American education is a complex topic because a single school can draw
upon resources from several different public and private institutions.
For example, a student may attend a private high school whose curriculum
must meet standards set by the state, some of whose science courses may
be financed by federal funds, and whose sports teams may play on local,
publicly owned fields.
Despite this complexity, however, it is possible to describe the broad
contours of American education.
A Structure Providing Many Choices
Almost 90 percent of American students below the college level attend
public elementary and secondary schools, which do not charge tuition but
rely on local and state taxes for funding. Traditionally, elementary
school includes kindergarten through the eighth grade. In some places,
however, elementary school ends after the sixth grade, and students
attend middle school, or junior high school, from grades seven through
nine. Similarly, secondary school, or high school, traditionally
comprises grades nine through twelve, but in some places begins at the
Most of the students who do not attend public elementary and secondary
schools attend private schools, for which their families pay tuition.
Four out of five private schools are run by religious groups. In these
schools religious instruction is part of the curriculum, which also
includes the traditional academic courses. (Religious instruction is not
provided in public schools.) There is also a small but growing number of
parents who educate their children themselves, a practice known as home
The United States does not have a national school system. Nor, with the
exception of the military academies (West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy
and the U.S. Air Force Academy, for example), are there schools run by the
federal government. But the government provides guidance and funding for
federal educational programs in which both public and private schools take
part, and the U.S. Department of Education oversees these programs.
In American English, a college is a four-year institution of higher
learning that offers courses in related subjects and awards a
Bachelor-level degree. A liberal arts college, for example, offers courses
in literature, languages, history, philosophy, and the sciences, while a
business college offers courses in accounting, investment, and marketing.
But "colleges" can also be components of universities. A large university
typically comprises several colleges, graduate programs in various fields,
one or more professional schools (for example, a law school or a medical
school), and one or more research facilities. (Americans often use the
word "college" as shorthand for either a college or a university.)
Every state has its own university, and some states operate large
networks of colleges and universities: The State University of New York,
for instance, has more than 60 campuses in New York State. Some cities
also have their own public universities. In many areas, junior or
community colleges provide a bridge between high school and four-year
colleges for some students. In junior colleges, students can generally
complete their first two years of college courses at low cost and remain
close to home.
Unlike public elementary and secondary schools, public colleges and
universities usually charge tuition. However, the amount often is much
lower than that charged by comparable private institutions, which do not
receive the same level of public support. Many students attend college --
whether public or private with the benefit of federal loans that must
be repaid after graduation.
About 25 percent of colleges and universities are privately operated by
religious groups. Most of these are open to students of all faiths. There
are also many private institutions with no religious ties. Whether public
or private, colleges depend on three sources of income: tuition fees,
endowments (gifts by benefactors), and government funding.
There is no clear distinction between the quality of education provided
at public and private colleges or institutions. The public universities
of California and Virginia, for example, are generally rated on a par
with the Ivy League, an association of eight prestigious private schools
in the northeastern United States. This does not mean that all
institutions are equal, however. A student who has graduated from a
highly regarded college may have a distinct advantage as he or she seeks
employment. Thus, competition to get into the more renowned schools can
A college student takes courses in his or her "major" field (the area of
study in which he or she chooses to specialize), along with "electives"
(courses that are not required but chosen by the student). It has been
estimated that American colleges and universities offer more than 1,000
Education is Decentralized to State and then Local Authority
From Hawaii to Delaware, from Alaska to Louisiana, each of the 50 states
has its own laws regulating education. From state to state, some laws are
similar while others are not. For example:
All states require young people to attend school. The age limit varies,
however. Most states require attendance up to age 16, some up to 18.
Thus, every child in America receives at least 11 years of education.
This is true regardless of a child's sex, race, religion, learning
problems, physical handicaps, ability to speak English, citizenship, or
status as an immigrant. (Although some members of Congress have advocated
permitting the states to deny public education to children of illegal
immigrants, such a proposal has not become law.)
Some states play a strong central role in the selection of learning
material for their students. For example, state committees may decide
which textbooks can be purchased with state funds. In other states, such
decisions are left to local school officials. Although there is no
national curriculum in the United States, certain subjects are taught in
virtually all elementary and secondary schools throughout the country.
Almost every elementary school, for example, teaches mathematics;
language arts (including reading, grammar, writing, and literature);
penmanship; science; social studies (including history, geography,
citizenship, and economics); and physical education. In many schools,
children are taught how to use computers, which have also become integral
parts of other courses.
In addition to required courses for example, a year of American
history, two years of literature, etc. secondary schools, like
colleges, typically offer electives. Popular electives include performing
arts, driver's education, cooking, and "shop" (use of tools, carpentry,
and repair of machinery).
Changing Standards . . .
Until the 1950s required courses were many, electives few. In the 1960s
and 1970s, the trend was to give students more choices. By the 1980s,
however, parents and educators were taking a second look at this
practice. The primary reason for their concern was the possible
connection between the growth of electives and the slow but steady
decline of American students' average scores on standardized tests of
mathematics, reading, and science.
