Secondary education in the United States
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In most jurisdictions, secondary education in the United States refers to the last four years of statutory formal education (grade nine through grade twelve) either at high school or split between a final year of 'junior high school' and three in high school.
The United States historically had a demand for general skills rather than specific training/apprenticeships. High school enrollment increased when schools at this level became free, laws required children to attend until a certain age, and it was believed that every American student had the opportunity to participate regardless of their ability.
In 1892, in response to many competing academic philosophies being promoted at the time, a working group of educators, known as the "Committee of Ten" was established by the National Education Association. It recommended twelve years of instruction, consisting of eight years of elementary education followed by four years of high school. Rejecting suggestions that high schools should divide students into college-bound and working-trades groups from the start, and in some cases also by race or ethnic background, they unanimously recommended that "every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease."
At the turn of the 20th Century, it was common for high schools to have entrance examinations which restricted entrance to fewer than 5 percent of the population in preparation for college. Most were expected to be ready for a job or a family after junior high school.
Between 1910 and 1940 the "high school movement" resulted in rapidly increasing founding of public high schools in many cities and towns and later with further expansions in each locality with the establishment of neighborhood, district, or community high schools in the larger cities which may have had one or two schools since the 19th Century. High school enrollment and graduation numbers and rates increased markedly, mainly due to the building of new schools, and a practical curriculum based on gaining skills "for life" rather than "for college". There was a shift towards local decision making by school districts, and a policy of easy and open enrollment. The shift from theoretical to a more practical approach in curriculum also resulted in an increase of skilled blue-collar workers. The open enrollment nature and relatively relaxed standards, such as ease of repeating a grade, also contributed to the boom in secondary schooling. There was an increase in educational attainment, primarily from the grass-roots movement of building and staffing public high schools.
By mid-century, comprehensive high schools became common, which were designed to give a free education to any student who chose to stay in school for 12 years to get a diploma with a minimal grade point average.
In 1954 the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education made desegregation of elementary and high schools mandatory, although private Christian schools expanded rapidly following this ruling to accommodate white families attempting to avoid desegregation.   
By 1955, the enrollment rates of secondary schools in the United States were around 80%, higher than enrollment rates in most or all European countries. The goal became to minimize the number who exited at the mandatory attendance age, which varies by state between 14 and 18 years of age, and become considered to be dropouts, at risk of economic failure.
In 1965 the far-reaching Elementary and Secondary Education Act ('ESEA'), passed as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty", provided funds for primary and secondary education ('Title I funding') while explicitly forbidding the establishment of a national curriculum. It emphasized equal access to education and established high standards and accountability. The bill also aimed to shorten the achievement gaps between students by providing every child with fair and equal opportunities to achieve an exceptional education.
After 1980, the growth in educational attainment decreased, which caused the growth of the educated workforce to slow down.
Under the education reform movement started in the early 1990s by many state legislatures and the federal government, about two-thirds of the nation's public high school students are required to pass a graduation exam, usually at the 10th and higher grade levels, though no new states had adopted a new requirement in 2006. This requirement has been an object of controversy when states have started to withhold diplomas, and the right to attend commencement exercises, if a student does not meet the standards set by the state.
Pressure to allow people and organizations to create new Charter schools developed during the 1980s and were embraced by the American Federation of Teachers in 1988. These would be legally and financially autonomous public school free from many state laws and district regulations, and accountable more for student outcomes rather than for processes or inputs. Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991. By 2009 charter schools were operating in 41 states (and the District of Columbia) and 59% of these had waiting lists.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required all public schools receiving federal funding to administer a state-wide standardized test annually to all students. Schools that receive Title I funding must make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in test scores (e.g. each year, fifth graders must do better on standardized tests than the previous year's fifth graders) and Schools that miss AYP for a second consecutive year are publicly labeled as in need of improvement, and students have the option to transfer to a better school within the school district, if any exists. Standards-based education has been embraced in most states which changed the measurement of success to academic achievement, rather than the completion of 12 years of education. By 2006, two-thirds of students lived in states with effective standards requiring passing tests to ensure that all graduates had achieved these standards.
