Secondary education in the United States

Secondary education in the United States is the last seven years of statutory formal education grade 6 (age 11–12) through grade 12 (age 17–18). It occurs in two phases. The first is the ISCED lower secondary phase; a junior high school or middle school for students grade 6 (age 11–12) through grade 8 (age 13–14). The second is the ISCED upper secondary phase; the High School from grade 9 (age 14–15) until grade 12 (age 17–18).[1] There is some debate over the optimum age of transfer, and variation in some the states.[2]

Education in the United States
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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."[3]

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 the 1830s and 40s within the wealthier areas of similar income levels and greatly expanded after the American Civil War into the 1890s.[4]

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. [5] [6] [7]

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.[8] 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.[9] It emphasized equal access to education and established high standards and accountability.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required all public schools receiving federal funding to administer a statewide 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.[14] 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.[15]

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 w/ 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, Political science, economics and geography. Political science 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.[15]


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:

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 7, 8 – and sometimes grades 5, 6 & 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 "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

High school comprises grades 9 or 10 through 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.[16][17][18]

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.

Most high 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 high schools offer Regular Honors (H) (sometimes called Advanced), Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, which are special forms of honors classes. 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.

Public schools

The United States public education system is structured into three levels: elementary (also known as primary) education, middle and high school (which is secondary together) education, and college or university level (also known as post-secondary) education. Schooling starts at age 5-6 and ends anywhere from 16-18 depending on the school system, state policy, and the students progress. Pre-School or Pre-Kindergarten accept as young as age 3 and is not required. From there education models differ as elementary school can last anywhere from grade 5 (age 10–11) to grade 8 (age 13–14) depending on the structure. Some states have middle schools which is part of secondary education and between elementary school and high school encompassing grades from 6 to 9, while others have no middle school and instead combined mixed high schools. High school is generally grades 9-12, with the exception of the mixed model which is 7-12.

All children are guaranteed the right to a free public elementary and secondary education when living within the jurisdiction of the United States regardless of race, gender, ability, citizen status, religion or economic status. Public education in the United States is mainly the responsibility of State and local level administration levels. As of 2010-2011 around 13,588 school districts exist within which around 98,800 public schools exist in the United States. Only 8% of funding for public schools comes from federal sources, the other 92% comes mostly from state and local funding. Curriculum requirements vary state by state as it is up to these states and local school districts, in addition to national associations if applicable, to come up with and be approved by the federal government in order for them to receive funding. Most schools mark proficiency in a subject through the A-F grading scale accumulating throughout years creating a grade point average or G.P.A. Parent involvement is encouraged in the U.S. with many having parent-teacher associations otherwise known as PTA's.

Private schools

Private schools are schools that are not public, they are not run by any government, but rather function as an independent institution. Private school range from levels of kindergarten to undergraduate, various institution usually accommodating different levels.[19] Majority of private schools have a tuition cost of attendance [20] As of 2013-2014 there were 33, 619 private schools in the United States.[21] Majority of private schools in the United States are associated with religious orientations making up 68.7% of all private schools as of 2013 - 2014.[21][22] This is a number had an increasing trend in the period of 1989-2005 [23] however, it dropped by about 9% in 2006-2007,[24][25] but seems to be increasing again.

All independent schools, not limited to just private schools, must comply with federal laws of non-discrimination and health privacy & financial security laws.[26] These include

- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (for employees or applicants over the age of 40)

- Americans with Disabilities Act

- Equal Pay Act

- 42 U.S.C. § 1986 (discrimination based on race)

- Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1979

- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and/or national origin)

- Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (employment or reemployment discrimination based on military service)

- Revenue Procedure 75-50 (independent schools can not discriminate on the basis of race in any programs or financial assistance)

More specific legal restrictions apply to private schools on the state level and vary based on the state.[26]

A private schools can accept money from the federal government otherwise called "Federal financial assistance" which can come as funds in the form of grants or loans, donations, assets and property or interest in property, services by federal employees or contract of intent to receive federal assistance, involvement in federal programs. Schools receiving funding must comply with additional federal regulations included in many of the above acts. However, policy can also have exceptions to these regulations based on the private school characteristics such as having religious belief that the law would be defying or being involved in military development.[27]

Charter schools

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.

College-preparatory schools

College-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.

Home schooling

It is estimated that some 2 million or 2.9% of U.S. children are home educated.[28][29] 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.

Types of Scheduling

Traditional Scheduling

Students take six, seven, eight, or sometimes nine classes per day all year long. Six classes are around 50–60 minutes in length. Seven classes are around 45–52 minutes in length. Eight classes are around 40–48 minutes in length. Nine classes are around 42 minutes or less in length.[30]

Block Scheduling

Alternate Day Block Scheduling

Also referred to as A/B block scheduling, Odd/Even block scheduling, or Day 1/ Day 2 block scheduling. Students take three to four courses, around 90–120 minutes in length, per day all year long on alternating days resulting in a full six or eight courses per year.[31][32] An example table of a possible schedule is provided below.

A/B Block Scheduling
Time A Day B Day
8:30-10:00 Mathematics English
10:15-11:45 Spanish Computer science
12:00-1:00 Lunch
1:15-2:45 History Biology
3:00-4:30 Physical Education Political science

4x4 Block Scheduling

Students take four courses, around 90 minutes in length, every day for the first semester and take four different courses every day for the second semester. This results in a full eight courses taken per year.[31][32] An example table of a possible schedule is provided below.

