Overview of US Education System (2023)

Table of Contents

  1. What Are The Different Levels Of The Education System In The USA?
  2. Early Childhood Education
  3. Elementary School
  4. High school
  5. College Education
  6. Academic grading in the United States
  7. How will schools place my child?
  8. How Does The School Decide Which Class Level My Child Takes?
  9. Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
  10. Online High School Course Offerings
  11. College Prep Online – Dual Enrollment
  12. Resources and References:

In the USA, there are four levels of education: elementary school, middle school, high school and college.

The first three levels are all compulsory (you must attend), but only about half of people make it to college. The level you’ll likely be enrolled in will depend on your age and whether or not you have a disability that qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). For more information about what is offered at each level, see below!

Early Childhood Education

Early education is a term used to talk about young children being exposed to education. There are two different ways to expose young kids to education. The first is through preschool, which is a program designed to be open before and after school (depending on the school’s schedule).

Educational programs at this level are usually geared towards children 3-5 years old. They teach different topics like counting, letters, colors, shapes and more informal things about how big or small we are as compared with things around us.

The second way that early education happens for young kids is through kindergarten. Kindergarten prepares them for elementary school by teaching them some of the fundamentals of learning such as print awareness, letter recognition and phonemic awareness (learning sounds that make up words).

Elementary School

Once children reach 6 years old, they are usually enrolled in elementary school. In the USA, there is no such thing as a “kindergarten only” program – you must be at least 6 years old to start first grade.

Elementary school offers many different options to its students and is very state dependent. What this means is that what happens in one state may not happen in another. A student going through an elementary education program can expect to learn about language arts (reading/writing), math, science and social studies (geography). Some schools offer foreign languages like Spanish, French or even Chinese for those interested in learning other languages!

High school

Once students reach 12 years old, they graduate from the elementary level of education. They are required to stay enrolled in school, but they have the option of either staying at the elementary level or moving on to middle school.

Most high schools enroll their students in 9th grade and older. Some schools enroll all students into 10th grade without having a specific grade requirement. This is mostly up to what a student wants for themselves and where their interests lie. Usually there are class requirements that need to be met once you’re enrolled in high school (like 4 years of English) that can be fulfilled through an online program if necessary.

Depending on which state a student lives in, they may or may not have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). When students reach 12 years old, they meet with a team of people who will determine what the best fit is for them. This may be through an IEP, school transfer or staying where they are.

College Education

Overview of US Education System (1)
After high school comes college. College has multiple areas of focus:

  • Community college
  • Vocational/trade school
  • Four-year colleges and universities

Usually students start at their local community college and once they’ve satisfied all requirements there to earn their associate’s degree (an AA), then move on to other options. Distance learning programs are also popular amongst some students because it allows them to work full time while still completing classes that will eventually lead to a bachelor’s degree (BA).

Academic grading in the United States

Letter GradePercentageGPA
A90–100 %4
B80–89 %3
C70–79 %2
D60–69 %1

How will schools place my child?

School placement in the American education system depends on what grade a child is in or whether they have special needs.

  • Kindergarten and first-grade students go to elementary school (or primary education). The highest level of schooling that an elementary student may complete is the sixth grade. Children who have not learned how to read at the end of their third year are held back in their school class until they are able to learn this skill, usually between ages 7–10 years old.
  • Middle-school children are taught up to eight grades of curriculum: seventh and eighth grades as well as four grades of ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth levels.
  • Students enrolling into a middle school must be aged between 10 – 13 years old depending on local laws. After completing middle school, students will either continue into high school or they have the option to enroll in a technical, vocational, or general education program.
  • High-school level education (or secondary education) is for ages 14–19.

A common misconception is that American universities only offer four years of education for all subjects; this is not true! The United States has a wide range of colleges and universities that each offer different courses and degrees based on the style of studies you are planning to follow. A great tool to use when choosing your course of study as well as scholarships available in any specific field can be found online at College Board. All levels of college also require admissions testing like SATs (School Aptitude Test) or ACTs (Achievement Tests). The deadline for these tests is usually in the early fall months so be sure to check with your school counselor when you are enrolling.

