Education in the united states a brief overview

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U.S. Department of Education
September 2005


Margaret Spellings

First published September 2003. Revised September 2005.
This report is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce it in whole or in part is granted. While permission to reprint this publication is not necessary, the citation should be: U.S. Department of Education, International Affairs Staff, Education in the United States: A Brief Overview, Washington, D.C., 2005.
To order copies of this report,
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From its earliest days, the United States of America has valued education. Our Founding Fathers believed, as do we, that learning promoted liberty. Pioneer settlers built schools so their children could become productive citizens. Great expanses of land were set aside to create one of the finest systems of higher education in the world.
This tradition continues. Today, the U.S. educates 54 million students from kindergarten to grade 12, and over 17 million in colleges and universities, many of them foreign-born. As we do, we are constantly at work to improve the way we teach and learn.
In 2001, faced with stagnant test scores and an “achievement gap” between rich and poor, President Bush led Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. This revolutionary law committed our nation to providing every single child with a quality education – something that’s never been done before in the history of the United States.
A revolution in education is taking place in many other nations as well. This is a truly hopeful sign. In this Age of Information, a quality education has never been more valuable or highly sought. It is the key to unlocking opportunity for an individual, a family or a society.
As the world becomes closer and more competitive, the United States is eager to learn from other nations and cultures, and to share the lessons we’ve learned. That is why we have written this booklet. It details the history of education in America, and the unique leadership role played by states and local governments under our Constitution. It explains the many different types of schools and the great advances being made in teaching and instruction. It tells you what we are doing to provide a quality education to all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, family income or place of birth.
I hope you find this information useful and interesting. We invite you to visit our country and see for yourself what education means to Americans. In the end, we want to see all of the world’s children receive a quality education, so that the 21st century is one of hope, prosperity and peace.

Margaret Spellings

U.S. Secretary of Education


NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND………………………………………………………………………7

Early Childhood Education.……………………………………………………………………...14

Elementary and Secondary Education.…………………………………………………………..14

Vocational and Technical Education……………………………………………...……………..23

Postsecondary Education………………………………………………………………………...24

Adult and Continuing Education………………………………………………………………...29


The Role of State Governments………………………………………………………………….30

The Role of Local Governments…………………………………………………………………31

The Role of the Federal Government…………………………………………………………….31

Others Who Influence Education Policy and Practice…………………………………………...34

Financing of Education…………………………………………………………………………..31

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES…………………………………………………………………...40

Figure 1: Structure of Education in the United States…………………………………………...12

Figure 2: Highest Level of Education Attained by Persons 25 Years and Older………………..24

Figure 3: Top 10 Bachelor’s Degrees……………………………………………………………25

Figure 4: Funding for Elementary and Secondary Education……………………………………36

Figure 5: Funding for Public Postsecondary Education…………………………………………37

Figure 6: Funding for Private Postsecondary Education………………………………………...37

Table 1: U.S. Education System at a Glance…………………………………………………….13

Table 2: Basic Information on U.S. Public School Teachers……………………………………22


The U.S. Department of Education receives many inquiries each year from citizens of other countries who wish to better understand education in the United States. Some of these inquiries are received via correspondence, while others come from the Department’s many international visitors.
In an effort to address these questions and to provide contextual information, this publication aims to briefly describe the important features and general characteristics of education in the United States. It is important to note that, due to the highly decentralized nature of U.S. education, policies and practices can vary considerably from state to state and from school district to school district. This publication cites national averages and general patterns of education practice.

To learn about specific policies and practices, readers are encouraged to contact local or state education agencies. Internet addresses have been inserted throughout the document for additional information on specific topics.


