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United States of America (USA) - Education and Schools

The US spends just over 7% of GDP on education, which compares favourably with OECD countries. The federal government gives some funding to each state, but as much as 95% of education funding will be provided through state and local taxes including property taxes. Similarly, the federal government has little input into the education system, with most decisions on compulsory age, hiring of school personnel, curriculum and standards being determined by local school districts. School districts vary in size and can cover a small town or a large city; they are managed by a school board which represents the local community. The educational values and resources offered by each school is therefore heavily affected by where the school is located.

Day care is widely offered from ages 0 to 5, but is almost exclusively provided for parents who can afford the attendance fees. On the whole, daycare is used by working parents who need reliable childcare. Some centres are available for up to 12 hours a day.

Pre-school, which may also be known as Pre-K, PK or Pre-Kindergarten, begins at the age of 3. Pre-school centres are usually private institutions paid for by parents. They usually follow a programme to support the physical, linguistic, social, emotional and cognitive development. Some pre-schools, such as the Montessori, Waldorf, The Creative Curriculum, Reggio Emilia and High Scope, offer specialised methods of teaching.

Compulsory education begins at the age of 5 or 6, when children may enter the public school system via Kindergarten, and can end at 16, 17 or 18 depending on the rules determined by each individual state. The organisation of school years also varies, with school board areas offering different ages of eligibility for children to move from Elementary school to either middle school or straight to high school, sometimes from junior high school then senior high school.

During Elementary school, middle school and junior high school, pupils will typically attend school for about 6-7 hours a day. Foreign language learning usually starts in middle school.

In the first year of High School, pupils are called freshmen; in the second year they are known as sophomore; in the third year they are called junior; in their last and fourth year they are in the senior year. The school day is typically 7.5 hours during this period.

Public schools are open to pupils of all academic ability, but streamed classes will often be used especially for older year groups. If a child has not attained the required standards of attainment during the academic year for a subject, they can be required to repeat the classes in the following year; this is known as ‘grade retention’ or ‘failing a grade’. It is a fairly common practice, although research consistently suggests the pupils never catch up and become a high risk of dropping out of school at the earliest opportunity.

If students successfully complete courses, for which they gain credits, they will be awarded a High School Diploma. No national examinations are taken; the US is one of only three OECD countries who do not rely on national examinations. The number and combination of subjects will depend on the local school board regulations.

In the final year of High School, the pupil’s grade scores (usually as letters A, B etc or as a %) are averaged to determine a Grade Point Average, which Universities and colleges will also consider during the admissions process. A transcript is produced for every pupil, recording the overall academic history including Grade Point Average, class rank and academic honours. Universities and colleges will often insist on high school credits in particular subjects, and/or require a pass in the SAT - Scholastic Aptitude Tests - or ACT - American Aptitude Tests.

The SAT process and papers is owned, published and developed by US non-profit organisation The College Board, and all SAT applicants must register and make payment of the various fees through them. The tests take place at allocated venues on six days each year. The test time is three hours and 45 minutes, and with the exception of the essay writing section the papers consist almost entirely of multiple choice questions about maths and critical reading. The ACT multiple-choice question paper covers English, maths, reading and science, and is enhanced by an optional writing test.

Extra curricular activities are also an important part of the University and college applications process. An activity which demonstrates a talent or contributes to the well being of other people, or which demonstrates maturity and time management skills, will be of interest regardless of whether they take place in a school setting or elsewhere. It helps distinguish an applicant, especially in a University where a high number of high achievers will be applying for places.

The US constitution requires a separation of church and state, and forbids compulsory religious observance in in public schools, though the principle has had to be tested in court as part of the civil rights era since religion is much more widespread and central to American life than in many European countries.

It is normal for schools to require pupils to pledge allegiance to the American flag each morning. The presence of the American flag in the classroom is routine, though false stories abound on the internet about schools ‘banning’ the flag.

Parents are actively encouraged to engage in their children’s education. Nearly all schools will have a Parent Teacher Association. Both pupils and parents are routinely required to sign forms attesting they are aware of their right and responsibilities, after reading the handbook explaining the district’s guidelines for acceptable behaviour.

Most schools have two semesters, with the fall semester starting in mid August and ending in late December. Spring semester usually starts in January and ends in early June. Pupils normally have a week’s spring break, two weeks off for Christmas, a two day break in the fall and the normal public days off.

The educational outcomes for children leaving public schools vary enormously. Whilst the percentage of GDP spend on education is higher than average for OECD countries, performance in reading and science are close to the OECD average, whilst mathematics outcomes are well below average. 1 in 4 pupils do not meet internationally recognised maths baseline requirements, and the US has a below average share of top maths performers. However it should be recognised that since schools rely on funding which reflects their local community, so there is a significant discrepancy of resources available to schools in affluent and poor communities. Also, pupils in the US come from a more diverse range of backgrounds than other countries experience, and 8% of children are English language learners. Students in affluent areas of Massachusetts have a similar outcome in maths as pupils in academically high-achieving Japan.

