearly progress, No Child Left Behind mandates that remediation through summer school and/or tutoring be made available to a student in need of extra help.

During high school, students (usually in 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 post-secondary institutions 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 post-secondary education, so they can usually be skipped without affecting one's ability to graduate.

Extracurricular activities

A major characteristic of American schools is the high priority given to sports, clubs and activities by the community, the parents, the schools and the students themselves. Extracurricular activities are educational activities not falling within the scope of the regular curriculum but under the supervision of the school. These activities can extend to large amounts of time outside the normal school day; home-schooled 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.

High school athletic competitions often generate intense interest in the community. Inner city schools serving poor students are heavily scouted by college and even professional coaches, with national attention given to which colleges outstanding high school students choose to attend. State high school championship tournaments football and basketball attract high levels of public interest.

In addition to sports, numerous non-athletic extracurricular activities are available in American schools, both public and private. Activities include musical groups, marching bands, student government, school newspapers, science fairs, debate teams, and clubs focused on an academic area (such as the Spanish Club) or cultural interests (such as Key Club).

Education of students with special needs

In the United States, education for students with special needs is structured to adhere as closely as possible to the same experience received by typically developing peers. This concept was developed with the passing of IDEA (see below). This law directed States to develop opportunities for children with special needs to be educated within the public education system.

Students with special needs must have the opportunity to be with typically developing peers in the mainstream school. For example: recess, cafeteria, assemblies, hallways, regular classes, etc. This process is known as mainstreaming. Special education (educational programs required to assist special needs students) must be provided for these students in order for mainstreaming to be possible. Students with special needs attend special schools only if their need for very specialized services makes mainstreaming impossible. The level of mainstreaming that is provided varies greatly within different school districts. For example, larger school districts are often able to provide more adequate and quality care for those with special needs rather than smaller school districts.

Students with special needs are required to attend the same amount of time as typically developing peers. Students receiving special education services are entitled by law to an annual review of yearly progress as well as an evaluation every three years to determine the needs for continued services. Parents who have specific desires for their child's education must act as advocates to assure their child's best interests are being met. In order to more clearly identify special needs students, the federal government defined thirteen categories of special needs. These included autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment. The key to overcoming special needs in the mainstream school for students is:

  • Attending sessions (i.e. resource room) during the day to supplement regular or special classroom instruction. The goal of these programs is for students to learn compensatory strategies and study skills to enable them to succeed in mainstream classes. These sessions are generally for students who are fully included into the general educational environment.
  • Students with similar needs are placed together in a self-contained classroom if their education cannot be satisfactorily achieved in the general educational environment. In other words, these classrooms are provided for students who do not benefit educationally, socially or emotionally from a standard classroom placement. These classrooms, commonly known as special classes, are taught by teachers with training in adapting curriculum to meet the needs of students with special needs.


IDEA is a federal law that requires states to ensure that all school districts provide services to meet the individual needs of students with special needs. Students must be placed in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This means that school districts must meet with the parents to develop an Individualized Education Program that determines best placement for their child. School districts that fail to provide an appropriate placement for students with special needs can be taken to due process wherein parents may legally and formally submit their grievances and demand appropriate services for their child. All special needs students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

The federal government supports the standards developed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. The law mandates that schools must accommodate students with special needs as defined by the act, and specifies methods for funding the (sometimes large) costs of providing them with the necessary facilities.


At-risk students (those with educational needs that aren't associated with a disability) are often placed in classes with students with disabilities. Critics assert that placing at-risk students in the same classes as disabled students may impede the educational progress of both the at-risk and the disabled students. US also has an underfunded education system. Student graduation rate from high school is rapidly declining thus endangering the reputation of education received in US by students.

Public and private schools

Unlike most other industrialized countries, the United States does not have a centralized educational system on the national scale. Thus, K-12 students in most areas have a choice between free tax-funded public schools, or privately-funded 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, schools in more affluent areas are more highly regarded; it is this fact that is often blamed for what some perceive as lack of social mobility in the U.S. 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, such as textbooks.

