US Education System
In the United States, we very seldom learn about the education system in other countries, unless we work or study in a specialized field. As I completed the research for my master’s degree, I found that it would have been helpful to know how certain education systems work. Here is a brief overview of the system in the U.S., just in case you find that you are in a similar situation. To help you understand how education works in the U.S., this overview will introduce the different phases of the education system as well as the types of primary/secondary schools that are mentioned frequently in news or portrayed in movies and television.
Primary and secondary
The U.S. education system has four phases. The first phase consists of primary and secondary school, which lasts for 13 years or “grades”. The first year, kindergarten, is not mandatory in some of the 50 states. To complicate matters, this phase in the U.S. actually consists of three different levels – elementary school, middle school, and high school. High school is almost always grades 9 through 12, but the cutoff for the other levels varies by location. Children begin attending the first phase when they are around 5 or 6 years old and usually graduate from high school when they are 18.
This first phase of the education system can be completed in numerous ways. Sometimes, parents wish to teach their children themselves, which is called “homeschooling”. Other students might attend an online school. Some children attend online schools for health or behavioral reasons, but many students and their families pick this type of school because it allows more flexibility for children to pursue time-consuming interests such as sports, acting, or travel.
Online and traditional schools in this phase of the system can be public, private, magnet, or charter schools. A public school is a free school that receives its funding from the state and federal governments, unlike a private school which charges tuition. Public schools operate within a “school district” and are governed by boards local to that district. A magnet school is a type of public school that focuses on a specific type of program, such as the performing arts or sciences. A charter school, on the other hand, is a type of publicly-funded school that operates under an agreement with the local community. It often serves students from multiple school districts.
The U.S., unlike some countries, does not have a standardized test that determines what specific subject/program or type of school (such as university or technical school) the students are allowed to pursue after they graduate from high school. Instead, we have a standardized test, the SAT, that supposedly measures a student’s general ability to perform university-level coursework. Most universities require applicants to take this test in order to be accepted, although more and more universities are eliminating this requirement. Other universities may require applicants to take different standardized tests, such as the ACTs.
About 10% of people in the U.S. choose to earn an Associate’s degree. Many high schools have vocational training programs that offer an associate’s degree in addition to a high school diploma. Usually, though, this type of degree is earned at a community college. For some people, this is their terminal degree, and they do not move on through the next phase of the system.
College and beyond
The next phase of the US education system is university, which is often referred to in the U.S. as „college” and „undergrad”. This phase usually lasts four years, although students may take more or less time to earn a degree. After a student satisfactorily fulfills all of his or her program requirements, they are allowed to graduate, and they receive a bachelor’s degree (similar to a baccalaureate) – either in arts or sciences (B.A. or B.S.). Schools can be either traditional schools or online schools. Approximately 30% of US citizens have attained this type of degree.
The third phase of the U.S. education system is called graduate school, which is sometimes shortened to just „grad” school. (When people who want to be doctors or lawyers go to graduate school, it is called „medical school” or „law school” but it is still a type of graduate school. The third phase consists of the Master’s degree and the doctorate. The Master’s degree, which 8% of U.S. citizens hold, usually takes two years to complete, although many people go to school part-time, so it can take much longer to complete the degree. Students can earn the Master’s degree as a terminal degree. They can also earn the Master’s degree before pursuing a doctorate. Others earn it as they pursue the doctorate.
It should be noted that not everyone who earns a doctorate has a Master’s degree. The doctorate is the culmination of school, and someone with this type of degree is considered to be an expert. Most doctoral degrees are PhDs. Doctors and lawyers also earn doctoral degrees, but their degrees are differ from PhDs. PhDs usually take a minimum of 5 years to complete and involve heavy amounts of research. Only 3% of citizens have a PhD.
A fourth phase, the “postdoc”, exists. This phase occurs when PhDs undergo guided mentorship to gain additional skills/knowledge. This phase varies from position to position.