The American Educational System has gone through some changes over the years. In the beginning, most schools in America were private institutions, split between church-sponsored schools for Bible study and training ministers, and colleges founded for the purposes of research and training professionals. Schooling was also not required, and a man could be considered "well-educated" just by doing what bookworms do, though modern presentations of old schoolhouses frequently omit this detail.
Even after a compulsory public school system was established, the standard for schooling was, for quite some time, the one room school house. Children of all ages were taught in the same classroom, with older students working on their lessons while younger students were taught, then younger students working on their lessons while the older students were taught. Some lessons were taught to the group as a whole. The rustic one-room schoolhouse with a steeple and bell is a common image in American media depicting the 1800s and early 1900s. Students did their work on blackboards, teachers were usually female (outside of colleges and universities), and frequently students went home for lunch.
A dangerous idea escaped during this period of time. It became apparent to students that the Three R's (readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic; spelling was obviously not one of them) were more interesting and easier on the back than shoveling manure in the stables.
The various vacation periods in America come from this period. Spring and fall break not only coincide with certain Holidays, they also come during times when things are busy in farming communities. Fall break falls during harvest time, while spring break comes along when livestock are being born. Summer vacation covers several months of the growing season.
Which meant that being out of school meant shoveling manure in the stables and harvesting crops. School was looking better all the time.
The Modern Education System
In modern day America, there are many possible routes to take when going to school. One can go to public school, private school, charter school, or be home schooled.
- A public school (sometimes called a "traditional public school" and "district-run public school" to disambiguate them from charter schools. note "Public School" is the American term for a school run by the government and funded by taxes. This is what the British call a "state school", a term used only in a post-secondary context in the US. Every American youth has the privilege to receive taxpayer-supported education in a public school, and it is the default form of schooling for the vast majority (roughly 87% of American kids go to a public school of some kind).
- A vocational school (also known as a trade school, a technical school, or a career school) may take the form of either a post-high school education track (some community colleges offer vocational programs) or a high school in its own right. Their main goal is to develop career skills in their students rather than general education, allowing them to enter the workforce right after graduation with a number of useful skills (auto repair, wood and metal shop, et cetera).
Originally modeled after the German industrial education system, vocational schools got a bad rap during the 1950s and '60s due to the fact that the education systems in many Northern cities, in lieu of de jure segregation (which was often illegal in the North), often used them as dumping grounds for poor and minority students, leaving them underfunded, overcrowded and unable to perform their stated goals of training students for careers. Currently, however, they're being rediscovered by educators as an alternative to the skyrocketing costs of college education.
- A magnet school is a type of public school with a particular focus (e.g. science and technology, the arts, vocational education, foreign languages) that any student who lives in the district can opt to attend. Some magnet schools have competitive entrance processes, requiring an examination, an interview and/or (in the case of arts-focused schools) an audition. Magnet schools first appeared in the '60s as a way of encouraging desegregation in areas where racial lines are still fairly strong.
- A private school is a school run by private individuals that requires students to pay tuition. Private schools usually follow the same model as public schools do, but there can be some variation depending on the philosophy behind it. Test scores are often higher than in public schools, although many allege that this is because they are able to select the brightest students with the best access to learning materials, while the public schools have to take everyone else (only about 10% of American kids go to a private school of some kind). Private schools fall into several categories:
- Preparatory schools, or prep schools, are elite private schools designed to prepare teenagers (or students of all ages) for college life. They usually have an advanced curriculum, are very selective, and very expensive. Many also function as boarding schools. A preparatory school is probably what most people think of when they hear "private school." Prep school students are stereotyped as being rich snobs, often "old money" — this is where we get the slang term "preppy" from. These schools are essentially the American equivalent to U.K. "public schools."
- Alternative schools are those schools that specialize in providing an alternative to mainstream education styles. Many specialize in having smaller, more intimate classes and less focus on standardized testing, although there are some that go further and make fundamental changes to the curriculum, such as Waldorf, Montessori, and Sudbury schools. Increasingly, a number of public school districts have started experimenting with alternative methods.
