School education in the USA
SCHOOL EDUCATION IN THE USA
Education In The USA
Purpose And Scope
Americans believe that every citizen has both
the right and the obligation to become educated.
In order to develop an educated population,
all states have compulsory school attendance laws. These laws vary somewhat from
one state to another, but generally they require that formal schooling begin by
age 6 and continue until at least age l6. However, most Americans attend school
at least until high school graduation, when they are l7 or l8 years old. About 75%
of all American adults and about 85% of younger American adults are high school
The size of the nation's basic educational enterprise
is astonishing. From kindergarten through high school, about 46 million students
are enrolled in school. To educate this vast number of students, Americans employ
about 2.7 million teachers, by far the largest professional group in the country.
Public and private schools
About 88% of American children receive their
elementary and high school education in the nation's public schools. These schools
have the following important characteristics in common:
a) They are supported by taxes and, therefore,
do not charge tuition.
b) In general, they are neighbourhood schools,
open to all students who live within the district.
c) They are co-educational, which means that
boys and girls attend the same schools and have nearly all of their classes together.
By providing girls with equal educational opportunity, American public schools have
helped to create today's self-sufficient American woman.
d) Public schools are required to follow some
state guidelines regarding, for example, curriculum and teacher qualifications.
But, in most matters, schools are locally controlled. Each school district is run
by an elected Board of Education and the school administrators that Board hires.
This system creates strong ties between the district's schools and its community.
e) Public schools are non-sectarian (secular),
which means that they are free from the influence of any religion. As a result,
children of many different religions feel comfortable attending the public schools,
and the public school system has been able to help a diverse population build a
Private schools can be divided into two categories:
parochial (supported by a particular religious group) and secular (non-religious).
Private schools charge tuition and are not under direct public control, although
many states set educational standards for them. In order to attend a private school,
a student must apply and be accepted. Parochial schools make up the largest group
of private schools, and most of these are operated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Private secular schools are mainly high schools and colleges.
Course content and teaching methods
In educating students for adult work and adult
life, American schools try, above all, to be practical. American education has been
greatly influenced by the writings of a famous 20th-century philosopher named John
Dewey. Dewey believed that the only worthwhile knowledge was knowledge that could
be used. He convinced educators that it was pointless to make students memorize
useless facts that they would quickly forget. Rather, schools should teach thinking
processes and skills that affect how people live and work.
Dewey also influenced teaching techniques.education
must be meaningful, and children learn best by doing - these are the basic ideas
of progressive education. Thus, science is taught largely through student experimentation;
the study of music involves making music; democratic principles are put into practice
in the student council; group projects encourage creativity, individual initiative,
leadership, and teamwork.
What do American schools see as their educational
responsibility to students? The scope is very broad indeed. Today's schools teach
skills and information once left for the parents to teach at home. For example,
it is common for the public school curriculum to include a campaign against cigarette
smoking and drug abuse, a course in driver's education, cooking and sewing classes,
consumer education, and sex education. Most American grammar schools have also added
computer skills to their curriculum. As human knowledge has expanded and life has
become increasingly complex, the schools have had to go far beyond the original
three Rs ("reading, writing, and arithmetic") that they were created to
American high schools have a dual commitment:
(a) to offer a general college preparatory program for those who are interested
in higher education; and (b) to provide opportunities for vocational training for
students who plan to enter the work force immediately after high school graduation.
For the college-bound, high schools offer advanced classes in math, sciences, social
sciences, English, and foreign languages. They also have Advanced Placement (AP)
courses, which enable good students to earn college credit while still in high school.
But in the same building other students take vocational courses such as shorthand
and mechanical drawing, and some participate in work/study programs which enable
them to get high school credit for on-the-job training in various occupations.
Today, more than ever before, American schools
are committed to helping foreign-born students adjust to life in an American class-room.
