The first years of compulsory schooling are called elementary or primary school (just to confuse the issue, elementary schools are also called grade or grammar schools). Secondary education is for children aged 12 to 18. Secondary school generally takes place in a high school, which is often divided into junior and senior high. Junior high is for those aged 12 to 14 and senior high for students aged 15 to 17.
Elementary education starts at the age of five or six, depending on the particular state and whether a kindergarten (K) year is provided. Even when provided, attendance at kindergarten isn’t always compulsory. To qualify for kindergarten a child must be five years old on or before a ‘cut-off’ date, e.g. 1st September or October, to attend that year. Usually a child must be enrolled in kindergarten or first grade in the calendar year in which he turns six. Elementary school, which is almost always co-educational (mixed boys and girls), is usually attended from the age of 5 or 6 until 11 (grades K to 6), when students go on to a middle or junior high school. In some districts, students attend elementary school until 13 (up to grade 8) before attending a senior high school.
The elementary school curriculum varies with the organization and educational aims of individual schools and local communities. Promotion from one grade to the next is based on a student’s achievement of specified skills, although a child is required to repeat a year in exceptional circumstances only.
Elementary schools provide instruction in the fundamental skills of reading, writing and Maths, as well as history and geography (taught together as social studies), crafts, music, science, art and physical education (phys ed) or gym. Foreign languages, which used to be taught at high schools only, are now being introduced during the last few years of elementary school in some areas (although in some cities, state schools don’t offer any foreign language teaching). Elementary students are usually given regular homework, although in many schools few children complete it.
In some districts, students attend a combined junior/senior high school or attend a middle school until 13 (grade 8) before transferring to a four-year senior high school. Like elementary education, secondary education is co-educational. American high schools are often much larger than secondary schools in other countries, and regional high schools with over 2,000 students are common in some rural areas and city suburbs.
Secondary school students must take certain ‘core’ curriculum courses for a prescribed number of years or terms, as determined by each state. These generally include English, Maths, general science, health, physical education and social studies or social sciences (which may include American history and government, geography, world history and social problems). Students are streamed (tracked) in some high schools for academic subjects, where the brightest students are put on a ‘fast track’.
In addition to mandatory subjects, students choose ‘electives’ (optional subjects), which supplement their future education and career plans. Electives usually comprise around half of a student’s work in grades 9 to 12. Students concentrate on four subjects each quarter and are seldom ‘pushed’ beyond their capability or capacity for learning.
Higher education refers to study beyond secondary school level and usually assumes that a student has undertaken 13 years of study and has a high school diploma. There are three main levels of higher education: undergraduate studies (bachelor’s degree), graduate studies (master’s degree) and postgraduate studies (doctor’s degree).
The minimum age for enrolment at university is usually 18, and some 40 per cent of college students are 25 or over, many of them taking advanced degrees.
Degree level courses are offered by around 3,500 accredited colleges and universities, with a wide variety of admission requirements and programs. Of the total college population of 15 million students (12 million in public colleges and 3 million in private), around 500,000 are overseas students, roughly half of which are working on graduate level degrees. Hundreds of American colleges recruit students in countries such as the UK, Hong Kong, Japan and Malaysia. Although the terms ‘college’ and ‘university’ are often used interchangeably, a college may be independent or part of a university (both colleges and universities are also referred to simply as schools).