The American School System. An Overview

Pre-University Paper 2015 17 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Introducing the American School System
2.1 Elementary Education
Elementary School
2.2 Secondary Education
Middle School
High School
2.3 Postsecondary Education
The Basics
Most common Degrees

3. History

4. Issues
Affirmative Action
Performance internationally compared
Governmental Influence

5. Effects of the System
Outdated System

6. Analysis in comparison to the German system

7. List of References
Further Reading

1. Introduction

The American School System - quite an abstract nomenclature. Though it seems that these words simply describe the scheme which is used to teach (or misteach) America's future, it has many different meanings, depending on the person one asks, depending on the time one asks

During my research, I realized that in the US there is nothing like the American school system in principle, rather than 50 different systems, though most of them do not really differ from each other

What does exist is the average American school system, a raw version, a basic model, used as a draft by each state, completed to what they think is the perfect system to teach their youngest generation - because learning is not just for school, but for life.

I chose this subject because for me, the American school system is really interesting. I have already done some research before to find out about colleges/universities as there is nothing right now that I want more than to study in the United States. This is also the reason why is chose English as my class to write in. So with all the previous knowledge, some extra research and my usual impetus I had a good time writing this.

2. Introducing the American School System

The already introduced 'basic model' has many details, despite of its name. These are the most important details:

The American school system is divided into three parts: Elementary Education

Secondary Education

Postsecondary Education

The Elementary Education, also known as Primary Education, includes Pre-Kindergarten and Elementary School, also known as Primary School.

The Secondary Education follows after the Elementary Education and usually contains Middle School and High School. However, in some regions other models are used, as seen in Fig. 2.

The third level of education in the United States is the Postsecondary Education, or tertiary Education, which simply describes every kind of education that is taught after graduating from High School or one of its equivalents. This includes College and University.

Grade can mean both the mark and the year.

The Grading Policy is different from Germany. Numbers are replaced by letters, the grade E does not exist. An alternative way to indicate your performance is in percentage; 93 - 100 % mean an A, and anything under 60 % is a failure, while in Germany students still get a 4- with 50 %, which shows that the American Grading Policy is stricter than the German one (http://studyusa.com/en/a/58/understanding-the-american-education-system 2/25/15).

Fig. 1: The American Grading Policy (http://studyusa.com/en/a/58/understanding-the-american- education-system 2/25/15)

The GPA, Grade Point Average, represents the student's performance. However, same GPAs do not stand for the same achievements, as the GPAs of reputable High Schools usually mean a better performance by the student as a GPA by another school.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 2: Draft of the American School System

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States 2/25/15)

2.1 Elementary Education


Pre-K is an abbreviation for Pre-Kindegarten. It usually describes Nursery School and Preschool. Pre-K is equal to the German kindergarten, intended for children from ages three to five. It is optional and can be both private or public. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-kindergarten 2/27/15)

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), at least 40 percent of 3-

year-olds as well as two-thirds of 4-year-old children were registered in a preschool in 2005 (http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/starting-preschool/curriculum/why-preschool- matters/ 2/22/15).

Fig. 3: Percent of New York State Population Enrolled in Preschool According to NIEER (http://nieer.org/sites/nieer/files/yearbook2013.pdf, p. 102, 2/22/15)

As seen in Fig. 3, in NY 45% of 4-year-olds, but 0% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2013. In total numbers, that are 103,132 4-year-olds and 215 3-year-olds.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 4: Percent of 4-Year-Olds Served in State Pre-K (http://nieer.org/sites/nieer/files/yearbook2013.pdf,

p. 9, 2/22/15)

Visiting preschool accompanies with benefits such as becoming “exposed to numbers, letters, and shapes. And, more important, they learn how to socialize” (Kathleen McCartney, PhD, http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/starting-preschool/curriculum/why-preschool- matters/ 2/22/15).

Elementary School

Elementary School, also Grade School comes between Pre-Kindergarten and Secondary Education and is visited by students since kindergarten. Depending on the state one lives, the length of visiting Elementary School can vary from four, five or six years. In school districts without Middle Schools, Elementary Schools can even be attended for eight years. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_school_(United_States) 2/27/15)

The first year of Elementary School is spent by the kids, who are now five years old, in kindergarten. This is where alphabetization starts. However, in Germany, the kindergarten is considered preschool, while in the US it is considered the official beginning of a student's school career and therefore comparable to grade 1 in Germany, though in the US it is not called grade 1.

