American School System

From AmericanCulturalAssumption. Probably should be linked to other education debate wiki pages. A few definitions

Public School refers to schools run by a governmental authority. In some states, such as Hawai'i, the state government runs all public schools; in others, local school districts (independent of any other governmental body such as a city or county) run the public schools. States differ also in how public schools are financed. In general, they are financed from taxpayer dollars. Tuition to public schools is usually free; though parents are often expected to pay for some expenses as well as for optional programs like sports or music. Public schools may not deny admission to students based on academic criteria; they may expel and bar students for extreme disruptive conduct.

Public schools are generally prohibited from offering any religious instruction, a major source of controversy within the United States. In many locales dominated by one religious faction or another, there are frequent calls to "let God back in the schools". Neutral education on the subject of religion is permitted, as is the study of the Bible from a literary perspective; the prohibition is against favoring a specific religious view. Such courses are still uncommon, however.

Private School refers to schools run by private entities, unaffiliated with the government. (In the UK, these are called public schools, confusingly enough). Private schools may set admission criteria (many reject below-average students), almost always charge tuition, and may offer religious instruction. Many private schools are run by churches or religious orders, these are known as parochial schools.

Home schooling refers to the practice of educating children in the home (in many cases, parents who home-school cooperate in doing so). This is legal in the UnitedStates, though home-schooled students (and those in private schools) in some states are expected to pass state-administered placement tests. Home schooling is often motivated by objections to the public school curriculum, usually on religious grounds. Another motivation is the perception that the standard school environment in general is psychologically harmful or otherwise not conducive to quality education.

Grade Levels (excluding college/university)

The first mandatory year of schooling for children in the U.S. (like many things, this varies from region to region; education is for the most part considered a local matter under U.S. law) is first grade. It typically begins in the fall after the child's sixth birthday, though in some areas five-year-olds who are near their sixth birthday are allowed to enter first grade. Grades 2 through 12 follow for the next eleven years; education is not compulsory past 16 in most states, though some states are debating raising the drop-out age to 18. [This originally said "grade 8"--do some states base it on grade instead of age"?]

In addition, there are several years of "schooling" prior to first grade. Kindergarten (German for "children's garden") is a class for 5-year-olds. It is generally optional (though recommended); in some districts it is only half-day. Most public school districts make kindergarten available for children within their district.

Before kindergarten one finds preschool--typically offered for 3- and 4-year olds. In many places, 3-year olds attend preschool two days a week, 4-year olds for 3 days a week. Preschool focuses more on physical, social, and emotional development of young children, and far less on "education". Preschoolers are often introduced to reading, writing, and the alphabet--but at a very early level. Preschoolers generally are not expected to have mastered these. Unlike kindergarten, preschool is generally not offered by public school districts; instead it is provided by churches, daycares, or cooperatives.

In most districts, the grade levels K-12 are physically segregated into three different types of school: primary school (or elementary school), middle school (or junior high), and high school. Depending on the district, primary school is usually K-5 or K-6, middle school is 6-8, 7-8, or 7-9; and high school (sometimes "senior high school") is 9-12 or 10-12. Other districts may do different things. Some use the term "middle school" to refer to a 6-8 school and "junior high" to refer to a 7-9 school, but this distinction is far from universal.

In some districts, different grade levels may be consolidated into a single class--usually no more than 2. (Though in very small rural districts, one may still find the one-room schoolhouse, where five-year-olds and pre-teens are all educated in the same room by the same teacher).

The following terms are used to describe students in grades 9-12; confusingly, they are also used for college undergraduates.

Hours and Times of Attendance

In most parts of the UnitedStates, school attendance is for 5 days of the week (Monday through Friday), nine months (180 instruction days) of the year. (Again, exceptions abound). A full school day is usually 7-8 hours, including a break for lunch, excluding extracurricular activities such as sports. The school year generally starts anywhere from mid-August (e.g. Kansas City, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia) to late September, and generally ends anywhere from mid-May to late June (though snow days in northern districts can sometimes push this into July). Two major breaks during the School year are winter vacation (often called Christmas vacation, though many frown on public schools even mentioning Christmas due to church and state separation), typically 2-1/2 weeks in December, and Spring Break--a week off in late March (sometimes early April).

Generally, younger children (grades 3 and lower) don't attend a full day--they get to go home a bit earlier. In some places, kindergarten is 1/2 day.

Schoolchildren above a certain age are assigned homework--when homework starts varies from district to district.


