Elementary and Secondary Education

Elementary, middle, and high schools

Elementary and Secondary Education

In the US, compulsory schooling is typically divided into three distinct levels, each with its own curriculum and school. Students are taught a broad range of subjects and usually participate in extracurricular activities. Though educational standards vary from district to district, learning about the general organization of these schools will help you prepare for your move. 

The first five or six years of compulsory schooling are called elementary school. Secondary education is for students aged 12 to 18 and is often divided into three years of middle school and four years of high school. 

Elementary school

Elementary education starts at the age of five or six, depending on the particular state and whether a kindergarten (K) year is offered. Even when provided, attendance at kindergarten isn’t always compulsory. To qualify for kindergarten, a child must be five years old on or before a ‘cut-off’ date, e.g. 1st September or October, to attend that year. Usually a child must be enrolled in kindergarten or first grade in the calendar year in which he turns six. Elementary school is usually attended from the age of 5 or 6 until 11 (grades K to 5), when students go on to a middle or junior high school. In some districts, students attend elementary school until the age of 13 (up to grade 8) before attending a senior high school.

The elementary school curriculum varies with the organization and educational aims of individual schools and local communities. Promotion from one grade to the next is based on a student’s achievement of specified skills, although a child is required to repeat a year in exceptional circumstances only. Some school districts are returning to testing as a means of determining when a child is ready to move to the next grade, in an effort to reduce reliance on social promotion (promoting a student with poor academic results just so they can be with their classmates) and this is becoming yet another contentious issue.

Elementary schools provide instruction in the fundamental skills of reading, writing and maths, as well as history and geography, crafts, music, science, art and physical education or gym. Foreign languages, which used to be taught at high schools, have been introduced in around 25% of elementary schools. Elementary students are usually given regular homework, although some schools are moving away from this. 

Secondary school

In most districts, students attend a combined junior/senior high school or attend a middle school until 13 (grade 8) before transferring to a four-year senior high school. Like elementary education, secondary education is coeducational. American high schools are often much larger than secondary schools in other countries, and regional high schools with over 2,000 students are common in some rural areas and city suburbs.

Secondary school students must take certain ‘core’ curriculum courses for a prescribed number of years or terms, as determined by each state. These generally include English, maths, general science, health, physical education and social studies or social sciences (which may include American history and government, geography, world history and social problems). Students are streamed (tracked) in some high schools for academic subjects, where the brightest students are put on a ‘fast track’.

In addition to mandatory subjects, students choose ‘electives’ (optional subjects), which supplement their future education and career plans. Electives usually comprise around half of a student’s work in grades 9 to 12. Students usually take five basic core courses each year, and many choose to take a foreign language.

Subjects and graduation

High schools offer a wide range of subjects from which students can choose a program leading to college/university entrance or a career in business or industry. The courses offered vary from school to school and are listed in school curriculum guides. Around the ninth grade, students receive counselling as they begin to plan their careers and select subjects that are useful for exploration. Counselling continues throughout their senior year of high school and into college, particularly in junior college or the first two years of a four-year college program.

Upon satisfactory completion of 12th grade, a student graduates and receives a high school diploma. (In the US, students graduate from high school, junior high school, elementary school and even nursery school.) At high schools (as at colleges and universities) there are ceremonies to celebrate graduation complete with caps, gowns, diplomas, and speeches by staff and students.

Graduation ceremonies are called ‘commencement’, because they mark the start of a new stage in a student’s life. Americans are enthusiastic about ‘life cycle events’ (milestones) and graduations are a time of great celebration and feting of students. It’s a particular honour for a student (usually the top student) to be chosen as the ‘valedictorian’, who gives the valedictorian oration or farewell speech at the graduation ceremony.

Importance of hobbies and sports 

With the exception of physical education classes, school sport is usually extra-curricular, i.e. takes place outside school hours. Team sports have a high profile at many high schools and being ‘on the school team’ is more important to many students than being top of the class. (Actually, in terms of securing scholarships for university, they may be right!) Students who excel at sports are often referred to disparagingly as ‘jocks’, implying that they’re too stupid or lazy to succeed at their academic work.

Although the jock stereotype doesn’t always ring true, sports stars do tend to neglect their school work. This has led some schools to introduce ‘no pass/no play’ rules, where only students who pass their courses may participate in after-school sports. 

In addition to sports, many other school-sponsored activities take place outside school hours, including science and nature clubs, musical organisations (e.g. band and choir), art and drama groups, and language clubs. Nearly every school has a student-run newspaper and a photographic darkroom is also usually available.

Colleges and universities place considerable value on the achievements of students in high school extra-curricular activities, as do employers. High schools are also important social centers, and participation in school-organized social events such as football games and school dances is widespread.

Adapted from Living and Working in America.

Further reading

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