Education in the United States

Education in the United States of America
National education budget (2007)
Budget $1 trillion (public and private, all levels)[1]
General details
Primary languages English
System type State, private
Male 100%[2]
Female 100%[2]
Total 81.5 million
Primary 37.9 million1
Secondary 26.1 million (2006–2007)
Post secondary 20.5 million 2
Secondary diploma 85%
Post-secondary diploma 30%[3]
Education in the United States
Education portal
United States portal

Education in the United States is provided by public schools and private schools.

Public education is universally required from kindergarten through 12th grade (often abbreviated K-12), and is available at state colleges and universities for all students. Public school curricula, budgets, and policies for K-12 schooling are set through locally elected school boards, who have jurisdiction over individual school districts. State governments set overall educational standards, often mandate standardized tests for K–12 public school systems, and supervise, usually through a board of regents, state colleges and universities. Funding comes from the state, local, and federal government.[4]

Private schools are generally free to determine their own curriculum and staffing policies, with voluntary accreditation available through independent regional accreditation authorities. About 87% of school-age children attend public schools, about 10% attend private schools,[5] and roughly 3% are home-schooled.[6]

Education is compulsory over an age range starting between five and eight and ending somewhere between ages sixteen and eighteen, depending on the state.[7] This requirement can be satisfied in public schools, state-certified private schools, or an approved home school program. In most schools, education is divided into three levels: elementary school, middle or junior high school, and high school. Children are usually divided by age groups into grades, ranging from kindergarten and first grade for the youngest children, up to twelfth grade as the final year of high school.

There are also a large number and wide variety of publicly and privately administered institutions of higher education throughout the country. Post-secondary education, divided into college, as the first tertiary degree, and graduate school, is described in a separate section below.

The United States spends more per student on education than any other country.[8] In 2014, the Pearson/Economist Intelligence Unit rated US education as 14th best in the world, just behind Russia.[9] According to a report published by the U.S. News & World Report, of the top ten colleges and universities in the world, eight are American.[10] (The other two are Oxford and Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.)


Government-supported and free public schools for all began to be established after the American Revolution. Between 1750 and 1870 parochial schools appeared as "ad hoc" efforts by parishes. Historically, many parochial elementary schools were developed which were open to all children in the parish, mainly Catholics, but also Lutherans, Calvinists and Orthodox Jews. Nonsectarian Common schools designed by Horace Mann were opened, which taught the three Rs (of reading, writing, and arithmetic) and also history and geography.

In 1823, Reverend Samuel Read Hall founded the first normal school, the Columbian School in Concord, Vermont,[11][12] to improve the quality of the burgeoning common school system by producing more qualified teachers.

States passed laws to make schooling compulsory between 1852 (Massachusetts) and 1917 (Mississippi). They also used federal funding designated by the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890 to set up land grant colleges specializing in agriculture and engineering. By 1870, every state had free elementary schools,[13] albeit only in urban centers.

Starting from about 1876, thirty-nine states passed a constitutional amendment to their state constitutions, called Blaine Amendments after James G. Blaine, one of their chief promoters, forbidding the use of public tax money to fund local parochial schools.

Following the American Civil War, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1881, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to train "Colored Teachers," led by Booker T. Washington, (1856–1915), who was himself a freed slave. His movement spread to many other Southern states to establish small colleges for "Colored or Negro" students entitled "A. & M.," ("Agricultural and Mechanical") or "A. & T.," ("Agricultural and Technical"), some of which later developed into state universities.

Responding to many competing academic philosophies being promoted at the time, an influential working group of educators, known as the Committee of Ten, and established in 1892 by the National Education Association, recommended that children should receive twelve years of instruction, consisting of eight years of elementary education (also known as "grammar schools") followed by four years in high school ("freshmen," "sophomores," "juniors," and "seniors").

Gradually by the late 1890s, regional associations of high schools, colleges and universities were being organized to coordinate proper accrediting standards, examinations and regular surveys of various institutions to assure equal treatment in graduation and admissions requirements, course completion and transfer procedures.

By 1910, 72 percent of children attended school. Private schools spread during this time, as well as colleges and — in the rural centers land grant colleges also. Between 1910 and 1940 the high school movement resulted in rapidly increasing public high school enrollment and graduations. By 1930, 100 percent of children attended school (excluding children with significant disabilities or medical concerns).[14]

During World War II, enrollment in high schools and colleges plunged as many high school and college students dropped out to take war jobs.[15][16][17]

The 1946 National School Lunch Act, which is still in operation, provided low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified low-income students through subsidies to schools, based on the idea that a "full stomach" during the day supported class attention and studying. The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas made racial desegregation of public elementary and high schools mandatory, although private schools expanded in response to accommodate white families attempting to avoid desegregation by sending their children to private secular or religious schools.[18][19][20]

In 1965, the far-reaching Elementary and Secondary Education Act ('ESEA'), passed as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, provided funds for primary and secondary education ('Title I funding') while explicitly forbidding the establishment of a national curriculum.[21] Section IV of the Act created the Pell Grant program which provides financial support to students from low-income families to access higher education.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act established funding for special education in schools.

Policy changes have also sometimes slowed equal access to higher education for poorer people. Cuts to the Pell Grant scholarship aid programs in 2012 reduced the number of low-income students who would receive grants.[22]

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 made standardized testing a requirement. The Higher Education Amendments of 1972 made changes to the Pell Grants. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities. The 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education report, famously titled A Nation at Risk, touched off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts, but by 1990 the country still only spent 2 per cent of its budget on education, compared with 30 per cent on support for the elderly.[23] In 1990, the EHA was replaced with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which placed more focus on students as individuals, and also provided for more post-high school transition services.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind, passed by a bipartisan coalition in Congress provided federal aid to the states in exchange for measures to penalize schools that were not meeting the goals as measured by standardized state exams in mathematics and language skills.[24][25][26] In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court diluted some of the century-old "Blaine" laws upheld an Ohio law allowing aid to parochial schools under specific circumstances.[27] The 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education evaluated higher education.

In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed legislation replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act.[28]


In 2000, 76.6 million students had enrolled in schools from Kindergarten through graduate schools. Of these, 72 percent aged 12 to 17 were considered academically "on track" for their age, i.e. enrolled in at or above grade level. Of those enrolled elementary and secondary schools, 5.2 million (10.4 percent) attended private schools.

Over 85 percent of the adult population have completed high school and 27 percent have received a bachelor's degree or higher. The average salary for college or university graduates is greater than $51,000, exceeding the national average of those without a high school diploma by more than $23,000, according to a 2005 study by the U.S. Census Bureau.[29] The 2010 unemployment rate for high school graduates was 10.8%; the rate for college graduates was 4.9%. [30]

The country has a reading literacy rate of 99% of the population over age 15,[31] while ranking below average in science and mathematics understanding compared to other developed countries.[32] In 2014, a record high of 82% of high school seniors graduated, although one of the reasons for that success might be a decline in academic standards.[33]

The poor performance has pushed public and private efforts such as the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, the ratio of college-educated adults entering the workforce to general population (33%) is slightly below the mean of other developed countries (35%)[34] and rate of participation of the labor force in continuing education is high.[35] A 2000s (decade) study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University concluded that "A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults".[36]

According to the National Association of School Nurses, 17% of students are considered obese and 32% are overweight.[37]

In 2006, there were roughly 600,000 homeless students in the United States, but after the Great Recession this number more than doubled to approximately 1.36 million.[38]

Educational stages

Formal education in the U.S. is divided into a number of distinct educational stages. Most children enter the public education system around ages five or six. Children are assigned into year groups known as grades.