Authority to regulate education resides constitutionally with the individual states, with direct authority of the U.S. Congress and the federal U.S. Department of Education being limited to regulation and enforcement of federal constitutional rights. Great indirect authority is, however, exercised through federal funding of national programs and block grants although there is no obligation upon any state to accept these funds. The U.S. government may also propose, but cannot enforce national goals, objectives and standards, which generally lie beyond its jurisdiction.
Many high schools in the United States offer a choice of vocational or college prep curriculum. Schools that offer vocational programs include a very high level of technical specialization, e.g., auto mechanics or carpentry, with a half-day instruction/approved work program in senior year as the purpose of the program is to prepare students for gainful employment without a college degree. The level of specialization allowed varies depending on both the state and district the school is located in.
Many states require that courses in the "core" areas of English, science, social studies, and mathematics every year although others allow more choice after 10th grade. The majority of high schools require four English credits to graduate.
Generally, three science courses are required. Biology, chemistry, and physics are usually offered. Courses such as physical and life science serve as introductory alternatives to those classes. Other science studies include geology, anatomy, astronomy, health science, environmental science, and forensic science.
High school mathematics courses typically include pre-algebra, algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and trigonometry classes. Advanced study options can include precalculus, calculus, statistics, and discrete math generally with an opportunity to earn Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) accreditation. Usually, only three math credits are required for graduation (although four is recommended).
English/Language classes are usually required for four years of high school although many schools count journalism, public speaking/debate, foreign language, literature, drama, and writing (both technical and creative) classes as English/Language classes. Social science classes include world history, U.S. history, government, and economics. Government and economics classes are sometimes combined as two semesters of a year-long course. Additional study options can include classes in law (constitutional, criminal, or international), criminal justice, sociology, and psychology.
Many states require a health or wellness course in order to graduate. The class typically covers basic anatomy, nutrition, first aid, sexual education, and how to make responsible decisions regarding illegal drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. In some places, contraception is not allowed to be taught for religious reasons. In some places, the health and physical education class are combined into one class or are offered in alternate semesters. In some private schools, such as Catholic schools, theology is required before a student graduates. Two years of physical education (usually referred to as "gym," "PE" or "phys ed" by students) is commonly required, although some states and school districts require that all students take Physical Education every semester.
Public high schools offer a wide variety of elective courses, although the availability of such courses depends upon each particular school's financial situation. Some schools and states require students to earn a few credits of classes considered electives, most commonly foreign language and physical education.
Common types of electives include:
- Visual arts (drawing, sculpture, painting, photography, film studies, and art history)
- Performing arts (choir, drama, band, orchestra, dance, guitar)
- Vocational education (woodworking, metalworking, computer-aided drafting, automobile repair, agriculture, cosmetology, FFA)
- Computer science/information technology (word processing, computer programming, graphic design, computer club, Web design and web programming, video game design, music production, film production)
- Journalism/publishing (school newspaper, yearbook, television production)
- Foreign languages (French, German, Italian, and Spanish are common; Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Latin, Korean, Dutch, and Portuguese are less common, though the former two are gaining popularity.
- Business Education (Accounting, Data Processing, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Business, Information and Communication Technology, Management, Marketing, and Secretarial)
- Family and consumer science/health (nutrition, nursing, culinary, child development, and additional physical education and weight training classes)
- Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (In some schools, JROTC may replace a credit of health or P.E.)
- Some American high schools offer drivers' education. At some schools, a student can take it during school as a regular course for a credit. At some schools, drivers education courses are only available after school.
The Association for Career and Technical Education is the largest U.S. association dedicated to promoting this type of education.
Levels of education
Middle school / Junior high school
Middle schools, or junior high schools, are schools that span grades 5 or 6 through 8 or 9, which straddle primary and secondary education. Upon arrival in middle school or junior high school, students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take classes from several teachers in a given day. The classes are usually a set of four or five (if foreign language is included in the curriculum) core academic classes (English or "language arts," science, mathematics, history or "social studies," and in some schools, foreign language) with two to four other classes, either electives, supplementary, or remedial academic classes.
