Education system in the United States

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Education system in the United States

The educational system in the United States includes all facilities in the school and higher education sectors. It is divided into three areas: Elementary (Primary) Schools , Secondary Education and Postsecondary Education .


The school system in the United States is due to the federal form of government is a matter for the states , so there is a wide variety of arrangements. Fundamental decisions are made locally at the school district level, so that even within the individual states, for example, the school levels are structured differently from place to place. Additional complexity arises due to the very extensive network of private institutions in addition to state schools.


The first high school in the country's history was Boston English High School, established in 1821 . In contrast to traditional schools, not only the usual subjects (English, geography, history) but also mathematics, natural sciences and modern languages ​​were taught there. In consideration of the growing need for teachers - girls were not accepted into the Boston English High School - the Boston Girl's High and Normal School followed in 1854 . The Central High School was founded in Philadelphia in 1838 and also awarded college degrees from 1849, and in New York City in 1847 the Free Academy of the City of New York .

Compulsory schooling

The regulation of compulsory education ( English Compulsory School Attendance ) is in the United States up to the individual states. It starts at five, six, or seven years and ends at sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen years, depending on the state; the states of Connecticut, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Virginia as well as the District of Columbia have the longest compulsory school attendance with a span of five to eighteen years.

Under certain conditions, school attendance can be replaced by unschooling (child-led learning) or homeschooling ( home schooling ).

As of 2009, approximately 1.5 million children were having home schooling in the United States.

Main differences between the German and the US school system

The American school system does not provide for any “vertical differentiation”, which means that children with different talents are never divided into different types of school - such as grammar school, secondary school or secondary school - but attend the school level designated for their age together. Children with special needs children , e.g. children with intellectual disabilities, attend general schools and are supported there either integratively in normal class groups or in small groups. They are taught by specially qualified specialist teachers; In integrative classes, they work side by side with the class teachers. Gifted children have the opportunity to skip individual grades. In financially well-resourced school districts, the gifted can also take part in special programs ( educational enrichment ). In school districts with a corresponding budget, schools also offer children who need it, reading support, speech therapy and English language support ( English for Speakers of Other Languages , ESOL for short ).

From elementary school onwards, the class groups are completely dissolved and reassembled every year. The class teachers also specialize in individual grades and usually change every year. While the new formation of the class groups in primary school is primarily aimed at creating group structures with a favorable learning environment (e.g. preventing cliques from forming), it goes later, i.e. H. in middle school, above all about creating homogeneous groups of equally gifted children. In the higher grades, i.e. at junior high schools and high schools, there are no longer any class associations. Similar to the grammar school upper level in Germany, the students here take courses that are occasionally even carried out across grades. At junior high schools and high schools, contact teachers take the place of class teachers.

American schools are - from elementary school onwards - all-day schools in which classes for all students begin at the same time in the morning and end at the same time in the afternoon. That is why all schools also run canteens where the students have lunch.


The grades in the United States (as in other English-speaking countries) are not numbers but letters in many schools.

  • A => 90% (very good)
  • B => 80% (good)
  • C => 70% (satisfactory)
  • D => 60% (passed)
  • F = <60% (failed)

F usually means 'failed'. The grades themselves can be further differentiated with a plus (+) or a minus (-). The school grade "E" is not awarded.

In other schools, student performance is expressed in percentages rather than letters.

School types

Most students in the United States attend state schools. These are financed from taxpayers' money so that parents do not have to pay school fees. About 10% of US students attend private schools (private schools); school fees must be paid for these.

There is also the option of homeschooling in the USA, i.e. lessons at home. About 1-2% of parents in the US choose this. Reasons for this are e.g. For example, religious views, special needs of children (e.g. with disabilities), problems in traditional schools (bullying, drugs, etc.) or too long a journey to school . There are many voices against homeschooling; they say that students are not developing social skills, that teachers (often parents) are not adequately trained and that extremism could be encouraged.

school uniform

School uniforms are uncommon in the United States. Many schools have a dress code (dress code) that dictates what type of clothing may be worn in school and which are not. Some schools (especially private schools) have school uniforms. This should z. B. improve the discipline at the respective school and / or prevent envy / bullying or competition because of branded clothing.

Public and private schools

While the state schools in the United States are always secular, i.e. non-denominational, a distinction is made between secular and denominational schools in private schools. The term “denominational” ( parochial ) is defined much more broadly than against the background of the denominational landscape in Germany. All three groups - state schools, secular private schools, and denominational private schools - are represented in all areas of the school system from elementary school to university.

