Almost 90 percent of American students below the college level attend public elementary and secondary schools, which do not charge tuition but rely on local and state taxes for funding. Traditionally, elementary school includes kindergarten through the eighth grade. In some places, however, elementary school ends after the sixth grade, and students attend middle school, or junior high school, from grades seven through nine. Similarly, secondary school, or high school, traditionally comprises grades nine through twelve, but in some places begins at the tenth grade.

Most of the students who do not attend public elementary and secondary schools attend private schools, for which their families pay tuition. Four out of five private schools are run by religious groups. In these schools religious instruction is part of the curriculum, which also includes the traditional academic courses. (Religious instruction is not provided in public schools. The issue of prayer in public schools is discussed in chapter 4.) There is also a small but growing number of parents who educate their children themselves, a practice known as home schooling.

The United States does not have a national school system. Nor, with the exception of the military academies (for example, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland), are there schools run by the federal government. But the government provides guidance and funding for federal educational programs in which both public and private schools take part, and the U.S. Department of Education oversees these programs.

In American parlance, a college is a four-year institution of higher learning that offers courses in related subjects. A liberal arts college, for example, offers courses in literature, languages, history, philosophy, and the sciences, while a business college offers courses in accounting, investment, and marketing. Many colleges are independent and award bachelor’s degrees to those completing a program of instruction that typically takes four years. But colleges can also be components of universities. A large university typically comprises several colleges, graduate programs in various fields, one or more professional schools (for example, a law school or a medical school), and one or more research facilities. (Americans often use the word “college” as shorthand for either a college or a university.)

Every state has its own university, and some states operate large networks of colleges and universities: The State University of New York, for instance, has more than 60 campuses in New York State. Some cities also have their own public universities. In many areas, junior or community colleges provide a bridge between high school and four-year colleges for some students. In junior colleges, students can generally complete their first two years of college courses at low cost and remain close to home.

Unlike public elementary and secondary schools, public colleges and universities usually charge tuition. However, the amount often is much lower than that charged by comparable private institutions, which do not receive the same level of public support. Many students attend college — whether public or private — with the benefit of federal loans that must be repaid after graduation.

About 25 percent of colleges and universities are privately operated by religious groups. Most of these are open to students of all faiths. There are also many private institutions with no religious ties. Whether public or private, colleges depend on three sources of income: student tuition, endowments (gifts made by benefactors), and government funding.

There is no clear distinction between the quality of education provided at public and private colleges or institutions. The public universities of California and Virginia, for example, are generally rated on a par with the Ivy League, an association of eight prestigious private schools in the northeastern United States. This does not mean that all institutions are equal, however. A student who has graduated from a highly regarded college may have a distinct advantage as he or she seeks employment. Thus, competition to get into the more renowned schools can be intense.

A college student takes courses in his or her “major” field (the area of study in which he or she chooses to specialize), along with “electives” (courses that are not required but chosen by the student). It has been estimated that American colleges and universities offer more than 1,000 majors.


From Hawaii to Delaware, from Alaska to Louisiana, each of the 50 states has its own laws regulating education. From state to state, some laws are similar while others are not. For example:

All states require young people to attend school. The age limit varies, however. Most states require attendance up to age 16, some up to 18. Thus, every child in America receives at least 11 years of education. This is true regardless of a child’s sex, race, religion, learning problems, physical handicaps, ability to speak English, citizenship, or status as an immigrant. (Although some members of Congress have advocated permitting the states to deny public education to children of illegal immigrants, such a proposal has not become law.)

Some states play a strong central role in the selection of learning material for their students. For example, state committees may decide which textbooks can be purchased with state funds. In other states, such decisions are left to local school officials.
Although there is no national curriculum in the United States, certain subjects are taught in virtually all elementary and secondary schools throughout the country. Almost every elementary school, for example, teaches mathematics; language arts (including reading, grammar, writing, and literature); penmanship; science; social studies (including history, geography, citizenship, and economics); and physical education. In many schools, children are taught how to use computers, which have also become integral parts of other courses.

In addition to required courses — for example, a year of American history, two years of literature, etc. — secondary schools, like colleges, typically offer electives. Popular electives include performing arts, driver’s education, cooking, and “shop” (use of tools, carpentry, and repair of machinery).

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