In 2007-08, a public Elementary School class usually consisted of twenty students, 76% of the teaching staff was female, 52% had at least a master's degree, and 56% were over age 40, according to the Institute of Education Sciences (http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28 2/22/15).

Similar to the German Elementary School, students have one class teacher, who compiles individual records for each student, as well as specialist subject teacher for the subjects gym, art, music, the library, and maybe even science. Foreign languages are not taught yet, unlike instrumental education. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_school_(United_States) 2/27/15)

Though students rarely arrive home before three, homework is always a part of the student's life. Sometimes, homework can be done in study hall, which simply is time students get to work on their own during the school day, introduced in grade three. Alternatively, students can read in the school library.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the American school day is the Pledge of Allegiance. Starting in Kindergarten, students learn to “show pride in and loyalty toward their country”: (http://homeschoolpool.info/home_school_curriculum/home-school-government/what-does-the- pledge-of-allegiance-mean/ 2/24/15)

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” (http://www.ushistory.org/documents/pledge.htm 2/24/15)

2.2 Secondary Education

Middle School

Middle School contains grade five to eight, and foreign languages are taught for the first time. Its different departments run independently from each other.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_school 2/27/15)

The amount of Middle Schools increases nowadays, replacing Junior High Schools by and by. The biggest difference between these school types are the grades; while Middle School is grade five to eight, Junior High School is grade six to nine. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_school 2/27/15)

High School

High School is the final stage of the Secondary Education. It includes grades nine to twelve. It is inhabited by so-called Freshmen (ninth grade), Sophomores (tenth grade), Juniors (eleventh grade) and Seniors (twelfth grade) aged from fourteen to eighteen.

As in German senior classes, classes do not exist, only courses do. These courses are not attended by only one grade, but by different grades. For example, a psychology course can consist of Juniors and Seniors.

Regents, Honors and AP (Advanced Placement) are the levels of courses that can be taken. In general, students have many opportunities for their courses, as they can choose their classes and core classes. Regents is a basic course, the most common one, while Honors and AP, which can

mostly be chosen in grade ten, eleven or twelve, are high-quality classes for gifted students. AP can even count for College or University already. Each student usually attends between six and eight classes.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_education_in_the_United_States#High_school 2/24/15)

After High School, students receive a so-called High School Diploma, which is necessary for enrolling for Postsecondary Education.

2.3 Postsecondary Education

The Basics

Not only a High School Diploma is necessary for Postsecondary Education, but also a letter of recommendation, one's GPA and admission tests, usually the SAT, sometimes the ACT, maybe a third one. Foreign applicants also need to take a language-proficiency test like TOEFL or IELTS. (http://gradstudy.rutgers.edu/information/international-students 2/24/15)

College and University are not the same. A college 'only' offers a bachelor's degree (undergraduate), while a university also offers advanced degrees like master's and doctorate (graduate). A university consists of many schools, of which at least one is a college, where students can get their undergraduate degree before they continue with their graduate degree at the 'actual' university. (http://studyusa.com/en/a/107/what-is-the-difference-between-a-school-college-and- university-in-the-usa 2/24/15)

An academic year consists of two semesters, sometimes three trimesters, when summer school is added to one's schedule. There is one spring and one fall semester. A semester is fourteen weeks long, and contains a lot of reading, (unannounced) tests/exams (pop quiz) and papers/assignments (cf Verena Wolff, Studieren im englischsprachigen Ausland, 2009, p. 102).

The academic year starts with a so-called O-Week (orientation week), which at Brock University consists of Residence Move In, Residence First Night Dinner, Welcome Back 2 Brock BBQ, Badger Kick Off Party, Live Burn and Save the Brock - Tower Party. The O-Week is made for new students to familiarize with the campus, to make friends with other students and to finally enroll for courses.