While private schools always charge a tuition fee, attending public schools is basically free. Fees apply only when a child attends a public school in a school district that is not the school district of their home address.

Significance of the school districts

Unlike in Germany, where school policy is a matter for the federal states, decisions that affect school levels from elementary school to high school in the United States are primarily made in the school districts. School districts also get strict guidelines from the state's Department of Education . The Board of Education, elected by the population at the local level , sets certain educational guidelines and school taxes within the district, sets up administrative and teaching staff, sets up schools and maintains them with state funds from the Department of Education and also from the above Swell. Own courses are decided on and offered region-specifically, for example schools in rural areas have many agricultural courses on offer.

The approval of teachers ( certification ), however, is a matter for the states.

The schools are financed from taxes that are levied in the school district and in the state as a kind of property tax ( school tax ). They receive additional grants from the state's tax revenue. Many schools also acquire private third-party funds on their own initiative ( fundraising ). Fundraising offers e.g. B. the possibility to finance a special class trip for a whole class or even a whole year for 1-2 weeks. The financial resources of the schools are therefore somewhat more dependent on the tax revenue of the respective school district.

School levels

The basic level of the American school system is the Elementary School . What follows differs from school district to school district.


In the classroom of a 1st class
In addition to the school library, each classroom usually also has its own small library.

The children usually start school at the age of five or four (see graphic above) in the so-called kindergarten , which is the compulsory pre-school in the USA that is part of the school system. As in Germany, there is no compulsory pre-school. Before that, the children have often already attended a private or public care program ( day care , nursery school , pre-school ), which in Germany corresponds to the actual kindergarten. There is therefore a regular mix-up between the German kindergarten (called “pre-school” or “nursery school” in the USA) and the American “kindergarten”, which roughly corresponds to the German pre-school.

The Elementary Schools , also known as grade schools are referred to, the grades include from kindergarten to the fourth, fifth or sixth class (depending on the school district). In school districts that do not have middle schools and junior high schools , they also extend through eighth grade.

The class size is around 18–24 children. Unlike in British schools, where pupils are called pupils , in the United States the term students is common from kindergarten level . As in many other countries, the teaching staff at American elementary schools is predominantly female. The class teacher, who keeps an individual file about each student, is - especially in financially well-resourced school districts - often supported by an assistant ( teacher assistant ). Even more professionals and assistants can be deployed in integrative classes in which disabled children are also taught. In addition, specialist teachers for sports, art and music education are deployed in all grades - sometimes also for natural sciences in the higher grades. These subject teachers usually have their own classrooms.

The school day for primary school students has about six hours, regardless of the age of the children, and includes a paid lunch in the school canteen. The school day, which begins with the solemn pledge of loyalty , is strictly organized and is only interrupted by a break at noon, which the children spend on the school playground - except on cold or rainy days; In some school districts, two breaks are also common. In the kindergarten level and in many schools also in the first grade, lessons are also interrupted by free play times in the classroom ( “centers” ). From around the third grade onwards, students at many schools are given time to work freely ( Study Hall ), in which they can do their homework or read books from the school library. Although the school day hardly ends before 3 p.m., homework is given every day from the first or second grade onwards.

The teaching objectives of American elementary schools largely correspond to those of German, Austrian and Swiss schools. Children's literacy begins at kindergarten level, i.e. at the age of 5. Particular attention is paid to promoting reading. The classrooms usually have their own book collections, and the classes also regularly visit the school library , where the children are looked after by a specialist teacher. Foreign languages ​​are generally not taught in primary schools - except in metropolises - but instrumental lessons are offered at an early age.

Junior high school and middle school

The traditional link between elementary school and high school is the junior high school , a school whose specialist departments - as in high school - work more or less independently of one another. The development of this concept is attributed to Charles William Eliot , who was President of Harvard University from 1869-1909 . Today, middle schools are increasingly taking the place of junior high schools . The main difference to junior high school is that the subject teachers of the middle school work closely together and even form interdisciplinary units. Junior high schools and middle schools mostly include grades 7 to 9 ( 6th to 8th grade ), occasionally also grades 6 ( 5th grade ) or 10 ( 9th grade ).

(Senior) high school

The high school - to distinguish it from the junior high school ( see above ), often also referred to as the senior high school (or senior high for short ) - is a unitary school of the secondary education sector (secondary level) comparable to the German comprehensive school. It usually covers grades 9 to 12 and is completed with the high school diploma . In high school, teaching takes place exclusively in the course system , not in class .