The American school year traditionally begins at the end of August or the day after Labor Day in September, after a traditional summer recess. Children customarily advance together from one grade to the next as a single cohort or "class" upon reaching the end of each school year in late May or early June.

Depending upon their circumstances, they may begin school in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or first grade. They normally attend 12 grades of study over 12 calendar years of primary/elementary and secondary education before graduating, earning a diploma that makes them eligible for admission to higher education. Education is mandatory until age 16 (18 in some states).

In the U.S., ordinal numbers (e.g., first grade) are used for identifying grades. Typical ages and grade groupings in contemporary, public and private schools may be found through the U.S. Department of Education. Generally there are three stages: elementary school (K-5th/6th grade), middle school (6th/7th-8th grades) and high school (9th–12th grades).[39] Some schools differ in the grades they contain.

Diagram of education in the United States

but there is considerable variability in the exact arrangement of grades, as the following table indicates.

General level (or category) Level Student age range
(at the beginning of academic year)
Preschool Pre-kindergarten 3–5
Compulsory education
Kindergarten 5–6
1st grade 6–7
2nd grade 7–8
3rd grade 8–9
4th grade 9–10
5th grade 10–11
6th grade 11–12
Junior high
7th grade 12–13
8th grade 13–14
Freshman/9th grade 14–15
Senior high
Sophomore/10th grade 15–16
Junior/11th grade 16–17
Senior/12th grade 17–18
Higher education
First year: "Freshman year" 18-19
Second year: "Sophomore year" 19-20
Third year: "Junior year" 20-21
Fourth year: "Senior year" 21-22
Graduate school
(with various degrees and curricular partitions thereof)
Ages vary
Continuing education
Vocational school Ages vary
Adult education

Students completing high school may choose to attend a college or university, which offer undergraduate degrees such as Associate's degrees or Bachelor's degrees (baccalaureate).

Community college or junior college typically offer two-year associate degrees, although some community colleges offer a limited number of bachelor's degrees. Some community college students choose to transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a bachelor's degree. Community colleges are generally publicly funded (usually by local cities or counties) and offer career certifications and part-time programs.

Four-year institutions may be public or private colleges or universities.

Some counties and cities have established and funded four-year institutions. Some of these institutions, such as the City University of New York, City Colleges of Chicago, and San Francisco City College, are still operated by local governments. Others such as the University of Louisville and Wichita State University are now operated as state universities.

Private institutions are privately funded and there is a wide variety in size, focus, and operation. Some private institutions are large research universities, while others are small liberal arts colleges that concentrate on undergraduate education. Some private universities are nonsectarian and secular, while others are religiously-affiliated. While most private institutions are non-profit, a growing number in the past decade have been established as for-profit.

Curriculum varies widely depending on the institution. Typically, an undergraduate student will be able to select an academic "major" or concentration, which comprises the main or special subjects, and students may change their major one or more times.

Some students, typically those with a bachelor's degree, may choose to continue on to graduate or professional school, sometimes attached to a university. Graduate degrees may be either master's degrees (e.g., M.A., M.S., M.B.A., M.S.W.) or a doctorates (e.g., Ph.D., J.D., ("Doctor of Law"), M.D., D.O.). Programs range from full-time, evening and executive which allows for flexibility with students' schedules.[40] Academia-focused graduate school typically includes some combination of coursework and research (often requiring a thesis or dissertation to be written), while professional graduate-level schools grants a first professional degree. These include medical, law, business, education, divinity, art, journalism, social work, architecture, and engineering schools.


In K–12 education, sometimes students who receive failing grades are held back a year and repeat coursework in the hope of earning satisfactory scores on the second try.

High school graduates sometimes take a gap year before the first year of college, for travel, work, public service, or independent learning.

Of students who were freshmen in 2005 seeking bachelor's degrees at public institutions, 32% took four years, 12% took five years, 6% took six years, and 43% did not graduate within six years. The numbers for private non-profit institutions were 52% in four, 10% in five, 4% in six, and 35% failing to graduate.[41]

Some undergraduate institutions offer an accelerated three-year bachelor's degree, or a combined five-year bachelor's and master's degrees.

Many graduate students do not start professional schools immediately after finishing undergraduate studies, but work for a time while saving up money or deciding on a career direction.

The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 1999–2000, 73% of people attending institutions of higher education were non-traditional students.[42]

K–12 education

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. Some states allow students to leave school between 14–17 with parental permission, before finishing high school; other states require students to stay in school until age 18.[43] Public (free) education is typically from kindergarten to grade 12 (frequently abbreviated K–12).

Most parents send their children to either a public or private institution. According to government data, one-tenth of students are enrolled in private schools. Approximately 85% of students enter the public schools,[44] largely because they are tax-subsidized (tax burdens by school districts vary from area to area). School districts are usually separate from other local jurisdictions, with independent officials and budgets.

There are more than 14,000 school districts in the country,[45] and more than $500 billion is spent each year on public primary and secondary education.[45] Most states require that their school districts within the state teach for 180 days a year.[46] In 2010, there were 3,823,142 teachers in public, charter, private, and Catholic elementary and secondary schools. They taught a total of 55,203,000 students, who attended one of 132,656 schools.[47]

Most children begin elementary education with kindergarten (usually five to six years old) and finish secondary education with twelfth grade (usually 17–18 years old). In some cases, pupils may be promoted beyond the next regular grade. Parents may also choose to educate their own children at home; 1.7% of children are educated in this manner.[44]

Around 3 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 drop out of high school each year, a rate of 6.6 percent as of 2012. In the United States, 75 percent of crimes are committed by high school dropouts. Around 60 percent of black dropouts end up spending time incarcerated.[48] The incarceration rate for African-American male high school dropouts was about 50 times the national average as of 2010.[49]

States do not require reporting from their school districts to allow analysis of efficiency of return on investment. The Center for American Progress commends Florida and Texas as the only two states that provide annual school-level productivity evaluations which report to the public how well school funds are being spent at the local level. This allows for comparison of school districts within a state.[50][51] In 2010, American students rank 17th in the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that this is due to focusing on the low end of performers. All of the recent gains have been made, deliberately, at the low end of the socioeconomic scale and among the lowest achievers. The country has been outrun, the study says, by other nations because the US has not done enough to encourage the highest achievers.[52]

About half of the states encourage schools to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.[53]

Teachers worked from about 35 to 46 hours a week, in a survey taken in 1993.[54] In 2011, American teachers worked 1,097 hours in the classroom, the most for any industrialized nation measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. They spend 1,913 hours a year on their work, just below the national average of 1,932 hours for all workers.[55] In 2011, the average annual salary of a preK–12 teacher was $55,040.[56]

Transporting students to and from school is a major concern for most school districts. School buses provide the largest mass transit program in the country, 8.8 billion trips per year. Non-school transit buses give 5.2 billion trips annually. 440,000 yellow school buses carry over 24 million students to and from schools.[57] In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that forced busing of students may be ordered to achieve racial desegregation.[58] This ruling resulted in a white flight from the inner cities which largely diluted the intent of the order. This flight had other, non-educational ramifications as well. Integration took place in most schools though de facto segregation often determined the composition of the student body. By the 1990s, most areas of the country have been released from mandatory busing.

School start times are computed with busing in mind. There are often three start times: for elementary, for middle/junior high school, and for high school. One school district computed its cost per bus (without the driver) at $20,575 annually. It assumed a model where the average driver drove 80 miles per day. A driver was presumed to cost $.62 per mile (1.6 km). Elementary schools started at 7:30, middle schools/junior high school started at 8:30, and high schools at 8:15. While elementary school started earlier, they also finish earlier, at 2:30, middle schools at 3:30 and high schools at 3:20.[59] All school districts establish their own times and means of transportation within guidelines set by their own state.

