d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

An Orientation to the US Education System
for International Students

If you are new to the United States, you may have some difficulty learning the differences between our education system and yours. Your readings may be hard to understand because they assume you are already familiar with our system. This page provides an overview of the U. S. education system in the hope that it will help you better understand your texts better understand debates among your classmates. It introduces some of the central issues and commonly-used terms you will hear about while you are here.

In addition to reading this page, you should also try to find a way to visit some US schools relatively quickly after you arrive, just to get a feel for life there. Again, this contextual knowledge will help you understand the research and theory you will be reading in your courses.

Local Control of Schools

Americans have traditionally worried about government control of School. Citizens of the United States have always had a deep distrust of government, and much of our current system of governance is designed to ensure that government does not become too powerful. The system of education reflects this broader tendency. Instead of having a national system, run by the federal government, or even a collection of state systems, run by the various states, the US education system is completely decentralized. There are thousands of independent school districts in the country, each with its own elected school board which establishes curriculum and policy for that specific district. So you will occasionally see articles in the news about a town in Idaho or somewhere that has decided to ban teaching about evolution, or to insist that students receive a course on the history if mining or something. Local school boards can do this. And they are elected locally, so they will lose their jobs if they make policies that local citizens disagree with.

The value of such a localized system, of course, is that it prevents the government from controlling our curriculum, from deciding what knowledge we will have access to, and from manipulating the truth to serve its own aims. But decentralization also creates some interesting dilemmas:

a. One dilemma is that, without a standardized curriculum, we can't prepare teachers to teach any particular curriculum. So our teacher education courses are often almost content-free, giving teachers broad or general guidance that is not tied to particular curricular context.

b. In theory, you might expect quite a bit of variation in curriculum content from one place to another, but in fact, this problem isn't as severe as you might expect because most districts buy their textbooks from one of a half dozen or so commercial publishers. However, our reliance on commercial publishers creates another problem. Publishers want to sell as many textbooks as possible, so they want to cover all the content that all the states and districts require. That means our textbooks tend to be very large, and to cover a lot of content, but to cover most of it only superficially. Just a half-page might be devoted to an important topic, even though another half-page is devoted to a relatively unimportant topic.

c. Our decentralized system also leads to inequities in opportunities for learning. Each local community pays the taxes for its own local schools, and wealthy communities are able to pay more than poor communities are. Consequently, schools in low-income communities have much less to offer their students.

An open system with many paths

Another central value that governs much of our educational thinking is the notion of ample and equal educational opportunity. Thus we reject two practices common in other countries. 

(a) we do not use test scores to decide which students can move on to middle school or secondary school, nor to decide which students can attend college prep secondary schools.  In many countries, students take tests at the end of elementary school that determine whether, or where, they will attend middle school. They take tests in middle school to determine whether or where they will attend secondary school. In the US, tests may be used to admit students to special programs or to particular classes, but they are not used to allocate students to different schools until students are ready to apply to higher education.

(b) We do not sort students at young ages according to their likely career trajectories. In many other countries, secondary schools divide students according to their future careers, so that one school provides a college preparation curriculum, another a business curriculum, and perhaps a third provides a curriculum for people who will become manual laborers. People in the US don't tend to like this approach because it denies students the option to change their careers later on. As a result, our secondary schools serve a wide range of students and offer a wide range of curriculum options. And they often lack coherence.

Instead of sorting and weeding students through a series of placement tests, we offer a system with numerous avenues to achievement and that offers students second and third chances. For instance, suppose a student fails in high school, or even drops out of school, but then later regrets this decision. In that case, he can obtain a Graduate Equivelency Diploma, or GED, by taking courses on his own or by getting a specified score on a test. With his GED in hand, this student has the opportunity to continue his studies and to attend college if he wishes. Similarly, if a student obtains a low score on his college admission test, he can be tutored on the test and take it again. Finally, if students receive low scores on their college admission tests, we have a network of open-admission community colleges which students can attend. If they do well in these institutions, they can later transfer to more demanding schools.

The presence of all these second and third chances, though, is also associated with an educational system that is necessarily disorganized and often lacking in clear standards.  Moreover, because the schools are all operated by local communities, they differ in their budgets and in the resources they can offer their students.   And though students are not sorted by test scores, they are often homogeneous in the sense that they live in the same community. Most students take all of their education--elementary, middle, and secondary--at their local neighborhood schools. Most of our high schools are comprehensive, meaning that they try to provide a curriculum that suits the entire population of students. A few large cities offer specialized secondary schools in, say, performing arts or technology, but in the US, almost every public high school tries to serve every student need. So the students within any one high school will be tremendously various, ranging from those who are very studious to those who are not interested in school at all and the curriculum will also be various, offering courses in industrial arts as well as advanced college preparation courses. However, the comprehensive school rarely succeeds in providing ample or equal opportunity for all students, and many practices and proposals you read about are related to this problem, including the following:

a. Tracking

You will likely hear debates about the merits of tracking. This is a method of sorting students for purposes of instruction. It is much more widespread in secondary schools than in elementary schools. The idea is that, because the school is comprehensive, and has such a wide variety of students within it, the students should be grouped by their apparent level of ability, even though students in all tracks will be taking the same courses. For instance, a high school might sort students into 3 or 4 tracks for its math program. Students in all these tracks might be taking the same courses, such as beginning algebra and geometry, and might be using the same textbooks. But the different groups, or tracks, move through the material at different rates of speed. Tracking is very controversial. Teachers tend to like it because it makes teaching more efficient, but critics argue that it is unfair and that students in lower tracks tend to get less instruction and lower-quality teaching.

