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The U.S. Educational System

Ron Petrarca, Dana Dance-Schissel
  • Author
    Ron Petrarca

    I received my bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University and later earned a master's degree in the same subject from Uppsala University in Sweden. I have been a writer and editor for more than two decades.

  • Instructor
    Dana Dance-Schissel

    Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Discover the U.S. education system. Explore cultural changes affecting education, the effect of society on education, and how politics influence education. Updated: 12/29/2021

The U.S. Education System

The United States has a highly decentralized educational system. In other words, there is no national system that applies to all students in all areas of the country. For the most part, individual states are responsible for running their own public educational systems, which they do in cooperation with the laws in their respective states. However, most states further devolve responsibility for education to their individual cities and towns, most of which have their own school districts. In fact, it is the cities and towns who usually fund schools via property taxes. Additionally, the United States has numerous private educational institutions that operate outside of the public system. These schools are funded by tuition that is paid by the students' parents.

Despite this highly decentralized system, there is a common educational culture that ties together most of the the schools in America, dividing schooling into three basic levels: elementary (or primary) education, secondary education, and higher education. Elementary education involves students who are in kindergarten to the 5th or 6th grade. The age breakdown is usually from about 5 to 10 or 11. This is followed by secondary school, which consists of middle school (or junior high school), followed by high school. This level of education consists of grades 6 or 7 to 12. Students leave secondary school when they are 17 or 18.

After a student receives their high school diploma, they may choose to attend college. Students who finish four years of college usually end up with a bachelor's degree. They can then continue on to higher education where they may receive advanced degrees, such as master's or a doctorate.

While the federal government does not directly run educational institutions (with the exception of military academies), it does play a role in providing some types of funding and regulation. This is especially true at the level of higher education. Many colleges and universities receive grants from the federal government to conduct research. Additionally, students attending colleges and universities may receive federal grants and loans to help pay for their education. Stafford loans, Perkins loans, and Pell grants are the most common types of federal funding given to students.

The agency that is responsible for supervising the federal government's involvement is called the Department of Education. It was founded in 1979 during the Carter administration.


School Bus

us education system


Political Influences

How does politics influence the education system?

Over the past four decades, there have been a number of political battles with regard to education - one of these is school bussing. American schools were integrated by law during the 1960s; however, during the 1970s and 1980s, there continued to be de facto racial segregation throughout America due to the fact that ethnic minorities tended to live in poorer neighborhoods. One attempt to remedy this situation was school busing. This involved bussing children in white neighborhoods to schools in black neighborhoods and vice versa. This policy was highly controversial, and even lead to major protests in some cities, including Boston.

Another major political issue involves school choice. Many Republicans advocate giving parents vouchers which they can use to pay for their children's private school education. These vouchers would come from the property taxes that would ordinarily go to the local public school. The theory behind this policy is that it would give parents more choice in which school their children attend. Critics of this policy maintain that is simply gives well-to-do parents extra money to spend on their children's education.

A related issue involves charter schools. Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that operate independently of the public school system, and they are allowed to pick which students they admit. Many parents support charter schools, while critics argue that they drain money from the regular public school system.

Generally speaking, Republicans tend to favor less involvement by federal government in education. They want to put all the decision-making power in the hands of states and municipalities. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to favor national educational policies that are consistent across the nation.

Here are some common political concerns that may affect educational policy in the US:

  • Federal funding of schools
  • School choice
  • Charter Schools
  • Choice of curricula
  • Teachers' unions
  • Revenue from property taxes being used to fund school districts

Cultural Influences

Cultural matters are important considerations as well, and often depend on the cultural landscape of a school district. For instance, the teaching of evolution in schools is very controversial in parts of the American South. This has even lead some textbook companies to modify the passages on how evolution is presented.

Bilingual education is another important topic. This is especially true in school communities where large numbers of students speak English as a second language.

Overview of the Educational System of the United States

Think about your education for a moment. How old were you when you began attending school? Did you attend public school or private school? Did you stay in one school for most of your education, or did you change schools depending on grade level? If you attended school in the United States, then your answers to these questions may help to outline a basic understanding of the educational system of the United States. If you moved or changed schools during your education, then you likely have a unique understanding of the cultural, political, and social influences on the US educational system.

The educational system of the United States began in a very rudimentary and unorganized way with the earliest settlers establishing single room school houses in emerging communities. This system has evolved to a massive network of schools and universities that educate over 71 million students each year. The levels of education include early childhood education which lasts from birth through about age five, elementary education for ages five through about twelve, secondary education for ages thirteen to about eighteen, and vocational/technical or postsecondary education for those age eighteen and up. Most states require students to attend school until the age of sixteen, with some mandating attendance through age eighteen.