The Bilingual Education Act of l968 provided federal funds for bilingual instruction,
which allows students to study academic subjects totally or partially in their native
language while they are learning English. Bilingual education is offered in about
70 languages including Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, and several American Indian
languages. Of course, this type of instruction is available only where a number
of students speak the same foreign language. In addition, immigrant students have
benefited from the l974 Supreme Court ruling requiring public schools to provide
special programs for students who speak little or no English. Today, English as
a second language of instruction is common in American elementary and high schools.
Early childhood education
By the age of five, about 87% of American children
are attending school, most of them in pre-academic classes called kindergarten.
However, many American youngsters are introduced
to their first school setting even before the age of five, through nursery school
or day care attendance. In fact, about 29% of three-year-olds and 49% of four-year-olds
are enrolled in one or the other.
Nursery schools accept children from three to
five years of age for half-day sessions ranging from twice a week to five days a
week. The typical nursery school is equipped with toys, building blocks, books,
puzzles, art supplies, and an outdoor play-ground. These pre-school programs usually
charge tuition, although some are subsidized, and some offer scholarships. Day care
programs have similar facilities that offer all-day care for the children of working
Elementary school and high school
In most areas, free public education begins
with kindergarten classes for five-year-olds. These are usually half-day classes
two or three hours long, although some communities run all-day kindergarten programs.
The primary purpose of kindergarten is socialization, but the young students also
gain information and skills. For example, they learn to identify colors, count to
ten, print their names, work with art supplies, listen to stories, and enjoy books.
After kindergarten, American children begin their academic studies. Their schooling
is divided into 12 academic levels called grades. One school year (from late August
or early September to mid-June) is required to complete each grade. Academic work
- learning to read, write, and do arithmetic - begins when children enter lst grade,
at about age 6.
The typical school day is about seven hours
long and ends about 3 P.M. Classes are in session Monday through Friday. Traditional
vacation periods include a two-week winter vacation (including the Christmas and
New Year's holidays),a one - week spring vacation (often coinciding with Easter),
and a two-month summer vacation. In addition, there are several one-day holidays
giving students a day off to celebrate.
Children going to public elementary schools
usually attend a school in their neighbourhood. In big cities, many children live
close enough to walk to and from school and come home for lunch. However, most elementary
schools provide a place where students can eat if it is inconvenient for them to
go home at lunchtime. American high schools are larger than elementary schools and
serve a larger community. As a result, most high school students take public transportation
or a school bus to and from school and eat lunch in the school cafeteria.
Grammar schools teach language arts (reading,
writing, spelling, and penmanship), social studies (stressing history and geography),
mathematics (up to and sometimes including algebra), science, physical education,
and health. In addition, elementary school programs often include music, art, and
High school subjects are more specialized. English
classes emphasize writing, grammar, and literature. Social studies is split into
separate courses such as American history, European history, and psychology. Year-long
courses in algebra and geometry are followed by more advanced math work in trigonometry
and pre-calculus. There are also specialized science courses in biology, chemistry,
and physics. Many high school students study a foreign language, usually Spanish,
French, or German. Courses in music, art, home economics, and consumer education
are also available, along with various vocational courses. As in elementary school,
health and physical education classes are generally required.
During the elementary school years, students
are grouped into classes, and each group stays together for the entire school day
and the entire school year. Generally, the class has the same teacher for most subjects,
although art, music, and physical education are usually taught by teachers who specialize
in these areas. Also, in the upper elementary grades, students in some school systems
have different teachers (but the same classmates) for their major academic subjects.
In high school, students move from one classroom
to another and study each subject with a different teacher and a different group
of classmates. Many high schools have what is commonly called a tracking system,
which groups students according to academic ability and motivation. Thus, more capable
and hard-working students take more difficult courses. Depending on the subject,
classes may be offered at two, three, or even four different ability levels.
High school students have a very busy day. Many
take five or six academic subjects as well as physical education. During other periods,
students may be doing homework in a study hall, researching in the school library,
or participating in activities such as the school orchestra, student government,
school newspaper, or math club. Many extracurricular activities also meet after
the school day ends. Students involved in time-consuming activities such as athletics,
dramatics, or music may be at school from very early in the morning until dinnertime.
