United States

Lydia Malley
Teresa Neidorf
Alka Arora
Teresa Kroeger
American Institutes for Research

Overview of Education System

Public education is decentralized in the United States; each state governs its own school system. States oversee all levels of primary and secondary educationa and direct (or delegate to local authorities) all of the political, administrative, and fiscal aspects that would generally be directed by a ministry of education in a centralized system. The degree of a state’s control, in comparison to that of local authorities, depends on state laws and regulations, but, in every state, education is the largest budget item.1 State education departments distribute federal and state funding, establish policy for graduation requirements and teacher certification requirements, provide curriculum guidance, conduct student assessments, and are responsible for ensuring that efficient and effective school opportunities are made available to every eligible child in the state. In the 2011–2012 school year, an estimated $1.15 trillion was spent nationwide to fund all levels of education, with the substantial majority of that funding for elementary and secondary schools coming from state, local, and private sources; only around 10.8 percent of that funding came from federal sources.b,2

States delegate the operation of elementary and secondary schools to local governments, which, in turn, have traditionally assigned the task of running schools to elected or appointed school boards. Local school boards raise funds, establish policy and operating regulations, and hire superintendents to manage and operate the school district. The school district is responsible for curriculum decisions, implementation of standards, facilities construction and maintenance, and operation of school programs. In the 2011–2012 school year, there were about 13,600 public school districts in the United States.3 Of students attending public and private elementary and secondary schools in the fall of 2011, approximately 90 percent attended public schools and approximately 10 percent attended private schools.4

In the United States, public education refers to the system by which federal, state, and local governments provide the funding and oversight for free public schools for all children from kindergarten through Grade 12 (when most students are age 18). The age at which students start school varies by state, and kindergarten, while free, is not compulsory in the majority of states. Publicly funded education ends when a student graduates from high school or finishes Grade 12. The age at which students are permitted to leave school before graduation also varies among the states.5

The federal government also plays a role in state education systems. Since 1917, the federal government has offered states funding to support various programs, including vocational education as well as mathematics, science, and foreign language programs. Since the 1960s, the federal government also has promoted equal educational opportunities through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The act makes equal educational requirements a condition for federal funding and provides aid (known as Title I funding) to high-poverty schools to improve the learning of educationally disadvantaged children. In 2002, ESEA was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which made federal funding conditional on educational improvements. Specifically, NCLB required states to ensure that all students were proficient in reading, mathematics, and science by the 2013–2014 school year based on state academic content standards. In December 2015, NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In comparison to NCLB, ESSA provides more flexibility to states on the issues of school accountability and student testing with competitive programs built in to encourage innovation, evidence-building, and the replication of high performing schools.6

In 1980, the federal Office of Education became the US Department of Education, a Cabinet-level department with the additional responsibilities of promoting improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information.7

Major religious denominations and other private groups operate schools in the United States. These schools charge a tuition fee and operate under their own rules and regulations. In 2011, about 10 percent of US students enrolled in prekindergarten through Grade 12 attended private schools, of which about 77 percent had religious affiliations.8 In recent years, a growing number of parents have elected to homeschool their children. Homeschooled children may be taught by one or both parents, by tutors, or through virtual school programs available on the Internet. In 2012, approximately 1.7 million school-age children (or 3 percent of children ages 5 to 17) were reported by their parents to be homeschooled.9 The state in which the family resides is responsible for any oversight of homeschooling.10

School districts organize grades into elementary schools (generally including kindergarten and Grades 1 to 4, 1 to 5, or 1 to 6, sometimes called primary schools), middle schools (commonly consisting of Grades 5 to 8, 6 to 8, 7 to 8, or 7 to 9, sometimes called intermediate or junior high schools), and high schools (typically Grades 9 to 12 or 10 to 12, sometimes called secondary schools). Before the age of 5, children often attend preschool (sometimes called nursery school). The federal Preschool for All Initiative provides preschool access to low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children.11 At age 5, a child typically enters kindergarten.