At the same time, college administrators and business executives began to
complain that some high school graduates needed remedial courses in the
so-called "three R's": reading, writing, and arithmetic. About 99 percent
of American adults reported in the 1980 census that they could read and
write. But critics claimed that about 13 percent of U.S. 17-year-olds were
"functionally illiterate": unable to carry out such everyday tasks as
understanding printed instructions and filling out a job application.
Experts scrutinized every conceivable cause for the decline in average
scores in the early 1980s. One target was television, which was accused
of producing mediocre programs. And American children, critics said,
watched too much TV, an average of 25 hours a week. School boards were
criticized for paying teachers too little, with the result that good ones
tended to leave the field of education, and for giving students easier
material to work with so that all of them could get a diploma a
phenomenon known as "dumbing down" the curriculum.
No single cause was identified for what ailed secondary education.
Similarly, there was no one solution. The U.S. Department of Education
established a national commission to examine the question. In 1983 the
commission made several recommendations: lengthen the school day and year,
formulate a new core curriculum for all students (four years of English;
three years each of math, science, and social studies; a half-year of
computer science), and raise the standards of performance in each subject.
As a result, many schools have tightened requirements, and test scores for
American children have been rising.
In 1989 the movement to reform American education was given a new
impetus when six goals were set, to be achieved by the year 2000:
Congress established a program called Goals 2000, by which the states
receive federal grants to help them reach the goals. By 1996, progress had
been made 86 percent of American students completed high school,
scores on national math and science tests had gone up one full grade, and
half of all four-year-olds attended programs to prepare them for school.
There has also been an effort to establish national standards in math,
science, English, and history. Still, much remains to be done.
- That all children will start school ready to learn.
- That 90 percent of
all high school students will graduate.
- That all students will achieve
competence in core subjects at certain key points in their progress.
American students will be first in the world in math and science
- That every American adult will be literate and have the
skills to function as a citizen and a worker.
- That all schools will be
free of drugs and violence and offer a disciplined environment that is
conducive to learning.
Social Issues in American Schools
In addition to the challenge to be excellent, American schools have been
facing novel problems. They must cope with an influx of immigrant
children, many of whom speak little or no English. They must respond to
demands that the curriculum reflect the various cultures of all children.
Schools must make sure that students develop basic skills for the job
market, and they must consider the needs of nontraditional students, such
as teen-age mothers.
Schools are addressing these problems in ways that reflect the diversity
of the U.S. educational system. They are hiring or training large numbers
of teachers of English as a second language and, in some communities,
setting up bilingual schools. They are opening up the traditional
European-centered curriculum to embrace material from African, Asian, and
Schools are also teaching cognitive skills to the nearly 40 percent of
American students who do not go on to higher education. In the words of a
recent report by the Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, "A strong
back, the willingness to work, and a high school diploma were once all
that was necessary to make a start in America. They are no longer. A
well-developed mind, a continued willingness to learn and the ability to
put knowledge to work are the new keys to the future of our young people,
the success of our business, and the economic well-being of the nation."
A Snapshot of American Higher Education
The United States leads the industrial nations in the proportion of its
young people who receive higher education. For some careers law,
medicine, education, engineering a college education is a necessary
first step. More than 60 percent of Americans now work in jobs that
involve the handling of information, and a high school diploma is seldom
adequate for such work. Other careers do not strictly require a college
degree, but having one often can improve a person's chances of getting a
job and can increase the salary he or she is paid.
The widespread availability of a college education in America dates back
to 1944, when Congress passed a law popularly known as the GI Bill. (GI
meaning "government issue" was a nickname for an American
soldier; the law provided financial aid to members of the armed forces
after World War II was over.) By 1955 more than 2 million veterans of
World War II and the Korean War had used the GI Bill to go to college.
Many were from poor families and would not have had a chance to go to
college without the law. The program's success changed the American image
of who should attend college.
About the same time, the percentage of women in American colleges began
to grow steadily; in 1993 women received 54 percent of all degrees
awarded, compared to 24 percent in 1950. With the end of racial
segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans also entered
colleges in record numbers. The percentage of African Americans who go on
to college, however, is still lower than the general population. In 1992,
47.9 percent of African-American high school graduates were enrolled in
college, compared with 61.7 percent of all high school graduates.
Liberal or Vocational Education?
Like high schools, American colleges are sometimes criticized for
discarding required courses and offering too many electives. In the
mid-1980s the Association of American Colleges issued a report that
called for teaching a body of common knowledge to all college students. A
similar report, "Involvement in Learning," issued by the National
Institute of Education, concluded that the college curriculum had become
"excessively...work-related." The report also warned that college
education may no longer be developing in students "the shared values and
knowledge" that traditionally bind Americans together.
These reports coincided with a trend away from the liberal arts. Instead,
students were choosing major fields designed to prepare them for specific
jobs. In 1992, 51 percent of the bachelor's degrees were conferred in the
fields of business and management, communications, computer and
information sciences, education, engineering, and health sciences.
This trend raises questions that apply to the educational philosophy of
all industrialized countries. In an age of technological breakthroughs
and highly specialized disciplines, is there still a need for the
generalist with a broad background and well-developed abilities to reason
and communicate? And if the answer to that question is yes, should
society take steps to encourage its colleges and universities to produce
more such generalists? Like their counterparts in other countries,
American educators continue to debate these questions.