The Educational Structure of the United States School System

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 1999

7 Pages, Grade: 14

Free online reading

Autor: Samuel Brandt

The Educational Structure of the United States School System

1 Introduction

The United States education system is divided into three levels: elementary (or primary), secondary, and higher education:

Elementary schools are those schools enrolling students in the first through sixth grades. (In some statistical literature elementary school encompasses students through the eighth grade.) They may also include kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes.

Secondary schools enrol students in the 7th through the 12th grades. Successful completion of the 12th grade results in the awarding of a high school diploma, which represents a significant achievement in an adolescent's life. The high school diploma is a prerequisite step for entrance into an institution of higher education and is becoming increasingly important for employment. Higher education includes all students enrolled in postsecondary educational institutions.

Although the United States education system is distinguished by the three main levels of elementary, secondary, and higher education, some school districts further subdivide their elementary and secondary student populations to create separate schools at the middle school or junior high level. Middle schools generally encompass the fifth through the eighth grades and junior high schools generally encompass the seventh through the ninth grades. The structure of a school system is the result of decisions made at the community level, and is often influenced by factors such as population growth, funding sources, and availability of appropriate structural facilities. As a result, the use of middle schools or junior highs as an intermediate step from the elementary level to the secondary level varies from school district to school district.

2 Curricular Structure

Although minimum requirements exist for each level of the educational system, the curriculum is most structured at the elementary school level and becomes less structured as students progress into junior high and high school. Throughout all levels, programs exist in varying degrees to meet the needs of all students: those planning to attend college, those needing vocational education, and those needing some form of special education.

2.1 Elementary Level

At the elementary level, academic subject courses generally consist of language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science. However, a significant portion of the school day is often spent in required non-academic courses such as art, music, drama, dance, and physical education. One study of 38 schools found that only 54 percent of the weekly instructional time at the elementary level was devoted to reading, language arts, and mathematics.

2.2 Secondary Level

Academic courses continue to maintain a strong presence in the curriculum through junior and senior high. However, there is a definite decline in the emphasis on academic courses, since the curricular and noncurricular options are so numerous at this level. Although a basic set of classes is required for graduation, students are able to supplement these with a variety of elective classes. A recent study by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning showed that in 42 states, only 41 percent of secondary school time must be spent on academic subjects. The number and type of elective classes available to particular students will depend almost entirely on the school in which they are enrolled. Funding often plays a determining role in a school's ability to provide elective courses, and therefore the poorer school districts are able to offer fewer educational opportunities in the form of elective courses.

Public schools, particularly at the secondary level, accommodate students with diverse interests and ability levels by providing curricular tracks. The U.S. Department of Education's Statistical Profile of Schools and Staffing in the United States for 1990-91, states that 80 percent of all schools with 12th grade offered a college preparatory program with an average enrolment of 60 percent of their 10th- to 12th-grade students. Also, 78 percent of public schools that served 12th-graders offered a general program for students who did not plan to attend college, and in these programs had an average enrolment of 45 percent of 10th- to 12th- graders.

2.3 Vocational Education

Vocational education classes are provided within the public secondary schools. In most cases, students interested in vocational courses do not attend a separate secondary school or follow a predetermined series of courses toward mastery of a particular trade. Instead, students integrate one or more vocational courses of their choosing into their course schedule, and in many junior and senior high schools, vocational education emerges as a subject nearly paralleling social studies and science in emphasis. However, the delivery of secondary vocational education can vary from state to state and even within states and school districts. Many states rely on area vocational schools to provide vocational classes that supplement the local high schools' curricular offerings, and in some large city school districts, full-time vocational high schools offer a complete program of academic and vocational studies. These vocational high schools differ only in that their focus is vocational rather than academic, and despite their vocational focus, graduates are permitted to progress to postsecondary educational institutions.

3 Alternative Paths for Completion of Secondary Education

To enrol in postsecondary programs-such as vocational-training programs, two-year community college programs, or four-year colleges-students must have a high school diploma or, alternatively, a certificate of General Educational Development (GED). Students not continuing in postsecondary programs have also found that a high school diploma or GED is a basic requirement for employment as well as a key to career advancement in the workplace. Individuals who dropped out of high school can later complete their high school education or earn their GED by enrolling in adult education classes through their local school district. Like K-12 education, adult education is not standardized on a national level. Although the program requirements are mandated in a general way at the state level, they vary by school district primarily because the actual development and implementation of adult education classes occurs at the school district level.