Approximately 3% of US children are homeschooled, divided roughly equally between those who live in a city, those who live in a suburban area, and those in rural areas. Sometimes the decision to homeschool reflects parental views of education systems in the local area, sometimes it is based on beliefs about parenting, and sometimes it reflects a family’s beliefs about religion or society that is ill at ease with mainstream society.

Private schools are available all over the US, providing religious and secular schools to parents who have the means and desire for an education which reflects their family’s values or aspirations. About 10% of children attend a private school. The schools are run by private boards without government involvement and can adopt any curriculum or teaching programme of their choice, subject to enough parents being willing to pay to their children to attend.

Private schools frequently cited as amongst the very best include Trinity School in New York (c $40,000 pa), Roxbury Latin School in Boston (c$24,000pa) and Brearly School in New York (c$37,000pa). Some private schools are run as boarding schools; those who attain high level ranking include Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (c$47,000pa), Phillips Academy in Massachusetts (c$49,000pa) and The Putney School (c$51,000pa). Some pupils receive some financial aid if they are awarded scholarships, but even gaining a full fee paying place at these schools will be challenging.

Private tutoring is a popular choice for parents who can afford the $20-$200 per hour fees, especially for help with French, maths, science, reading and SAT preparation. It has been estimated that parents in the US spend $11 billion a year on private tutoring, although some wealthy individuals will use tutors as an alternative to school for their children.

If you are considering an appropriate school for your child you will need to do a lot of research on the individual schools in your area, as the quality, provision, culture and academic outcomes of each school will vary enormously. You must also check your residency status and the impact it may have on any fees due. Under US law, student visas cannot be issued for anyone looking to enter the US in order to attend a public school or publicly funded adult education programme. For the dependents of nonimmigrant visas, attendance at these schools and courses is limited to 12 months with the full costs borne by the pupil’s family. Costs normally range from $3,000 to $10,000 per annum. Foreign students living with US citizen relatives are also subject to these restrictions.

Many school districts ask parents to fill out one application form listing all the schools they would like to apply for a place from. You must be able to prove your child’s identity and age, such as a birth certificate or passport. Proof of residence is required, using any official identification such as a utility bill or driver’s licence. You must identify the vaccinations required by the school district and provide evidence through a vaccination record to confirm that your child has received them all. Some areas will also require evidence that your child has had vision and dental checkups.

Some schools will offer places to pupils who will flourish in an environment specialising in visual or performing arts. The audition and portfolio arrangements will vary, and require careful consideration in order to make your child’s chances of acceptance better.

Private schools may require potential pupils to attend an interview and complete competitive assessments. Documentary evidence of past performance, such as teacher recommendations and past year reports, may also be required. Each school will advise on their selection process and evidence required.

Pupils in US schools will receive help with University and college applications from an advisor or guidance counsellor, because each course will have its own entrance requirements, and preparation of the transcript is important.

There are many types of institution which allows students to work towards a degree. A state college or university is supported by the local or state government, but students will still have to pay tuition fees. A private University receives no state support and can therefore define admission policies and manage its own curriculum. A community college will allow students to study for a two year associate degree, which can be used for employment or as credit towards a bachelor’s degree at a University. An institute of technology will offer graduate programmes in science and technology of up to four years, and/or shorter courses in those areas of study.

Students studying for a bachelor’s degree at a University or college will typically study a wide variety of subjects during the first two years. Each course is worth a set number of credits or credit hours, usually equivalent to the number of hours a student spends in class on that subject each week. It means students can transfer between Universities and take their existing credits with them. At the beginning of the third year you choose the subject you wish to major in, and will then study courses relating to that area. Because of the flexibility of the courses and the credit system, students are able to change Universities and courses fairly easily, and students who have completed their first two courses at a community college can apply to transfer across to a University for the final two years.

Class sizes will vary, but students are expected to prepare in advance of lectures and participate in class discussions. Examinations and tests are part of the marking system, but student participation in class is also graded. This is an element of the US University programme which international students are taken surprise by and may struggle to fully adjust to.

It is worth pausing to consider the salient fact that in every decade since the 1840s, there has been at least one incident where a school shooting occurred. At present, an average of 7 children a day are shot dead in the US, roughly equivalent to the murder rate in the UK of all adults and children from all causes, adjusted for population size. Some schools have metal detection and search processes for all pupils entering school, and armed security guards on site. Some universities allow students to carry concealed weapons. If you are coming from the UK, where even the police service is not armed and theft of licensed weapons is likely to lead to the prosecution of the licence holder for not following secure storage regulations, this may seem a dangerous learning environment, but be wary of voicing these concerns to your new neighbours until you have established their own views on gun control.

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