Preschool and Pre-Kindergarten

Main article: Pre-kindergarten

Preschool encompasses non-compulsory classroom-based early-childhood education prior to the age of five to six. Pre-kindergarten (also called Pre-K or PK) is the preschool year immediately studied before the year of Kindergarten, which is typically studied at age five to six. Preschool education may be delivered through a preschool or as a reception year in Elementary school. Head Start Program, the federally funded pre-kindergarten program founded in 1965 prepares children, especially those of a disadvantaged population, to better succeed in school. However, limited seats are available to students aspiring to take part in the Head Start Program. Many community-based programs, commercial enterprises, non-profit organizations, faith communities, and independent childcare providers offer preschool education. Preschool may be general or may have a particular focus, such as arts education, religious education, sports training, or foreign language learning, along with providing general education.

Primary education

A teacher and her students in an elementary school classroom

Historically, in the United States, local public control (and private alternatives) have allowed for some variation in the organization of schools. Elementary school includes kindergarten through sixth grade (or sometimes, to fourth grade, fifth grade or eighth grade). Basic subjects are taught in elementary school, and students often remain in one classroom throughout the school day, except for specialized programs, such as physical education, library, music, and art classes. There are (as of 2001) about 3.6 million children in each grade in the United States.[60]

Typically, the curriculum in public elementary education is determined by individual school districts or county school system. The school district selects curriculum guides and textbooks that reflect a state's learning standards and benchmarks for a given grade level. The most recent curriculum that has been adopted by most states is Common Core.[61] Learning Standards are the goals by which states and school districts must meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) as mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This description of school governance is simplistic at best, however, and school systems vary widely not only in the way curricular decisions are made but also in how teaching and learning take place. Some states and/or school districts impose more top-down mandates than others. In others, teachers play a significant role in curriculum design and there are few top-down mandates. Curricular decisions within private schools are often made differently from in public schools, and in most cases without consideration of NCLB.

Public elementary school teachers typically instruct between twenty and thirty students of diverse learning needs. A typical classroom will include children with a range of learning needs or abilities, from those identified as having special needs of the kinds listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Act IDEA to those that are cognitively, athletically or artistically gifted. At times, an individual school district identifies areas of need within the curriculum. Teachers and advisory administrators form committees to develop supplemental materials to support learning for diverse learners and to identify enrichment for textbooks. There are special education teachers working with the identified students. Many school districts post information about the curriculum and supplemental materials on websites for public access.[62]

In general, a student learns basic arithmetic and sometimes rudimentary algebra in mathematics, English proficiency (such as basic grammar, spelling, and vocabulary), and fundamentals of other subjects. Learning standards are identified for all areas of a curriculum by individual States, including those for mathematics, social studies, science, physical development, the fine arts, and reading.[61] While the concept of State Learning standards has been around for some time, No Child Left Behind has mandated that standards exist at the State level.

Secondary education

A high-school senior (twelfth grade) classroom in Calhan, Colorado

Secondary education is often divided into two phases, middle/junior high school and high school. Students are usually given more independence, moving to different classrooms for different subjects, and being allowed to choose some of their class subjects (electives).

"Middle school" (or "junior high school") has a variable range between districts. It usually includes seventh and eighth grades and occasionally also includes one or more of the sixth, ninth, and very occasionally fifth grades as well. High school (occasionally senior high school) includes grades 9 through 12. Students in these grades are commonly referred to as freshmen (grade 9), sophomores (grade 10), juniors (grade 11) and seniors (grade 12). At the high school level, students generally take a broad variety of classes without specializing in any particular subject, with the exception of vocational schools. Students are generally required to take a broad range of mandatory subjects, but may choose additional subjects ("electives") to fill out their required hours of learning. High school grades normally are included in a student's official transcript, e.g. for college admission.

Each state sets minimum requirements for how many years of various mandatory subjects are required; these requirements vary widely, but generally include 2–4 years of each of: Science, Mathematics, English, Social sciences, Physical education; some years of a foreign language and some form of art education are often also required, as is a health curriculum in which students learn about anatomy, nutrition, first aid, sexuality, drug awareness, and birth control. In many cases, however, options are provided for students to "test out" of this requirement or complete independent study to meet it.

Many high schools provide Honors, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. These are special forms of honors classes where the curriculum is more challenging and lessons more aggressively paced than standard courses. Honors, AP or IB courses are usually taken during the 11th or 12th grade of high school, but may be taken as early as 9th grade. Some international schools offer international school leaving qualifications, to be studied for and awarded instead of or alongside of the high school diploma, Honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate. Regular honors courses are more intense and faster paced than typical college preparatory courses. AP and IB on the other hand, are college-level classes.

Grading scale

In schools in the United States children are assessed throughout the school year by their teachers, and report cards are issued to parents at varying intervals. Generally the scores for individual assignments and tests are recorded for each student in a grade book, along with the maximum number of points for each assignment. End-of-term or -year evaluations are most frequently given in the form of a letter grade on an A-F scale, whereby A is the best possible grade and F is a failing grade (most schools do not include the letter E in the assessment scale), or a numeric percentage. The Waldorf schools,[63][64] most democratic schools,[65] and some other private schools, give (often extensive) verbal characterizations of student progress rather than letter or number grades.

Example Grading Scale
+ + + +
100.0-97.0 96.9–93.0 92.9–90.0 89.9–87.0 86.9–83.0 82.9–80.0 79.9–77.0 76.9–73.0 72.9–70.0 69.9–67.0 66.9–63.0 62.9–60.0 59.9-0.0

Standardized testing

Under the No Child Left Behind Act and Every Student Succeeds Acts, all American states must test students in public schools statewide to ensure that they are achieving the desired level of minimum education,[66] such as on the New York Regents Examinations, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), or the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS); students being educated at home or in private schools are not included. The act also required that students and schools show adequate yearly progress. This means they must show some improvement each year. When a student fails to make adequate yearly progress, NCLB mandated that remediation through summer school and/or tutoring be made available to a student in need of extra help. On December 10, 2015 President Barack Obama signed legislation replacing NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).[28] However, the enactment of ESSA did not eliminate provisions relating to the periodic standardized tests given to students.[67][68]

Academic performance impacts the perception of a school's educational program. Rural schools fare better than their urban counterparts in two key areas: test scores and drop-out rate. First, students in small schools performed equal to or better than their larger school counterparts.[69] In addition, on the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress, 4th and 8th grade students scored as well or better in reading, science, and mathematics.[70]

During high school, students (usually in 11th grade) may take one or more standardized tests depending on their post-secondary education preferences and their local graduation requirements. In theory, these tests evaluate the overall level of knowledge and learning aptitude of the students. The SAT and ACT are the most common standardized tests that students take when applying to college. A student may take the SAT, ACT, or both depending upon the post-secondary institutions the student plans to apply to for admission. Most competitive schools also require two or three SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT IIs), which are shorter exams that focus strictly on a particular subject matter. However, all these tests serve little to no purpose for students who do not move on to post-secondary education, so they can usually be skipped without affecting one's ability to graduate.