All public school systems are required to provide an education free of charge to everyone of school age in their districts. Admission to individual public schools is usually based on residency. To compensate for differences in school quality based on geography, school systems serving large cities and portions of large cities often have "magnet schools" that provide enrollment to a specified number of non-resident students in addition to serving all resident students. This special enrollment is usually decided by lottery with equal numbers of males and females chosen. Some magnet schools cater to gifted students or to students with special interests, such as the sciences or performing arts. Admission to some of these schools is highly competitive and based on an application process.

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 missions: most of them take sports very seriously and recruit athletes heavily, some cater to college-bound students seeking a competitive edge in the college admissions process; others are for gifted students, students with learning disabilities or other special needs, or students with specific religious affiliations. Some cater to families seeking a small school, with a nurturing, supportive environment. 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. Private schools offer the advantages of smaller classes, under twenty students in a typical elementary classroom, for example; a higher teacher/student ratio across the school day, greater individualized attention and in the more competitive schools, expert college placement services. Unless specifically designed to do so, private schools usually cannot offer the services required by students with serious or multiple learning, emotional, or behavioral issues. Although reputed to pay lower salaries than public school systems, private schools often attract teachers by offering high-quality professional development opportunities, including tuition grants for advanced degrees. According to elite private schools themselves, this investment in faculty development helps maintain the high quality program that they offer.

An August 17, 2000 article by the Chicago Sun-Times refers to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Catholic Schools as the largest private school system in the United States

College and university

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.

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 another bachelor's degree such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), 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, professional degrees such as law, medicine, and dentistry, are not offered at the undergraduate level and are completed as graduate study after earning at least three years of undergraduate schooling or after earning a bachelor's degree depending on the program. These professional fields do not require a specific undergraduate major, though medicine and dentistry have 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.

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 Graduate Record Examination (GRE-graduate schools in general), the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), or the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). 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.


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.

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).

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.

The status ladder

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. These rankings are based on factors like brand recognition, selectivity in admissions, generosity of alumni donors, and volume of faculty research. Fifty-five US universities are listed in the top 200 in the world in the THES - QS World University Rankings.

A small percentage of students who apply to these schools gain admission.

Many Americans would also recognize the "top tier" to include the so-called "Little Ivies"; a handful of liberal arts colleges known for their high-quality instruction and academic rigor. These include (alphabetical order) Amherst, Haverford, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Williams, etc. This group would also include the all-female institutions such as Wellesley, Bryn Mawr,Mount Holyoke and Smith that were former members of the "Seven Sisters."

Certain public universities (sometimes referred to as "Public Ivies") are also recognized for their outstanding record in scholarship, such as (alphabetical order) Arizona, all of the campuses of the University of California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Miami (Ohio), Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Purdue, Texas, Virginia, the University of Washington, and William & Mary. Some of these institutions currently place among the elite in certain measurements of graduate education and research, especially among engineering and medical schools.

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.

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."

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. 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, to which they will (almost) certainly gain admission.

Lower 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 which enable their students to transfer relatively smoothly to these universities for a four-year degree after completing a two-year program at the community college.

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 1,700 two-year colleges not included among the twenty-five or so 'top-tier' institutions. For this reason (among others,) America's higher education status ladder remains highly controversial, and certainly not beyond reproach. For example, Reed College 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

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.

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. 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.

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. While a few, mostly Hispanic, groups want bilingual education, the majority of school districts are attempting to use English as a Second Language (ESL) course to teach Spanish-speaking students English. In addition, many feel there are threats to the "integrity" of the language itself. For example, there has been discussion about whether to classify as a "second language" the dialect called African American Vernacular English (known colloquially as Ebonics, a portmanteau of "ebony" and "phonics"). While it is not taught in any American schools, debate continues 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. This caused outrage among scientists and average citizens alike, and 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, scientific observers stress the importance of evolution in the curriculum and some dislike the idea of intelligent design or creationist ideas being taught in schools since they are not supported by the mainstream scientific community, which dismisses them as pseudoscience. Some fundamentalist religious and "family values" groups, on the other hand, stress the need to teach creationism in the public schools and argue that evolution in some instances may technically be a religion. While a majority of United States citizens approve of teaching evolution, many also support teaching intelligent design and/or creationism in public schools. Support for evolution was also found to be greater among the more educated.

Today, sex education ("sex ed") in the United States is highly controversial. Many schools attempt to avoid the study as much as possible, confining it to a unit in health classes. 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, many schools are backing away from 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 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.)