There are several four-year colleges that also offer an additional year of education in which students can specialize their degree into a specific field at no extra charge to them. This option allows the student to get a head-start on college life and learn more about a specific topic before they graduate from college. Four year schools have many different names, but most commonly they are called “junior colleges” or “community colleges” both of which offer an Associate Degree upon graduation.

Some students will follow an alternative route to college and pursue a two-year degree program in which they will then enter the work force with specific skills. These programs are typically called “technical schools” and offer certificates or Associate degrees upon completion.

How Does The School Decide Which Class Level My Child Takes?

First, your child’s grade level is mainly determined by their current age.

  • K-2 – Kindergarten and First Grade (Elementary)
  • 3 – 5– Third and Fourth Grade (Middle School)
  • 6 – 8 or 12 – Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Grades (High School/Secondary)
  • 9 – 11 – Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Grades (High School/Secondary)

Children are usually placed in a specific course to begin as soon as they start the new academic year because it takes time for them to be adjusted into their surroundings. For example: In a child’s first year of kindergarten, they will take the Iowa Tests at the end of the year. Based on the findings of these tests, your child may be placed in a regular classroom for second grade or special services; however, many times this is not made clear until October when teachers are assigned to classrooms. If your child falls under special need guidance he/she will most likely attend special education classes that meet certain guidelines set by the state and federal government.

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, also known as FERPA, gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when they reach the age of 18 or attend a school beyond the high school level. FERPA allows parents to inspect and review all educational records related to your child that are kept by your child’s school.

These records include: academic reports, transcripts of grades (or other work completed), omissions from class(es), disciplinary actions, medical information on eating disorders etc., psychological tests administered by a licensed psychologist used in grade determinations; letters relating to misconduct, health matters, pregnancy, etc. FERPA also specifically addresses the confidentiality of “educational” records which are defined as those records that contain information directly related to a student and maintained by an educational institution.

Under the law, schools must have written permission from the parent to release any information from educational records. There is one exception: if the school determines that it has evidence of child abuse or neglect it may release information without parental consent including names and addresses of students in appropriate cases; this includes cases where parents do not agree with disciplinary measures taken against their children for breaking rules.

Online High School Course Offerings

Overview of US Education System (2)
There are many high school courses that you can teach your child online through various programs that give them a certificate from a school district upon completion of an entire course. These programs, such as my High School of America’s programs, offer exceptional educational content and experiences for children ranging in age from 5 to 17 years old. Because these are online classes they do not require attendance at any physical location and therefore can be completed anytime 24 hours per day 7 days a week! Best of all…the curriculum is designed by experts in education and the class has been pre-approved by every public/private board approved school district in North America making it easy for students to use their own high school credits to secure their senior year diploma!

College Prep Online – Dual Enrollment

If you live in a state that offers Dual Enrollment, where high school students can enroll in college courses, you should consider High School of America (HSOA) which offers the best online dual enrollment programs. There is also an excellent program provided by HSOA called “College Prep Online”. These classes are offered as an additional class with your child’s regular curriculum sent to their teacher at their current high school or through private tutoring centers. If your student took this course, he could receive college credit that is accepted by public/private universities and colleges throughout America!

We offer ACCREDITED online high schools courses including: Math Courses, English Courses, History Courses, Science and Technology Courses, Special Education Courses, and even courses for home school students. These are part of the High School of America’s high school diploma program! We can offer you a certificate of your own at no cost after completing the whole course! Make sure to ask about our SPECIAL OFFER where we will give you an affordable online high school diploma program.

Resources and References:


What is the overview of the US school system? ›

K-12 stands for 'from Kindergarten to 12th grade'. This equates roughly to a school starting age of around five through to Grade 12 at around the age of 18. The system is broken down into three stages: elementary school (Grades K–5), middle school (Grades 6–8) and high school (Grades 9–12).

