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K-12 Education in the USA: What’s So Special About It?

System of K-12 education in the USA is chiefly the responsibility of state and local areas. Individual states govern the content of curriculum and set enrollment and graduation requirements, although the overall structure of primary and secondary education is relatively uniform throughout the country. The federal government does have some standards that states are required to meet as they set their K-12 curriculum. Private schools, on the other hand, which make up ten percent of the United States school system, do not have to meet state or federal educational standards.

Here’s an overview of how the United States educational system is different from some of the others around the world:

School in the U.S. begins with kindergarten, which is compulsory in some states. Primary school continues through 5th or 6th grade, depending on state and/or district standards. Middle school is generally two to three years, beginning in 6th or 7th grade. Secondary school is three to four years, beginning with 9th or 10th grade. All secondary schools in the U.S. attempt to prepare students for any type of future education or employment.

In many developing countries, there is still a struggle to provide children with even the most basic educational resources. The UN Secretary General’s office recently launched the Global Education First Initiative, which includes among its goals that every child should be in school. UNESCO figures show that 61 million primary-school-age children worldwide are not in school, and 47 percent of this group were never expected to attend any school at all. (The remainder dropped out or have not been able to begin attending yet.)

Among developed countries, there are some differences. Unlike the U.S., nearly all the industrialized nations provide free, good-quality preschool access for children from every income level. Although well-attended, kindergarten is generally not compulsory in Europe. European education is divided between two basic models:

Single-structure or “common core” education: This is a system in which one steady course of education is offered from kindergarten through secondary levels, with no separation of students at the secondary level. Most European countries have some variant of this system in place.

Differentiated secondary education: Used by Germany and a handful of its neighbors (Switzerland, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium), this system system separates secondary students into three different tiers of study. Many Asian countries follow a model similar to this, as well.

Schools in China and other east Asian countries have undergone extensive changes in recent years. Compulsory kindergarten, long school days and short seasonal vacations are producing a generation of high-achieving students. Students from secondary schools in Korea, China and other Asian countries are winning top marks on the worldwide Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test.

Educators in the United States are taking note of the fact that U.S. students’ scores in reading, math and science are slipping, and are not competitive with the best students worldwide. Ranking 17th in reading, 21st in science and 26th in math worldwide, students from the U.S. K-12 system make a poor showing when compared with students from Europe and Asia. Educational innovators in the United States are beginning to propose new school structures and alternatives that will bring American education up to leadership levels once again in the 21st century.