Special features that affect all school levels

Elementary school orchestra
Student art exhibition

School bus

The majority of the children use the school bus . The Crosstown School Bussing , introduced in 1970 , in which children were taken to other parts of the city by school bus to avoid the isolation of Afro-American children in all-African-American schools, was gradually abolished and replaced by other measures. The choice of school is now free, even within the state school system.

Promotion of the gifted

In school districts that have high tax revenues, there are often special Gifted Programs ( Educational Enrichment ). At the end of the first year of school, at the recommendation of the class teacher and at the request of the parents, children who are eligible are presented to a school psychologist who carries out an intelligence test with the child . Children who have qualified for the program are taken out of the class by the hour and receive project lessons in small groups from a specialist teacher. In addition, they can also receive special exercises that match their talents within the normal classroom lessons; this applies particularly to math and English lessons. From middle school on, gifted children are supported in so-called honor courses, which are specially designed for students with grades well above average. In high school , Honors students can even earn points that will allow them to skip certain foundation courses later in college. At many high schools , gifted students can acquire the more demanding International Baccalaureate instead of the normal high school diploma .

School competitions and over-curricular talent promotion

The educational system in the United States is characterized by a pronounced promotion of both scientific and artistic talents that goes beyond the actual teaching. From kindergarten onwards, students can take part in science fairs , art competitions and the like. Many schools - from elementary school on - have their own choirs, instrumental ensembles and orchestras.


Displacement ( Graduation ) from one grade level (or grade), is carried to the next if the program has been successfully completed, in most American schools without further examination. The No Child Left Behind Act , however, provides for regular tests of learning success for public schools. Pupils who were unable to complete the school year successfully receive special training courses ( summer school ) in the summer . All students must pass a college entrance exam to attend university, and in many cases, in addition to the college entrance exam, some advanced placement exams (comparable to and in many cases equivalent to the Abitur) are taken. The preparations for such advanced placement tests are advanced courses (called AP courses ) that correspond to the German advanced course and in some cases exceed it.

Parent-teacher organizations

All schools have Parent Teacher Organizations or Parent Teacher Associations (parent-teacher organizations, associations) in which teachers and legal guardians coordinate their interests. The PTO or PTA, which corresponds in the broadest sense to a German parents' association , works closely with the school management and organizes, among other things, a. Fundraisers to finance additional teaching materials .

Higher education


quality control

In the USA, independent organizations such as B. the Northwest Association of Colleges and Universities or the Northcentral Association of Secondary Schools , which review schools and grant or withhold highly regarded accreditations .

To ensure quality, President George W. Bush introduced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, Public Law 107–110); the law has been in force since January 2002. On this basis, u. a. many government-sponsored charter schools that provide an alternative to traditional high schools. However, the NCLB program also shapes the work in elementary schools, junior high schools and middle schools. However, the program is highly controversial. It is criticized in particular by parents with a high level of education who fear that their gifted children will no longer receive adequate support in state schools.

International comparison and criticism

Compared to other developed countries , the abilities of students and graduates often only achieve below average performance. In PISA the OECD occupied in 2003 in mathematics 15-year-old 24th place in science to 19th place in reading the 12th Place and in problem-solving abilities to 26th place. 38 states participated in the study . According to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics , which counts all people between the ages of 16 and 24 who do not attend school, have a high school diploma or have equivalent evidence such as a passed General Educational Development Test , the dropout is Rate, however, only at 8.1 percent. Many business leaders have expressed concerns that the overall quality of the US education system is below acceptable levels.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Roger L. Geiger: The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II . Princeton University Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-691-17306-1 , pp. 270 ( limited preview in Google Book search).
  2. ^ Roger L. Geiger: The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II . Princeton University Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-691-17306-1 , pp. 271 ( limited preview in Google Book search).
  3. ^ State Compulsory School Attendance Laws
  4. Homeschooling & Co. as an alternative? Retrieved on February 20, 2020 (German).
  5. ^ Website of the National PTA. Umbrella organization of the American PTAs
  6. AFP / FAS: Educational misery: Almost every third US student fails to graduate. In: . April 1, 2008, accessed October 7, 2018 .
  7. Fast facts: What are the dropout rates of high school students? 2009 statistics, National Center for Education Statistics

See also

Web links