- Catholic schools, or parochial schools, are schools that are run by the Roman Catholic Church. Due to the principle of separation of church and state, all religiously-aligned schools are privately operated. America's Catholic education system was established in the 19th century by Catholic families (especially within The Irish Diaspora) who didn't want to send their kids to public schools, where they would face discrimination from the mostly WASP students and faculty.
While religious instruction is mandatory (even for non-Catholic students), as are uniforms, Catholic schools otherwise have the same curriculum as public schools (biology classes teach evolution, sex education can be fairly comprehensive and not necessarily homophobic, and proselytizing is kept to a minimum). They also have a reputation for providing a very high-quality education for their price. In addition, the Church heavily subsidizes its schools, allowing them to have lower tuition and grant more scholarships. These two factors make them a popular choice not only among Catholic families, but among those parents who don't want to send their kids to public school but don't want to spend too much money or invest their time in homeschooling. The image of stern nuns beating students with yardsticks is a common stereotype of how Catholic schools are taught, but this hasn't been true (at least in the US) for decades. This is where the American version of the "schoolgirl fetish" has its roots.
- Other Christian schools aren't part of the Catholic education system and are run according to principles of other Christian denominations, often evangelical Protestant (although there are exceptionsnote ). Unlike Catholic schools, Christian schools are often marketed as The Moral Substitute to the public education system. Not only is there mandatory religious instruction, but the curriculum can be heavily modified in accordance with the school's mission — creationism and Flood geology are part of science classes, sex education (if there even is any) is abstinence-only, and social studies classes teach that America was explicitly founded as a Christian nation. An excellent satire of Christian schools can be seen in the film Saved!. The actual academic quality of these schools varies from school to school — some of them aren't allowed to legally award diplomas, instead forcing their students to obtain GEDs, while others are quite academically rigorous and are considered on par with some of the better prep schools.
- Jewish day schools also exist, naturally in areas with a high enough Jewish population to support one. They bear some similarities to their Christian counterparts, but are free of much of the political baggage. Mostly they function like any secular private school (smaller classes, better teachers, up-to-date materials), just with periods set aside for prayer, Bible studies, and Hebrew lessons. This somehow manages to not conflict with their scientific curriculum at all, leaving their students very befuddled when they learn of the controversies listed above.
- A military school is a high school modeled after the USA's Federal Service Academies and Senior Military Colleges. They tend to be preparatory schools, and many (though not all) of them have Junior ROTC programs. The style of discipline they practice is in line with that of the military, which often causes them to be confused with...
- Behavior modification facilities (also known as wilderness schools and wilderness therapy) are boarding schools that specialize in "troubled teens" who have been kicked out of every school they have gone to, and employ harsh (and often controversial) methods to bring them into line. They tend to be located in the wilderness, far from the nearest town, to deter potential runaways and create a feeling of isolation. Some go further and are located in foreign countries that have looser laws regarding child abuse, which kind of says all you need to know about how they go about with discipline. They are often confused with military schools — indeed, some behavior modification facilities call themselves such, even though, in many cases, their treatment of students would horrify a real-life military drill instructor. Most modern examples of the Boarding School of Horrors are set at these places. They're often seen in fiction used as a threat issued by parents to unruly children and teenagers ("we'll send you to wilderness school if you don't shape up").
- A charter school is a model which may be public or private: it is typically founded by a group other than the state (a non-profit organization, for example) around a covenant or "charter" of goals and expectations which the school is meant to achieve. In return for producing these results, charter schools are excused from certain regulations or statutes which would apply to public schools. Public charter schools are open to all students.
Charter schools are controversial in America, with many of the same arguments for and against that private schools have. Supporters point out that charter schools are sometimes the only place an exceptional student in a failing school district can get a quality education, and increased competition from charter schools tends to improve test scores for the entire school district. Detractors point out that charter schools, like private schools, can "cherry-pick" the students most likely to succeed, thus artificially inflating their results, and statistically, they don't perform much better than traditional schools. Add in the fact that most are nonunion and some are run by for-profit corporations...