(cf Verena Wolff, Studieren im englischsprachigen Ausland, 2009, p. 102; http://www.busu.net/oweek/schedule.php 2/24/15)


It is differentiated between graduate schools and undergraduate schools:

Undergraduate schools are schools where students get an Associate Degree (two-year college, better known as community college) or a Bachelor's Degree (four-year college).

Graduate schools are schools where students get their Master's Degree or Philosophae Doctors (university). Those are more scientific. (cf Verena Wolff, Studieren im englischsprachigen Ausland, 2009, p. 101)

Most common Degrees

After High School, many different Degrees can be acquired. The lowest is the Associate Degree. It is given by community colleges after two years of studying.

A Bachelor is granted after three or more common four years of studying at either a college or a university. It can also be acquired after two years of community college and two further years of college/university, which is cheaper, as community colleges in general are lower-priced.

Depending on their performance, students can be awarded with different types of Bachelor's Degree: Bachelor Honors, - summa cum laude, - magna cum laude, - cum laude, - with distinction, but mostly the usual Bachelor is given.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bachelor%27s_degree#United_States 2/24/15) A Master builds up on a Bachelor and is usually granted by a university, in exceptional cases also by colleges. A Master takes two more years of studying as well as writing a dissertation. (http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/department-psychology/graduate-program-psychology 2/24/15)

The highest degree is the Ph.D., Philosophae Doctors. It builds up on the Master, and requires a dissertation. A huge job that needs to be done for the Ph.D. is research. “In Amerika verläuft das Anfertigen der Arbeit allerdings in geordneteren Bahnen als bei uns. Vier Jahre sind in der Regel dafür vorgesehen, und während dieser Zeit ist man eingeschrieben.” (cf Verena Wolff, Studieren im englischsprachigen Ausland, 2009, p. 101/105)

In the following table, the number of US colleges and universities as well as the number of students in 2005 are presented:

Number Enrollment

Public 4-year institutions 629 6,837,605

illustration not visible in this excerpt

http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0908742.html 2/24/15

This table shows the Degrees awarded by the colleges/universities in 2005 and striking enrollment data:

Number Number

Degrees awarded

illustration not visible in this excerpt

http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0908742.html 2/24/15

3. History

The first American School was the Boston Latin School, founded in 1635. In the Southern colonies, homeschooling was more common. Harvard College was founded only one year after the first school. (http://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/latingra.html 2/25/15; http://www.harvard.edu/history 2/25/15)

The Massachusetts Law of 1647 was passed in 1647. It brought one school to every town, elementary schools to town with more than 50 families and secondary schools to towns with over 100 families. (http://www.bartleby.com/227/1606.html 2/25/15)

In 1787, the first school for girls opens, The Young Ladies Academy. (http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2014/03/first-women-educators.html 3/2/15)

Thirty years later, in 1817, the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opens. It is the first school of its kind to teach deaf, while it takes twelve more years for the first school for visually handicapped students to open, the New England Asylum for the Blind

(1829). (http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=1371 2/25/25;

http://www.perkinsmuseum.org/area.php?id=35 2/25/15)

Decades after schools for women, deaf or blind people, the first institution for African Americans opens in Pennsylvania (1837). It is called The African Institute. (http://www.cheyney.edu/about- cheyney-university/cheyney-history.cfm 2/25/15)

The first kindergarten in US history was founded in 1856 in Watertown, WI. (http://www.watertownhistory.org/Articles/KindergardenFirst.htm 2/25/15)

The Committee of Ten was formed in 1892 by the National Education Association to establish a new curriculum, as some said High School was meant to prepare the students for college, while others said it was meant to prepare its students for life. The Committee of Ten, consisting of ten men, “recommended eight years of elementary education and four years of secondary education” (https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/neacom10.html 2/25/15) and solved the question by including sciences, foreign languages, English, history and mathematics in the curriculum and therefore making the schools prepare their students for life as well as for college. (https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/neacom10.html 2/25/15)

US Supreme Court announced in 1954 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (http://www.iancfriedman.com/?p=1129 2/25/15) allowing African Americans to attend same schools as white Americans. Three years later, in 1957, 9 African Americans (later called Little Rock

9) try to integrate to a High School in Arkansas, enforced by federal troops.