The United States has a highly decentralized system of education. The Tenth Amendment (1791) of the U.S. Constitution (1787) states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Therefore, the general authority to create and administer public schools is reserved for the states. There is no national school system nor are there national framework laws that prescribe curricula or control most other aspects of education. The federal government, although playing an important role in education, does not establish or license schools or govern educational institutions at any level.1
The decentralized nature of U.S. education has its origins in the early history of the United States. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, what was to become the United States began as separate colonies established by settlers from several European countries. In the 13 British colonies that formed the original United States, the colonial governments or, in some colonies, local communities were responsible for education. It was customary for each locality to establish and support its own school(s) and to educate its children according to its own priorities, values and needs. This history helps to explain why state and local governments today retain primary responsibility for administering elementary and secondary education in the U.S.
In the pages that follow, you will find a description of the historic No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Part I contains a general description of the organization and structure of U.S. education, while Part II describes the roles played by all three levels of government in education policy, administration and financing, with an emphasis on elementary and secondary education.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (No Child Left Behind)2 is a landmark in education reform designed to improve student achievement and change the culture of U.S. schools. The law was passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002.
No Child Left Behind reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—the principal federal law affecting education from kindergarten through high school. In amending ESEA, the new law represents a sweeping overhaul of federal efforts to support elementary and secondary education in the United States. In exchange for federal aid for education, states must establish systems of accountability that ensure that funds are used to improve the quality of education offered to every child in the state.
From 1965, when Congress first passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, through 2005, the federal government has spent almost $300 billion to help educate children, particularly those who are disadvantaged3. Despite this investment, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading showed that less than one-third of our fourth-graders can read at the proficient or advanced levels. And while NAEP Long-Term Trend data from 2004 show a narrowing of achievement gaps between white and minority students, these gaps remain unacceptably large.
The good news is that some schools in cities and towns across the nation are achieving strong academic results for all their children, including those in socioeconomic subgroups that have a history of low performance. If some schools can do it, then all schools should be able to do it. That is the purpose of No Child Left Behind. The law is built on four common-sense pillars: accountability for results, an emphasis on doing what works based on scientific research, expanded parental options, and increased local control and flexibility.
Identifies Schools and Districts in Need of Improvement
As part of the accountability provisions set forth in the law, No Child Left Behind has set the goal of having every child achieving proficiency according to state-defined educational standards by the end of the 2013–14 school year. To reach that goal, every state has developed benchmarks to measure progress and make sure every child is learning. States are required to conduct annual assessments in reading and mathematics for students in grades 3–8, and to report results disaggregated by various subgroups so that overall averages do not mask a failure to meet the educational needs of key student groups. Data is analyzed separately for children of different racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, students from economically disadvantaged homes, and children who are learning English as a second language. This analysis enables schools to identify groups of students who need additional assistance to meet the state's academic expectations.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools that do not meet the state's definition of "adequate yearly progress" for two straight years (schoolwide or in any major subgroup) are identified as “in need of improvement,” and they are given assistance to improve. Annual assessment data help schools identify subject areas and teaching methods that need improvement. For example, if reading scores do not reach the state's benchmark, the school knows it needs to improve its reading program.
In the past, these schools might not have received the attention and the help they needed to improve. Through No Child Left Behind, every state has made a commitment that it will no longer ignore when schools are not meeting the needs of every student in their care.
Provides Help to Schools in Need of Improvement
Title I of ESEA: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged awards grants to states and local school districts and schools with the highest concentrations of economically disadvantaged students to help them improve the education of disadvantaged students, turn around low-performing schools, improve teacher quality and increase choices for parents. When a Title I school is found to be "in need of improvement," school officials are required to work with parents, school staff, the district and outside experts to develop a plan to improve the academic achievement of all the students who attend the school.

The school's improvement plan must incorporate strategies, relying on scientifically based research, that will strengthen the teaching of core academic subjects, especially in the subject areas that resulted in the school being designated as in need of improvement. Schools in need of improvement are also expected to develop strategies to promote effective parental involvement in the school and to incorporate a teacher-mentoring program.