- Homeschooling is when the parents teach their children themselves rather than sending them to a school. One of the most common reasons for homeschooling is the social or academic environment of whatever school the student went to beforehand — bullying, sexual harassment, drugs, the Popularity Food Chain, and bad teachers have led many a parent to pull their child out of school.
Religion is also a motivation, with many Christian parents feeling that they have a divine mandate to educate their own children instead of passing the job on to others, as well as feeling that public schools will corrupt their children.
Finally, homeschooling is often used by parents who feel that their children aren't being challenged by any of the schools they go to, for those who have children engaged in a hobby or early career (many child and teenage actors go this route in order to keep up with production schedules), or for those who believe the "gear-in-the-cog" mentality is counterproductive and not suited for children. In any event, children who are homeschooled are often stereotyped as socially awkward shut-ins who have trouble functioning in the outside world due to having not been educated in a classroom environment, interacting with a wide variety of other people. When faced with this argument against homeschooling, parents will usually retaliate that learning social skills from other kids who haven't learned them yet themselves is a horrible idea, and it is, in fact, possible to make friends and socialize outside of school. (Many Homeschooled Kids fit this stereotype, many don't.)
Many homeschool parents put their kids in co-op (short for co-operative), which is like a weekly or twice a week public school for homeschoolers, with homework taking the place of the class for the rest of the week. Some co-ops will teach the core subjects and leave electives up to the parents (this setup is pretty much inevitable for small co-ops), while some co-ops will offer both electives and core subjects.
Small/core-based co-ops will have a pre-determined class schedule that everyone in that grade level will follow. Larger/electives-based co-ops give either the students, the parents, or both (depending on the family) free reign over what classes they want to take. Co-ops that follow the latter model usually only offer each class in one timeslot, so if there are two or more classes you want to take (or worse — a class you want to take and a class your parents want you to take) in the same timeslot, you're pretty much screwed.
Free-flowing co-ops aren't completely free-flowing- there are grade ranges for each class (e.g. Spanish I may only be taken by 9th through 12th graders), and classes may have pre-requisites (e.g. no taking Spanish II until you've taken Spanish I).
Each of the 50 states has its own accreditation system and set of standards for education. They are common enough that transferring from one state to another is normally not a problem. There are some federal standards, implemented through federal funding. If a school meets federal standards, then that school is eligible for federal funds. Standards include the kind of curriculum that must be covered as well as minimum average test scores.
These federal standards are actually a big deal. Were you paying attention? The word "funds" was used. This means there will be a person showing the kids how to use a pencil to fill in the specific dots on a standardized test. Okay, not really, but there is significant pressure on school districts to make the scores look good. Some districts have failed this test of character (more on that below).
School funding is both complicated and politically sensitive. According to OECD figures, the US has long had one of the highest rates of per-pupil spending for schooling in the world. A large part of funding of schools is based on property taxes for the area where the school is located. If you guess that means school districts in poor areas have a lot less money than those in rich areas, you'd be absolutely correct. Even worse, the gap is self-creating: the quality of local public schools is by far the most influential criteria on the cost of housing and real estate, and thus property tax, in any given area. In fact, many rich suburbs and gated communities were created partly because parents wanted their kids to have the best free education money could buy, and bought it. To help keep things in balance, some courts have ordered various corrective remedies, such as taking all the money in the state and averaging it out. In some places, the state will add money, taken from the general fund or from other taxes. Some states use whatever funds come from the state lottery. And some will use federal grants based on other criteria. A few states use alternate taxes, such as income taxes (in Ohio, using property taxes to fund schools has been ruled illegal per the state constitution.) State aid allows school systems in some poorer areas, notably some in Maryland and New Jersey, to spend far more per pupil than school systems in some wealthier areas; however, the promised improvement in school outcomes has not occurred.