Standardized testing has become increasingly controversial in recent years. Creativity and the need for applicable knowledge are becoming rapidly more valuable than simple memorization. Opponents of standardized education[71] have stated that it is the system of standardized education itself[72] that is to blame for employment issues and concerns over the questionable abilities of recent graduates.[73][74][75][76]

Extracurricular activities

A major characteristic of American schools is the high priority given to sports, clubs and activities by the community, the parents, the schools and the students themselves. Extracurricular activities are educational activities not falling within the scope of the regular curriculum but under the supervision of the school. These activities can extend to large amounts of time outside the normal school day; home-schooled students, however, are not normally allowed to participate. Student participation in sports programs, drill teams, bands, and spirit groups can amount to hours of practices and performances. Most states have organizations that develop rules for competition between groups. These organizations are usually forced to implement time limits on hours practiced as a prerequisite for participation. Many schools also have non-varsity sports teams; however, these are usually afforded fewer resources and less attention.

Sports programs and their related games, especially football and/or basketball, are major events for American students and for larger schools can be a major source of funds for school districts.

High school athletic competitions often generate intense interest in the community.

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

Home schooling

In 2014, approximately 1.5 million children were homeschooled, up 84% from 1999 when the U.S. Department of Education first started keeping statistics. This was 2.9% of all children.[77]

Many select moral or religious reasons for homeschooling their children. The second main category is unschooling, those who prefer a non-standard approach to education.[77]

Most homeschooling advocates are wary of the established educational institutions for various reasons. Some are religious conservatives who see nonreligious education as contrary to their moral or religious systems, or who wish to add religious instruction to the educational curriculum (and who may be unable to afford a church-operated private school or where the only available school may teach views contrary to those of the parents). Others feel that they can more effectively tailor a curriculum to suit an individual student's academic strengths and weaknesses, especially those with singular needs or disabilities. Still others feel that the negative social pressures of schools (such as bullying, drugs, crime, sex, and other school-related problems) are detrimental to a child's proper development. Parents often form groups to help each other in the homeschooling process, and may even assign classes to different parents, similar to public and private schools.

Opposition to homeschooling comes from varied sources, including teachers' organizations and school districts. The National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States, has been particularly vocal in the past.[78] Opponents' stated concerns fall into several broad categories, including fears of poor academic quality, and lack of socialization with others. At this time, over half of states have oversight into monitoring or measuring the academic progress of home schooled students, with all but ten requiring some form of notification to the state.[79]

Education of students with special needs

Commonly known as special classes, are taught by teachers with training in adapting curricula to meet the needs of students with special needs.

According to the National Association of School Nurses, 5% of students in 2009 have a seizure disorder,[80] another 5% have ADHD and 10% have mental and/or emotional disorders.[37]

On January 25, 2013, the Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education issued guidance, clarifying school districts' existing legal obligations to give disabled students an equal chance to compete in extracurricular sports alongside their able-bodied classmates.[81]

Educating children with disabilities

The federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to ensure that all government-run schools provide services to meet the individual needs of students with special needs, as defined by the law.[82] All students with special needs are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

Schools meet with the parents or guardians to develop an Individualized Education Program that determines best placement for the child. Students must be placed in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that is appropriate for the student's needs. Public schools that fail to provide an appropriate placement for students with special needs can be taken to due process wherein parents may formally submit their grievances and demand appropriate services for the child.

Nationwide, 62% of students with disabilities attending public schools graduate high school.[83]


At-risk students (those with educational needs that are not associated with a disability) are often placed in classes with students with minor emotional and social disabilities.[84] Critics assert that placing at-risk students in the same classes as these disabled students may impede the educational progress of both the at-risk and the disabled students. Some research has refuted this assertion, and has suggested this approach increases the academic and behavioral skills of the entire student population.[85]

Public and private schools

In the United States, state and local government have primary responsibility for education. The Federal Department of Education plays a role in standards setting and education finance, and some primary and secondary schools, for the children of military employees, are run by the Department of Defense.[86]

K–12 students in most areas have a choice between free tax-funded public schools, or privately funded private schools.

Public school systems are supported by a combination of local, state, and federal government funding. Because a large portion of school revenues come from local property taxes, public schools vary widely in the resources they have available per student. Class size also varies 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, a locally elected school board runs schools. The school board appoints an official called the superintendent of schools to manage the schools in the district.

Local property taxes for public school funding may have disadvantages depending on how wealthy or poor these cities may be. Some of the disadvantages may be not having the proper electives of students interest or advanced placement courses to further the knowledge and education of these students. Cases such as these limit students and causes inequality in education because there is no easy way to gain access to those courses since the education system might not view them as necessary. The public education system does provide the classes needed to obtain a GED (General Education Development) and obtain a job or pursue higher education.[87]

The largest public school system in the United States is in New York City, where more than one million students are taught in 1,200 separate public schools. Because of its immense size – there are more students in the system than residents in the eight smallest US states – the New York City public school system is nationally influential in determining standards and materials, such as textbooks.

Admission to individual public schools is usually based on residency. To compensate for differences in school quality based on geography, school systems serving large cities and portions of large cities often have magnet schools that provide enrollment to a specified number of non-resident students in addition to serving all resident students. This special enrollment is usually decided by lottery with equal numbers of males and females chosen. Some magnet schools cater to gifted students or to students with special interests, such as the sciences or performing arts.[88]

Private schools in the United States include parochial schools (affiliated with religious denominations),[89] non-profit independent schools, and for-profit private schools. Private schools charge varying rates depending on geographic location, the school's expenses, and the availability of funding from sources, other than tuition. For example, some churches partially subsidize private schools for their members. Some people have argued that when their child attends a private school, they should be able to take the funds that the public school no longer needs and apply that money towards private school tuition in the form of vouchers. This is the basis of the school choice movement.

5,072,451 students attended 33,740 private elementary and secondary schools in 2007. 74.5% of these were Caucasian, non-Hispanic, 9.8% were African American, 9.6% were Hispanic. 5.4% were Asian or Pacific Islander, and .6% were American Indian. Average school size was 150.3 students. There were 456,266 teachers. The number of students per teacher was about 11. 65% of seniors in private schools in 2006-7 went on to attend a 4-year college.[90]

Private schools have various missions: some cater to college-bound students seeking a competitive edge in the college admissions process; others are for gifted students, students with learning disabilities or other special needs, or students with specific religious affiliations. Some cater to families seeking a small school, with a nurturing, supportive environment. Unlike public school systems, private schools have no legal obligation to accept any interested student. Admission to some private schools is often highly selective. Private schools also have the ability to permanently expel persistently unruly students, a disciplinary option not legally available to public school systems.

Private schools offer the advantages of smaller classes, under twenty students in a typical elementary classroom, for example; a higher teacher/student ratio across the school day, greater individualized attention and in the more competitive schools, expert college placement services. Unless specifically designed to do so, private schools usually cannot offer the services required by students with serious or multiple learning, emotional, or behavioral issues. Although reputed to pay lower salaries than public school systems, private schools often attract teachers by offering high-quality professional development opportunities, including tuition grants for advanced degrees. According to elite private schools themselves, this investment in faculty development helps maintain the high quality program that they offer.