One might assume that US students receive the same education no matter where they live. Interestingly though, the education system in America is not a federal system mandated by the government. In America, individual states wield the lion's share of responsibility for funding and operating schools with very little governance or funding coming from the US federal government. Furthermore, there are differences from district to district within states in terms of curriculum and funding. Early childhood, elementary, and secondary students who attend public school in America do not pay for their education. Private schools usually receive no funding from state or government, thus students who attend these schools must pay tuition. Almost all postsecondary schools in America charge tuition. This unique structure ensures that no two schools are alike. Instead, America's schools are shaped by regional cultural, political and social influences.

Cultural Influences

Have you ever taken a road trip? If so, you probably noticed differences between cities and states. Some of these differences might include foods, language or accent, or even changes in the landscape. All of these differences create what we call culture. Culture might be explained as the norms for behavior in a given place . Each place tends to have its own unique culture. For example, in the southern United States, there is a distinct accent or southern drawl. People who hail from Alabama usually sound very different than those who come from New York! It does not end with language though. Foods are different. Buildings look different. The land looks different. Needless to say, these cultural differences impact the education system. Therefore, while a Kindergarten class in Alabama and one in New York may both be made up of the same number of students of about the same age, they will likely be very different in terms of culture. These differences influence learning.

Political Influences

When you think of politics, you probably envision people such as the president, your state governor, or maybe even the mayor of your town. You may also consider the individual political parties: democrats, republicans, independents, etc. Maybe you think about your own political beliefs. How do these beliefs impact the US educational system, or do they? Well, political influences are very important things to consider when discussing the educational system of the United States of America. Politicians run the government at the city, state, and federal levels, thus have great power when it comes to education. One's political beliefs usually influence the way he or she feels about education and how it is structured and funded. This is another reason why we see many differences from city to city and state to state in America's schools. The political structure of local government impacts schools in that community in an intimate and profound way. The federal government also has some impact on schools, but not as directly.

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Overview of the Educational System of the United States

Think about your education for a moment. How old were you when you began attending school? Did you attend public school or private school? Did you stay in one school for most of your education, or did you change schools depending on grade level? If you attended school in the United States, then your answers to these questions may help to outline a basic understanding of the educational system of the United States. If you moved or changed schools during your education, then you likely have a unique understanding of the cultural, political, and social influences on the US educational system.

The educational system of the United States began in a very rudimentary and unorganized way with the earliest settlers establishing single room school houses in emerging communities. This system has evolved to a massive network of schools and universities that educate over 71 million students each year. The levels of education include early childhood education which lasts from birth through about age five, elementary education for ages five through about twelve, secondary education for ages thirteen to about eighteen, and vocational/technical or postsecondary education for those age eighteen and up. Most states require students to attend school until the age of sixteen, with some mandating attendance through age eighteen.

One might assume that US students receive the same education no matter where they live. Interestingly though, the education system in America is not a federal system mandated by the government. In America, individual states wield the lion's share of responsibility for funding and operating schools with very little governance or funding coming from the US federal government. Furthermore, there are differences from district to district within states in terms of curriculum and funding. Early childhood, elementary, and secondary students who attend public school in America do not pay for their education. Private schools usually receive no funding from state or government, thus students who attend these schools must pay tuition. Almost all postsecondary schools in America charge tuition. This unique structure ensures that no two schools are alike. Instead, America's schools are shaped by regional cultural, political and social influences.

Cultural Influences

Have you ever taken a road trip? If so, you probably noticed differences between cities and states. Some of these differences might include foods, language or accent, or even changes in the landscape. All of these differences create what we call culture. Culture might be explained as the norms for behavior in a given place . Each place tends to have its own unique culture. For example, in the southern United States, there is a distinct accent or southern drawl. People who hail from Alabama usually sound very different than those who come from New York! It does not end with language though. Foods are different. Buildings look different. The land looks different. Needless to say, these cultural differences impact the education system. Therefore, while a Kindergarten class in Alabama and one in New York may both be made up of the same number of students of about the same age, they will likely be very different in terms of culture. These differences influence learning.

Political Influences

When you think of politics, you probably envision people such as the president, your state governor, or maybe even the mayor of your town. You may also consider the individual political parties: democrats, republicans, independents, etc. Maybe you think about your own political beliefs. How do these beliefs impact the US educational system, or do they? Well, political influences are very important things to consider when discussing the educational system of the United States of America. Politicians run the government at the city, state, and federal levels, thus have great power when it comes to education. One's political beliefs usually influence the way he or she feels about education and how it is structured and funded. This is another reason why we see many differences from city to city and state to state in America's schools. The political structure of local government impacts schools in that community in an intimate and profound way. The federal government also has some impact on schools, but not as directly.

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