THE MAIN CONCEPTS OF AMERICAN EDUCATION
1 Educational institutions in the United States, according to the ideas of their creators, should reflect the nation's basic values and ideals. In some respects this has been achieved, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
2 The underlying principle of the American system of education is to educate people in such a way that everyone has the opportunity to develop to his/her greatest potential. As elsewhere, one of the major problems is the question of what should be the true goal of education. The American system tends to focus on teaching people to get along in the community. Learning to think for oneself and learning by doing are stressed as means of developing the judgement to achieve this goal.
3 Another major purpose of education in America is to lay the ground work for achieving success in life. Here it should be said that Americans value education largely as a means to reaching a higher standard of living. The belief is widespread in the US that the more schooling a person has, the more money he or she will earn on college graduation. Generally speaking, the expectation is that degrees in fields such as business and engineering1 will result in higher paying careers than a degree in the liberal arts (literature, history, philosophy, etc.).
4 Equality of opportunity — the declared motto for life in the United States — is also an important aspect of the American system of education. Because of the inequalities inherent in society as a whole, however, the goal of equal opportunity in education remains an ideal rather than a reality. Furthermore, the very structure of education itself, which contains both public and private schools, may not encourage equality of opportunity.
5 There exist private schools where tuition fees2 are relatively high, so that they educate primarily upper-class children. The reason why parents send their children to these schools is that they often believe they will receive a better education in them and/or they will associate with other children of their own background. However, these private schools are few in number, and they do not by any means displace the public schools, which are truly the central educational institution in the United States.
6 Since separation of church and state is a principle of American democracy, and therefore religion cannot be taught in state-supported schools, there are also many parochial schools, which are supported by the church. These are often Catholic, but there are Protestant and Jewish schools as well.
7 There is still another factor which supports the idea of equal opportunity — competition in getting jobs or entering the best universities is held on a relatively equal basis irrespective of the type of the school, private or public, one has attended. Furthermore, a lot depends on the personal qualities of the individual school graduate.
8 There are also private colleges and universities, many of which have strict entrance requirements. Some believe that private institutions of higher learning have higher graduation standards, but this is debatable.
All university students must pay tuition fees. In private universities these are usually much higher. In addition to tuition fees one has to pay for books and room and board. Deserving students may receive scholarships of various types that offset the high costs of higher education. Unlike the European system of higher education, individual colleges and universities in the US do not have their own entrance examinations. Rather, admission is based on scholastic achievement in high school and performance on standardized national tests (the SAT orACT). In addition, colleges and universities may require applicants to submit samples of their writing.
Stages of Education
11 The divisions or stages a child passes in his/her educational ladder are elementary, junior high school or middle school, and high schools. American children begin to attend school by the age of five or six. There are also pre-school classes called kindergarten. Before this they may attend nursery school or a day care center.
Schooling is divided into twelve academic levels or grades, each of which lasts one year. Elementary school usually covers grades one through six or seven. Middle school or junior high school is from grades seven to nine or seven to eight. The concluding three or four grades form high school.
12 After high school over 40 per cent of the graduates pursue higher education in colleges and universities. Nearly every state has at least one university supported by public funds which offers training through the Doctor of Philosophy Degree (PhD). There are also public community colleges, also called junior colleges which offer a two-year program in a variety of disciplines, and state teacher colleges which specialize in training school teachers. The word "college" refers either to an independent institution offering undergraduate education or to a part of a university, such as a College of Arts and Sciences or a College of Engineering.
13 The idea of giving a child practical skills comes from John Dewey, who became the apostle of American schools. This philosopher and educator believed that conveying factual information to students is secondary to teaching them thinking processes and skills which they will use in the future. He also greatly influenced teaching techniques by stressing that activity and experimentation should come first. So, in American schools much attention is given to creative activities. Students are encouraged to be creative both during class time and extra-curricular hours.
14 American high schools try to adapt to the needs of society. Learning computer skills starts early. As life is becoming more complex, new subjects are introduced. Schools are initiating programs previously viewed as a part of home education. These include subjects such as driver's education, sewing and cooking classes called home economics, consumer education, and health and sex education, where issues like drug and alcohol abuse and smoking may be treated.
American high schools offer different branches of education for their students. For the college-bound, high schools offer classes in math, sciences, social sciences, English, and foreign languages. Other students take vocational courses such as shorthand and mechanical drawing, and some do work/study programs which enable them to get high school credit for on-the-job training in various occupations.