Education in the United States

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Education in the United States is highly decentralized and varies widely. Curricula, funding, teaching, and other policies are set through locally elected school boards with jurisdiction over school districts, which are usually coextensive with counties, while educational standards and standardized testing decisions are usually made by the U.S. states though acts of the state legislature and governor and decisions of the state departments of education.

The U.S. federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education, is involved with funding of some programs and exerts some influence through its ability to control funding. 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. Non-profit private schools are widespread, are largely independent of the government, and include secular as well as parochial schools.

The United States has a relatively educated population. Literacy is estimated at 97 percent. As of 2003, 76.6 million students were enrolled in nursery through undergraduate study. Of these, 72 percent 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.[1]


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

Oct. 17, 1979
May 4, 1980
Literacy (2003)
 • Men
 • Women
97 %
97 %
97 %
 • Primary
 • Secondary
 • Post-secondary
76.6 million
37.9 million1
16.4 million
17.5 million 2
 • Secondary diploma
 • Post-secondary diploma

85 %
27 %
1Includes kindergarten
2Includes graduate school

School grades

The U.S. uses a grade notation and year naming system that is not well understood in other countries. Unlike other nations, Americans prefer to use ordinal numbers rather than cardinal numbers for grades in ordinary speech. Thus, when asked what grade they are in, a typical American child is more likely to say "fourth grade" rather than "Grade 4." The following is the typical ages and grade groupings in public and private schools. Many different, though rare, variations exist across the country.

Level / Grade, Age: (Years old)

  • Preschool, Nursery School, or Head Start; Under 5
  • Elementary School
    • Kindergarten: 5–6
    • 1st Grade: 6–7
    • 2nd Grade: 7–8
    • 3rd Grade: 8–9
    • 4th Grade: 9–10
    • 5th Grade: 10–11
  • Middle school (more traditionally called junior high school)
    • 6th Grade: 11–12 (not always—some elementary schools include 6th grade as their highest grade)
    • 7th Grade: 12–13
    • 8th Grade: 13–14
  • High school
    • 9th Grade (Freshman year): 14–15 (not always—some junior high schools include 9th grade as their highest grade)
    • 10th Grade (Sophomore year): 15–16
    • 11th Grade (Junior year): 16–17
    • 12th Grade (Senior year): 17–18
  • College or University (usually four years)
    • Freshman: 18–19
    • Sophomore: 19–20
    • Junior: 20–21
    • Senior: 21–22


There are no mandatory public preschool or crèche programs in the United States. The federal government funds the Head Start preschool program for poor children, but most families are on their own with regard to finding a preschool or, in the alternative, child care.

In the large cities, there are often upper-class preschools catering to the children of the wealthy. Because some upper-class families see these schools as the first step towards the Ivy League, there are even counselors who specialize in assisting parents and their toddlers through the preschool admissions process. [2]

Primary and secondary education

See also: Primary education in the United States, 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 (kindergarten is often not compulsory). 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.

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. However, approximately 85% of students enter the public schools, [3] largely because they are "free" (tax burdens by school districts vary from area to area). Students attend school for around eight hours per day, 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 the one students in many other nations receive. 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. Some groups think that children should stay in school longer, but there is little momentum from this angle.

Parents may also choose to educate their own children at home. Less than 5% choose to do so, however. [4] 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. 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. 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. (For example, a creationist parent could remove a child from public school because the school's biology curriculum teaches evolution by natural selection.) Furthermore, some believe that removing children from the school environment could hamper their ability to socialize with peers their own age.

Elementary school (Kindergarten through Grade 5/6)

Many students in the United States ride school buses.
Many students in the United States ride 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 students (those with learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or those students who do not speak English) and sometimes gifted or advanced students. Students do not choose a course structure and remain in a single classroom throughout the school day, with the exceptions of physical education ("P.E." or "gym") and music and/or art classes.

Education is relatively unstandardized at this level. 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, as well as learning English proficiency (language arts), such as basic grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.

Social studies (history) and science are the most undertaught subjects, mostly because most elementary teachers have a degree in English or education. Social studies may include basic events and concepts in American history and world history, and in some places state or local history; science varies widely.

Middle school (Grades 6/7 through 8)

"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 may sometimes include 9th grade as well. The term "junior high school" and the arrangement beginning with 7th grade are becoming less common.

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 all classes are with the same teacher. The classes are usually a strict set of a science, math, English, social science courses, interspersed with a reading and/or technology class. Every year from kindergarten through ninth grade usually includes a mandatory physical education or P.E. class. Student-chosen courses, known as electives, are generally limited to only one or two classes.

Old Leonia High School, a high school in the United States
Old Leonia High School, a high school in the United States

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. In high school, students obtain much more control of their education, and may choose even their core classes.

