Modern U.S. Public Schools: Kindergarten to High School

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  • 0:02 K-12 Education
  • 1:54 In the Middle
  • 3:59 High School
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The modern American educational landscape is quite different from what it was a century ago. In this lesson, we'll look at the different levels of public education in America, including the difference in middle schools and junior high schools.

K-12 Education

Education can mean many things. One person can get an education at the 'school of hard knocks.' Another can spend decades in school to get a doctorate in something only to turn around and teach for more decades, effectively never leaving school. Even schools differ from one another. From one-room schoolhouses, where students all attend together, regardless of age or level of knowledge, to vast schools with many different classrooms and teachers and a large offering of electives, the word 'school' can mean many things.

Despite the differences, education and school in modern America follows the same general pattern no matter which state you live in. States offer public schools for free to students of certain ages. Most public school systems offer K-12 education; that is, they offer schooling from kindergarten to 12th grade as part of their public school system. While some states offer kindergarten as an optional grade, most states require children to start school around age five or six, and most high school graduates finish school around age 18. But most public school systems don't have kindergarteners and 12th graders going to the same school.

Usually, schools are roughly divided into three groups: elementary schools, which are generally from kindergarten to 5th grade, or ages five to ten; middle schools or junior high schools, which are generally from grades 5 or 6 to 8 or 9, or ages 11 to 13; and high schools, which are usually grades 9-12, or ages 14 to 18. Let's take a closer look at modern public schools in America, including the difference in middle and junior high schools, and what a high school education means.

In the Middle

Ah, middle school. What a lovely time for most students: puberty is hitting, so their body and emotions are doing strange things; the workload often gets harder, as simple math turns into algebra and picture books are replaced with classics; and, for many students, they have to adjust to a new school, too!

Until the 20th century, most American education was kindergarten-8th grade. Students went to the same school for the entire time and sometimes had the same teacher the entire time. But as the 20th century began, the average public school education grew longer, and school districts began splitting students up into separate buildings.

Junior high schools were established as a middle ground between elementary school and high school. Generally, junior high schools are either 7-8th grades or 7-9th grades. Over time, some districts began to replace junior high schools with middle schools, which are generally either grades 5-8 or grades 6-8.

Why the change? Both junior high schools and middle schools were focused on the academics that took a student from elementary school into high school. In other words, they were both focused on how to get students ready for high school. But middle schools also focused on the developmental issues facing students at the critical time between ages 11 and 13. Middle schools were a buffer of sorts, as puberty started and students faced new psychological and physical challenges.

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