When a parent is involved in their child’s education, that student is more likely to have a positive attitude toward school, better grades, and higher test scores. However, getting involved in your child’s education begins with understanding how the U.S. school system is structured.
School systems are different around the world, and although there are some similarities between the United States and other countries, it’s helpful to understand your options as a parent to best set your child up for success.
This article will cover key details about primary and secondary education in the United States, also known as kindergarten through high school.
All children in the United States have access to public school, regardless of immigration status. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, young children of immigrants comprise more than 20% of the young child population in 19 states.
The U.S. education system is generally divided into three stages: primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. Primary and secondary education are compulsory, but post-secondary education (such as college or vocational programs) is optional.
The American school year usually begins in August or early September and ends in May or early June. Most schools take a short break in December (winter break) and March or April (spring break), as well as an extended break over summer.
Formal schooling lasts about 12 years, and each school year is called a grade. Most children begin their education in kindergarten at age 5 or 6, and they complete their education in 12th grade at age 17 or 18.
Public schools are generally divided into districts, which operate several schools in a specific region. There are some state and regional differences in the ways that primary and secondary education are divided. Broadly speaking, here’s what you can expect:
- Primary education: Also called elementary school, this stage generally consists of kindergarten through fifth grade. Before beginning kindergarten, some children aged 3-5 years old enroll in preschool, which is not required but may help prepare them for their education.
- Secondary education: This stage spans sixth through 12th grade. It consists of middle school (also known as junior high school) and high school. Most districts reserve 9th through 12th grade for high school. Once your child completes 12th grade, they receive a high school diploma.
Students are evaluated throughout the academic year, and they must meet certain benchmarks before they can move onto the next grade. Their work is measured with grading systems, which vary widely between states, schools, and even classes.
Generally, grading systems are based on a numeric scale that are equated with a letter mark. Teachers assign grades based on a student’s performance and generally subtract a student’s total from 100. A basic grading rubric may look like this:
It’s common to see plus or minus signs assigned to letter grades, such as A+ and A-. These symbols are used to indicate a student’s point total or effort in the classroom. Other grading systems follow a pass-fail system instead of letter grades. The exact system largely depends on the district, subject, and class.
Additionally, all American public schools issue statewide tests (also called standardized tests or benchmark tests) to ensure that students are hitting minimum standards of education. In high school, students also have the option to take standardized tests that satisfy college credits (such as Advanced Placement tests) or support their college admissions requirements (such as the SAT or ACT).
The American school system is divided into public and private education. Understanding what works best for your family begins with understanding what’s available in your area. Some families only have access to public schools, while others have more flexibility with school choice. Here are a few key differences between public and private schools:
Public schools are free because they are funded by taxes, as well as a combination of local, state, and federal funding. Private schools charge tuition because they don’t receive any government funding, although schools may offer fee waivers and scholarships for eligible students.
Public schools tend to serve students within specific neighborhoods, with larger classroom sizes and more racially and ethnically diverse student populations than private schools. In comparison, private schools feature smaller classroom sizes, and private school families more actively choose to attend specific schools due to factors like the school’s philosophy, religious affiliation, or specific educational programs.
There is some variability in what a student learns from district to district. Public schools take direction on their curriculum from the state, local school boards, and district staff. Most states follow a set of standards called Common Core, which establishes consistent educational standards in English language arts and mathematics in public schools. Private schools have more autonomy and can direct their curriculum based on the school’s priorities, such as religious education or programs that cater to STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
The U.S. education system also offers two other school options:
- Charter school: A school that receives funding from the government like a public school, but operates independently from state standards. Some charter schools are meant to serve underserved communities and provide the experience of a private school, without charging tuition.
- Home school: Families can choose to teach students at home or places outside the home. Lessons are conducted by a parent, tutor, or online teacher, and must meet state and local requirements for curriculum and attendance.
In terms of where your child attends school, there isn’t a single “best” choice. This decision depends on what’s available in your area, what works for your family, and personal preference.
In the United States, children can attend public school for free from kindergarten through high school. Parents are required to pay for basic supplies like notebooks, pencils, and clothing, and they need to provide a bagged lunch or pay for their child to eat at the school cafeteria.
Notably, meal programs also vary widely among public schools. Some districts offer free or lower-priced lunches for low-income families. Others offer free lunch for all students, regardless of income.
Private schools charge tuition, but many schools offer scholarships or fee waivers for lower-income families. Tuition varies widely, depending on factors like the school’s location and specific programs. Among all private K-12 schools nationwide, the average annual tuition is $12,350, according to EducationData.org.
Sometimes, it can feel like the U.S. education system follows its own language. This glossary covers a few common terms you’ll encounter as you consider different programs for your child. For more definitions, check out this Glossary of Education Terms.
Accommodations: Changes that support a student’s special needs in the classroom, such as giving a child with a reading disability more time to complete an exam.
ACT: A set of college admissions tests administered by the American College Testing Program. Many U.S. colleges and universities accept either the ACT or the SAT for admissions, although these exams are increasingly becoming optional.
Advanced Placement (AP) program: College-level courses offered at the high school level. Students can take AP courses and receive college credit by achieving satisfactory scores on their exams.
English as a Second Language (ESL): A program specifically designed to teach English-language learners language skills for the classroom, such as reading and writing.
English Learners (EL): Students whose primary language is not English and may qualify for extra support in the classroom.
General Educational Development (GED): The GED is the equivalent of a high school diploma. It’s awarded to adults who did not graduate from high school, but completed a specific study and examination program instead.
Grade Point Average (GPA): A student’s GPA is an important factor in college admission. The GPA is a standardized way to measure academic achievement. It’s calculated by dividing the total number of grade points earned by the number of classes or credits attempted, and it usually falls in a range from zero to 4.0.
Head Start program: An early childhood education program for families with children ages 3-5 years old. Like preschool, Head Start programs help prepare young children for school but are free for low-income families.
Individualized Education Program (IEP): A customized plan that explains how a school will support a student with special needs.
K-12: An abbreviated term that refers to kindergarten through 12th grade, specifically in public school.
Parent Teacher Association (PTA): An organization of parents, teachers, and staff that helps parents get involved with their child’s school through activities like fundraising, community involvement, and after-school programs.
Principal: The highest-ranking administrator on a school campus.
SAT: A set of examinations administered by the College Board. Like the ACT, colleges and universities consider the SAT as part of a student’s application materials.
Standardized testing: Examinations created by an outside entity, such as the district or state, which are used to measure a student’s academic progress.
Special needs: A term that refers to disabilities that affect a child in school, such as learning disabilities or medical conditions. Students with special needs are generally eligible for special education programs.
Do you have additional questions on how to support your children as they settle in the U.S.? We’ve put together a guide for immigrant parents with common family questions during each stage of the immigration process.