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The educational system in the United States: an overview

Par Daniel Wright : Professor - Pratt University (Brooklyn, NY) , Claire Richard : Journaliste - Indépendante
Publié par Clifford Armion le 10/11/2014

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In general, we have what is called a federal system, where there is a lot of power that States have, and then cities within states and even smaller municipalities within cities can make their own rules. And education is a good example of where it can really depend on where you are. The requirements can be very different from place to place and the type of schools that are offered can vary very much from state to state...


First, the youngest students, when they’re children, can go to school starting at about 4 years old, and that would be preschool. In most places those are not public, they’re not free, so one would have to pay to send their child to preschool. And then there’s kindergarten, and in most places, that is public and that is free, so families can send their children there. And then, everywhere, at 6 years old, 1st grade starts, and that’s public, there’s a public option. You can also of course send your child to private school. So from 1st grade to 5th grade, that’s primary school, or elementary school is the other name for it. And there are private and public versions. And after that, there is middle school, often called junior high school, which is grade 6th through 8th, and that is from about 12 years old to 14 years old. And then high school, 14 years old to 18 years old, 4 years there, and that also has public and private options.

You are required to go to school until you’re sixteen, and then you can drop out if you want.

In general, we have what is called a federal system, where there is a lot of power that States have, and then cities within states and even smaller municipalities within cities can make their own rules. And education is a good example of where it can really depend on where you are. The requirements can be very different from place to place and the type of schools that are offered can vary very much from state to state.

We have local departments of education, so New York for example has a department of education, and they appoint chancellors for example, that control, create guidelines, they have some sort of control over lots of different schools. Each school has a principal, and maybe several vice-principals, which govern the daily operations. And it can really be school by school how much they want to involve parents.

Because we have this federal system, and local communities basically can decide what sort of education they want to give students, there can be really very large differences in the education that you get in one part of the country or another. And sometimes that becomes a really big news story, for example in the teaching of evolution. So you can have a school board, and most notably and famously like in Kansas, that will decide that they do not want evolution taught in school. And they can do that ! Now of course that creates a lot of media buzz and attention, and often scorn and criticism, and they can react to that – but they have the right to do something as fundamental as alter science education. There are many examples of that. Arizona, for example, has decided to change their history education, so they can add and remove things to their history education. Which again, can be controversial, but they do have the right to do that. The federal government can’t tell them to do that, they are responding to their local constituencies as to what they include in their curriculum.

As far as I know, what the government can do – and they do this in many realms – is they can offer money and funding, and make that funding dependent on certain things that they want. So they can influence schools in that way. But they don’t tell states what to teach. There is no national standards.

The only national standard that we have is a really lose, non governmental one, which is that most colleges require the SAT or Standard Aptitude Test. So that ends up being something that is in the minds of all teachers and principals, everyone involved, that most students will have to take that test and do well on it, to go to the college that they want.

So there are several different types of colleges or university-level schools. They have very different names : some of them are called institutes, some of them are called colleges, some of them are called universities… But basically, after high school – they all require high school diploma or an equivalent. Many of them require the SATs, which is basically a test of math skills and reading skills, and also there can be this analytical or quantitative piece as well. So there’s this standardized national test, that these institutions look at. And they also look at your high school grades, and the other things that you’ve done : what we call “extracurricular activities.” Were you in the film club? Did you play sports? Did you do a lot of community service? Did you do an extra science project that won some award? There’s lot of different things. And the way the admission process works is really particular to the university or college in question. Everyone decides what their criteria are.

There are both public and private universities in the US. And they both cost money to go to. You have to pay some sort of tuition if you go to a public school or if you go to a private school. There are very, very few institutions that are free, and actually those ones are private. So in New York we have a private institution that is free, because they have a very large endowment, in other words they have a whole lot of money, that they can use to pay their operating expenses and let the students go for free. So generally, you have to pay. But you pay a lot less at a public institutions than at a private one.

As far as how good the schools are, or how prominent they are, you have both public and private institutions that are top tiers school. But in general yes, the private institutions are the ones that are seen as the most prestigious. And of course those are also the institutions that usually cost the most, you have to pay a lot to get into them.

The cost of college has become increasingly in this country a major issue, along with the cost of healthcare. These two things have been increasing much faster than the rate of inflation over the last several decades, to the point where it’s becoming an extremely large problem, especially because basically most students can’t afford, and their parents can’t afford the cost of colleges, which includes : tuition – the money that you just pay to go to the school, fees which are in addition to that – and the school will tell you ‘Well those pay for the gymnasium, the cafeteria, a whole lots of things’. Those are fees, then you have to pay for your material, textbooks, or where I teach, your painting supplies or things like that. And what we would normally say is “room and board” : to live if you’re not living with your parents, to live on campus, off campus and feed yourself, support yourself during that time.

The most expensive institutions, like the one that I teach at, are now going to the upwards of 60 000 dollars per year, in total cost. Most degrees are 4 years, and in contrast to Europe, you don’t really get much in the job market if you’ve only completed 1, 2 or 3 years of college. You really need to finish, and many students take 5 years to finish. So we’re talking about debts in the order of more than 100 000 dollars, often more than 150 000 dollars or 200 000 dollars, when you finish school.

So there is financial aid that can be supplied from many different sources. The school itself often offers financial aids that reduces your tuition bill, there are scholarships out there, different ways to at least partially fund your education. And on top of that, there is the whole system of debt. So the government and private institutions are willing to offer you the money that you haven’t got from your institution in financial aid or that your parents can’t afford. There are loans that you can get, from the government and in addition from banks, basically, where they will loan you that money and then when you leave school you have to pay that back. And it’s very difficult to get out of those loans. Even if you declare bankruptcy, you will not get out of student loans. So you have to pay them. And again, the final value of the loans is often in excess of 100 000 dollars. Now, it won’t be that for everybody, but it’s often at least 10 000 dollars. So you’re starting a young job applicant, job seeker, with already this big financial debt that you have to deal with.

Again I’ll make the parallel with the healthcare system: it’s not a very equal system for all participants, but it can really excel at the top end. So what the at least university level educational system is very well known for, it’s because it has so many resources. You can have really excellent research done in these institutions. And if you have the money and you care about getting really good education, you can go to private schools that really prioritize that, you can get a really good private school education at all levels, from preschool all the way up to university level education. But again, you have to be able to afford that. Or, you need to be a really highly excellent student, because those schools do give free education to a very small number of disadvantaged students. So they can also get that education these days. But again, most students will not get that.

So I would say that in my view, the main problem with the educational system in the US is that it does contribute to how much economic and social mobility you have. So does a child that comes from a more difficult or impoverished background, that has less privileges, are they able to raise up and change their situation, if they are working class to become middle class or upper class, to be that person that becomes an astronaut, starts their own company? A lot of that depends on how many educational opportunities they have. So a lot of the things that I’ve discussed: schools being funded by property taxes, being able to navigate the whole system and go to good schools if you don’t have the privilege of wealth and your parents knowing the system, having connections and things like that – your opportunities are much worse if you don’t have privileges than if you do. If your parents are very wealthy, they can afford a private school, they can know which are the best schools, they can give you all these connections all throughout the system, you are in a very different place when you reach the age of employment than if you don’t. So I see that as the major problem : it’s a driver of inequality in this country.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Daniel Wright, Claire Richard, "The educational system in the United States: an overview", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2014. Consulté le 29/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/problematiques-contemporaines/the-educational-system-in-the-united-states-an-overview