Episode 28 (formerly 1704): America’s Public Schools


Schools for children in America weren’t always available. It was only in 1852 that Massachusetts passed compulsory school laws. By 1918, all states required children to attend at least a few years of school.

You might guess from this fact that each state administers its own public school system. There is no federal school system in the United States. Because there are 50 states with 50 different systems, there are many variations for public schools. However, they all have some common characteristics.

In general, American children are required to attend school beginning at age six. School years are called “grades”. Therefore, a six-year-old attends grade one, or first grade. There are 12 grades in all. If a child finishes all 12 grades with satisfactory performance, he or she graduates.

In addition, a child might also attend kindergarten at the age of five, but it is not required. Kindergarten is very common, however, and the whole school system is called K-12.

Although the terminology and timeframes differ from state to state, in general, the first few years of school after kindergarten are called elementary, primary or grade school. It starts in grade 1 and goes through grade 5 or 6, depending on the state.

After elementary school is middle school, also called junior high school. It generally lasts two or three years. Then comes high school, which lasts four years, from grade 9 through grade 12.

Many public schools provide buses that pick the children up in the morning and take them back home in the afternoon. American school buses are yellow and are used only for students.

Some, but not all, schools require students to wear uniforms. Students attend school for about six or seven hours a day, usually going home around 3:00 p.m. Elementary school students usually have the same teacher all day. Junior and senior high students change classrooms every hour for each subject.

Upon graduating from high school, a student receives a diploma. After that, he or she may opt to go to college, which is also called university. There is no equivalent to the “A-levels” in the UK or the Abitur in Germany. However, colleges usually require a student to achieve a certain level on a standardized test such as the SAT.

K-12 is compulsory in most states up to the age of 16, which means a student can choose to drop out at age 16 or after. However, a dropout can have difficulty finding a good job without a high school diploma and cannot easily enter college. A dropout can choose to earn a GED (General Education Diploma) after quitting school, but it is not as desirable.

Most schools operate on a nine-month schedule, usually from September through May. Some states start earlier or end later. Some states allow schools to operate year-round, without a three-month summer vacation. The students don’t attend more days, they just have several long breaks during the year.

School years are divided into semesters, or terms. Mid-term exams (mid-terms) are exams that are taken by students halfway through a semester. Students take final exams (finals) at the end of each semester.

Teachers evaluate a student’s performance using a grading system. The evaluations are called grades, the same word used for school-year levels. Grades can be A, B, C, D or F, with A being the highest. In most cases, the letters stand for a rating on a percentage scale from 1 to 100. For example, a grade of A is near or at 100 percent. If a student scores on the high end of the scale for a letter, teachers can add a + to it, as in B+ or C+. Therefore, A+ is the highest score possible.

Public schools are primarily supported by state and local tax money, usually property taxes. Some federal money is granted, but very little. The teachers and administrators must follow the state-approved courses. Since 1992, some educators have established charter schools, which are a type of public school that offers a non-traditional or innovative way of teaching.

A state is divided into local school districts, and only students from a school’s own district are typically allowed to go there. Often, a family will choose to live in a certain area known to have good schools for their children. In addition, public schools called magnet schools allow anyone from anywhere to attend. A magnet school has a specialized area, such as art or science, to attract students from different locations.

In addition to public schools, many private schools exist in America. They are supported by money from private individuals and organizations, such as churches, and from tuition that each student must pay. Anyone can choose to go to private school if they can afford it and are accepted.

Another option is homeschooling, in which parents teach their own children at home using the state-approved curriculum. This is a good option for special needs children, such as those with physical, mental or emotional challenges. Many parents who consider the public school system to be substandard also opt for homeschooling.

While the American public school system used to be considered one of the best in the world, it has many problems today. There is not enough money in some districts to support the schools sufficiently. School violence is a problem in some places, and in many poor and urban areas there are few teachers willing to work in such bad conditions. Another problem is that there are standardized state tests that students must pass for the school to receive public funding. Many think that “teaching to the test” makes education lower quality.

Still, there are many people working very hard to improve education for America’s children. And there are some choices for children whose parents can afford an alternative to a bad public school. Overall, public schools in the USA rate about a C (average) globally. Not the best, but not the worst.

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