There is constant debate over which subjects should receive the most focus, with astronomy and geography among those cited as not being taught enough in schools.


Funding for K-12 schools

According to a 2005 report from the OECD, the United States is tied for first place with Switzerland when it comes to annual spending per student on its public schools, with each of those two countries spending more than $11,000 (in U.S. currency). Despite this high level of funding, U.S. public schools lag behind the schools of other rich countries in the areas of reading, math, and science. As noted above, while arguments can be made whether overall funding is adequate, the amount actually reaching the classroom level is not adequate to fully fund classroom activities.

According to a 2007 article in The Washington Post, the Washington D.C. public school district spends $12,979 per student per year. This is the third highest level of funding per student out of the 100 biggest school districts in the U.S. Despite this high level of funding, the school district provides outcomes that are lower than the national average. In reading and math, the district's students score the lowest among 11 major school districts - even when poor children are compared only with other poor children. 33% of poor fourth graders in the U.S. lack basic skills in math, but in Washington D.C., it's 62%.

According to a 2006 study by the Goldwater Institute, Arizona's public schools spend 50% more per student than Arizona's private schools. The study also says that while teachers constitute 72% of the employees at private schools, they make up less than half of the staff at public schools. According to the study, if Arizona's public schools wanted to be like private schools, they would have to hire approximately 25,000 more teachers, and eliminate 21,210 administration employees. The study also said that public school teachers are paid about 50% more than private school teachers.

In 1985 in Kansas City, Missouri, a judge ordered the school district to raise taxes and spend more money on public education. Spending was increased so much, that the school district was spending more money per student than any of the country's other 280 largest school districts. Although this very high level of spending continued for more than a decade, there was no improvement in the school district's academic performance.

According to a 1999 article by William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, increased levels of spending on public education have not made the schools better. Among many other things, the article cites the following statisitcs:

  • Between 1960 and 1995, U.S. public school spending per student, adjusted for inflation, increased by 212%.
  • In 1994, less than half of all U.S. public school employees were teachers.
  • Out of 21 industrialized countries, U.S. 12th graders ranked 19th in math, 16th in science, and last in advanced physics.

During the 2006-2007 school year, a private school in Chicago which was founded by Marva Collins charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said that the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system. Meanwhile, during the 2007-2008 year, Chicago public school officials claimed that their budget of $11,300 per student was not enough.

Funding for schools in the United States is complex. One 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 in some cases 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 funding for classroom supplies is so inadequate that teachers, especially those at the elementary level, must supplement their supplies with purchases of their own.

Property taxes as a primary source of funding for public education have become highly controversial, for a number of reasons. First, if a state's population and land values escalate rapidly, many longtime residents may find themselves paying property taxes much higher than anticipated. In response to this phenomenon, California's citizens passed Proposition 13 in 1978, which severely restricted the ability of the Legislature to expand the state's educational system to keep up with growth. Some states, such as Michigan, have investigated or implemented alternate schemes for funding education that may sidestep the problems of funding based mainly on property taxes by providing funding based on sales or income tax. These schemes also have failings, negatively impacting funding in a slow economy.

Another issue is that 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. School voucher programs were proposed by free-market advocates seeking competition in education, led by economist Milton Friedman. Herbst (2005) describes the evolution of voucher programs.

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.

Funding for college

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 not 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.

Charter schools

Herbst (2006) explains the charter-school movement was born in 1990. Charter schools have spread rapidly in the United States, based on the promise to create less bureaucratic schools that vest "management authority in a group of community members, parents, teachers, and students" to allow for the "expression of diverse teaching philosophies and cultural and social life styles" (Herbst p. 107). Herbst ultimately maintains that charter schools have produced mixed results. Recent studies confirm that charter-school students do not out-perform their public-school counterparts. Herbst concludes that federal intervention in public and private education has only increased since the 1990s. The federal government's involvement culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which extends federal oversight of state schools and grants parents the choice of removing their children from persistently failing schools.


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. 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. Educational accreditation decisions are made by voluntary regional associations. Schools in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, teach in English, while schools in the commonwealth 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 far 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. In the 2006 assessment, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 57 in mathematics and 29th out of 57 in science. Reading scores could not be reported due to printing errors in the instructions of the U.S. test booklets. U.S. scores were far behind those of most other developed nations. 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".