Improves Teaching and Learning by Providing Better Information to Teachers and Principals
Annual assessments to measure children's progress provide teachers with independent information about each child's strengths and weaknesses. With this knowledge, teachers can develop lessons to meet the academic needs of each student and meet or exceed the states’ approved content standards and targets. In addition, principals can use the data to assess where the school should invest resources, such as in professional development.
Ensures That Teacher Quality is a High Priority
No Child Left Behind outlines the minimum qualifications needed by teachers and paraprofessionals who work on any facet of classroom instruction. It requires that states develop plans to ensure that all teachers of core academic subjects are highly qualified4 by the end of the 2005–06 school year.
Gives More Resources to Schools
Today, local, state and federal taxpayers spend over $8,000 per pupil on average.5 States and local school districts are now receiving more federal funding than ever before for all programs under No Child Left Behind: $24.4 billion for the 2005–06 school year. This represents an increase of 46 percent from 2001 to 2005.6 Nearly half of these funds are for grants under Title I of ESEA: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged to ensure that schools in need of improvement have the funds needed to improve instruction for their students.
Focuses on What Works
No Child Left Behind puts a special emphasis on implementing educational programs and practices that have been clearly demonstrated to be effective through rigorous scientific research. Federal funding is targeted to support such programs, and schools are expected to use research and evidence of effectiveness to identify and select instructional resources, instructional practices and professional development strategies. For example, the Reading First program makes $1 billion in federal funds available each year to help reading teachers in the early grades strengthen old skills and gain new ones in instruc­tional techniques that scientifically based research has shown to be effective.
Provides More Information for Parents About Their Child's Progress
Under No Child Left Behind, each state must measure every public school student's progress in reading and math in each of grades 3 through 8 and at least once during grades 10 through 12. By school year 2007-2008, assessments in science will be added. These assessments must be aligned with state academic content and achievement standards. They will provide parents with objective data about their child's academic strengths and weaknesses.
Alerts Parents to Important Information on the Performance of their

Child's School
No Child Left Behind requires states and school districts to give parents easy-to-read, detailed report cards on schools and districts, telling them which ones are succeeding and why, and the progress they are making. Included in the report cards are student achievement data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, English language proficiency, migrant status, disability status and low-income status, as well as important information about the professional qualifications of teachers. With these provisions, No Child Left Behind ensures that parents have important, timely information about the performance of the schools their children attend.

Gives Parents Whose Children Attend Schools in Need of Improvement

New Options
In the first year that a Title I school is identified as in need of improvement, parents receive the option to transfer their child to another public school, including a charter school, in the same school district. Transportation must be provided to the new school, subject to certain cost limitations. If a Title I school is identified for improvement for two or more years, it must provide public school choice and offer students from low-income families who remain in the school the option of obtaining free supplemental educational services (tutoring).
Allows More Flexibility
In exchange for strong accountability, No Child Left Behind gives states and local school districts more flexibility in the use of their federal funding. As a result, principals and administrators spend less time filling out forms and have more time to devote to students’ needs. They have more freedom to implement innovations and allocate resources as policymakers at the state and local levels see fit, thereby giving local people a greater opportunity to affect decisions regarding their schools’ programs.
Encourages Teacher Development
No Child Left Behind gives states and districts the flexibility to find innovative ways to improve teacher quality, including alternative certification, merit pay for master teachers, and bonuses for people who teach in high-need schools and core subject areas like math and science.

The Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program (from Title II of the reauthorized ESEA) gives states and districts flexibility to choose the teacher professional development strategies that best meet their needs to help raise student achievement.


The structure of education in the United States provides different paths to graduation from high school or a postsecondary institution (see Figure 1 below), and it is common for students to move between different types of schools, or to leave the system and return later in life.
Figure 1: Structure of Education in the United States

Source: 2003 Digest of Education Statistics, Figure 1. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2004). Note: Adult education programs, while not separately delineated above, may provide instruction at the elementary, secondary or higher education levels. Chart reflects typical patterns of progression rather than all possible variations. Numbers in parentheses represent the number of years spent in elementary and secondary schools, depending on the path being followed.