However, these school activities are well worth the time because they help students
find friends with similar interests, develop their talents, gain greater self-confidence,
and sometimes even discover their career goals.
Problems and solutions
When an immigrant family moves to the USA, one
of the first questions that parents ask is, "Will my children get a good education
here?" The answer depends on two major factors: where the children attend school
and how hard they are willing to work.
In some schools where the community is stable,
the funding good, and the school environment orderly, a hardworking student can
get an excellent education. But in other schools - especially those in poor neighborhoods
in the nation's large cities - it is very difficult to become educated. The flight
of middle-class families to the suburbs left big city public schools with mostly
lower-income students. Many are deprived children from impoverished homes with only
one parent. Many come to school ill-prepared and poorly motivated to learn. A large
number need help in learning English. Many change residences and schools often,
and a changing classroom population is difficult to teach. In some poor neighborhoods,
the students do not attend school regularly because they are frightened by violent
gangs. In some class-rooms, teachers have difficulty keeping the students' attention
because disrespectful, uncooperative students disturb the class. Because the quality
of education varies so much from one school district to another, parents who are
planning to move to a new neighborhood often inquire about the schools - and even
visit them - before deciding which community to move to.
Researchers are always studying the schools
and evaluating the kind of education being provided. Experts ask: "Are today's
students learning as much as their older siblings or their parents did? Are they
learning as much as students in other countries?" In the l980s, many studies
revealed weaknesses in the American educational system. For example, of the l58
members of the United Nations, the USA ranked 49th in its level of literacy. It
has been claimed that as many as 25 million American adults cannot read the front
page of a newspaper. Another study focused on students' knowledge of history and
literature. The results were published in a book entitled, What Do Our l7-Year-Olds
And the answer is, "not much". For
example 75% of American high school seniors did not know when Abraham Lincoln was
President, and 89% could not identify Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Ibsen as famous
authors. In a l988 study comparing students' knowledge of geography, American young
adults came in last of nine countries. In fact, l8% of the American students couldn't
even find the USA on a world map! Still other studies indicate that today's students
are weak in mathematical problem-solving and writing skills.
What's wrong with American education? To find
the answer and to fix the problem, one must look at all of the elements: the students
themselves, their parents, their teachers, the school curriculum, the textbooks,
and the community. Many students simply do not study enough. (Two-thirds of high
school seniors do an hour or less of homework per night). American teenagers are
often distracted by part-time jobs, sports and other school activities, TV, and
socializing. Some do not keep up with their schoolwork because of emotional problems,
use of illegal drugs, or simply lack of motivation. Clearly, if Americans are to
become better educated, students must spend more time studying, and parents must
insist that they do so.
Criticism of American education stimulated a
reform movement. As a result, 45 of the 50 states raised high-school graduation
requirements. One government study recommended a longer school year. (Now, the average
American student attends school about 180 days a year, compared to 210 for a Japanese
student). Efforts have also been underway to increase parental involvement in schools
and to improve teaching. College programs that educate teachers are trying to encourage
more academically talented students to choose teaching as a career. Schools of education
are also improving their curriculum so that American teachers of the future will
be better prepared. School administrators are working on curriculum revisions. Publishers
are being urged to create text-books that are more challenging, interesting, and
objective. Finally, concerned citizens are urging communities and the federal government
to provide more tax dollars for education.
What can one say about basic education in the
USA today? It has many strengths, but there's plenty of room for improvement. Since
the school reform movement began, test scores have risen somewhat, and Americans
are optimistic that reform and improvement will continue. Americans deeply believe
in education as the best vehicle for individual and social advancement. Improving
the basic school system is one of the nation's top priorities. But meanwhile, it
is a consolation to remember that, for most young Americans, formal education does
not end with high school graduation.