An August 17, 2000 article by the Chicago Sun-Times refers to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Catholic Schools as the largest private school system in the United States.[91]

Funding for K–12 schools

According to a 2005 report from the OECD, the United States is tied for first place with Switzerland when it comes to annual spending per student on its public schools, with each of those two countries spending more than $11,000.[92] However, the United States is ranked 37th in the world in education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. All but seven of the leading countries are developing countries; ranked high because of a low GDP.[93]

Figures exist for education spending in the United States, both total and per student, and by state and school district. They show a very wide range in spending, but due to the varying spending policies and circumstances among school districts, a cost-effectiveness analysis is very difficult to perform.[94][95][96][97]

Changes in funding appear to have little effect on a school system's performance. Between 1970 and 2012, the full amount spent by all levels of government on the K-12 education of an individual public school student graduating in any given year, adjusted for inflation, increased by 185%. The average funding by state governments increased by 120% per student. However, scores in mathematics, science and language arts over that same period remained almost unchanged. Multi-year periods in which a state's funding per student declined substantially also appear to have had little effect.[98]

Property taxes as a primary source of funding for public education have become highly controversial, for a number of reasons. First, if a state's population and land values escalate rapidly, many longtime residents may find themselves paying property taxes much higher than anticipated. In response to this phenomenon, California's citizens passed Proposition 13 in 1978, which severely restricted the ability of the Legislature to expand the state's educational system to keep up with growth. Some states, such as Michigan, have investigated or implemented alternate schemes for funding education that may sidestep the problems of funding based mainly on property taxes by providing funding based on sales or income tax. These schemes also have failings, negatively impacting funding in a slow economy.[99]

One of the biggest debates in funding public schools is funding by local taxes or state taxes. The federal government supplies around 8.5% of the public school system funds, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics."Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education, Table 1". National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved June 4, 2014.  The remaining split between state and local governments averages 48.7 percent from states and 42.8 percent from local sources.[100]

Rural schools struggle with funding concerns. State funding sources often favor wealthier districts. The state establishes a minimum flat amount deemed "adequate" to educate a child based on equalized assessed value of property taxes. This favors wealthier districts with a much larger tax base. This, combined with the history of slow payment in the state, leaves rural districts searching for funds. Lack of funding leads to limited resources for teachers. Resources that directly relate to funding include access to high-speed internet, online learning programs and advanced course offerings.[70] These resources can enhance a student's learning opportunities, but may not be available to everyone if a district cannot afford to offer specific programs. One study found that school districts spend less efficiently in areas in which they face little or no competition from other public schools, in large districts, and in areas in which residents are poor or less educated.[101][102]

Judicial intervention

The reliance on local funding sources has led to a long history of court challenges about how states fund their schools. These challenges have relied on interpretations of state constitutions after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school funding was not a matter of the U.S. Constitution (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)). The state court cases, beginning with the California case of Serrano v. Priest, 5 Cal.3d 584 (1971), were initially concerned with equity in funding, which was defined in terms of variations in spending across local school districts. More recently, state court cases have begun to consider what has been called 'adequacy.' These cases have questioned whether the total amount of spending was sufficient to meet state constitutional requirements. Perhaps the most famous adequacy case is Abbott v. Burke, 100 N.J. 269, 495 A.2d 376 (1985), which has involved state court supervision over several decades and has led to some of the highest spending of any U.S. districts in the so-called Abbott districts. The background and results of these cases are analyzed in a book by Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth.[103] That analysis concludes that funding differences are not closely related to student outcomes and thus that the outcomes of the court cases have not led to improved policies.

In McCleary v. Washington State (2012),[104] Supreme Court decision that found the state had failed to "amply" fund public education for Washington's 1 million school children. Washington state had budgeted $18.2 billion for education spending in the two-year fiscal period ending in July 2015. The state Supreme Court decided that this budget must be boosted by $3.3 billion in total by July 2019. On September 11, 2014, the state Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt for failing to uphold a court order to come up with a plan to boost its education budget by billions of dollars over the next five years. The state had argued that it had adequately funded education and said diverting tax revenue could lead to shortfalls in other public services.[105]


While the hiring teachers for public schools is done at the local school district level, the pension funds for teachers are usually managed at the state level. Some states have significant deficits when future requirements for teacher pensions are examined. In 2014, these were projected deficits for various states: Illinois -$187 billion, Connecticut -$57 billion, Kentucky -$41 billion, Hawaii -$16.5 billion, and Louisiana -$45.6 billion. These deficits range from 184% to 318% of these states annual total budget.[106]

Test performance for primary and secondary schools

The test scores of students attending U.S. public schools are lower than student scores in schools of other developed countries, in the areas of reading, math, and science.[107]

Out of 21 industrialized countries, U.S. 12th graders ranked 19th in math, 16th in science, and last in advanced physics.

Higher education

Educational attainment in the United States, Age 25 and Over (2009)[108]
Education Percentage
High school graduate 86.68%
Some college 55.60%
Associate and/or bachelor's degree 38.54%
Bachelor's degree 29.0%
Master's degree 7.62%
Doctorate or professional degree 2.94%
A building of New York Institute of Technology on its Manhattan campus
A group of people in suits standing in three rows on the steps in front of a stone building.
The University of Chicago team that worked on the production of the world's first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, including Enrico Fermi in the front row and Leó Szilárd in the second.

Higher education in the United States is an optional final stage of formal learning following secondary education, often at one of the 4,495 colleges or universities and junior colleges in the country.[109] In 2008, 36% of enrolled students graduated from college in four years. 57% completed their undergraduate requirements in six years, at the same college they first enrolled in.[110] The U.S. ranks 10th among industrial countries for percentage of adults with college degrees.[30] Over the past 40 years the gap in graduation rates for wealthy students and low income students has widened significantly. 77% of the wealthiest quartile of students obtained undergraduate degrees by age 24 in 2013, up from 40% in 1970. 9% of the least affluent quartile obtained degrees by the same age in 2013, up from 6% in 1970.[111]

Like high school, the four undergraduate grades are commonly called freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years (alternatively called first year, second year, etc.). Students traditionally apply for admission into colleges. Schools differ in their competitiveness and reputation. Admissions criteria involve the rigor and grades earned in high school courses taken, the students' GPA, class ranking, and standardized test scores (Such as the SAT or the ACT tests). Most colleges also consider more subjective factors such as a commitment to extracurricular activities, a personal essay, and an interview. While colleges will rarely list that they require a certain standardized test score, class ranking, or GPA for admission, each college usually has a rough threshold below which admission is unlikely.

Once admitted, students engage in undergraduate study, which consists of satisfying university and class requirements to achieve a bachelor's degree in a field of concentration known as a major. (Some students enroll in double majors or "minor" in another field of study.) The most common method consists of four years of study leading to a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), or sometimes another bachelor's degree such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.), Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.,) or Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) Five-Year Professional Architecture programs offer the Bachelor of Architecture Degree (B.Arch.)

Professional degrees such as law, medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry, are offered as graduate study after earning at least three years of undergraduate schooling or after earning a bachelor's degree depending on the program. These professional fields do not require a specific undergraduate major, though medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry have set prerequisite courses that must be taken before enrollment.

Some students choose to attend a community college for two years prior to further study at another college or university. In most states, community colleges are operated either by a division of the state university or by local special districts subject to guidance from a state agency. Community colleges may award Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree after two years. Those seeking to continue their education may transfer to a four-year college or university (after applying through a similar admissions process as those applying directly to the four-year institution, see articulation). Some community colleges have automatic enrollment agreements with a local four-year college, where the community college provides the first two years of study and the university provides the remaining years of study, sometimes all on one campus. The community college awards the associate degree, and the university awards the bachelor's and master's degrees.

Graduate study, conducted after obtaining an initial degree and sometimes after several years of professional work, leads to a more advanced degree such as a master's degree, which could be a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Master of Business Administration (MBA), or other less common master's degrees such as Master of Education (MEd), and Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Some students pursue a graduate degree that is in between a master's degree and a doctoral degree called a Specialist in Education (Ed.S.).