Academic grades are recorded in student transcripts, which are used to document completion of graduation requirements and for competitive admission to higher education. After graduation from high school, students may continue their education by enrolling in public or private universities or colleges, community colleges, or vocational or technical schools (see Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1: The Structure of Education in the United States12

Exhibit 1: The Structure of Education in the United States

NOTE: The grade configurations shown are not the only possible routes of educational attainment. For example, some areas of study permit entering a doctoral program directly out of an undergraduate program, which generally takes 4 years or more to complete.
SOURCE: Snyder, T. D., & Dillow, S. A. (2015). Digest of education statistics 2013 (NCES 2015-011). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education.

There is no national curriculum in the United States. State education agencies and local school districts are responsible for subject area curriculum frameworks. States are responsible for developing curriculum frameworks in core subject areas and implementing accountability systems tied to curriculum standards. Local school districts, and sometimes individual schools, decide what curricula are actually taught. For all states and districts, the curricula for mathematics and science prescribe a series of topics, content standards, and indicators of student achievement.

However, over the last six years, national collaborations have given way to shared mathematics and science standards across states, and a common approach to curriculum priorities and frameworks. As of 2015, 43 states, the District of Columbia, four US territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activityc had voluntarily adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s mathematics standards (described in “The Mathematics Curriculum in Primary and Lower Secondary Grades” section of this chapter).d,13 Started in 2009, the initiative is a state-led effort sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bring diverse state curricula into alignment by establishing a set of educational standards for English language arts and mathematics that states can voluntarily adopt. Key shifts called for by the Common Core State Standards for mathematics include (1) a greater focus on fewer topics, (2) establishing coherence by linking topics and thinking across grades, and (3) pursuing three aspects of rigor in the major work of each grade: conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application.15

In 2013, new science standards for kindergarten through 12th grade (known as K to 12), called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), were published (described in the “Science Curriculum in Primary and Lower Secondary Grades” section of this chapter). The NGSS were developed through a collaborative, state-led effort (managed by Achieve, Inc.). In addition to states, the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were critical partners in the development and review of the NGSS. As of August 2015, 15 states and the District of Columbia had officially adopted the NGSS and were in the process of updating their state science curriculum standards and obtaining the necessary supports and funding to implement the standards in their classrooms.16,e

The NGSS focus on a limited set of core ideas in the natural sciences and in engineering, technology, and applications of science that build coherently across the grade levels. The NGSS also emphasize the importance of crosscutting concepts that apply across disciplines, as well as the practices used by scientists and engineers that K to 12 students should develop. The intent is a set of standards that provides a coherent, internationally benchmarked science education program for all K to 12 students.18

Languages of Instruction

There is no official language in the United States, but English is the primary language in the country. In 2011, 79 percent of the population over the age of 5 spoke only English at home. The second-most commonly spoken language at home was Spanish, spoken by 13 percent of the population.19 English is generally the language of instruction for subject areas, including mathematics and science, at all academic levels. However, due to increasing levels of diversity in languages and cultures in the United States, many schools have adopted academic support measures for English language learners. The three dominant forms are: dual-language education, formerly called bilingual education, which refers to academic programs that are taught in two languages; English as a second language, which refers to the teaching of English to students with different native or home languages using specially designed programs and techniques; and sheltered instruction, which refers to programs in which English language learners are “sheltered” together to learn English and academic content simultaneously, either within a regular school or in a separate academy.20

  • a States also have some oversight of postsecondary institutions, such as community colleges and state universities.
  • b Federal funding for public education includes funds not only from the US Department of Education, but also from other federal agencies, such as the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program and the US Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.
  • c The Department of Defense Education Activity is a federally operated school system (prekindergarten through Grade 12) for children of servicemen and servicewomen stationed in Europe, the Pacific, and the Americas.
  • d As of July 2016, 38 states are actively implementing the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s mathematics standards. Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee have withdrawn in the past year.14
  • e As of July 2016, 17 states have officially adopted the NGSS.17