Table 1: U.S. Education System at a Glance

Total elementary and secondary school enrollment

54 milliona

Percentage of population age 6-17 enrolled in school

98 percentb

Number of elementary and secondary school teachers (public and private)

3.4 millionc

Number of public elementary and secondary schools


Number of private elementary and secondary schools


Percentage of elementary and secondary students attending private schoolsf


Average expenditure per pupil in public elementary/secondary school


Number of public school districts


Number of higher education students

17 millionj

Number of 2-year colleges


Number of 4-year colleges and universities


Percentage of adults over age 25 who have completed at least 5 years of elementary school

98 percentm

Percentage of adults over age 25 who have completed at least high school

85 percentn

Percentage of adults over age 25 who have completed 4 or more years of college

27 percento

Sources: Data from: 2004 Digest of Education Statistics. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2005); 2000 Condition of Education. (Washington, D.C.: NCES, 2000); and Findings from the Condition of Education: 2002 Private Schools—A Brief Portrait. (Washington, D.C.: NCES, 2002). Figures have been slightly rounded.

  1. Digest, Table 2

  2. Condition, Table 1-1

  3. Digest, Table 4 (2003 Digest)

  4. Digest, Table 5

  5. Digest, Table 5

  6. See page 18 for a description of private schools.

  7. Digest, Table 2

  8. Digest, Table 166

  9. Digest, Table 87 (2003 Digest)

  10. Digest, Table 2

  11. Digest, Table 5

  12. Digest, Table 5

  13. Digest, Table 8

  14. Digest, Table 8

  15. Digest, Table 8

Early Childhood Education
Early childhood education (preprimary) in the United States comes in a variety of forms, including nursery school, preschool, day care centers, prekindergarten and kindergarten. It also includes Head Start, a federally funded child development program that serves low-income children. Free Head Start programs are offered for 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. The Early Reading First program provides federal funds to enhance instructional content in early childhood education settings, thus helping to ensure that children start kindergarten with the language and literacy skills needed for later academic success. Overall, 64 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education and 52 percent of these children attend full-day programs.7
The majority of 5-year-olds attend free public kindergartens.8 Most public elementary schools offer free kindergarten education, and the average class size is 20 students.9 Almost all public school kindergartens report that teachers read stories aloud to the children each day. The majority also arrange for the students to engage each day in running, climbing and other motor skill activities; language development, dramatic play, arts, crafts and music; and free play.
For more information on Head Start, see
Elementary and Secondary Education
Basic Information

Elementary (primary) and secondary education spans twelve academic years, or grades. However, the organization of elementary and secondary education varies among school districts and states. Generally students spend from six to eight years in elementary education. Elementary education is followed by four to six years of secondary education. The last four years of secondary school are generally referred to as “high school.” Students normally complete high school by age 17 or 18. High school graduates who decide to continue their education may enter a technical or vocational institution, a two-year community or junior college, or a four-year college or university. Each of these educational levels is further described later.

The average public elementary school enrolls 477 pupils.10 The grade levels included in elementary school vary by district, based on educational philosophy and school building size. The average public secondary school enrolls 7,18 students.11 Secondary education is usually broken into two parts: middle school (or junior high school) and high school. Middle school usually encompasses grades 6-8 or 7-8, depending on the district. High school typically includes grades 9-12.12
All states require students to attend school, but the ages of compulsory attendance vary by state. Compulsory schooling ends by law at age 16 in 30 states, at age 17 in nine states, and at age 18 in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. U.S. public schools are tax-supported and free to students and their families.
Students borrow free textbooks from the school for the year, but they must bring their own paper

and pencils from home. In most public schools, students are allowed to wear whatever clothing they like within broad guidelines, while a small but growing number of public schools require uniforms. Boys and girls generally attend class together, although a small number of public schools do provide single-sex classes.

School Calendar and Daily Routine. In most states, the school year lasts 180 days13. School begins in most districts in late August or early September and continues until June, and most school districts have a two-week break at the end of December and a one-week break in March or April. Generally, the school day runs from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; however, daily schedules vary significantly from school to school.
Most elementary school students study in the same classroom all day with one teacher who teaches all subjects. The class may visit the gymnasium and library once or twice a week. Students have a daily lunch break of about 30 minutes. Most schools have one or two playground breaks, although playground time is being reduced or eliminated in a growing number of schools for a variety of reasons. In most elementary schools, daily instructional time is not divided into periods; instead, teachers decide how much time to spend teaching particular subjects based on students’ learning needs and their own expertise.