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 sophomore year of college. Some schools do 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 75 and others 60.

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.


High Schools offer wide variety of elective courses, although the availability of such courses depends upon each particular school's financial situation.

Common types of electives include:

Additional options for gifted students

Not all high schools contain the same rigorous coursework as others. Most high and middle schools have classes known as "honors" classes for motivated and gifted students, where the quality of education is usually higher and much tougher.

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 third-year course (e.g., taking AP U.S. History as a replacement for standard U.S. History), a refresher of an earlier course (e.g., taking AP Biology in the fourth year even though one already took Biology as a freshman), or simply as a way to study something interesting during one's senior year (e.g., AP Economics).

Most postsecondary institutions take AP or IB exam results into consideration in the admissions process. Because AP and IB courses are supposed to be the equivalent of freshman year 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. Both public schools and private schools in wealthy neighborhoods are able to provide many more AP and IB course options than impoverished inner-city high schools, and this difference is seen as a major cause of the differing outcomes for their graduates.

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.

Extracurricular activities

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

Many students, mostly in high schools, participate in extracurricular activities, which 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 extend 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. For instance, the University Interscholastic League of Texas sets a maximum of nine hours practice time outside of school per week for any organized team or group.

Sports programs and their related games are major events for American students, especially football (as illustrated by the book and movie Friday Night Lights). They are also a major source of funds for school districts. An entire culture has developed around these events. Schools may sell "spirit" shirts to wear to games and school stadiums are often filled to capacity, even for non-sporting competitions.

In addition to sports, many non-athletic extracurricular activities are usually present in American Scools, both public and private. Student government is present in most American schools, with some students who are elected to class offices being given certain responsibilities, such as holding fundraisers and organizing in school events. School newspapers, in which students are responsible for the writing, editing, publishing, and distribution of a newpaper, are also very common. Schools also have provide for other activities, like writing groups, debate teams, quiz teams, club sports (not provided with the same funds or privileges as other sports programs), peer groups, and various other activities. Although individually, such programs might not be available in all schools, taken as a whole, these programs are present in the vast majority of schools.

Standardized testing

See also: Student assessment 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; 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. An example is the Regents (Examinations) test in New York.

In some schools, most course credit is earned through midterm and final examinations (at the middle and the end of the semester). These tests have been criticized for not evaluating a student's knowledge correctly, while being granted too much weight in the calculation of the student's course grade (as opposed to shorter quizzes or extensive long-term projects which may provide a more comprehensive picture of a student's grasp of the material). Also in many schools are yearly tests called midterms and finals. Because midterms and finals are usually the most important tests, any errors made will be magnified. These tests have been criticized for not evaluating a student's knowledge correctly and weighting too much on the student's average grade. Most attempts to ban these types of tests in the United States have been unsuccessful.

During high school, students, usually in their junior year (grade 11), may take one or more standardized tests depending on their postsecondary education preferences and their local graduation requirements (some students choose not to take the tests at all). In theory, these tests evaluate the level of knowledge and learning aptitude they have attained.

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. However, not all students move on to postsecondary education, and may not need to take the tests.

Education of students with special needs

In the United States, education of the mentally retarded, blind, and deaf 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 mentally retarded are required to attend the same amount of time as other students; however, they are almost always in separate classrooms for the majority, if not all, of the school day. These classes, commonly known as special education or special ed, are run by teachers who are often required to have special training. Depending upon the degree and severity of any mental or physical problems, these students may participate in normal classes and activities, often under the care of a guide. Larger districts are often able to provide more adequate and quality care for those with special needs.

Some students are identified early on as having dyslexia or being significantly slower learners than other students. Sometimes these students are able to attend special sessions during the day to supplement regular class time; 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.

College or university

Annenberg Hall at Harvard College
Annenberg Hall at Harvard College

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, public schools are viewed as more lenient and less prestigious than the more expensive private schools. Admissions criteria involve test scores (like the SAT and ACT) and class ranking as well as extracurricular activities performed prior to the application date. Also, many colleges consider the rigor of previous courses taken along with the grades earned. Certain test scores, class rank, or other numerical factors hardly ever have absolute, required levels, but often have a threshold below which admission is unlikely.

Alkek building at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas
Alkek building at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas

Once admitted, students engage in undergraduate study, which consists of satisfying university and class requirements to achieve a bachelor's degree. The most common method consists of four years of study leading to a Bachelor of Arts (BA), a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, or sometimes (but very rarely) another bachelor's degree such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). Some students choose to attend a "community college" for two years prior to further study at another college or university. A community college is run by the local municipality, usually the county. Though rarely handing out actual degrees, community colleges may award an Associate of Arts (AA) 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. For example, the University of Houston System has partnered with community colleges in neighboring cities to provide bachelor's and master's degrees in cities that are only served by community colleges. 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/or after some years of professional work, may lead to a Master's Degree (MA), Master of Science (MS), or other master's degrees such as Master of Business Admisitration (MBA), 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 or Doctor of Theology. Some programs, such as medicine, have formal apprenticeship procedures like residency and interning 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).

