Sunday, September 7, 2008

Susie's American Education, Part One

Susie is an imaginary American young woman who has just graduated from college. Susie has received her new degree from the University of Michigan. Susie has attended only public schools all her life. Public means "free" at first, and "subsidized" at the college level. Public also means, in the USA, that anyone can attend without regard to religion, race, or other social status. There is a "right" to education in the U.S. This "right" is compulsary until the student reaches an age set by the individual state, usually age 16, at which the student can decide not to continue in school.

Susie was born in a small rural town in Michigan and went through the entire educational system there. She would have begun school in the fall at age five, graduated from high school at age 18, entered college that same fall, still age 18, and taken 5 years to graduate college, at age 23. It is almost rare to complete college in 4 years now, although 4 years was the norm not long ago. Susie will likely continue her college education until she has enough credits for her Masters Degree, but it is unlikely she will continue to go to school full time. It is much more likely that she will now enter the work force and work on her Masters little by little by taking courses in the evenings or once a week at the university. Susie has not chosen a profession which will require a doctorate.

In her rural town of 5,000, there would have been only one high school, one junior high school, and probably two elementary schools. Susie would have entered Kindergarten - perhaps only half-days, but not necessarily - at age 5. In times past, this would have been a time of socialization and getting used to being around other children; of listening to stories and music; of snacks and rest periods; of practicing motor skills by drawing pictures and coloring, and perhaps learning how to tie her shoes. Not quite so easy in today's world where actual learning would be taking place from day one, and Susie would have been expected to already know her ABCs and recognize many word sounds. In some schools, the youngsters are reading simple things before being passed on to first grade.

Susie will proceed through six grades (after Kindergarten) in elementary school. At the end of the sixth grade, she will be 12 years old. Then she will move on to Junior High School. During those six grades she will grow and get used to the other children who live in her town that are in her age group. If she stays in her home town, she will know many of the people on a personal basis from having grown up with them and gone through long years of schooling together.

In elementary school, there will be probably 3 classes for each grade, even though her town is small. Three third grade classrooms, for example. But each year she will have some of the other children in her class, and will get to know all her contemporaries by the time sixth grade is finished. Each year she will take the same basic courses, and more will be added as she grows older. For example each year she will study reading, penmanship, English, Spelling, Arithmetic. Each of these subjects will get more difficult as she progresses, but none of them will be "finished" in elementary school.

Susie is lucky that she is in a small rural school system. The school buildings will be modern and the teachers will be very good indeed. She will have the opportunity to broaden her life with music and sports. Very good equiment and supplies will be at her disposal. She will come to take this for granted, as she takes for granted the personal attention and nurturing she receives from her teachers and school administrators. This is not always the case in large inner city schools.

In the USA, schools are run by local boards of education. Community leaders serve voluntarily on the school board. They establish the school curriculum and oversee the students progress. They are responsible for making changes to insure success. The school system superintendent and top administrators are hired by, and serve at the pleasure of, this local school board. The school board will consist of farmers, business owners, and involved parents. Their word is law when it comes to what the children will learn and the environment in which they will learn. There are other school boards at the regional level and state level, but these serve larger concerns and act as sources of information for the local school boards. Membership in the state school board will consist of representatives who have served, usually on local school boards, and the membership is rotated over time. At the state level, these people will constantly evaluate needs and materials and chart overall directions. They will, for example, review new textbooks and make suggestions to the local school boards. They will gather information about what schools in other states are doing that is successful, and make that information available to the local boards.

I give this information for two reasons. First, to explain that in the USA, much more is done at a state level rather than federal level than foreigners perhaps assume. And, second. that the real power is at the extreme local level. For example, if parents don't like a certain text book, the local board will heed their wishes and the text will disappear from the schools.

There is indeed very general input from a federal level, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Susie will take tests from time to time throughout her school career because of this federal input, but she will probably not even think of these tests as being special. They will simply be one more tests among many for her.


  1. This post is so very interesting, in part because of the differences and in part because of the remarkable similarities between your system and the British one - always the proviso that Scotland is different in details. Excellent. Thank you!

  2. If the states did not take over most schools would have ended up like the VA facilities underfunded and low or no maintenance. In our state the High School grads will finish with at least an associates degree or have their undergad stuff out of the way. If all goes as planned in 10 years many will be degreed before they leave high school.



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