Education System of USA

Mar 21, 2019

(As a part of the series of "Education around the globe", we take a close look at the education system of the United States of America.)

The largest economy in the world, the most powerful nation, the second largest education system in the world - US dominates the world, yet when it comes to academic excellence , US ranks low in the Western developed world. In 2015, it ranked at 31 in OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) , a triennial test in dozens of countries, in the main categories of maths, reading , science and collaborative problem solving abilities. Ironically, US spends a higher amount annually than OECD average to educate a pupil from primary through tertiary education (OECD average is $10,759; US spends $16,628), but all that money does not appear to be translating into better results for US students. Measured as test scores ,the US education system seems to be mediocre, but measuring education is difficult, especially in a country as huge and varied as the US with its high income inequality. The US has 99% literacy rate and it still leads the world in terms of innovation, creativity and research.

The education system in the United States was first conceptualized during the period when the nation was under British colonial authority.[3] In 1635, the first public school was opened named the Boston Latin School and is currently the oldest school in the United States. Soon afterwards, in 1639 the first free public school was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts known as the Mather School with its expenses being catered for by the taxpayers. The first curriculum to be developed was made up of basic arithmetic and literacy which was predominantly taught within homes or churches. The colony of New England had one of the highest literacy levels in colonial American as its residents embraced education to enable them to read the Bible. Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first colony to have education compulsory by law and set a precedent that other colonies quickly followed. Literacy levels in South Colonies were not as widespread with the planter class favoring private tutoring over the establishment of public schools. In South Carolina and Georgia, private tuition was widespread with private tutors marketing their skills in local newspapers. During this period, the school enrollment was predominantly made up of male students all of whom were white.

In the 17th century, all textbooks were imported from England because no local printers existed at the time. This situation changed in 1690 when Boston publishers began local printing of the “New England Primer” which became the first locally printed textbook. In the 18th century, institutions of higher education such as colleges and universities were few and all were meant for the education of ministers with doctors and lawyers being trained through apprenticeship. Harvard College was established in 1636 by the colonial government aimed at training young men to become ministers. By the 19th century, the American education system had grown in leaps and bounds with the 1840 census showing that 55% of all children in the United States attended education institutions. The enrollment increased in the turn of the 20th century as more states made education compulsory by law that by 1910, 72% of all children in the US attended school.


The American education system has varied structures which are set at state level. For most children, compulsory schooling starts at around the age of five to six, and runs for 12 consecutive years. Education is mandatory to the age of at least 16 in all states, with some requiring students to stay in a formal education setting to 18.

Usually pre-school, known as pre-K or pre-kindergarten, is offered for children aged from around three to five years old. Kindergarten is the first year of compulsory education, which is typically taken at the age of five or six. Education then runs for 12 years, either following an elementary, middle, high school structure or splitting into elementary, junior and senior high.

Public schools in the USA are funded largely through taxes, and are free to parents. However, there can be additional costs for things like uniforms, transport and school materials. If you don't choose the state system and decide to find a private school, the costs are often high. Private, fee paying schools exist across all states with costs varying depending on the curriculum offered and the location. The national average is around USD 10,000 a year, but some state average costs are over USD 20,000 a year. Around 85% of students study in public schools, with the rest in either private schools or home schooled.  

Curriculum and Pedagogy

The system is decentralized with the state and local governments having the primary responsibility for education. The curriculum, pedagogy, teaching methods, books, assessments are all planned and implemented by state governments individually. The curriculum in each state is based on the accessibility, autonomy and diversity of that state. The thought process behind this decentralization is that each state has a different historical background and needs , so better outcomes will be obtained by giving freedom to the local government.

In 2010, The US Federal government established a standardized curriculum called the Common Core established to “ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life”. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the Common Core is a set of “high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy” and outlines what a student should know, and be able to do, at the end of each grade. The Common Core has just been adopted by some states. This includes common tests on top of the state driven assessments. Though the Common Core testing has faced backlash from parents due to excessive testing and its pressure on the students, this is expected to help standardized the testing across US and provide a benchmark for comparing US results with international tests.

Compared to other countries, American students give more attention to sports and other extracurricular opportunities. This leads to building self-confidence, personal fulfillment, balance, and a strong sense of community. This also has created a culture where even non STEM careers such as sports, arts and music are encouraged and are well paid. The environment is inclusive and following one's passion and experimenting with subjects is not looked down upon.