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 schools candidates may be considered deficient without several years of professional work experience. Less than 10% of students ever attend postgraduate courses and most, after obtaining their bachelor's degree, proceed directly into the work force. [5]

Public vs. private schools

Primary and secondary education

Unlike most other industrialized countries, the United States does not have a nationalized (controlled at the national level) educational system. 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. Curriculum decisions in public schools are made largely at the local and state levels; the federal government has limited influence. In most districts, schools are run by a locally elected school board. The school board appoints an official called the superintendent of schools to manage the schools in the district.

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 such as New York often have "magnet schools" which cater to gifted students or to students with special interests, such as science or performing arts. Admission to some of these schools is highly competitive.

Private schools in the United States include parochial schools affiliated with religious denominations, nonprofit 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 which 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 for other students with special needs. 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 permanently to expel persistently unruly students, a disciplinary option not always legally available to public school systems.

Colleges and universities

Each state in the United States maintains its own public university system, which is always nonprofit. Most areas will also have private institutions which may be for-profit or nonprofit.

A few states (like California and Arizona) have two separate state university systems. The faculty of the more prestigious one are expected to conduct advanced cutting-edge research in addition to teaching (University of California), while the less prestigious is focused on quality of teaching and producing the next generation of teachers (California State University).


The vast majority of students (up to 70%) 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 tuition to all students, 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 absence of state funds tends to drive private universities to offer better services to 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) would be about $5,000. Tuition for public school students from outside the state are 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 an academic year (assuming a single student without children). [6]

Unfortunately for most students, costs are rising and state appropriations for aid are shrinking. This has led to debate over funding at both the state and local levels. For instance, from 2002 to 2004 alone, tuition rates at public schools increased by just over 14%. This is largely due to dwindling state funding. A more moderate increase of 6% over the same period for private schools also occurred. [7]

The status ladder

The 2005 Commencement exercises at Harvard University, commonly described as the most prestigious college in the U.S.
The 2005 Commencement exercises at Harvard University, commonly described as the most prestigious college in the U.S.

American colleges and universities are notorious for being somewhat status conscious. Their faculty, staff, alumni, students, and applicants all monitor unofficial "rankings" produced by magazines like U.S. News and World Report and test preparation services like The Princeton Review. These rankings are generally sorted by prestige, which in turn is often based on factors like brand recognition, selectivity in admissions, the generosity of alumni donors, and the volume of faculty research.

In terms of brand recognition, the most well-known university in the United States is Harvard University. Harvard alumni are prominent in American business, education, and society in general; but more than this, Harvard has become entrenched as the "top" school in the public mind. It has been featured in numerous movies (e.g., Legally Blonde, Soul Man) as the ultimate example of the academic "ivory tower."

As for which other "top tier" universities form the "top tier" is a matter of debate. It is almost universally acknowledged that some of the most prestigious universities are the other members of the Ivy League athletic conference on the East Coast, but it is not necessarily true that they offer a better education. The alumni of these colleges also constitute a large part of the faculties at most other universities. Less than 10%–15% of those who apply are accepted. Beneath these in status are a small group of elite private universities and Public Ivies scattered around the country. After these come the top land-grant public universities, and then the vast majority of universities and colleges (public and private). At the bottom are community colleges, which by law are usually required to accept all local residents who seek to attend and rarely offer anything beyond an associate degree.

Aware of the status attached to the selectivity of the colleges they attend, a student usually applies to a range of schools. Often he or she applies to a prestigious school with a low acceptance rate, gambling on the chance of acceptance. On the other end, a student may also apply to a school he or she feels will almost certainly admit him or her, in case the student is admitted nowhere else. The applicant may refer to this school colloquially as his or her "safety school." A college student may also refer to a rival college or university as a "safety school" implying that the other school's standards are lower than those at the student's own school.

As for community colleges, some status-conscious people are embarrassed to admit that they are going to attend one. In general, community colleges have a relationship with four-year state universities and colleges which enable students from community colleges to transfer relatively smoothly to these universities. They usually have a group of classes for which credit is guaranteed to transfer to the four-year college so that it will fulfill the graduation requirements for a bachelor's degree.

This "ladder" is not absolute, however. Some non-Ivy League private universities, such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, The University of Notre Dame, Duke University, and Emory University, can rival Ivy League schools in prestige, especially in newer or more specialized fields of study. Likewise, some elite public universities, such as UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia, are comparable to elite private universities (especially in terms of graduate education and research). There are several dozen small private liberal arts colleges (like Williams, Amherst, Wellesley, and the Claremont Colleges) which are renowned for their small class sizes and high-quality teaching, and could potentially offer an educational experience superior to that at larger universities.