Next, there is federal funding. Federal funding often uses, as a starting point, the number of students given free or reduced-price lunches. Thus, schools often try to encourage as many parents as possible to apply for the free lunch program, because a number of other subsidies, such as funding for sports and other programs, begin with the free lunch count and go from there. The ability to get free or reduced-price lunch is a "means tested" system: if the parents make more than a certain amount, the student is ineligible; below that but above "poverty level" and the student is eligible for reduced price lunches; and at or below the "poverty level," the student is eligible for the free lunch program.
Why do we care about this? Here is an example: If a child pays cash for lunch, it might cost $1.40. If the child receives reduced-cost lunches, the child might pay half, or 70 cents, and the federal government pays $1.05. This means, ironically, that the school gets more money if the child pays less because the meal is subsidized. And if the child qualifies for free lunch, the federal government will pay $2.25. Thus, obviously, it is to the school's interest to push as many kids as possible onto the free lunch program. Some are even offering free breakfast, which is 100% subsidized and often has no "means" testing, meaning any kid who walks in gets a free breakfast with no questions asked.
Beyond funding, if a school repeatedly fails to meet academic standards, it will draw federal attention under the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), which can be extremely bad for local administrators. If a school fails to meet standards for two consecutive years, it is required to submit an improvement plan detailing how it plans to meet standards next year and offer students the option to transfer to different schools; generally not all that harsh, this serves as a warning and an incentive to action. If it fails to meet standards for the third year, it must offer free tutoring and other supplemental aid to its students; this is theoretically at federal expense, but practically speaking, that's only indirectly likely as it typically filters through the state level first. At four years, the negligent school becomes classified as "requiring corrective action," which can range between replacing recalcitrant (or scapegoated) staff, restructuring the curriculum, and extending class times to ensure that everything is covered properly. After five and six years of a systematic failure to improve, the entire school can be "restructured" — in other words, the federal Department of Education now has a free hand to dismantle the school and rebuild from scratch.
While it was initially viewed as one of the major bipartisan successes of the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act later took a lot of flak for failing to foresee the funding requirements the additional standards required (increases in federal funding proved both transient and insufficient), lack of incentive for providing adequate education for accelerated students, and placing too much emphasis on standardized testing, which has not only caused schools to "teach for the test" through rote memorization rather than fostering creativity, critical thinking, and learning skills, but has created enough pressure for some school districts to engage in flat-out fraud in order to artificially boost their test scores. It also, oddly and simultaneously, took criticism for both handing control of local schools (via punitive measures) and state curricula (via standardized testing) over to the federal Department of Education, while still allowing individual state Departments of Education to set their own academic standards pursuant to NCLB requirements (leading to the potential for states to lower their standards and punitive measures). In short, it was both too draconian for the libertarians and too lax for the federalists.
Each school district will have its own School Board. The number of boards is set at the state level — some have one per county, some have one per city, some major cities have one for the whole metro area, Hawai'i has one school district and board for the entire state, and Vermont has (depending on how you count two schools of different grade levels that share a campus and part or all of their identity) more school boards than public schools note
This group of officials, who are usually elected, makes decisions such as what books are purchased for the schools, how long the school day and school year will be, when breaks and days off will occur, the hiring of faculty, and even what grade levels are assigned to each building. Even moving from one part of a state to another may result in a major change in school life for a student.
Some states, notably Texas, have school districts that are organized and act independent of municipal governments. This is done to prevent conflicts of interest between schools and cities and also for demographic reasons. It often leads to Gerrymandering, either for political, demographic, or (usually) for varsity sports reasons. On the other hand, Virginia has no "school districts" as suchpublic K12 education is operated by a subdivision of a local government (city, town, or county) known as a "school division" (though, like the rest of the country, Virginia has local school boards).note
Often times, school boards will be more conservative than the communities around them, although this is not necessarily always the case. Being a school board member is not a particularly rewarding job, either financially or prestige-wise. As a result, the people who run for it are oftentimes the kind of people who want to ban certain books from school libraries (such as those on this list), or put stickers on science textbooks claiming that evolution is considered controversial among scientists (as opposed to religious groups) and that science classes should "teach the controversy". Again, this is not always the case.