One major difference between schools in the US and elsewhere is extracurricular sports. "Physical education" (exercise and other forms of physical activity) is mandatory and found at all grade levels--and probably are similar to what is found in other countries. What is unique in the US is that starting in about sixth grade or so, schools form teams to compete amongst each other in various sports competitions--(American) football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, track and field, long distance running ("cross country"), volleyball, wrestling, hockey in some places, golf, and even skiing. Participation is usually voluntary, and often competitive. Both boys and girls participate; public schools are required to provide equal opportunity in sports to both sexes. (Boys and girls don't usually compete against each other, though there have been cases of girls with exceptional athletic ability competing on boys' teams.)

For many sports--especially American football and basketball--the competition is particularly cutthroat.

What's more, many school districts have an "athletics first" culture among the student body, if not among the administration and community at large. The student social hierarchy--especially for boys--at most American high schools is dominated by those who succeed the most at (school vs. school) sports; the dream of many boys is to be "captain of the football team". Athletic success is frequently prized far more than academic success.

This is further replicated at college. Most major colleges and universities field teams, and the competition there is even fiercer and more cutthroat. College athletics (again, basketball and football in particular) is a multi-million dollar business in the United States, with star players going on to professional sports careers.

While this is arguably beneficial to athletics in the US--affiliation with schools gives many teams an instant fan base--its effect on academics is questionable. Some claim that sports are beneficial to the development of young people--just as much as reading and writing. Certainly some physical activity is. However, it is sometimes claimed that the emphasis on sports in American schools cultivates a highly anti-intellectual culture--one where the top-performing students (especially those who aren't athletes) are regarded as "nerds" and outcasts, not as persons to be admired.

(It is my understanding that in Europe, competitive sports are handled through sports "clubs" unaffiliated with schools; and that the schools provide "P.E." classes but no intramural competition). Most British state high schools/comprehensives (ages 11-16) provide PE (physical education) lessons as part of the national curriculum up until about 14 years of age. After this students may have the option to continue and take a GCSE in PE at 16. Many schools run extracurricular sports teams (notably football [i.e. soccer], rugby, cricket, netball and hockey) which often compete against other schools in the local area, although national competitions are more rare. Many students are also members of "clubs" unaffiliated with schools.

Colleges and Universities

The words college and university are nearly interchangeable in the United States. Either can refer to a 4 year school.

This general usage is somewhat inaccurate. Properly speaking, a university is composed of a number of colleges, e.g. Trinity College of Oxford University. Oxford University is made up of 39 colleges. Colleges tend to be focused on a general discipline such as medicine, or art. (Many US universities are structured on this model; though not necessarily all of them.)

All universities are colleges but not all colleges are universities. A student at Foo University would likely feel equally comfortable stating in casual conversation that they're attending "college" or "university." However, a student wearing a Bar College sweatshirt would probably be looked at oddly if they were to say, "I'm in my first year of university."

It would be very rare to hear an American say "I'm in my first year of university" unless he or she were talking to someone more familiar with British English. "... first year of college" sounds normal, no matter which type of institution is being attended. "He's in college" sounds normal to Americans. "He's in (or at) university" does not. Compare "in the hospital" (American) and "in hospital" (British). Saying "I'm in my first year at the university" would imply that the person spoken to knows which university. Also, if an adult American says "when I was at (or in) school," this usually refers to college, unless the conversational context would suggest primary (1st through 6th grades) or secondary (7th through 12th) school.

In past years, the difference in the US was that "universities" had Ph.D programs, whereas "colleges" did not. This distinction is rapidly eroding; as many 4-year institutions that were previously called colleges are renaming themselves universities; often to attract foreign students and faculty who consider a "college" to be a second-rate educational institution.

In the US, and depending on which college, going to a college rather than a university can lend considerable cachet. Dartmouth, Smith, Williams, Bowdoin (etc.) colleges are considered elite (private) institutions. They imply an almost clubby environment where students receive more individualized attention, and they presumably provide a more intimate set of connections after graduation.

"State schools" are public universities usually established by a particular state: The University of Minnesota. These are distinguished from private colleges and universities such as Harvard or Yale.

In the UK, school always means pre-collegiate educational institutions or a post graduate educational institution (Business School, Law School, Medical School). College (except in relation to collegiate universities) means pre-University educational institution where A-level qualifications are studied. University means an educational institution that awards undergraduate and graduate degrees. As described above, mixing these terms is acceptable in the US (and Australia [I beg to differ--Aussies prefer 'Uni' and school just like the Brits -SusanRoy]), but not in the UK or Ireland. Asking a 20 year brit old what school they attend will be an insult to their intelligence as it implies they are still in high school. Asking a 40 year old brit what school they attended will also be an insult as it seems to imply that they never attended University and their highest qualification is a high school diploma.--I stress this as I have run into it often. -- A Yank in Britain

Two year institutions

The UnitedStates also has two-year institutions. These are usually called "junior colleges" or "community colleges". These institutions generally do not offer more advanced degrees; are inexpensive; and don't provide on-campus housing. They also will admit anybody. They serve the following functions:

Regarding the name "junior college". The full name of StanfordUniversity, one of the elite universities in the US, is "Leland Stanford Jr. University". In other words, a university named after a fellow called "Leland Stanford Jr.", not a "junior University" named after one Leland Stanford. Referring to Stanford as a "junior university" is a popular pastime at rival UC-Berkeley.