The requirements for receipt of a high school diploma through adult education programs are significantly different from GED requirements. Adult education students may decide to pursue the high school diploma directly or may enrol in adult high school classes following receipt of their GED. To earn a high school diploma, an adult must enrol in adult high school classes and complete a specific number of courses in specific subject areas, such as English, mathematics and science, social studies (including U.S. history and government), and computer skills. The remaining required credits are electives from either an academic or vocational track. Attendance is mandatory for registered students, and their coursework is graded.

Many people attend adult education programs. In 1991 alone, 1.180.846 people participated in adult secondary education programs with the goal of obtaining either the GED or a high school diploma.

Most GEDs are awarded to young adults after they fairly quickly realize that a certificate of high school equivalency is important to their future employment possibilities. Statistics on unemployment rates appear to confirm the need for a high school diploma or GED. In 1992, the highest unemployment rates were among those without high school diplomas. Unemployment for non-high school graduates who were between 20 and 24 years old was 22,3 percent, in contrast to the national average for unemployment, which was approximately 7 percent.

4 Funding Sources

Traditionally, public education at the elementary and secondary level in America has been primarily the responsibility of state and local governments, which contribute about 92 percent of the nation's total spending for education. Such decentralized control over schools and their funding has led to variability in educational opportunities within public school systems. To address this variability as well as the lack of responsiveness to the needs of certain student populations, the federal government began to increase its involvement in education in the 1960s. As federal legislation was passed to provide support for these populations through a series of categorical grants designed to promote equal opportunity, regulations concerning the use of funds were put into place, and schools were held accountable for how the money was used.

The first significant piece of legislation that provided federal funding to public schools was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A major section of the law, Title I, allocates funds to school districts to expand and improve educational programs for children from low- income families. Subsequent federal legislation has provided funding for other populations that have traditionally not been fully served by the public schools, such as children for whom English is a second language, and children with physical and mental disabilities.

Private schools support themselves almost entirely through tuition fees. Although private schools are eligible for some support from federal grants to provide equal education opportunities for students targeted by federal legislation-students with disabilities or students for whom English is a second language-in order to receive federal grants they must agree to provide these programs in a nonreligious fashion.

5 Administration

School districts are usually divided into levels (elementary and secondary) according to the ages of students. In larger districts, each level is also divided into geographic regions. The superintendent of schools is the chief administrator of a public school district. The superintendent is responsible for the administrative activity within the district, including the management of finances and personnel, the maintenance of buildings and other physical resources, and interaction with agencies of federal and state governments. Although superintendents oversee all activity within school districts, school principals assist them in the management of schools.

Principals administer individual schools. In larger schools, they may be aided by one or more assistant principals. They are responsible for preparing a budget for their school and are accountable to the superintendent of the district for the use of funds. In addition, the principal is responsible for the assignment of children to specific teachers, allocation of learning materials to classrooms, arrangement of a schedule, establishment of disciplinary standards and school policies, and assessment of districtwide instructional goals.

Teachers are responsible for the instruction in their classrooms and for the suborganization of the class for instructional purposes. They work with the administration and the school board on curricular and extracurricular matters and report to the principal of the school on matters of instruction and discipline. Teachers at the elementary level are sometimes assisted in their classroom by teacher's aides or community volunteers. Although team teaching is becoming more popular at the elementary level along with other experimental teaching practices now in limited use across the United States, most elementary teachers are responsible for teaching multiple subjects to a single class of students. At the secondary level, teachers specialize in subject areas and are assigned to teach particular subjects.

6 My own impression

Students under the age of 16, usually go to school by bus. Because of this, a huge school bus system is needed. There are thousands of students who need to be taken to school and home again. Those yellow coaches, which are well-known in Germany, make it possible to manage this problem.