Public education before 1954
Prior to 1954, school districts in many parts of the country (particularly those in the Southern US) were segregated by race. They were run under the principle of "separate but equal," which stated that, in theory, the segregated facilities should be effectively equal to each other in terms of quality. In practice, the schools for white children got most of the funding and had far better facilities, while the schools for blacks (and in other areas, Asians, Latinos, American Indians and other minorities) were underfunded, overcrowded, and falling apart.
In 1951, a class action suit was brought against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas by Oliver and Linda Brown and eleven other black parents, who demanded that the board overturn their policy of racial segregation and allow their children to be admitted to the white schools. Three years later, the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas made its way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned the "separate but equal" policy of Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed racial segregation in public schools. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was heavily opposed by segregationists at the time, who declared a policy of "massive resistance" to integration of schools and other areas of life — the state of Virginia even shut down all of its public schools for a time rather than let them be integrated. However, by The '70s, after corrective legislation and often federal interventionnote , the practice of racial discrimination (by school officials) in public schools was essentially ended.
Parents, however, could choose to move to other areas if they didn't like their neighbors or the schools their kids would have to go to, or put their kids into private "segregation academies" (Brown v. Board of Education didn't apply to private schoolsnote ). Oftentimes, they did just that, in a phenomenon known as "white flight" that saw white middle-class families moving into the suburbs, leading to the decline of many an inner city due to falling tax revenue — which only caused more people to leave, furthering the decline.
Primary and secondary school
Here's the bit that non-Americans often wonder about: Most kids in a grade, from first grade to twelfth grade, are the age of (number of grade+5). That is, most first graders are six years old (and most kindergarteners are five) and most twelfth graders are 17 (even if they look 27). Students are grouped into grades by age, generally with a cutoff of the beginning of August of a given birth year (i.e., students starting first grade in fall 2011 will be those born from August 1, 2005 to July 31, 2006), although this may vary by state. This means that some of the students will have almost a year's worth of physical and mental development over others; this can make a huge difference in performance in the early grades, though differences typically disappear by high school.
Usually, students in public schools do not wear uniformsnote . A very few do require uniforms, and some schools (particularly elementary schools) might have a dress code, but in most you can get away with wearing pretty much anything. Because a public school is in fact a government agency, a dress code cannot be made mandatory (it then becomes a 1st Amendment issue, as the government is thus forcing the child to wear a uniform that expresses the state's opinion, a big no-no; forcing parents to do business with a given supplier is another, distinctly different no-no). However, in places where there is a standard uniform, parents often select it because there are so many kids buying the same style of clothes that the uniform version is much cheaper than going with a non-uniform style; conversely, there is much less incentive on suppliers to offer a sale, especially on goods marked with the school name. A number of public schools started requiring uniforms in the 1990s and early 2000s; this has been parodied on The Simpsons and elsewhere, and has since died down.
American students usually address their teachers as Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. plus last name; in some regions, teachers may be called "sir" and "ma'am". (Contrary to what is shown on television, principals and coaches are often addressed the same way, not as "Principal So-and-so" or "Coach So-and-so."note ) Teachers at high school level and below are not generally called "Professor" or "Doctor", mainly because those terms are reserved for people with PhDs, few of whom teach in public schools. This is due to bias from both the schools and the people with PhDs — very few schools are interested in paying their salaries when less-decorated instructors are much cheaper, while the PhDs themselves don't usually seek teaching jobs at primary or secondary schools, instead going for far more lucrative fields (like university professors).
American media often show students of widely varying abilities in the same classes. This depiction is largely accurate below the college/university level, with remedial and advanced classes often being found only in high schools. The sort of recognition of differing abilities that is commonplace elsewhere in the world is hugely controversial in large parts of the U.S. — while it means that the brightest kids in a class are not necessarily learning as much as they could it also means that children who are still developing aren't tracked into lower level classes so early that they don't have the opportunity to reach the higher level classes that are offered at the middle and high school level.
