Education Around The World: USA

Good day, folks! In our Education Around The World series, we’ll be taking a close look at how schools and universities from all over the world operate. This time we’re travelling to the land of freedom and liberty. It’s the good old United States of America (USA)!

Read on about the US education system and soar up high with them eagles!


One of the most distinctive factors of the US education system is that there is no national curriculum. Instead, school policy and curriculum is dictated by each states local government and the school itself. This is due to the United States’ cultural emphasis on freedom of individual states and value of local governance. Funding for each public school school comes from a mixture of states and districts themselves with only a small percentage from the federal government.

Thus, the curriculum and quality of education can vary widely school to school, district to district and state to state. This has been a source of controversy as poorer districts have more poorly funded schools, some claim it further entrenches systems of racism and classicism in America. Similarly, education is compulsory but the age range is determined by states too with starting age between five and eight while ending from sixteen to eighteen. In general though, compared to East Asian countries and the UK, there is far less emphasis on exams and grades are more based on a mixture of discussions, presentations, assignments and quizzes.


In most cases, the school year is set from early September until May or June (nine months) and is divided into either quarters: fall (September to December), winter (January to March) and spring (March to May or June) or semesters: fall (September to December) and spring (January to May). The summer (May to September) is when school is off and everyone is free to take a holiday.

Schools are almost always co-educational with the exception usually being Catholic or military boarding schools.As a whole, the United States spends more per student on education than any other country. Despite this, US students still lag behind many countries in subjects such as science and math and only ranks 27th in global rankings for education. Still, it retains the status of having the highest amount of globally ranked universities.

Elementary School (6-11)

For educational stages, the US education system uses grades for each stage instead or year or form. After kindergarten or pre-school, US students usually follow the ‘6-3-3’ plan that is grade 1-6 in elementary school, grade 7-9 in junior high or middle school and grade 10-12 in high school. As previously stated, the curriculum for elementary school is dictated by individual districts. However, elementary schools usually teach students the fundamental skills of reading, writing and mathematics, social studies (history and geography usually taught as one), crafts, music, science, art and physical education (gym). Overall, greater emphasis is put on reading, writing and math than science and social studies at this stage.

Junior High/ Middle School (12-14)

Junior high or also known as middle school is the bridge between elementary school and high school for US students. It acts as a transition as student are introduced to more complex topics and higher expectations that will develop even further in high school. Starting with middle school, students are given much more freedom with the US education system. Students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take classes from several teachers in a given day. Each subject is usually taught by a different teacher in a different classroom. Thus, they move from one classroom to the other through the day.

There are usually a set of four or five core academic classes basic subjects such as English or “language arts,” science, mathematics, history or “social studies,” and in some schools, foreign language. But students are able to start taking elective classes too and chose a few subjects they are interested in studying. Most schools also have special honors classes for more gifted and motivated students.

High School (15-17)

High school students in the US education system gain even more freedom to determine their academic path. Electives, optional subjects, which supplement their future education and career plans. usually comprise around half of a student’s work. Students usually concentrate on four subjects each quarter. Just like middle school there are honor classes for gifted students. However some schools also offer Advance Placement (AP) classes. This program was created by the college board and lets US high school students take college level curricula and examinations. Hence, students who score well in these classes may have it transferred to credits when they enter university.

Unlike many countries, there is no big final standardized national exam at the end of high school. However if students wish to further education they usually need to take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The SAT is a standardized test developed by The College Board (a private non-profit organization not affiliated with the US Government) that is widely used by US college admissions.

College & University (18+)

For an undergraduate degree, US universities typically require 120 credits for graduation which usually takes four years. There is much larger flexibility compared to other countries. Unlike the UK, when you are admitted, you are not required to choose a major straight away. Students are encouraged to have a liberal education and thus required to take courses across several disciplines. For example, a university may require 3 credits in a Social Justice course, 3 credits in Literature, 4 credits in Physical Sciences, etc).