(http://www.iancfriedman.com/?p=1129 2/25/15; http://mlk-

kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_little_rock_school_desegregation_ 1957/ 2/25/15)

The No Child Left Behind Act is signed by President Bush on 1/8/2002.

(http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/guide/guide_pg12.html 2/25/15)

Since the beginning of 2015, President Obama plans to make two years of community college free to American students. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/09/obama-free-community- college_n_6446866.html 2/25/15)

4. Issues

The American school system is often criticized for many different aspects, one of the biggest is the No Child Left Behind Act


Public Law 107 - 110, better known as No Child Left Behind Act is a law proposed by George W. Bush to improve education, on the eighth of January 2002. Annual standardized tests were introduced, to sanction schools that do not pass these tests. Another point of 107 - 110 is the choice for parents for their kids school. (http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/107-110.pdf 2/27/15)

It is often criticized because the government does not always sanction schools as promised. Also, the quality of the tests is questioned, as well as the preparation for those tests, as it is feared that a lot of time is spend only for the preparation instead of real teaching. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act 2/27/15)

Affirmative Action

In 2003, Supreme Court ruled race as a factor in admitting students. Since that decision, Universities have a Black Admit Rate, making it easier for African-Americans to get accepted. (https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/affirmative-action 2/27/15; https://www.aclu.org/racial- justice/affirmative-action 2/27/15) Acceptance Rates at Private Universities in 2005:

Overall Admit Rate Black Admit Rate Difference in %

Harvard 10,0 % 16,7 % + 67,0

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States 2/27/15)

Performance internationally compared

In the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American Students underperformed. Out of 34 participating countries, they were ranked 27th in mathematics, 17th in Reading and 20th in Science, though the US is one of the more-spending countries participating in the test. Without black and Hispanic students, the US performs better than almost every European

country. (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf 2/27/15;

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/trans-atlantic-comparisons-3-is-the-us-really-a-nation- of-god-fearing-darwin-haters-a-628389-2.html 2/27/15)

Governmental Influence

Recently, AP History classes were banned in Oklahoma, as it unveils “what is bad about America” (http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/02/17/3623683/oklahoma-lawmakers-vote- overwhleming-ban-advanced-placement-history-class/ 2/2715).

5. Effects of the System

As every system has some effects, the people it affects mostly say the American school system has negative results.

One reason is the so-called tenure, which guarantees that teachers cannot get fired without just cause. It is like a job for life.

Students feel like teachers stop being good ones, as they already got their job for life time, making them feel like their teachers do not care about their classes anymore.

Another point is freedom. In schools all over the world, students' freedom is significantly narrowed, in a way adults would not accept in their office. Nevertheless, students have to accept this.

Outdated System

When this school system was made, teaching meant believing without questioning, simply obeying authority figures, or just reading the Bible. But nowadays, the same system is used to teach children, in the meaning of making them believe by answering all their questions. This system is simply the wrong one for this intention. (http://www.rd.com/advice/parenting/american-school- system-damaging-kids 2/28/15)

6. Analysis in comparison to the German system

The biggest difference is obviously the division of the students after fourth grade in Germany, while in the US, all students spend their school lives together over the years. This means, even handicapped students go to school with children without handicap, and gifted students go to that same school. This creates the well-known team spirit.

The selection between smarter kids and not-so-smart kids in the three-tiered German system forces a wedge between these groups of kids. Students from the latter group, who are then labeled as 'mentally retarded', will have continuous problems in life and lose their self-confidence, only because of this classification.

One reason they were divided into the second group is because they had no support as a child, which is often the case for immigrants. And after the fourth grade, it becomes really difficult to change to a higher type of school, especially for immigrants, as experience shows.

One reason for this immigrant-friendly system in the United States is their history. That country was built by immigrants, it would be totally different without them nowadays. I think this is the biggest reason why the school system is so immigrant-friendly, unlike in Germany, where immigrants literally go under.

As there is no selection in the US, all students (handicapped, gifted, immigrants) learn to get along with each other and immigrated student are not disadvantaged, at least not as much as in Germany. Again, team spirit.