After additional years of study and sometimes in conjunction with the completion of a master's degree and/or Ed.S. degree, students may earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), a first professional degree, or other doctoral degree, such as Doctor of Arts, Doctor of Education, Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Pharmacy, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Doctor of Podiatry Medicine, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Doctor of Psychology, or Juris Doctor. Some programs, such as medicine and psychology, have formal apprenticeship procedures post-graduation, such as residencies and internships, which must be completed after graduation and before one is considered 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 to legally practice law in nearly all states).

Entrance into graduate programs usually depends upon a student's undergraduate academic performance or professional experience as well as their score on a standardized entrance exam like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE-graduate schools in general), the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), or the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Many graduate and law schools do not require experience after earning a bachelor's degree to enter their programs; however, business school candidates are usually required to gain a few years of professional work experience before applying. 8.9 percent of students receive postgraduate degrees. Most, after obtaining their bachelor's degree, proceed directly into the workforce.[112]


Study comparing college revenue per student by tuition and state funding in 2008 dollars.[113]
Cost of US college education relative to the consumer price index (inflation).

A few charity institutions cover all of the students' tuition, although scholarships (both merit-based and need-based) are widely available. Generally, private universities charge much higher tuition than their public counterparts, which rely on state funds to make up the difference. Because each state supports its own university system with state taxes, most public universities charge much higher rates for out-of-state students.

Annual undergraduate tuition varies widely from state to state, and many additional fees apply. In 2009, average annual tuition at a public university (for residents of the state) was $7,020.[110] Tuition for public school students from outside the state is generally comparable to private school prices, although students can often qualify for 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 $50,000. Note that these prices do not include living expenses (rent, room/board, etc.) or additional fees that schools add on such as "activities fees" or health insurance. These fees, especially room and board, can range from $6,000 to $12,000 per academic year (assuming a single student without children).[114]

The mean annual Total Cost (including all costs associated with a full-time post-secondary schooling, such as tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board), as reported by for 2010:[115]

Total, four-year schooling:

College costs are rising at the same time that state appropriations for aid are shrinking. This has led to debate over funding at both the state and local levels. From 2002 to 2004 alone, tuition rates at public schools increased over 14 percent, largely due to dwindling state funding. An increase of 6 percent occurred over the same period for private schools.[114] Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose three times as fast as median family income, in constant dollars.[116]

From the US Census Bureau, the median salary of an individual who has only a high school diploma is $27,967; The median salary of an individual who has a bachelor's degree is $47,345.[117] Certain degrees, such as in engineering, typically result in salaries far exceeding high school graduates, whereas degrees in teaching and social work fall below.

The debt of the average college graduate for student loans in 2010 was $23,200.[118]

A 2010 study indicates that the return on investment for graduating from the top 1000 colleges exceeds 4% over a high school degree.[119]

According to Uni in the USA, "One of the reasons American universities have thrived is due to their remarkable management of financial resources."[120] To combat costs colleges have hired adjunct professors to teach. In 2008 these teachers cost about $1,800 per 3-credit class as opposed to $8,000 per class for a tenured professor. Two-thirds of college instructors were adjuncts. There are differences of opinion whether these adjuncts teach better or worse than regular professors. There is a suspicion that student evaluation of adjuncts, along with their subsequent continued employment, can lead to grade inflation.[121]

The status ladder

American college and university faculty, staff, alumni, students, and applicants monitor rankings produced by magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, Washington Monthly, Academic Ranking of World Universities, test preparation services such as The Princeton Review or another university itself such as the Top American Research Universities by the University of Florida's The Center.[122] These rankings are based on factors like brand recognition, selectivity in admissions, generosity of alumni donors, and volume of faculty research. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 27 of the top 50 universities, and 72 institutions of the top 200, are located within the United States.[123] The US has thereby more than twice as many universities represented in the top 200 as does the country with the next highest number, the United Kingdom, which has 29. A small percentage of students who apply to these schools gain admission.[124]

Included among the top 20 institutions identified by ARWU in 2009 are six of the eight schools in the Ivy League; 4 of the 10 schools in the University of California system (Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco); the private Universities of Stanford, Chicago, and Johns Hopkins; the public Universities of Washington and Wisconsin; and the Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology.[125]

Also renowned within the United States are the so-called Little Ivies and a number of prestigious liberal arts colleges. Certain public universities (sometimes referred to as Public Ivies) are also recognized for their outstanding record in scholarship. Some of these institutions currently place among the elite in certain measurements of graduate education and research, especially among engineering and medical schools.[126][127]

Each state in the United States maintains its own public university system, which is always non-profit. The State University of New York and the California State University are the largest public higher education systems in the United States; SUNY is the largest system that includes community colleges, while CSU is the largest without. Most areas also have private institutions, which may be for-profit or non-profit. Unlike many other nations, there are no public universities at the national level outside of the military service academies.

Prospective students applying to attend four of the five military academies require, with limited exceptions, nomination by a member of Congress. Like acceptance to "top tier" universities, competition for these limited nominations is intense and must be accompanied by superior scholastic achievement and evidence of "leadership potential."

Aside from these aforementioned schools, academic reputations vary widely among the 'middle-tier' of American schools, (and even among academic departments within each of these schools.) Most public and private institutions fall into this 'middle' range. Some institutions feature honors colleges or other rigorous programs that challenge academically exceptional students, who might otherwise attend a 'top-tier' college.[128][129] Aware of the status attached to the perception of the college that they attend, students often apply to a range of schools. Some apply to a relatively prestigious school with a low acceptance rate, gambling on the chance of acceptance but, as a backup, also apply to a safety school.[130]

Lower status institutions include community colleges. These are primarily two-year public institutions, which individual states usually require to accept all local residents who seek admission, and offer associate's degrees or vocational certificate programs. Many community colleges have relationships with four-year state universities and colleges or even private universities that enable their students to transfer to these universities for a four-year degree after completing a two-year program at the community college.

Regardless of perceived prestige, many institutions feature at least one distinguished academic department, and most post-secondary American students attend one of the 2,400 four-year colleges and universities or 1,700 two-year colleges not included among the twenty-five or so 'top-tier' institutions.[131]


Economics professor Alan Zagier blames credential inflation for the admission of so many unqualified students into college. He reports that the number of new jobs requiring college degrees is less than the number of college graduates.[30] He states that the more money that a state spends on higher education, the slower the economy grows, the opposite of long held notions.[30] Other studies have shown that the level of cognitive achievement attained by students in a country (as measured by academic testing) is closely correlated with the country's economic growth, but that "increasing the average number of years of schooling attained by the labor force boosts the economy only when increased levels of school attainment also boost cognitive skills. In other words, it is not enough simply to spend more time in school; something has to be learned there."[132]

Funding for college

At the college and university level 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.[133]

Grant funding is provided by the federal Pell Grant program.


Major educational issues in the United States center on curriculum and control. Of critical importance, because of its enormous implications on education and funding, is the No Child Left Behind Act.[66]

American education crisis

It has been alleged, since the 1950s and especially in recent years, that American schooling is undergoing a crisis in which academic performance is behind other countries, such as Russia, Japan, or China, in core subjects. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 in an attempt to rectify these problems, and a series of other legislative acts in later decades such as No Child Left Behind. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, however, American students of 2012 ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading compared with students in 27 other countries.[134] In 2013, Amanda Ripley published The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way), a comparative study of how the American education system differs from top-performing countries such as Finland and South Korea.