Teacher Quality and Continuing Education

All states require K-12 public school teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Some school systems require K-6 teachers to major in a content area such as math or science. High school teachers are also often required to have majored in a particular subject area. Aspiring teachers must have a certain number of hours of supervised educational experience in order to sit for licensure; the amount of experience required depends on the state. Student teaching can be performed during the bachelor’s degree, completed during an internship, or finished during the months after graduation before moving into full-time employment.

Public school teachers must be licensed or certified. Certification typically follows grade level, with separate licensures for preschool through third grade, first through sixth (or first through eighth) and seventh through twelfth. Regulations vary from state to state. Private school teachers are not required to be licensed by the state. However, many private schools require their teachers to hold valid state certification.

Continuing Education: Public school teachers are required to complete a minimum number of continuing education or professional development course hours in order to maintain their state license or certification. Teachers with master’s degree have the possibility of higher pay, greater job flexibility and easier advancement into administration positions. Teachers who wish to be recognized as standing atop their profession need to obtain the National Board Certification, a voluntary, advanced teaching credential that goes beyond state licensure. To obtain National Board Certification, teachers must complete a rigorous peer-reviewed certification process that includes submission of videos of their teaching and student work samples as well as pass a three-hour examination. A doctoral degree is mandatory for those keen on entering higher administration, research, or performing a management role in a school system.[ 2]

Inequality in education: Achievement gap

Education is free for all in America, but it is not inequitable. Decades of segregation, income inequality and the decentralization of the system has created a deeply unequal place educationally. Statistics showcase the achievement gap: New York City’s highest middle-school test scores in English come from a majority-white-and-Asian district; its lowest come from a nearly all black and Hispanic district. Students in high-poverty and high-minority settings bear the brunt of teacher shortages. The  income inequality reduces access of disadvantaged students to Accelerated programs, summer programs and other initiatives which deny them the high quality education that other higher incomes students of the same area have. The path to education equity will require overcoming bigger challenges such as poverty and income disparity.


Being the pioneer in the field of  information and communication technologies, the education technology sector is well established and mature in the US. The availability of best research universities in the world and the biggest tech firms in the world such as Google and Microsoft have created an advanced ecosystem where technology is deeply embedded in learning and daily life. Many learning approaches such as STEM , Project based learning , experiential learning , Flipped learning and the use of AI for personalized learning were first developed in the US before being extended to other countries.The classrooms in US have blended learning techniques with teachers and students relying on mixed media to impart and learn lessons.

The US edtech market  is expected to grow to US$43 billion by 2019. It is made up of over 1,500 companies and 150,000 education applications Eight of the 12 highest valued edtech companies are based in the US .

Issues and concerns

  • Recruitment and development of teachers is ineffectual: Compared to other countries which have a top-performing education system, US does not treat the recruitment and development of highly qualified teachers as integral to their education system. It continues to work in the original  "factory model" where originally teachers were mainly female graduates with few other options in the workplace. After the Recession, due to lack of qualified teachers especially in the field of mathematics, science , special education and bilingual education, a number of states hired untrained teachers to meet school demands. The US teachers also spend 38% more time in front of the classroom than their international peers: 981 hours compared to an OECD average of 712 per year. This is time that they are not collaborating with peers, honing their knowledge of their subject or the practice of teaching. Teachers have among the lowest relative earnings across all OECD countries with data. [1]
  • Less focus on early childhood learning:  Enrollment in early schooling (before kindergarten) at the age of 3 in the US is 30 percentage points below the OECD average. The gap is just as stark for 4-year-olds: 87% are enrolled in pre-primary and primary education, on average, across OECD countries. In the US that figure is 66%. [1]


US has the most diverse education system in the world and historically has been dominant in the field of education for quite long. Considering the fact that US is still an economic behemoth; its higher education universities and research centers are one of the best globally and it continues to have a steady stream of immigrants looking for the American Dream, its education system must be doing something right. In the field of higher education, it is still the best in the world.

To some extent , it could be plain hubris or complacency that makes it hard to solve the systemic problems that plague the American education system. It is hard to accept that there are so many countries pulling ahead of it in K-12 education. Establishing a comprehensive and systematic set of strategies to build a strong teaching profession while also prioritizing student learning could help put it back on the map for primary and secondary education.


  1. OECD report 2017 - US
  2. How to be a teacher
  3. History of US education

Madhavi Agnihotri

A technologist passionate about how an effective education system can build a future ready generation.