What Type Of Education System Does The United States Have?

It is common for American children to take a bus to school.
It is common for American children to take a bus to school.

The United States has one of the world’s highest literacy levels with a literacy level of 100% seen in both males and females and a reading literacy level of 99% in persons above the age of 15 years. The perfect literacy level is attributed to the American education system which is one of the most diverse systems in the world. Basic education is mandatory and enforced by law in all states. Data from the US government in 2000 showed that 76.6 million Americans were in the various stages of the education system between kindergarten and graduate school. Education is critical and important in the United States with post-graduate education being among the primary factors determining individual wealth and class.

Historical Background Of The US Education System

The education system in the United States was first conceptualized during the period when the nation was under British colonial authority. In 1635, the first public school was opened named the Boston Latin School and is currently the oldest school in the United States. Soon afterwards, in 1639 the first free public school was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts known as the Mather School with its expenses being catered for by the taxpayers. The first curriculum to be developed was made up of basic arithmetic and literacy which was predominantly taught within homes or churches. The colony of New England had one of the highest literacy levels in colonial American as its residents embraced education to enable them to read the Bible. Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first colony to have education compulsory by law and set a precedent that other colonies quickly followed. Literacy levels in South Colonies were not as widespread with the planter class favoring private tutoring over the establishment of public schools. In South Carolina and Georgia, private tuition was widespread with private tutors marketing their skills in local newspapers. During this period, the school enrollment was predominantly made up of male students all of whom were white.

In the 17th century, all textbooks were imported from England because no local printers existed at the time. This situation changed in 1690 when Boston publishers began local printing of the “New England Primer” which became the first locally printed textbook. In the 18th century, institutions of higher education such as colleges and universities were few and all were meant for the education of ministers with doctors and lawyers being trained through apprenticeship. Harvard College was established in 1636 by the colonial government aimed at training young men to become ministers. By the 19th century, the American education system had grown in leaps and bounds with the 1840 census showing that 55% of all children in the United States attended education institutions. The enrollment increased in the turn of the 20th century as more states made education compulsory by law that by 1910, 72% of all children in the US attended school.

Stages Of Education In The Education System Of The US

The formal education system practiced in the United States is divided into five major categories which are comprised of Preschool, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, College or University, and Graduate School.


The average enrollment age for Preschool in the United States is four years. In Preschools, teachers emphasize the individuality of children where their individual strengths and weaknesses are identified. Children are also trained to develop their self-expression skills through interactive activities. Preschool is the lowest category in the education system and offers basic literacy skills as well as developing social skills.

Elementary School

After going through Preschool, children then graduate to Elementary School. Elementary School is the institution which provides children with basic primary education between the age of 4 and 14. Elementary School is divided into five levels which include (from the lowest to the highest) kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade. The curriculum taught in Elementary School is determined by school district boards with individual school districts having distinct curriculums and encompasses arithmetic, language proficiency, social studies, and sciences. Teachers in Elementary Schools are required to have attained a Bachelors Degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that in 2009 public elementary schools in the US had 3.5 million students.

Middle School

After graduating from Elementary School, children then enter into Middle School which comprises of 5th grade through to 8th grade. The age range of children in Middle School is between 10 years and 14 years. Upon completing the four years of Middle School, students then graduate to High School.

High School

The curriculum taught in High School revolved around “core subjects” which vary across states with most states having English, Mathematics, Social studies, and sciences as core subjects. Many high schools also teach elective course which include performing arts such as drama, visual arts such as painting, journalism, foreign languages, and vocational education. However, the availability of these elective courses in a school is primarily dependent on the financial situation of the school. The age range of children in High School is between 15 years and 18 years. Upon completion of High School education, successful students are awarded a high school diploma which certifies that they are ready for tertiary-level education.

College And University

The next level is known as undergraduate education which features students from the age of 19 years up to the age of around 22 years. Undergraduate education in the United States constitutes four years of studying where upon completion a student is awarded a Bachelor’s Degree in their area of study. The four years are named as follows (from lowest to highest level) freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, and senior year.

School Dropouts In The US

Data from the government show that high school dropouts are responsible for 75% of all reported criminal activities. This worrying statistic is more profound in the country’s Black population where 60% of all African-American dropouts being incarcerated. The school dropout rate in the United States is alarming with about 3 million students dropping out of high school annually.

Issues Facing The US Education System

The diverse education system in the United States is one of the most expensive in the world with the annual budget of the entire education sector being estimated to be around $1 trillion with over $500 billion from public learning institutions. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that the United States government spent more in learning institutions located in affluent neighborhoods than in institutions situated in poor neighborhoods.


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