b. Vouchers

Vouchers are like coupons that can be used to "buy" an education in a different school or school district. There are many advocates for voucher programs but very few actual voucher programs. The idea for vouchers is to give students an opportunity to attend a better school than the one in their neighborhood. It is usually proposed as a way to help students who live in poor communities attend schools in other communities. With a voucher, they could take their education money and spend it in a better school. The state literally subtracts this money from one district and gives it to the other district.

c. Standardized and more rigorous curriculum

Many state and federal policy makers, as well as observers from other walks of life, have been concerned about the uneven nature of American education, and have sought ways to create a more coherent and higher-quality curriculum. You will hear many references to standards: state standards, national standards, mathematics standards, science standards, and so forth. The idea is that, even if the schools themselves are governed locally, state and federal governments can still try to hold them accountable by requiring them to meet certain standards. This idea is very popular right now and you will likely encounter many variations of it. Still, even though there are many advocates for standards, there is also much resentment and suspicion that these standards serve political purposes and will not really help students.

Ironically, because of the way our schools are governed, we now have numerous sets of standards and these standards often compete with one another. Most states now have state standards, and they may have standards for every grade level and for every school subject. These can be quite different from one state to the next. In addition, professional associations are creating standards for their own disciplines. So, for instance, you have a set of mathematics standards created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and a set of science standards created by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And there are others as well.

One particular effort you will hear about frequently is NCLB. These initials refer to a federal law called No Child Left Behind. It was enacted in the early 2000's and makes extensive demands on schools. It provides some funding for schools, but school people claim it demands much more than it pays for. Among other things, it requires annual testing and establishes a system of corrections for schools that fail to demonstrate annual student progress.

The Teaching Profession

Teachers are often first people in their families to obtain a college education. Once in college, their education typically consists of three parts. First, they take a set of general education courses that the college requires (a little history, a little geography, science, and so forth). Second, some of them (mostly those who plan to teach in secondary school) will major in a particular subject that they plan to teach, and third, all of them will take courses from an education department. These courses are sometimes called their professional courses, and sometimes simply their courses in education.

Most states also require teachers to pass a state exam before they can receive their license to teach. (They do this in part to introduce standards into their higher education programs, since most of those are also quite independent of state oversight.)

So the beginning teacher has taken this set of courses and has passed a licensure test. He or she then begins seeking a job. The job search is entirely individualized. Teachers may apply wherever they choose. We do know that most teachers apply for jobs near where they grew up, and that they apply for jobs in schools similar to those they attended as children. So if a teacher grew up in a rural area, she is likely to seek a job near her home town on in another town that is similar.

In fact, we also know that districts like to hire teachers who were students there. They are far more likely to hire people who graduated from their own high schools than to hire people from other places.

The Allocation of Teachers to Schools

The fact that schools and districts have unequal amounts of money, and that those with least money are also serving the most needy students, leads to a particularly perplexing problem in this country. First, we know that districts with less money have less to offer their students. But in addition, districts with less money also lose more of their students before they graduate. Plus, those who do graduate are less prepared for college. That means these districts do not have access to large populations of local teaching talent who want to return and teach in their schools.

As a result, low-income schools have a hard time seeking and retaining good teachers. They are far more likely to hire new, inexperienced teachers, and more likely to lose those teachers after just one or two years, as the teachers try to find other jobs. So these districts and schools always have a lot of new people and a lot of change in their teaching populations. And often, because they can't find qualified teachers when they need them, they are also more likely to hire teachers who have not had all of the courses they need or who have not passed the state's licensing test.

The Importance of Seniority in Teaching  

In most schools and school districts, beginning teachers get the least attractive teaching assignments. Teachers who have been employed in the district for many years, who have seniority, can select the schools or particular courses they want to teach. In secondary schools, that may mean that the most senior teachers teach the brightest and most ambitious students, while the least experienced teachers teach the students who are struggling.

Alternative Routes  

Alternative routes provide, as their name suggests, alternative ways to enter teaching. They are helpful for people who complete a college education without taking any courses in education, and who then decide later on that they'd like to teach. These people don't want to go back and re-take their college education. Alternative routes are also popular in school districts that have a hard time finding enough qualified teachers to fill all their positions. These districts can offer a program within the district that will eventually lead to a teaching license. Alternative routes are very controversial. Traditional teacher educators tend to disapprove of them, believing that they can't offer the quality of preparation that a traditional program offers. Advocates believe, on the other hand, that these programs might attract much brighter people into teaching and ultimately improve the profession.


This set of initials refers to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. The NBPTS gives a separate teaching certificate to experienced teachers who meet the board's rigorous standards. Such teachers are then labeled as "board certified," and presumed to exemplify outstanding qualities.


© Mary Kennedy, 2006


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