There is no absolute correlation between prestige and quality of education (albeit, there may be a general one), and most schools are better in some areas than in others, for which other universities may offer better courses themselves. As with many issues concerning education in the United States, the status ladder is controversial.

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.

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.

The largest problem facing the curriculum today is probably the teaching of the English language. Apart from the fact that it is spoken by over 95% of the nation, there is a strong national tradition of upholding English as the de facto official language. However, up to 28 million Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children are now living in the southern United States; of these, only half speak English fluently and up to 10% do not speak English at all. This has created the problem of teaching to the children of these immigrants. 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, there are threats to the "integrity" of the language itself. A growing number of African Americans are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English. While it is not taught in any American schools, there has been debate over its place in education. [8]

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, but was widely supported in Kansas. However, intense media coverage and the national spotlight convinced 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. 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. [9] [10]

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, many schools are backing away from teaching about or instructing students in the use of birth control or contraceptives.

However, according to a 2004 survey, a majority of the 1001-parent group 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 ten percent believed that their children's sexual education class forced them to discuss sexual issues "too early". On the other hand, the largest group (49%) was only "somewhat confident" that the values taught in their children's sex ed classes were similar to those taught at home, and 23% were less confident still. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percent.) [11]


Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.Samuel Clemens, 1900

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 overall monies received by a school. The vast majority comes from the state government and from local property taxes.

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 students who attend private school or are homeschooled have taken issue with the idea of paying for an education their children aren't 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.

Local V. State Funding

One of the biggest debates in funding public schools is funding by local taxes or state taxes. The federal government makes up 7.3% of the public school system funds. It is up to the state and counties to decide the funding of the remaining 92.7%. For example, in New Hampshire, only 8% of public school funding comes from state taxes, compared to Hawaii, whose public school funding comes from all state taxes. One of the biggest advantages in the public school system being funded by local taxes rather than the state taxes is personalization. Parents who are concerned about their child's education can move to a better school district, one that is better funded by its local taxes. Since local taxes that fund public schools are property taxes, a higher funded school district would mean a more pricey neighborhood, but such is the cost of education.

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.

All federal funding is provided by the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was up for reauthorization in 2004. Congress has not yet been able to pass a new version because it has been congested with other issues like Social Security and intelligence reform. Also, the reauthorization bill contains controversial measures, one of which would force regionally accredited colleges and universities to accept inbound unit credit transfers from the less prestigious nationally accredited trade schools (once a given student has already gone through the selective admission process). The regionally accredited schools (the vast majority of American colleges and universities) are ferociously resisting this measure because it would force them to articulate specific reasons for denying transfer of unit credit for each class (such as an instructor's inferior credentials or the inadequate amount of unit hours). In turn, the trade schools would be able to drag them into a nasty public debate about the so-called "ivory tower" elitism.


There is some debate about where control for education actually lies. Education, which is not mentioned in the constitution of the United States, was and is usually delegated to the states. Currently the state and national governments have a power-sharing arrangement. 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.


Expansion of American education during the late 1800s

In 1870, only 2% of 17-year-olds graduated from high school. By 1900, however, 31 states required 8- to 14-year-olds to attend school. As a result, by 1910, 72% of American children attended school and half of the nation's children attended one-room schools. Lessons consisted of students reading aloud from their texts such as the McGuffey Readers, and emphasis was placed 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.

Higher Education

Between 1880 and 1885, more than 150 new colleges and universities were opened in America. 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. 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. The resulting schools are often referred to as land-grant colleges, and the most well-known is the University of California. However, there are exceptions, such as Cornell University, which is a private school that also happens to be a land-grant university of the state of New York.

See also




  • Lucas, Christopher J. (1996) American Higher Education: A History, Palgrave Macmillian. ISBN 0312129459
  • Lucas, Christopher J. (1998) Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0130618942
  • Pulliam, John D. & Van Patten, James J. (2002) History of Education in America (8th edition), Prentice Hall. ISBN 0312176864
  • Spring, Joel (2003) The Intersection of Cultures: Multicultural Education in the United States and the Global Economy, McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0072563966


  1. ^  Education, United States Census (2000)
  2. ^  Educational Consultants, (2005)
  3. ^  Educational Attainment, United States Census (2000)
  4. ^  ABC News (2005)
  5. ^  New York Times (2002)
  6. ^  National Center for Education Statistics
  7. ^  Language Use and English-Speaking Ability, United States Census (2000)
  8. ^  The College Board (2003)
  9. ^  The College Board (2003)
  10. ^ (1999)
  11. ^  CBS News Polls (2004)
  12. ^  NPR/Kaiser/Harvard Survey (2004)
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