Recent allegations take the perspective of employers who demand more vocational training. Although voters in both major parties have been critical of the Common Core initiative, most politicians who are highly outspoken against it today are Republicans.[135]

Affirmative action

Acceptance Rates at Private Universities (2005)[136]
Overall Admit Rate Black Admit Rate % Difference
Harvard 10.0% 16.7% + 67.0%
MIT 15.9% 31.6% + 98.7%
Brown 16.6% 26.3% + 58.4%
Penn 21.2% 30.1% + 42.0%
Georgetown 22.0% 30.7% + 39.5%

In 2003 a Supreme Court decision concerning affirmative action in universities allowed educational institutions to consider race as a factor in admitting students, but ruled that strict point systems are unconstitutional.[137] Opponents of racial affirmative action argue that the program actually benefits middle- and upper-class people of color at the expense of lower class European Americans and Asian Americans.[138]

Prominent African American academics Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier, while favoring affirmative action, have argued that in practice, it has led to recent black immigrants and their children being greatly overrepresented at elite institutions, at the expense of the historic African American community made up of descendants of slaves.[139] In 2006, Jian Li, a Chinese undergraduate at Yale University, filed a civil rights complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against Princeton University, stating that his race played a role in their decision to reject his application for admission.[140]


Educational attainment since 1940.[141]

The rise of the high school movement in the beginning of the 20th century was unique in the United States, such that, high schools were implemented with property-tax funded tuition, openness, non-exclusivity, and were decentralized.

The academic curriculum was designed to provide the students with a terminal degree. The students obtained general knowledge (such as mathematics, chemistry, English composition, etc.) applicable to the high geographic and social mobility in the United States. The provision of the high schools accelerated with the rise of the second industrial revolution. The increase in white collar and skilled blue-collar work in manufacturing was reflected in the demand for high school education.

In the 21st century, the educational attainment of the US population is similar to that of many other industrialized countries with the vast majority of the population having completed secondary education and a rising number of college graduates that outnumber high school dropouts. As a whole, the population of the United States is becoming increasingly more educated.[141]

Post-secondary education is valued very highly by American society and is one of the main determinants of class and status. As with income, however, there are significant discrepancies in terms of race, age, household configuration and geography.[142]

Since the 1980s the number of educated Americans has continued to grow, but at a slower rate. Some have attributed this to an increase in the foreign born portion of the workforce. However, the decreasing growth of the educational workforce has instead been primarily due to slowing down in educational attainment of people schooled in the United States.[143]

Student ability and college graduation rates

Despite the demonstrated link between economic growth and education standards, high schools and colleges sharply disagree about the college readiness of high school graduates, in that 44% of college faculty believe that incoming students are not ready for writing at the college level, while 90% of high school teachers believe exiting students are well-prepared. Despite having a high school diploma that includes a college-preparatory curriculum, along with appropriate high school exit examination scores, 60% of first-year college students must take noncredit remedial courses in order to bring their literary and mathematical skills up to an adequate level. Even then, only 58% of students in four-year programs at public colleges will have graduated after six years. The cause cannot be excessively demanding college courses, since grade inflation has made those courses increasingly easy in recent decades. [144][145][146][147]

Gender differences

Males have underperformed females for a number of years. On average, females stand higher in their classes and perform well in all subjects. This is a turnaround from the early 20th century when males usually outperformed females. Parents and educators are concerned about how to motivate males to become better students.[148]

Racial achievement differences

NAEP reading long-term trends for ages 9 (light gray), 13 (dark gray), and 17 (black).

The racial achievement gap in the US refers to the educational disparities between Black and Hispanic students compared with Asian and Caucasian students.[149] This disparity manifests itself in a variety of ways: African-American and Hispanic students are more likely to receive lower grades, score lower on standardized tests, drop out of high school, and are less likely to enter and complete college.[150]

Several reasons have been suggested for these disparities.

One explanation is the disparity in income that exists between African Americans and Whites. This school of thought argues that the origin of this "wealth gap" is the slavery and racism that made it extremely difficult for African-Americans to accumulate wealth for almost 100 years after slavery was abolished. A comparable history of discrimination created a similar gap between Hispanics and Whites. This results in many minority children being born into low socioeconomic backgrounds, which in turn affects educational opportunities.[151]

Another explanation has to do with family structure. Professor Lino Graglia has suggested that Blacks and Hispanics are falling behind in education because they are increasingly raised in single-parent families.[152][153]

A third explanation which has been suggested, by, for example University of California, Berkeley Professor Arthur Jensen, in a controversial paper published in 1969, is that there is an innate difference in intelligence between blacks and whites. Other publications are critical of Jensen's methods and disagree with his conclusions. The idea that the difference in achievement is primarily genetic is controversial,[154] and few members of the academic community accept these findings as fact.[155][156]

Other explanations offered for the racial achievement gap include: social class, institutional racism, lower quality of schools and teachers in minority communities, and civil injustice. Most authors mention several such factors as influential on outcomes, both in the United States[157] and world-wide.[158]

International comparison

In the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment 2003, which emphasizes problem solving, American 15-year-olds ranked 24th of 38 in mathematics, 19th of 38 in science, 12th of 38 in reading, and 26th of 38 in problem solving.[159] In the 2006 assessment, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 57 in mathematics and 29th out of 57 in science. Reading scores could not be reported due to printing errors in the instructions of the U.S. test booklets. U.S. scores were behind those of most other developed nations.[160]

However, the picture changes when low achievers, Blacks and Hispanics, in the U.S. are broken out by race. White and Asian students in the United States are generally among the best-performing pupils in the world; black and Hispanic students in the U.S. are among the lowest-achieving pupils. Black and Hispanic students in the US do out perform their counterparts in all African and Hispanic countries.[161][162]

US fourth and eighth graders tested above average on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests, which emphasizes traditional learning.[163]

The United States is one of three OECD countries where the government spends more on schools in rich neighborhoods than in poor neighborhoods, with the others being Turkey and Israel.[164]

Poor education also carries on as students age. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) administer another survey called the Survey of Adult Skills, which is a part of its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). In the most recent survey done in 2013, 33 nations took part with adults ages 16 to 65 in numeracy, literacy and problem-solving. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) found that millennials- age from teens to early 30’s scored low. Millennials in Spain and Italy scored lower than those in the U.S., while in numeracy, the three countries tied for last. U.S. millennials came in last among all 33 nations for problem-solving skills.[165]

Wider economic impact

Current education trends in the United States represent multiple achievement gaps across ethnicities, income levels, and geography. In an economic analysis, consulting firm McKinsey & Company reports that closing the educational achievement gap between the United States and nations such as Finland and Korea would have increased US GDP by 9-to-16% in 2008.[166]

Narrowing the gap between white students and black and Hispanic students would have added another 2-4% GDP, while closing the gap between poor and other students would have yielded a 3-to-5% increase in GDP, and that of under-performing states and the rest of the nation another 3-to-5% GDP. In sum, McKinsey's report suggests, "These educational gaps impose on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."[166]

Overall the households and demographics featuring the highest educational attainment in the United States are also among those with the highest household income and wealth. Thus, while the population of the US is becoming increasingly educated on all levels, a direct link between income and educational attainment remains.[142]

ACT Inc. reports that 25% of US graduating high school seniors meet college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, mathematics, and science.[167] Including the 22% of students who do not graduate on time, fewer than 20% of the American youth, who should graduate high school each year, do so prepared for college.[168] The United States has fallen behind the rest of the developed world in education, creating a global achievement gap that alone costs the nation 9-to-16% of potential GDP each year.[169]

In 2007, Americans stood second only to Canada in the percentage of 35- to 64-year-olds holding at least two-year degrees. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the country stands tenth. The nation stands 15 out of 29 rated nations for college completion rates, slightly above Mexico and Turkey.[116]