Some students also start taking a foreign language or advanced math and science classes in middle school. Typically schools will offer Spanish and French; and, often German; and, sometimes Latin; Chinese, Japanese, and/or Greek. In addition to Pre-Algebra and other high school mathematics prep courses, Algebra I and Geometry are both commonly taught. Schools also offer Earth Science, Life Science, or Physical Science classes. Physical education classes (also called "PE", "phys ed", Kinesiology, or by the older term, "gym") are usually mandatory for various periods. For social studies, some schools offer U.S. History, Geography, and World History classes.
Most also have "honors" classes for motivated and gifted students, where the quality of education is higher and much more is expected from the enrolled student.
Successful completion of middle school or junior high school leads to entry into high school.
High school comprises grades 9 or 10 to 12. Most American high schools are comprehensive high schools and accept all students from their local area, regardless of ability or vocational/college track. Students have significant control of their education, and may choose even their core classes, although the control given to students varies from state to state and school to school. The schools are managed by local school districts rather than by the central government.
Some states and cities offer special high schools with examinations to admit only the highest performing students, such as Boston Latin School or Alexandria, Virginia's Thomas Jefferson High School. Other high schools cater to the arts. Some schools have been set up for students who do not succeed with normal academic standards; while others, like Harvey Milk High School, have even been created for special social groups such as LGBT students.
Most states operate special residential schools for the blind and deaf, although a substantial number of such students are mainstreamed into standard schools. Several operate residential high schools for highly gifted students in specialized areas such as science, mathematics, or the arts. A smaller number of high schools are operated by the Department of Defense on military bases for children of military personnel.
In 2001 there were 26,407 public high schools and 10,693 private schools in the United States, although this figure may be inflated somewhat by the U.S. Department of Education's definition of high schools as "schools with secondary grades", which could include junior high schools with 9th and 10th grades. The Catholic Church operates 1,220 of such institutions, as of 2007, with other religious groups operating their own high schools. Other private high schools are nonsectarian.
Most high have classes known as "honors" classes for motivated and gifted students, where the quality of education is higher and much more is expected from the enrolled student. Some high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, which are special forms of honors classes. AP courses are usually taken during the second, third, or fourth years of high school. International schools offering programs of study in line with foreign systems of Education, such as those of Britain and France, are also available. Some schools also offer dual-enrollment programs, in which select classes at a university may be taken for both university and high school credit.
Graduation from high school leads to the awarding of the high school diploma. After this secondary education is considered complete and students may pursue tertiary level study.
Types of schools
Secondary education can be provided within a number of different schools and settings.
Charter schools are subject to fewer rules, regulations, and statutes than traditional state schools, receive less public funding than public schools, typically a fixed amount per pupil and are often over-subscribed.
University-preparatory schools, commonly referred to as 'prep schools', can be either publicly funded, charter schools or private independent secondary schools funded by tuition fees and philanthropic donations, and governed by independent boards of trustees. Fewer than 1% of students enrolled in school in the United States attend an independent private preparatory school, a small fraction compared with the 9% who attend parochial schools and 88% who attend public schools. While these schools are not subject to government oversight or regulation, they are accredited by one of the six regional accreditation agencies for educational institutions.
It is estimated that some 2 million or 2.9% of U.S. children are home educated. Home schooling is lawful in all 50 states, and although the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on homeschooling specifically, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) it supported the rights of Amish parents to keep their children out of public schools for religious reasons.
Teachers are certified in one of two areas for high school (and in some states, certification can be to teach grades 6-12). These certifications can overlap. In Missouri, for example, middle school certification covers grades 6–8, elementary school certification covers up to grade 5, and high school certification covers grades 9–12. This reflects the wide range of grade combinations of middle schools, junior high schools, and elementary schools. Alternatively, some states certify teachers in various curricular areas (such as math or history) to teach secondary education.
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