Secondary education in the United States
In most jurisdictions, secondary education in the United States refers to the last six or eight years of statutory formal education. Secondary education is generally split between junior high school or middle school, usually beginning with sixth or seventh grade (at or around age 11 or 12), and high school, beginning with ninth grade (at or around age 14) and progressing to 12th grade (ending at or around age 18). Junior high school refers to grades seven through nine.
- 1 Historical impact of secondary education in the United States
- 2 Teaching secondary
- 3 Middle schools
- 4 High schools
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Historical impact of secondary education in the United States
During the 20th century, the economic demand of labor with secondary education skills rose due to the rise of big businesses, advances in science and technology, and large-scale retailing that led to the increase of returns on education.
Teachers are certified in one of two areas for secondary education: middle school or 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.
Middle schools (commonly called by the older names "junior high school" and "intermediate school") are schools that span grades 5 or 6 through 8 or 9. Schools that overlap the 9th grade typically are referred to as "junior high schools". Both are between primary education/elementary education and high school. More rural districts offer an all-inclusive elementary school covering kindergarten to the 6th grade. Some very small rural districts only have one school building in the district serving kindergarten to the 12th grade. The divisions vary widely by state and district. Some districts mix all inclusive elementary schools teaching kindergarten to the 6th grade, but split other schools in the district into elementary and middle schools. There is no general rule as states and even districts within the individual states have significant control over the divisions.
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.
In school districts divided into middle and junior high schools, one of the main differences between the two is elective courses.
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.
High school comprises grades 9 or 10 to 12.
Virtually all public schools, including high schools, are provided by local school districts and not by the central government. The few exceptions tend to fall into one of the following categories:
- A majority of states operate special residential schools for the blind and deaf, although a substantial number of such students are mainstreamed into standard schools.
- Several states operate residential high schools for highly gifted students in specialized areas such as science, mathematics, or the arts.
- An even smaller number of high schools are operated by the Department of Defense on military bases for children of military personnel.
Thousands of private high schools also exist. 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. 2.9% of all students, including elementary students, in 2007 were homeschooled.
In high school, students obtain much more control of their education, and may choose even their core classes. The control given to students varies from state to state and school to school.
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 U.S. 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.
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. The first public secondary schools started around 1910 within the wealthier areas of similar income levels.
In early 20th century, America experienced a "high school movement" as high school enrollment and graduation rates increased steadily. The high school movement was borne out of a shift to more practical curriculum, decentralized decision making of the 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. However, after 1980, the growth in educational attainment decreased, which caused the growth of the educated workforce to slow down.
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. 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. By the 2000s, standards-based education was embraced in most states and federal education policy with the goal of raising standards. It 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.
Basic curricular structure
There is a wide variance in curriculum for students in the United States. Since the turn of the 20th century, many high schools in the United States have offered 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. The Association for Career and Technical Education is the largest U.S. association dedicated to promoting this type of education.
A class period is the time allotted for one class session. The classes a student signs up for are arranged in a certain order to fit his or her individual schedule and generally do not change for the remainder of the school year (with the exception of semester courses). A period may vary in time, but is usually 30–90 minutes long. Most schools have 7-8 class short (30–45-minute) periods on their daily schedule, although some have an alternating block of 3–4 class periods each day (typically 90 minutes). Many offer the option of including a study hall in a student's schedule.
There is wide variance in the curriculum required each year but many American high schools require that courses in the "core" areas of English, science, social studies, and mathematics be taken by the students every year although other schools merely set the required number of credits and allow the student a great deal of choice as to when the courses will be taken after 10th grade.
The majority of high schools require four English credits to graduate. Typically, all four levels of English classes include both standard and honors options. English III and English IV may feature AP opportunities to earn college credits, as well.
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). Some high schools have now raised the requisite number of credits to four.
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.
Required social science classes often 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.
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.
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.
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 increased 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.
Additional options for gifted or high performing students
Not all high schools contain the same rigorous coursework as others. Most high and middle schools 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 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; some have even been created for special social groups such as LGBT students.
If government funds are available, a high school may provide 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, either as a replacement for a typical third-year course (e.g., taking AP English III as a replacement for Honors English III), a refresher of an earlier course (e.g., taking AP Environmental Science in the fourth year after taking Ecology as a sophomore), or simply as a way to study something interesting during senior year (e.g., AP European History). IB courses are often taken as part of a larger, overall program (see IB Diploma Programme). They sometimes last two years and are typically taken in the final two years of high school. To obtain the IB Diploma, IB courses are taken as a block of seven courses (i.e., IB chemistry must be taken as a part of a larger IB curriculum with six other IB courses). It is possible for students to take less than seven courses at IB level but they won't be awarded an IB diploma; only certificates for courses they have completed.
Most post-secondary institutions take AP or IB exam results into consideration in the admissions process. Because AP and IB courses are supposed to be the equivalent of freshman year college courses, post-secondary institutions may grant unit credits which enables students to graduate early. Both public schools and private schools in wealthy neighborhoods are able to provide many more AP and IB course options than impoverished inner-city high schools; this difference is seen as a major cause of the differing outcomes for their graduates.
Also, in states with well-developed community college systems, there are often mechanisms by which gifted students may seek permission from their school district to attend community college courses full-time during the summer or during weekends and evenings during the school year. The units earned this way can often be transferred to one's chosen university and can facilitate early graduation.
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, according to the Center on Education Policy. 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. This movement was inspired by examinations in other nations. A key difference is that most other nations use tests to sort students between academic and vocational schools at different levels. Most American high schools are comprehensive high schools which enroll all students in a local area, regardless of ability or vocational/college track.
- Comprehensive high school
- Lists of schools in the United States
- Education in the United States
- Secondary education
- National High School Center
- Primary education in the United States
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