A five-year, $14 million study of U.S. adult literacy involving lengthy interviews of U.S. adults, the most comprehensive study of literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government,[170] was released in September 1993. It involved lengthy interviews of over 26,700 adults statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the U.S. and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole. This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not "able to locate information in text", could not "make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were unable to "integrate easily identifiable pieces of information."[170]

The U.S. Department of Education's 2003 statistics indicated that 14% of the population – or 32 million adults – had very low literacy skills.[171] Statistics were similar in 2013.[172]


A 2011 study found that students who were expelled were three times as likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system the following school year.[173]

Corporal punishment

The United States is one of the very few developed countries where corporal punishment is officially permitted and practiced in its public schools, even if it since the 1970s has been banned in many states. The punishment virtually always consists of spanking the buttocks of a student with a paddle in a punishment known as "paddling." [174] Although uncommon relative to the overall U.S. student population, more than 167,000 students were paddled in the 2011-2012 school year in American public schools.[175] Virtually all paddling in public schools occurs in the Southern United States, however, with 70% of paddled students living in just five states: Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia.[175] The practice has been on a steady decline in American schools.[176]

School security

For some schools, a police officer, titled a school resource officer, is on site to screen students for firearms and to help avoid disruptions.[177][178]


Main article: Academic dishonesty

In 2006, one survey found that 50% to 95% of American students admitted to having cheated in high school or college at one time or another, results that cast some doubt on measured academic attainment tests.[179]

Charter schools

The charter school movement began in 1990 and have spread rapidly in the United States, members, parents, teachers, and students to allow for the "expression of diverse teaching philosophies and cultural and social life styles." [180]


Curricula in the United States can vary widely from district to district. Different schools offer classes centering on different topics, and vary in quality. Some private schools even include religious classes as mandatory for attendance. This raises the question of government funding vouchers in states with anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments in their constitution. This in turn has produced camps of argument over the standardization of curricula and to what degree it should exist. These same groups often are advocates of standardized testing, which is mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

There is debate over which subjects should receive the most focus, with astronomy and geography among those cited as not being taught enough in schools.[181][182][183]

English in the classroom

Schools in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, teach primarily in English, with the exception of specialized language immersion programs.

Other languages

In 2015, 584,000 students in Puerto Rico were taught in Spanish, their native language.[184]

The Native American Cherokee Nation instigated a 10-year language preservation plan that involved growing new fluent speakers of the Cherokee language from childhood on up through school immersion programs as well as a collaborative community effort to continue to use the language at home.[185][186][187] [188] In 2010, 84 children were being educated in this manner.[189]

Some 9.7 million children aged 5 to 17 primarily speak a language other than English at home. Of those, about 1.3 million children do not speak English well or at all.[190]

Evolution in Kansas

In 1999 the School Board of the state of Kansas caused controversy when it decided to eliminate teaching of evolution in its state assessment tests.[191] Scientists from around the country objected.[192] Many religious and family values groups, on the other hand, stated that evolution is "simply a theory" in the colloquial sense (not the academic sense, which means specific and well supported reasoning),[193] and as such creationist ideas should therefore be taught alongside it as an alternative viewpoint.[194] A majority of the board supported teaching intelligent design and/or creationism in public schools.[195] The new standards, including Intelligent Design, were enacted on November 8, 2005. On February 13, 2007, the board rejected these amended science standards enacted in 2005, overturning the mandate to teach Intelligent Design.[196]

Sex education

Almost all students in the U.S. receive some form of sex education at least once between grades 7 and 12; many schools begin addressing some topics as early as grades 4 or 5.[197] However, what students learn varies widely, because curriculum decisions are so decentralized. Many states have laws governing what is taught in sex education classes or allowing parents to opt out. Some state laws leave curriculum decisions to individual school districts.[198]

For example, a 1999 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that most U.S. sex education courses in grades 7 through 12 cover puberty, HIV, STDs, abstinence, implications of teenage pregnancy, and how to resist peer pressure. Other studied topics, such as methods of birth control and infection prevention, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, and factual and ethical information about abortion, varied more widely.[199]

However, according to a 2004 survey, a majority of the 1001 parent groups polled wants complete sex education in the schools. The American people are heavily divided over the issue. Over 80% of polled parents agreed with the statement "Sex education in school makes it easier for me to talk to my child about sexual issues," while under 17% agreed with the statement that their children were being exposed to "subjects I don't think my child should be discussing." 10 percent believed that their children's sexual education class forced them to discuss sexual issues "too early." On the other hand, 49 percent of the respondents (the largest group) were "somewhat confident" that the values taught in their children's sex ed classes were similar to those taught at home, and 23 percent were less confident still. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percent.)[200]

According to The 74, an American education news website, the United States uses two methods to teach sex education. Comprehensive sex education focuses on sexual risk reduction. This method focuses on the benefits of contraception and safe sex. The abstinence-emphasized curriculum focuses on sexual risk avoidance, discouraging activity that could become a "gateway" to sexual activities.[201]

Textbook review and adoption

In some states, textbooks are selected for all students at the state level, and decisions made by larger states, such as California and Texas, that represent a considerable market for textbook publishers and can exert influence over the content of textbooks generally, thereby influencing the curriculum taught in public schools,[202]

In 2010, the Texas Board of Education passed more than 100 amendments to the curriculum standards, affecting history, sociology and economics courses to 'add balance' given that academia was 'skewed too far to the left'.[203] One specific result of these amendments is to increase education on Moses' influences on the founding of the United States, going as far as calling him a "founding father".[204]

This effect is however reduced with modern publishing techniques which allow books to be tailored to individual states.[203]

As of January 2009, the four largest college textbook publishers in the United States were: Pearson Education (including such imprints as Addison-Wesley and Prentice Hall), Cengage Learning (formerly Thomson Learning), McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Other US textbook publishers include: John Wiley & Sons, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, F. A. Davis Company, W. W. Norton & Company, SAGE Publications, and Flat World Knowledge.


Currently, the state and national governments share power over public education, with the states exercising most of the control. Except for Hawaii, states delegate power to county, city or township-level school boards that excersize control over a school district. Some school districts may further delegate significant authority to principals, such as those who have adopted the Portfolio strategy.

The U.S. federal government exercises its control through the U.S. Department of Education. Education is not mentioned in the constitution of the United States, but the federal government uses the threat of decreased funding to enforce laws pertaining to education.[86] Under recent administrations, initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top have attempted to assert more central control in a heavily decentralized system.

Nonprofit private schools are widespread, are largely independent of the government, and include secular as well as parochial schools. Educational accreditation decisions for private schools are made by voluntary regional associations.

Tracking (streaming)

Tracking is the practice of dividing students at the primary or secondary school level into classes on the basis of ability or achievement. One common use is to offer different curricula for students preparing for college and for those preparing for direct entry into technical schools or the workplace.

Reading and writing habits

Libraries have been considered important to educational goals.[205] Library books are more readily available to Americans than to people in Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria and all the Mediterranean nations. The average American borrowed more library books in 2001 than his or her peers in Germany, Austria, Norway, Ireland, Luxembourg, France and throughout the Mediterranean.[206] Americans buy more books than people in Europe.[206]

Teachers have been frustrated with lack of parent involvement in the learning process, particularly in the earlier grades. Children spend about 26% of their time in school, sleep 40%, leaving about 34% of their time left-over.[207] Teachers believe that parents are not supervising their children's free time to encourage the learning process, such as basic literacy, which is crucial not only to later success in life, but also to keeping them out of prison.[208]

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Further reading



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

External links

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