Students often declare their major after two years of study, completing the major also requires earning a set number of credit hours. Some students also take double majors or minors. Hence there is much more breadth and freedom of choice for US students. The overall grade a student achieves for one course is usually a mixture of assignments/papers, class participation, presentations, short exams or quizzes, a midterm and a final exam.

Most universities can be split into publicly state funded schools and private universities. Private universities on the other hand have a much smaller class size but a higher tuition. The prestigious ivy league universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford are private universities. However, a great number of state funded or run universities are equally if not more prestigious especially in the areas of research.

There are also community colleges that offer tuition at a much lower rate. However, they also have much less advanced facilities and less ‘prestigious’ faculty. Community colleges offer Associate’s degrees which takes two years to complete and are transferable to public universities saving students a significant amount of tuition cost.

Despite, the entire education system having a lower rank, the US higher education system is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. It produces the most groundbreaking research and innovations. It also has the highest amount of universities in the global top 100 list with a total of 58 (the second highest is the UK which only has 7). Still, tuition cost are much higher in the US than other countries, the average tuition per semester $25, 620 and still rising.

The US higher education system is also distinct as studying for certain professions like law and medicine requires a Bachelor’s degree first. Students interested in these professions usually spent four years study something related such as Biochemistry for medicine and Political Science for law. They then have to apply to highly competitive programs that take anywhere from 3 to 7 years. For graduate programs, students often have to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Most PhD programs in US universities are fully funded and even provide a stipend with teaching or research assistant-ships but highly competitive. However, they can take as long as 6-7 years to complete in some cases.


Arguably more than any other country in the world, american schools whether high schools or universities have a large emphasis on school spirit. Sports in particular is woven inextricably into the american school culture. You can see this with many school’s having their personal mascot, logo, cheer-teams, bands and even massive cutting-edge stadiums. There are even long-standing rivalries between universities such as Michigan and Ohio state tied to their sports culture.

Sports games are massive events attended not just by students but entire towns. They are nationwide televised events watched by millions. The National College Athletics Association (NCAA) reported more than $1 billion dollars in revenue last year. Still, schools themselves make significant profits from their identity with a variety of merchandises such as t-shirts, backpacks, scarves, mugs, licence plates, caps, stationaries, toys and many more!

Extracurricular activities are also a vital part of the US education system. School days for primary and secondary school usually runs from  8.30am to 3pm for elementray school students and 7.30pm to 2.45pm for high school students. After that, they have clubs and sports activities. Motivated students eagerly participate in clubs, societies and volunteer work. This is because university admissions seek students who are holistic and thus place a large emphasis on extracurricular activities. May students earn their place in high ranking universities through sports scholarships. In university, there continues to be a wealth of students clubs and organizations.

The US is also one of the most unique countries in the world because of it’s feature as a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities and lifestyles from all over the world. This racial diversity makes it one of most welcoming countries for international students. In more urban areas at least, international students will face less difficulty finding aspects of their own culture. For example, Muslim students will be able to find halal stores and supermarkets. Thus, it is the country with the highest number of international students in the world. But again, America is a very large and diverse country. Hence, your experience will vary depending on where you go.

American universities in general are also known for having a more liberal and activist nature. Social justice movements, protest and events are popular among university students. Students having a long history of protesting everything from racism, climate change, police brutality, wealth inequality and even the schools themselves.

All in all, America strongly believes in individualism and freedom and that is reflected in their school culture. They appreciate directness and independence. Thus, students are a lot more informal with both each others and teachers. Even PhD level lecturers often prefer to be called by their first names. In addition, very few schools require students to wear uniforms with the exception being Catholic or boarding schools.

Well, there you have it. I hope all that extensive information is enough for you to ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ and pursue the American Dream! Be sure to check out our university and international school page where you can connect with prestigious official US and other international institutions currently located in Malaysia. Also, be sure to join our Education Around The World series next time where we’ll be heading east to the land of the rising sun, Japan!

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