4x4 Block Scheduling
Time Semester 1 Semester 2
7:30-9:00 Math English
9:05-10:35 Spanish Computers
10:40-11:25 Lunch
11:30-1:00 History Science
1:05-2:35 Physical Education Health

Teacher certification

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.

Compulsory Education

Compulsory education laws refer to "legislative mandates that school-aged children [shall] attend public, nonpublic, or homeschools until reaching specified ages."[33] In most cases, local school attendance officers enforce compulsory education laws, and all jurisdictions hold parents/legal guardians responsible to ensure their child/children attend school.[33]


Compulsory education first became required in Massachusetts upon the passing of the Compulsory Attendance Act of 1852.[34] The law required that all children eight to fourteen to attend school for three months out of the year, and of these twelve weeks, six of them had to be consecutive. The only exceptions to this law was if the child already attended another school for the same amount of time, proof the child had already learned the material, if they lived in poverty, or the child had a physical or mental disability preventing them from learning the material.[34]

Later, in 1873, the law was revised. The age limit was reduced from 14 to 12, but the annual attendance requirement was increased to 20 weeks a year. By 1918, all U.S. states had some sort of mandatory attendance law for school.[34]

See also


  1. "Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G8 Countries: 2004" (PDF). National Center for Education Statistics. p. 85.
  2. Philip J. Cook (2007-02-09). "Should sixth grade be in elementary school or middle school" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on June 12, 2010.
  3. National Education Association of the United States. Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies. (1894). Report of the Committee of ten on secondary school studies: with the reports of the conferences arranged by the committee. Pub. for the National Education Association by the American Book Co.. p. 17.
  4. Goldin, Claudia (2008). The Race between Education and Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press. p. 195.
  5. Nordin, Virginia Davis; Turner, William Lloyd (1980). "More than Segregation Academies: The Growing Protestant Fundamentalist Schools". The Phi Delta Kappan. 61 (6): 391–394.
  6. Carper, James C. (1983). "The Christian Day School Movement". The Educational Forum. 47 (2): 135–149. doi:10.1080/00131728309335955.
  7. Carper, James C.; Layman, Jack (1995). "Independent Christian Day Schools Past, Present, and Prognosis". Journal of Research on Christian Education. 4 (1): 7–19. doi:10.1080/10656219509484824.
  8. Goldin, Claudia (2008). The Race between Education and Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press. p. 24.
  9. "The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 forbids federally determined curricula." Hoover Institution – Daily Report Archives – Secretary Riley Reignites the Math Wars Archived 2012-08-01 at
  10. Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)
  11. Goldin, Claudia, "The Race between Education and Technology." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2008, p. 6–7.
  12. "A 'kickback' against graduation exams, USA Today, August 17, 2006 6D
  13. "Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools 2008". Center for Education Reform. July 28, 2008. Archived from the original on September 17, 2009. Retrieved September 19, 2009.
  14. Dillon, Erin & Rotherham, Andy. "States' Evidence: What It Means to Make 'Adequate Yearly Progress' Under NCLB" Archived 2010-01-24 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved August 19, 2009.
  15. "What the High School Curriculum Covers | All Education Schools". 9 March 2018. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  16. "Gay High Schools Offer a Haven From Bullies | Education | US News". US News. 31 December 2008. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  17. "First LGBT high school opens in Phoenix". 4 October 2012. Archived from the original on 28 December 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  18. "Gay friendly high school program opening in Ferndale". M Live. MLive Media Group. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  19. "Private School Universe Survey (PSS)". Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  20. "Federal Role in Education". 2017-05-25. Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  21. "Private School Universe Survey (PSS)". Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  22. "Statistics About Non-Public Education in the United States". 2017-03-01. Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  23. "Private School Universe Survey (PSS)". Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  24. "Private School Universe Survey (PSS)". Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  25. "Private School Universe Survey (PSS)". Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  26. Wilson, Debra, Gold, Stephanie J., Lovells, Hogan, "Independent Schools and Federal Laws: A Guide to Key Federal Laws and How They Apply to Your School" National Association of Independent Schools. 2013.
  27. "State Regulations of Private Schools" US Department of Education. US Department of Education.
  28. 1.5 Million Home-schooled Students in the United States in 2007 Issue Brief from Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. December 2008. NCES 2009–030
  29. Education: Keep it in the family | The Economist
  30. Nichols, Joe D. (May 2005). "Block-Scheduled High Schools: Impact on Achievement in English and Language Arts". Journal of Educational Research. 98: 299–309 via EBSCOhost.
  31. Trenta, Louis; Newman, Isadore (Fall 2002). "Effects of a High School Block Scheduling Program on Students: A Four-Year Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Block Scheduling on Student Outcome Variables". American Secondary Education. 31: 54 via EBSCOhost.
  32. Lewis, Chance W.; Dugan, James J.; Winokur, Marc A.; Cobb, R. Brian (December 2005). "The Effects of Block Scheduling on High School Academic Achievement". NASSP Bulletin. 98: 72–87 via EBSCOhost.
  33. "Compulsory Attendance". Education Law. Retrieved 2016-11-20.
  34. Grocke, Vicky. "Compulsory Education". University of Notre Dame. University of Notre Dame.

Further reading

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