The secondary school day usually consists of five to six instructional periods, with short breaks between periods. Each secondary school student has a unique schedule and set of classes, which is determined by the parents, school counselor and student, based upon local graduation requirements and the student’s interests, career goals and academic ability. Middle and secondary school teachers remain in their own classrooms throughout the day and teach specialized subjects rather than the whole curriculum. At the end of each period, every student moves to a different classroom depending on his or her own schedule.

Students generally eat lunch in the school cafeteria. Some students bring their lunch from home, and others purchase their meals at school. About a third of U.S. students—those from low-income families—receive free or reduced-price breakfast and/or lunch each day, paid for by the federal government.14 For more information on the federal programs that provide school meals, see
Student Transportation. For students attending schools located beyond walking distance from their homes, transportation via school bus is generally provided free of charge by the school district. More than half of U.S. public elementary and secondary students use this service to travel to and from school each day.15 Many parents drive their children to school, while many students age 16 and older drive themselves.
Extracurricular Activities. Many schools, especially at the secondary level, sponsor activities such as sports, clubs, performing arts and community service opportunities. In some school districts, prospective graduates are encouraged or required to perform a prescribed number of hours of community service.
In addition to attending school, many high school students work limited hours at part-time jobs during the academic year. For example, 68 percent of 12th-grade students work during the academic year, with 77 percent of students working fewer than 20 hours per week.16 Food service, grocery clerk and retail sales are the most common types of work for high school students.17 Persons under the age of 18 are considered minors under U.S. law, and federal and state child labor laws strictly govern the types of work minors can perform, how it is supervised and how long they can work for pay.
States set broad curriculum guidelines for what students should know and be able to do. School districts or schools generally select textbooks, adhering to state guidelines. Within these guidelines, schools, and even individual teachers, are generally expected to determine content details and the pace of instruction so that it is suited to the characteristics of students. Elementary schools do not generally assign students to specific teachers or classes based on their ability. However, within classes, teachers often set up reading or mathematics groups based on student achievement levels. Students in different achievement groups may receive differentiated assignments so that they can progress at an appropriate pace in mastering the class curriculum.
At the secondary school level, each student’s coursework is generally composed of courses required for graduation—with requirements varying by district and state—and elective courses. As a statistical average, public high school students complete the following one-year-long courses between 9th and 12th grades: four years of English; four years of history or social studies; three years of mathematics; three years of science; two years of foreign language; two years of the arts; four years of vocational, technical or business education; one year of computer science; and two to three years of other subjects.18
Most students graduate from high school at the age of 17 or 18.19 Some students graduate from school later because they have been retained in grade. Others drop out and return to school a year or two later, or drop out and decide to complete the General Educational Development (GED) certificate program, which is recognized in all states as the equivalent of a high school diploma.20