Educational attainment

The rise of the high school movement in the beginning of the 20th century was unique in the United States, such that, high schools were implemented with virtues like: property-tax funded tuition, openness, non-exclusivity, and were decentralized. For the countries of Europe the educational system in the middle of the 20th century still lacked many of these virtues, and were more apprentice-type and very exclusive. It was not until after WWII that Europe and other industrialized nations began to follow the United States' efforts. Now the educational attainment of the US population is similar to that of many other industrialized countries with the vast majority of the population having completed secondary education and a rising number of college graduates that outnumber high school dropouts. As a whole the population of the United States is becoming increasingly more educated. Post-secondary education is valued very highly by American society and is one of the main determinants of class and status. As with income, however, there are significant discrepancies in terms of race, age, household configuration and geography. Overall the households and demographics featuring the highest educational attainment in the United States are also among those with the highest household income and wealth. Thus, while the population of the US is becoming increasingly educated on all levels, a direct link between income and educational attainment remains.

See also


  • John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. Politics, Markets and America's Schools (1990)
  • Kosar, Kevin R. Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards. Rienner, 2005. 259 pp.
  • E. Wayne Ross et al eds. Defending Public Schools. (Praeger, 2004), 4 vol: Volume: 1: Education Under the Security State (2004) online version; Volume: 2: Teaching for a Democratic Society (2004) online version; Volume: 3: Curriculum Continuity and Change in the 21st Century (2004) online version; Volume: 4: The Nature and Limits of Standards-Based Reform and Assessment (2004) online version
  • Tyack, David. Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society. Harvard U. Pr., 2003. 237 pp.


for more detailed bibliography see History of Education in the United States: Bibliography

  • James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
  • Axtell, J. The school upon a hill: Education and society in colonial New England. Yale University Press. (1974).
  • Maurice R. Berube; American School Reform: Progressive, Equity, and Excellence Movements, 1883-1993. 1994. online version
  • Brint, S., & Karabel, J. The Diverted Dream: Community colleges and the promise of educational opportunity in America, 1900–1985. Oxford University Press. (1989).
  • Button, H. Warren and Provenzo, Eugene F., Jr. History of Education and Culture in America. Prentice-Hall, 1983. 379 pp.
  • Cremin, Lawrence A. The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1876–1957. (1961).
  • Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607–1783. (1970); American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876. (1980); American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980 (1990); standard 3 vol detailed scholarly history
  • Curti, M. E. The social ideas of American educators, with new chapter on the last twenty-five years. (1959).
  • Dorn, Sherman. Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social History of School Failure. Praeger, 1996. 167 pp.
  • Herbst, Juergen. The once and future school: Three hundred and fifty years of American secondary education. (1996).
  • Herbst, Juergen. School Choice and School Governance: A Historical Study of the United States and Germany 2006. ISBN 1-4039-7302-4.
  • Krug, Edward A. The shaping of the American high school, 1880–1920. (1964); The American high school, 1920–1940. (1972). standard 2 vol scholarly history
  • Lucas, C. J. American higher education: A history. (1994).

pp.; reprinted essays from History of Education Quarterly

  • Parkerson, Donald H. and Parkerson, Jo Ann. Transitions in American Education: A Social History of Teaching. Routledge, 2001. 242 pp.
  • Parkerson, Donald H. and Parkerson, Jo Ann. The Emergence of the Common School in the U.S. Countryside. Edwin Mellen, 1998. 192 pp.
  • Peterson, Paul E. The politics of school reform, 1870–1940. (1985).
  • Ravitch, Diane. Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. Simon & Schuster, 2000. 555 pp.
  • John L. Rury; Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Schooling.'; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2002. online version
  • Sanders, James W The education of an urban minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833–1965. (1977).
  • Solomon, Barbara M. In the company of educated women: A history of women and higher education in America. (1985).
  • Theobald, Paul. Call School: Rural Education in the Midwest to 1918. Southern Illinois U. Pr., 1995. 246 pp.
  • David B. Tyack. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (1974),
  • Tyack, David and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Harvard U. Pr., 1995. 184 pp.
  • Tyack, David B., & Hansot, E. Managers of virtue: Public school leadership in America, 1820–1980. (1982).
  • Veysey Lawrence R. The emergence of the American university. (1965).


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