How is the education system in USA? ›

Students normally attend 12 grades of study over 12 calendar years of primary/elementary and secondary education before graduating and earning a diploma that makes them eligible for admission to higher education. Education is mandatory until age 16 (18 in some states).

How would you describe the education system? ›

An education system refers to the economic and social factors that typically make up public schools at the federal, state or community levels. Such factors include public funding, school facilities, staffing, compensation, employee benefits, teaching resources and more.

How does US have the best education system? ›

For the most part, these publications and organizations agree the U.S. does, in fact, have the best system of higher education in the world. Almost all rank the U.S. system highest based on numerous factors, and American universities dominate the top 20 on every list.

Why is America's education system good? ›

That's because American schools are well known for providing high-quality education through a balanced, tried-and-tested curriculum. The US education system is informed by cutting-edge research, which helps develop students into critical thinkers with well-rounded social-emotional skills.

What makes the American school system different? ›

The United States puts heavy emphasis on decentralization and delineation between public and private options, while most other countries have private or religious schools that can receive public funds and have nationally-mandated exams, curricula, and teacher pay scales.

How is the US education system different from other countries? ›

This makes the American system of secondary education unique, compared to other countries, as it allows considering personal interests and skills of children, The typical curriculum of the middle and high schools is represented by English, science, mathematics, fine arts, social studies, and physical education.

How does the American high school system work? ›

High schools mostly run from 9th grade to 12th grade. Some such schools run 10th grade to 12th grade. Ninth grade usually starts around age 14, and students usually graduate around age 18. In some cases, middle school and high school are combined into one school, running from sixth or seventh grade until 12th grade.

Who made the education system in the US? ›

Known as the “father of American education,” Horace Mann (1796–1859), a major force behind establishing unified school systems, worked to establish a varied curriculum that excluded sectarian instruction.

What word best describes education? ›

  • literacy.
  • knowledge.
  • learning.
  • scholarship.
  • erudition.
  • culture.
  • enlightenment.
  • learnedness.

What is the purpose of education as a system? ›

The main purpose of education is to provide the opportunity for acquiring knowledge and skills that will enable people to develop their full potential, and become successful members of society.

What is the difference between the school system and the education system? ›

School vs Education

School refers to a place of education. On the other hand, education refers to learning or teaching. This is the main difference between the two words.

Is USA best for higher education? ›

U.S. degrees have an excellent international reputation

Partially this has to do with how well-funded and supported American universities are, but it also has to do with the high academic standards and rigorous requirements that they instil in their students.

What is the best system of education in the world? ›

Finland has one of the best educational systems in the world. In areas like mathematics, science, and literacy, Finland has outperformed many well-known countries worldwide. Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences are the two types of colleges.

Does the US spend the most on education? ›

At 4.96%, the United States spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on education than other developed nations, which average 5.59% of GDP in educational spending.

What is unique about the US education system? ›

The US is unique as their institutions are not centrally organized but are accredited on a national or regional level. There are many different types of post-secondary education systems within the US.

Why is education important to the US economy? ›

Education tends to raise productivity and creativity, as well as stimulate entrepreneurship and technological breakthroughs. All of these factors lead to greater output and economic growth.

Is education important in the US? ›

Education helps us to develop our potential as individuals. It allows us to learn new skills and knowledge that we can use in our everyday lives. It also helps us to improve our critical thinking, self-confidence, and problem-solving skills.

How can we improve American education? ›

5 Ways Policy Makers Can Improve the Quality of Education
  1. Acknowledge and address overcrowding.
  2. Make funding schools a priority.
  3. Address the school-to-prison pipeline.
  4. Raise standards for teachers.
  5. Put classroom-running and curriculum-building decisions in the hands of the community.
Apr 7, 2019

Why is the US education system not equal? ›

The most common reason for educational inequality is the amount of property tax an area generates. The more affluent an area is, the property taxes for the citizens will also be higher. And the more taxes that an area collects the school district will also get more funding as well.