Academic Standards and Student Assessment

Standards. During the 1990s, most states made significant gains in the use of standards to define educational inputs and desired outcomes. By 2001, almost all states, plus the District of Columbia, had developed and put in place academic standards that described what students should know and be able to do in mathematics, language arts, science and social studies. Most states also now have content standards that describe the body of knowledge that all students should know, and achievement standards that describe what level of performance is considered basic, proficient and advanced. (The exact terms used vary by school system.) Despite significant progress in setting academic standards, debate often takes place over whether standards are too high, too low, clear enough or sufficiently relevant.
Grading. Students receive classroom grades to describe their academic performance in each subject area. The grading system used is generally on a letter scale, with “A” being the highest and “F” being the lowest and representing failure. Letter grades are often converted into numeric “grade point averages” (“GPAs”)—especially at the secondary school level—to describe a student’s overall performance. In this case, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1 and F=0, with a 4.0 grade point average indicating a perfect grade record. Grading generally assumes a starting point of 100, or perfect, and subtracts points for mistakes or poor-quality reasoning, rather than assuming a starting point of zero and adding points, as in some other grading systems. Typically, classroom teachers are entirely responsible for determining grades, basing their decisions on the quality of a student’s work, classroom test scores and level of participation.
Promotion. A student’s promotion to the next year of schooling is based primarily on his or her classroom grades. If a student’s grades are poor and the teacher believes that he or she is not ready to be promoted to the next grade, the student may be retained. Parents also generally play an important role in making such a decision. Students are most likely to be retained during the early grades of elementary school. Some states require students to pass an examination in order to graduate from secondary school.21 These examinations vary in content, format and rigor.
Student Achievement Testing. States administer tests on a regular basis to assess student performance at designated grade levels. One of the key factors determining the relevance of a state’s testing regimen is its alignment with the state’s academic content and achievement standards. Achieving this alignment is often challenging due to the time and expense required. Some states use tests purchased from a commercial test developer, while others develop original test instruments that are specifically designed to measure state standards. Another challenge is how to define and ensure test quality. For example, states must determine whether tests will primarily contain open-ended essay questions and mathematical problems, or multiple-choice questions.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to test all students in reading and mathematics in grades 3–8 and at least once in high school. Science assessments will be required at least once during grades 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12 starting in the 2007–08 school year. Each state, school district and school is expected to make adequate yearly progress toward meeting state standards in these subject areas and to measure this progress for all students. Special focus is placed on the progress of students who are economically disadvantaged, are from racial or ethnic minority groups, have disabilities or have limited English proficiency.
The results of state-level tests do not generally affect an individual student’s grades or promotion but instead are used to assess the educational quality in a school, a district or the entire state. In many communities, the media report the results of districts’ or schools’ performance on standardized measures.
National-level student assessment takes place through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which includes a random sample of U.S. schools and is designed to provide the public with information on the nation’s progress in a number of subjects. NAEP does not provide scores for individual students or schools; instead, it offers results regarding subject-matter achievement, instructional experiences and school environment for populations of students (e.g., fourth-graders) and subgroups of those populations (e.g., female students, Hispanic students).

In 1988, the Congress passed legislation enabling NAEP to assess student performance also at the state level, and in 2002, NCLB added a requirement for state-level NAEP testing as a benchmark for the rigor of state assessment systems. Many schools also participate in international assessments to measure how well U.S. students perform in comparison to students in other countries.

For more information on NAEP, see For information on such international assessments, see
School Choice
Public school districts generally assign students to particular schools based on place of residence, and those schools generally accept all students assigned to them. Nonetheless, in an effort to provide parents with more options for their children, many state governments and public school systems expand school choice through options such as open enrollment programs, magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, dual enrollment programs, scholarship programs (“vouchers”) and tax credit/deduction programs.

  • Open enrollment programs allow parents the opportunity to choose from among all schools in their district, or even from among schools in other districts in their state.

  • Magnet schools are public elementary or secondary schools that offer a special curriculum capable of attracting substantial numbers of students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

  • Charter schools are public schools that provide enhanced parental choice and are exempt from many statutory and regulatory requirements. In exchange for increased flexibility, charter schools are held accountable for improving student academic achievement. The objective is to replace rules-based governance with performance-based accountability.

  • Virtual schools are education organizations that provide online learning opportunities offering benefits and access to a broad range of students.

  • Dual enrollment programs give high school students the opportunity to attend college classes and receive both high school and postsecondary credit.

  • Scholarship programs, also known as “vouchers,” direct public education funding to parents in order to pay all or part of their child’s tuition at a school of their choice. Depending on the program, parents can choose from private schools—either secular or religious—and from public schools.

  • Tax credit/deduction programs reimburse education expenses fully or partially via tax relief. Tax credits or deductions may be available to individual or corporate taxpayers who contribute to scholarship-granting organizations, or to parent taxpayers to help pay for education-related costs, including private school tuition.