One week before school starts every student has to sign up for his/her classes. There are just a couple of classes, which are mandatory. But for the rest of the schedule, the student can choose whatever he/she likes. The number of subjects offered is just incredible. I think there was a total of 90 different classes. From car repairing to baby- sitting and gardening, everything is taught.

When I first entered High School, I was overwhelmed by all the things I was confronted with. The halls were very crowded and I had trouble finding my locker and my first period classroom. When I finally got there, I noticed that foreign exchange students are a common thing over there. After introducing myself to the teacher and students, I was treated like I had been there my whole life. I took three easy and three harder classes as my host mom suggested me to take. The harder classes turned out to be as easy as the simple ones and this gave me some time to focus on more important things, such as learning the language and finding friends.

First of all, it seemed that finding friends was easy, but after a period of time, I noticed that the friends I had found were just "school friends". It took a little more effort and time to really get friends with somebody I could spend time after school with. Another very significant difference to German schools is the great variety of equipment that schools can offer to their students. There is enough money to install Internet and at least one TV set in each room. Also, carpet is a must nowadays. For myself, I found the drinking fountains to be very useful. So, you don't have to bother with carrying a bottle around all the time.

It is also very common that each High School has it's own library, equipped with many computers for the use of Internet. There you can write your research papers and rely on professional help from teachers who were employed for just this purpose.

After school, students usually don't go home. There are many activities offered by the school to keep the teenagers off the streets and off drugs. Almost any sport I was able to imagine was available to any student. Even as an exchange student I was allowed to participate in school competitions like soccer or climbing championships.

As a European, you will automatically notice the huge parking lots in front of the school buildings. Almost every student over 16 takes his/her own car to school. In addition to that, there are separate teacher parking lots, which aren't small either. When you are looking for bikes, or even bike wracks, you won't find any of them. Students take either their car or the school bus, but almost nobody takes a bike to school. The very small number of students who take their bike to school, don't park it at school. It is advisable to leave your bike at good friends or you may not have it for very long.

If somebody asked me for reasons why I went to the USA, I probably would ask him/her why

he/she didn't go. There are so many reasons which could be listed on an endless paper. But when I look back today to the year which gave me so much independence, which made me more self-confident, which broadened my horizon, which taught me to solve problems on my own and which gave me a better understanding for people from other nations, I would reply: It's just the experience, which will be forever in your mind and help you through your whole life.

7 Summary

Education through the 12th grade is considered a basic right of each individual in the United States, and is in fact required of all individuals between the ages of 6 and 16. At both the elementary and secondary level, education remains free. Equality of access is also an integral feature of the system. Federally funded programs such as Head Start and Title I operate nation-wide to provide children from low-income families with the pre-school education that will prepare them for elementary school and with additional assistance throughout their early education. Further evidence of the belief that all students should receive equal access to opportunities to learn can be seen in the mainstreaming of both gifted children and children with disabilities. Those who cannot be assimilated into the main classroom usually receive special education within the same school.

Perhaps the most evident characteristic of elementary and secondary education in the United States is its decentralized nature. This decentralized nature of governance allows schools to develop in response to their perceived needs. Individualisation and autonomy are both highly valued in the United States, and grassroots representation is also an important part of the United States political system. These values have played an important role in the historical development of the school district as the primary management system for schools.

Although many argue that the quality of education students receive depends on the wealth of the school district they attend, an increase in state regulations and state funding have begun to provide schools in less affluent districts with better guidance and more equitable access to resources. The number of states that provide curricular guidelines, in an effort to increase the uniformity of academic requirements across all school districts within the state, has dramatically increased since the 1980s. In addition, recent reform movements have returned budgetary and instructional decision-making power, once located primarily at the district level, to school administrators and teachers, so that they can make decisions that best serve the populations enrolled in their school.

7 of 7 pages


The Educational Structure of the United States School System
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Samuel Brandt (Author), 1999, The Educational Structure of the United States School System, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 1/9/2001

    Sehr gut gemacht ! Top!.

    Das ist gelungen!!!!!!! ...

  • guest on 4/6/2002


    Hast du echt gut gemach und mir damit ein bisschen aus der patsche geholfen

  • guest on 3/3/2015

    "become friends with someone" NOT "get friends with someone". Werden=become Bekommen=get.

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