Begin ThreadMess

At what age is one in 9th grade? In the US, typically around 15 years of age. What is a sophomore? That term is customarily used to describe the second year or phase of some progression. A person in his second year of high school or college is a "sophomore". When a musical act releases its second album, it'll be referred to in critiques as "their sophomore effort." (Ah, so "sophomoric" is US mainstream recognition of the SecondSystemEffect.)

Just so you non-Americans know, in the US there is a grade before first grade. So that throws a lot off. I had a British girl in my class when I was in tenth grade and everyone thought she had skipped a grade whereas in reality she had never attended kindergarten. (Grade 0? "Preschool".) -- ArtSchmidt?

The U.S. school system is laid out more or less like this (K = KinderGarten?; ... indicates a change of physical school) : (K) is usually optional, 1-8 is "elementary", occasionally there are "sixth grade centers" intended as a "weaning" process, prepping kids for the upper grades, 7-8 or 7-8-9 is often called "Junior High", while 9-10-11-12 or 10-11-12 is simply "High School". The four "years" of High School are called Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior.

(K) is mandatory in some states, optional in others, and hardly available in others (like New Hampshire).

The first six grades (with some variation) can have many names: Elementary School, Grammar School, Primary School, Grade School.

At least the US; other countries might have other names, eg. - (K) - "New Entrants" (which lasts from the kid's fifth birthday to the end of the academic year), 1-6 "Primary" (split in half into "junior" and "senior"), 7-8 "Intermediate", 9-13 "Secondary" (with 9-11 being "junior" and 12-13 "senior"). Kindergarten itself is optional and may be attended for a year prior to New Entrants.

I can't escape the feeling that the grade groupings are intended to create a stratified culture within the school system--or possibly just to create more School Principal jobs (long live the bureaucracy). 'Stratified culture?' I had this image of 7-year-olds mixing with 17-year-olds in the lunchroom ... I'm reluctant to speculate on what effect that would have on the social development of both groups.

Attended an Elementary School, had Kindergarten through 8th grade (13 to 14 year olds). When I was in 8th grade, the kids lower grades were essentially invisible to me and my classmates.

There was some discussion here about concerns of older children being cruel to younger ones, such as 17-year-olds torturing 11-year-olds as a rite of passage. However, someone who attended a British boarding school insisted that the age gap between torturer and victim is more usually one or two years. Besides, most British private schools are either for 7-13 or 13-18 year olds. The worst time for anyone attending "public" school (13-18) is certainly the first year. After that, you get to have your turn torturing the new batch. Ah, memories.

The "typical" starting age for First Grade (1) is 6 years old [this being an example of an AmericanCulturalAssumption As this page is entitled AmericanSchoolSystem -- why?]. Some start 1st at age 5, some at age 7. Using 6 as a starting point, a kid is usually 13 going into 8th grade, 14 as a Freshman, and, magically, a graduating senior will be 18 (+/- 1). Because birthdays don't all conveniently occur in some standard month, it is messier than this in practice. I graduated at 17.

Because an inordinate amount of effort is spent in this system "preparing students for the next level", less actual learning occurs as they master the cultural requirements of the next grade grouping.

I sometimes tell people that if a youth serum were discovered, I'd be okay with reliving the years starting at age 18, but you couldn't pay me to go through the (U.S.) school system again. Four good teachers in 12 years is a truly bad ratio, and the inter-child cruelty factor is worse.

Incidentally, an egregious omission in the U.S. school system is that they never actually teach Learning. No actual technology of study or learning is taught, just "systems" (often, "system du jour" depending on prevailing educational fads). -- GarryHamilton

IMO all primary and secondary, um, "education" in the US exists for the sole purpose of cramming for standardized tests, culminating in the ScholasticAptitudeTest?, which is the most common basis for acceptance at colleges and universities. This would certainly help explain why so many Americans seem to remember so little from their "educations". -- MikeSmith

... and now the UK school system is starting to sound very similar to the above ...

I wonder if anyone else in the US got sucked into the ComputerScienceDegreeGap ... Although education is free, there are obviously options to go to private schools, which would cost money!

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