Is education equal in America? ›

All kids living in the United States have the right to a free public education. And the Constitution requires that all kids be given equal educational opportunity no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or non-citizen.

What curriculum do American schools follow? ›

The American or US Curriculum is based on American Common Core State Standards for English, Language Arts, Math, History & Geography, and Next-Generation Science Standards.

How did the American school system start? ›

In 1823, Reverend Samuel Read Hall founded the first private normal school in the United States, the Columbian School in Concord, Vermont. The first public normal school in the United States was founded shortly thereafter in 1839 in Lexington, Massachusetts.

What curriculum design is most common in US schools? ›

Subject-Centered Curriculum Design:

Subject-centered curriculum design describes what needs to be studied and how it should be studied. Most common type of curriculum used in the U.S.

Why did America start education? ›

Preparing people for democratic citizenship was a major reason for the creation of public schools. The Founding Fathers maintained that the success of the fragile American democracy would depend on the competency of its citizens.

When did the U.S. lead the world in education? ›

In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States had the best-educated young people in the world, or pretty close to it.

Why education is important in one word? ›

Education helps you develop critical skills like decision-making, mental agility, problem-solving, and logical thinking. People face problems in their professional as well as personal lives. In such situations, their ability to make rational and informed decisions comes from how educated and self-aware they are.

Why is it called education? ›

The term "education" is derived from the Latin term educare. It means "bring up, rear, educate", primarily in relation to the mind. It is also connected to the Latin term educere. It means "bring out, lead forth" and refers to the bodily level.

Who said education is the best? ›

Look at Aristotle's famous declaration that 'education is the best provision for old age' or modern-day educator Ron Clark's belief that 'teachers are superheroes in disguise. '

Who benefits from the education system? ›

Those who get an education have higher incomes, have more opportunities in their lives, and tend to be healthier. Societies benefit as well. Societies with high rates of education completion have lower crime, better overall health, and civic involvement. Lack of access to education is considered the root of poverty.

What are the 4 purposes of education? ›

As you think about the four basic purposes of school: academic (intellectual), political and civic purposes, socialization, and economic purposes, what do you think? Which one (or more) do you find as primary purposes of schooling in your own personal philosophy?

Is the education system better? ›

Over the long run, there is strong evidence that educational achievement is slowly improving all over the world. In America, including California, long-term measurable learning results have been improving for students in all subgroups. Graduation rates are improving. College-going rates have risen.

Is the education system part of the government? ›

Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States.

Why are education systems different around the world? ›

The major factors that affect education systems are the resources and money that are utilized to support those systems in different nations, as well as how education is organized and administered to students. As you might expect, a country's wealth has much to do with the amount of money spent on education.

Is education a system or institution? ›

Education is a social institution through which a society's children are taught basic academic knowledge, learning skills, and cultural norms. Every nation in the world is equipped with some form of education system, though those systems vary greatly.

Why is college so important in America? ›

College is important for many reasons, including increased career stability and satisfaction, and the ability to make an impact on your community. With more and more careers requiring advanced education, a college degree can be critical to your success in today's workforce.

Is US education system better than China? ›

Neither system is better than the other, but in the world of education, it is important to develop an international awareness and acceptance of different learning approaches, cultures and knowledge.

Which US states have the most higher education? ›

According to the data, Massachusetts ranks no. 1 on both education attainment and quality of education. The five states with the highest percentage of college degree holders were also the top ten most educated states.

What school system is the US based on? ›

The United States has a decentralized education system based upon our federal Constitution, which reserves power over education to the states and local authorities, as well as to individual schools and higher education institutions.

What was the purpose of the school system? ›

Simply put, education enables children to acquire knowledge and skills that will help them to become successful members of society, and grow into good and accomplished individuals.

What was the original purpose of the school system? ›

Preparing people for democratic citizenship was a major reason for the creation of public schools. The Founding Fathers maintained that the success of the fragile American democracy would depend on the competency of its citizens.


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