Public Schools
Public school choice programs provide parents with additional options as to where to enroll their children. Although such programs have not been available everywhere, the proportion of public school children attending a chosen school (rather than the school assigned by their place of residence) has increased in recent years. In 2003, for example, 15 percent of public school students in grades 1–12 attended a school the family had chosen, up from 11 percent in 1993.22
With the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, public school choice has taken on a new dimension. Now all children who attend Title I schools identified by their states as in need of improvement must be offered the option of transferring to another school in the district not identified for improvement. (Title I schools are those schools that receive federal funds under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA]: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged. Title I supports programs to improve the academic achievement of children of low-income families; and currently about 55 percent of U.S. public schools receive funds under Title I.)
No Child Left Behind also provides eligible parents with the option to enroll their children in free tutoring programs through the supplemental educational services provisions of Title I. Low-income families whose children attend Title I schools in year two of improvement or later are eligible for supplemental educational services, which are extra academic enrichment services offered outside of the regular school day. The services must be research-based and aligned with state standards and local curriculum, and their goal is to help students improve their academic achievement while also offering parents the option of selecting the education program that best meets their children’s needs.
For additional information on school choice, see
Private Schools
Private schools were the original schools in the U.S. and continue to provide parents a variety of options for educating their children. Private schools account for about 24 percent of all elementary and secondary schools, 10 percent of all students and 12 percent of all teachers in the United States. Seventy-seven percent of all private schools have a religious affiliation while the remainder are nonsectarian.23 Private schools are owned and governed by entities that are independent of any government—typically religious bodies or independent boards of trustees. Choice is a defining characteristic of private schools as families may choose private education, and private schools may generally choose which students to accept. Although nonpublic governance and enrollment choices are features that all private schools share, there is wide variation within the private sector on many measures.
Private schools receive funding primarily from nonpublic sources: tuition payments and other private sources, such as foundations, religious bodies, alumni or other private donors. Average annual tuition costs at private elementary and secondary schools are $4,689 per pupil,24 although tuition rates for individual schools can be less or significantly more than this average.
In addition, a growing number (about 2 percent) of U.S. students ages 5–17 receive their education through homeschooling. Parents cite several primary motivations for selecting homeschooling for their children. These include, among others, concerns about the environment of other schools (including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure); religious and moral beliefs; and dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.25
For more information on private schools, see
Special Education
A number of federal laws govern the provision of educational services to students with disabilities and specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities or institutions that are recipients of federal financial assistance. The primary federal governing legislation for special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as amended in 2004.
About 96 percent of students with disabilities attend regular schools, while only 4 percent attend separate institutions dedicated to education for students with disabilities.26 Among those students attending local public schools, most are educated in regular classes with appropriate aids and supports, such as designated periods of time meeting with a qualified special education teacher. The amount of time spent outside the regular classroom varies and depends on the needs of the student. About half of all students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in regular classrooms.27
For more information about special education, including federal laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, see the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs Web site at and its Office for Civil Rights Web site at
Gifted and Talented Education
Special services are often also provided for students that are specially gifted or talented. Gifted and talented students are usually served via special programs in regular school settings. About 6 percent of U.S. students benefit from these services.28 In some states, special services for gifted and talented students are included under the state’s special education law.
Other Important Aspects of Elementary and Secondary Education
Religion and Schools. The U.S. Constitution calls for a separation between government and religion; therefore, public schools are not allowed to have a religious affiliation or teach religious doctrine. (They may, however, teach about religions as part of academic studies such as history, social studies or literature.) Parents who desire a religiously oriented education for their children may send them to private religious schools instead of public schools or may homeschool their children, as described above.
Student Diversity. Students in U.S. schools represent nearly every ethnic background and nationality in the world. The most diverse school districts are those in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Chicago, but diverse student populations are increasingly found even in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. As a national average, U.S. students in public schools are 60 percent white, 17 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 1 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native.29 However, the population characteristics of a given local school or district often vary from the national average.
In the United States, English is clearly the predominant language for government, business, society and instruction. English is taught to all students in U.S. schools, but more than 400 native languages other than English are represented in these same schools.30 In some schools, especially at the elementary level, students with limited English proficiency receive content instruction in their native language while they learn English. More than 9 percent of public school students (prekindergarten through 12th grade) are considered to have limited English proficiency. 31
For more information, see the Web site for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students at