Another obvious reason for the American team spirit is the athletic department of High Schools and Colleges/universities. Every school has their own team, and often their games are attended by many students, who cheer for their school. It also develops the rivalry between schools, though I do not think this is the most striking aspect of school's athletic department.

It is questionable whether the focus on sports is beneficial to the academic aspect of High School or not. I do not think so, as athletic successful students are more popular than academic successful students and therefore, for students, athletic success is more desirable than academic successful which could lead to negligence of school in the actual meaning.

In the United States, the boost for specially intelligent students takes place in High School, where classes are divided into regents, honors and AP. Smarter children simply take more difficult classes, or join those mostly attended by older kids (e.g. a junior attending senior classes). Also, students having problems in certain subjects can attend classes with younger students (e.g. a senior attending junior classes), or attend summer school. Thereby, students do not have to redo entire years like in Germany, where they get things told the exactly same way, which makes no sense to me as they already did not understand it in the first place. They only lose another year. In the US, students can attend the rest of their classes unchanged, which is more reasonable as they had no problems with those classes.

In general, the variety of offered classes is huger in the US than in Germany, which ensures the acceptance, teaching and development of students' interests.

Another difference to Germany is the pre-kindergarten, which allows both parents to work despite of the baby, while child care subsidy in Germany makes the mother staying at home taking care of the child just to get the money.

From kindergarten to grade eight, classes are newly formed every year. This prevents the so-called cliquism and ensures the making of new friends throughout the year, every year. Due to this regulation social structures at American schools are more jumbled and students have bigger social networks than in Germany.

Though this is not a product of the school system, banning history classes only because it unveils the bad side of the United States is unbelievable. Millions of students will be affected by this law, they will end up without further history education. I do not see how to prevent those acts in the future, as removing power about the schools from government is not possible, the government will always have the power about the schools, as far as I know, this is the case in every country.

As far as I can evaluate this, every student has the same chances in this system, at least at the beginning. The time where there are no more fair chances for everyone is at the level of the postsecondary education, where education is so expensive that many students can not afford it, unless they are lucky enough to have parents that started saving money for college at their birth or in the unlikely event of a scholarship. One sort of scholarships is a sports scholarship for good athletes, which is not fair as only good athletes have the chance of getting this scholarship, while unathletic students that might be better at school have no chance.

All in all I can say, the American school system is a close-to-ideal school system, an international trailblazing cutting edge, which, in my point of view, should be the role model for the German school system, as it does not disadvantage immigrants and makes sure all students have equal opportunities.

7. List of References

Verena Wolff, Studieren im englischsprachigen Ausland, Eichborn, 2009

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bachelor%27s_degree#United_States http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_school_(United_States) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_school

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-kindergarten

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_education_in_the_United_States#High_school http://gradstudy.rutgers.edu/information/international-students

http://homeschoolpool.info/home_school_curriculum/home-school-government/what-does-the-pledge- of-allegiance-mean/


kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_little_rock_school_desegregation_1957 /



http://studyusa.com/en/a/107/what-is-the-difference-between-a-school-college-and-university-in-the- usa


http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/02/17/3623683/oklahoma-lawmakers-vote-overwhleming-ban- advanced-placement-history-class

http://www.bartleby.com/227/1606.html http://www.busu.net/oweek/schedule.php

http://www.cheyney.edu/about-cheyney-university/cheyney-history.cfm http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=1371 http://www.harvard.edu/history

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/09/obama-free-community-college_n_6446866.html http://www.iancfriedman.com/?p=1129







http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/trans-atlantic-comparisons-3-is-the-us-really-a-nation-of- god-fearing-darwin-haters-a-628389-2.html



http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2014/03/first-women-educators.html http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/guide/guide_pg12.html http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/107-110.pdf http://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/latingra.html https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/affirmative-action https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/neacom10.html

Further Reading

An American-school-system-critical, but worth reading article can be found here:


A German article about the injustice of the German school system:


Stats about NY education:

http://data.nysed.gov/assessment38.php?year=2014&subject=Mathematics&state=yes http://data.nysed.gov/assessment38.php?year=2014&subject=ELA&state=yes http://data.nysed.gov/enrollment.php?year=2014&state=yes



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Title: The American School System. An Overview