Background to U.S. Education

Education is provided to all children from the age of 5 through 18 in the public school system. Public schools are funded with money from property taxes, so parents do not pay an additional charge when their children attend a public school. Students attend elementary school for six years and then go on to junior high (or middle school) and high school for another six years. Other types of schools are funded by religious denominations, and children attending those schools usually pay some additional fees. Private schools are self-supporting and are therefore the most expensive.

After high school, there are a number of different types of institutions for higher education. Community colleges provide two years of higher education at minimal cost. State colleges and universities provide the four years of education needed to receive a bachelor's degree, as well as additional education for getting a master's degree and/or a doctorate. Fees vary from state to state. In addition to state-funded institutions, there are also many private colleges and universities. They are usually more expensive than their tax-supported counterparts.

Guiding Ideals

Access to Education

The American education system is based on the idea that as many people as possible should have access to as much education as possible. This fact alone distinguishes the U.S. system from most others, since in most others the objective is as much to screen people out as it is to keep them in. The U.S. system has no standardized examinations whose results systemically prevent students from going on to higher levels of study, as the British and many other systems do. Through secondary school and sometimes in post-secondary institutions as well, the American system tries to accommodate students even if their academic aspirations and aptitudes are not high, even if they are physically (and in some cases mentally) handicapped, and even if their native language is not English.

The idea that as many people as possible should have as much education as possible is, of course, an outcome of the Americans' assumptions about equality among people. These assumptions do not mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to enter Harvard, Stanford, or other highly competitive post-secondary institutions. Admission to such institutions is generally restricted to the most academically able. The less able can usually matriculate in a post-secondary institution, but one of lower quality.

As of March, 1982, only 3 per cent of all Americans aged 25 or more had completed less than five years of elementary school. Seventy-one per cent of those 25 or more had completed four years of high school or gone beyond that, and 17.7 per cent had completed four or more years of post-secondary education. The median number of school years completed was 12.6. The number of tertiary (that is, post-secondary) students per 100,000 inhabitants was 5355. Some contrasts: The number of tertiary students per 100,000 in the population was 4006 in Canada. In no other country, according to UNESCO data, was the number of post-secondary students above 2700 per 100,000. Korea has 2696 tertiary students per 100,000 inhabitants; Japan, 2030; the USSR 1970; Argentina, 1890; Hong Kong, 1353; Malaysia, 472; and Ethiopia, 48.

Naturally, an educational system that retains as many people as the American system does is likely to enroll a broader range of students than a system that seeks to educate only the few who seem especially suited for academic work. In the American system academic rigor tends to come later than it does in most other systems. In many instances, American students do not face truly demanding educational requirements until they seek a graduate (that is, post-baccalaureate) degree. Many other systems place heavy demands on students as early as their primary years--though college may be far less demanding, as in the case in Japan.

Universal Literacy

A second ideal underlying the United States educational system is that of producing a society that is 100 per cent literate. All American states (in the U.S., education is governed by state and local bodies, not by the national government, as we shall see below) have compulsory attendance laws that require young people to attend school until a specified age (16 in most states, 14 or 15 in a very few, and 17 and 18 in about 10). The goal of 100 per cent literacy has yet to be achieved, and may never be achieved, but it remains the stated goal.

Equal Opportunity

A third ideal, again in keeping with the Americans' assumptions about equality, is that of providing comparable educational programs to everyone, regardless of race, handicap, or social standing. This is another ideal that has yet to be achieved.

Local Control

Fourth, the American educational system is based on the ideal of local control. There is no national ministry of education. (There is a United States Department of Education, but it has no power over individual schools.) State departments of education have some influence over the curriculum of primary and secondary schools, whether they are public (that is, supported by taxes) or private (that is, supported by tuition and other non-governmental sources). It is local bodies, though, that bear the main responsibility for guiding educational institutions. Public primary and secondary schools are under the general direction of bodies that are usually called boards of education or school boards. Those boards hire and fire superintendents and sometimes principals, oversee the curriculum of the schools in their jurisdiction, and review teacher performance. There is a separate board of education, usually elected by the public, for each "school district." A school district may be no larger than one city or county; each state has many, many school districts.

Decentralization is evident at the post-secondary level too. Most colleges and universities, whether they are public or private, have their own 'board of regents" or some such body to provide general guidance over an institution's policies. Sometimes all the public colleges and universities in a given state will be guided by a single board. The more specific policies that govern colleges and universities are made not by these boards but by faculty and administrators at each separate institution. Faculty groups set curriculum and graduations requirements; individual professors decide what they will include in their courses and how they will evaluate their students.

At all levels of education, standards are set and maintained by regional accrediting associations to which the schools subscribe, not by the government.

Few if any countries have educational systems as thoroughly decentralized as that in the United States. Many foreign visitors have difficulty comprehending the fact that so much control over educational matters rests at the local level, and that there is not a federal body empowered to override local decisions.