English Language Proficiency. There are approximately five million non-English speaking or limited English proficient (LEP) students who attend U.S. public schools. Although there are over 400 languages spoken by children throughout the United States, 80 percent of LEP children are native Spanish speakers. The annual growth rate of the LEP population in America has hovered at 10 percent over the past five years. To date, it is the fastest-growing student group in the country. About 52 percent of the children are born in the U.S., while the other 48 percent come to U.S. schools from other countries at different times and enter at different grade levels throughout the year. Currently, one in every nine students in the classroom is LEP and the numbers are projected to increase to one in five by the year 2030. According to a descriptive study titled: Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students with Disabilities commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education published September 2003, 43 percent of all teachers in the nation have at least one non-English speaking student in the classroom.32 Historically, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to accurately calculate the drop-out rate or the graduation and completion rates of America’s limited English proficient students.
For the first time, with No Child Left Behind public education legislation, specifically addresses the English language proficiency and academic achievement of limited English proficient students and their families. NCLB Title III annually distributes formula grant funds to states for limited English proficient students who are identified by the state through a language assessment and requires the state to develop a system within the state that focuses on two legislated goals: that all limited English proficient children learn English and that they achieve at the same high academic level established by the state for all students. Currently, states are actively engaged in including LEP students in the their accountability systems and measuring and reporting their language acquisition progress and academic success.
Parental Involvement. Parents’ involvement in the schools and in their children’s education is generally encouraged by principals and teachers. Most parents attend general school meetings and parent-teacher conferences each year, and many volunteer at their children’s school by tutoring, presenting special programs of interest, supervising students on field trips or assisting with special events. 33 Parents of children with disabilities must be involved in the development of their child’s specially designed instruction, which is referred to as the child’s Individualized Education Program. There are also organizations—such as parent-teacher associations—that work to support schools and increase the involvement of families in the educational progress of their children.
Technology. The use of technology is widespread in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, as well as in colleges and universities. Students use computers to write reports, collaborate with classmates, conduct research on the Internet and engage in many other activities. In fall 2003, nearly 100 percent of public schools had access to the Internet, while 93 percent of public school instructional rooms had Internet access. While technology in schools has become increasingly common, several related challenges have presented themselves. These challenges include providing adequate training to teachers on how to effectively integrate technology into the curriculum and ensuring that the benefits of educational technology are available to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. For more information on current activities in applying technology to U.S. classrooms, see the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology Web site at

Teachers and Teaching
U.S. elementary and secondary school teachers receive their preservice training at four-year colleges and universities. Although the requirements for coursework and practice teaching vary by university and state, most prospective teachers must complete an undergraduate degree and pass one or more examinations in order to be licensed. A growing number of states and some school districts have developed alternative certification programs or routes to train prospective teachers.

The majority of public school teachers earn master’s degrees and complete additional training during their careers.34. In general, public school teachers are required to be licensed by the teacher certification authority of the state in which they teach. The No Child Left Behind Act also addresses the issue of teacher quality and establishes certain requirements designed to ensure that all students have high-quality teachers.

Table 2: Basic Information on U.S. Public School Teachers

Median age

44 years


Women 79%, Men 21%

Highest degree held

Bachelor’s 44%, Master’s 55%, Doctorate 1.7%

Median years of teaching experience

14 years

Average hours per week spent on teaching duties

50 hours

Average teaching days per year

181 days

Average annual salary as a classroom teacher


Source: 2003 Digest of Education Statistics, Table 69. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2004).
Each state administers its own teacher certification exam. Teachers certified in one state are not certified to teach in another state, unless there is a special reciprocity agreement between the states. Since reciprocity is rare, teachers moving to another state are usually required to complete additional coursework and another exam. To obtain employment, prospective teachers apply to and are hired by the public school district in which they wish to teach or the individual private school. Most teachers teach the same grade and subject for several years, and they rarely teach the same students for more than a year. Due to teacher retirements, attrition, increased student enrollments and other factors, teacher recruitment and teacher quality are currently important issues in the United States.
On average, teachers make up 52 percent of the staff in U.S. school districts.35 District-level administrators make up 2 percent; principals and assistant principals 2 percent; teacher aides 11 percent; and other staff 33 percent.36

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