For the same reason, schools often practice what is known as "social promotion," in which students are advanced to the next grade even when a reasonable argument could be made for making them repeat the year or take summer classes. Being held back a grade carries a heavy social stigma, and can easily cause a kid to be considered unintelligent by peers — the theory is that social promotion will save underachieving students from such torment, which could cause them to give up on school entirely and drop out due to them feeling that they're not good enough. In addition, putting students through school costs a lot of money, and every student who has to repeat a grade is another money sink for the school district. However, this also winds up cheating students out of a proper education and sets them up for failure — by the time an underachieving student has reached High School, where social promotion is far less common (in favor of summer school or holding students back), they find that they don't have the needed skills to make it through, and struggle more often than not. It also tells students that Hard Work Hardly Works — why study and get good grades in elementary school when you're gonna get passed along to the next grade whether or not you're doing well? This is a controversial subject — many school districts have gotten rid of social promotion due to concern about slipping academic standards, only to bring it back when they realized just how many retained students they would have to pay for.
The entire kindergarten to 12th grade process is referred to as "K-12" on some occasions.
Kindergarten and Pre-school
Pre-school (approximate ages 3-4) is for children who are even too young for Kindergarten, while Kindergarten (approximate age 5) is for children who are one year younger than the youngest primary school students. The main function of this level of school is to ease kids into the school day routine, promote socialization, and make sure that students know the very basics, such as counting, shapes, colors, and the alphabet. While it is not necessary for a child to attend this level of school in order to move on to primary school, almost all students attend Kindergarten, as it is provided by local public school districts as part of the elementary school curriculum. Preschool was once considered unnecessary extra education, only attended by the children of rich "helicopter parents" who wanted their children to succeed at all costs; since the mid-90's, it's become more and more common as more preschools open, more families need both parents shoveling manure and harvesting crops to make ends meet, and more funding has been made available through programs like Head Start.
If a student is issued a report card at this level, it will use "Unsatisfactory", "Satisfactory", and "Outstanding" for grading purposes. These cards will include categories such as "Plays Well with Others" alongside grades for numbers and letters.
Also known as grade school or primary school. Elementary school starts at 1st grade and typically ends in grade 4, 5, or 6, but in some cases continues until 8th grade, encompassing middle/junior high school. This all depends on the local school board, and only adds to the confusion.
Note that the ratings on a report card are also called grades. Whether or not a student repeats a grade will depend in part on the grades they get on their report card.
Students will be assigned one teacher at the beginning of the school year, and will spend all day or almost all day in one class. The same teacher will typically (though not always) teach all the various subject matters, including English, Math, and Social Studies. This is a demanding post for teachers. Four of the students are trying to figure out this whole pounding sand thing, two can name all fifty states and their capitals and recite the alphabet backwards, two of them have ADHD, and the other twenty are all just waiting for recess. Hard to tailor instruction for that mix.
Even if students have the same teacher and classroom most of the day, there may be certain special subjects (art, music, gym) that are taught in a different classroom (e.g. one with a piano) by a different teacher (e.g. one who can play the piano). It's also possible that one teacher may teach science and math and another one teach history and language. Having multiple teachers gets more likely as the grade increases, so first graders could be in the same room with the same teacher all day (except for lunch and recess, and even then it's probably still the same teacher) while fourth graders might swap rooms and teachers three or four times during the day.
Starting at this point, report cards use the standard grade system of A for best, B for above average, C for average, D for below average, and F for failing. A system that used E(xcellent), S(uperior), M(edium), I(nferior), F(ailing) has been largely phased out, but might show up in older works. Teachers in both systems often report grades with plusses and minuses, which may be strictly advisory (a minus means "you just barely squeaked out this letter grade" while a plus means "you just barely missed the next higher letter grade") or may actually make a difference to the grade point average. In the cases of multiple plusses and minuses, any past the first are almost certainly advisory even if the school does regard the first one as significant to the GPA.
In both systems, there's often an additional possible grade of "incomplete". This is generally given to reflect that report cards were due (and the teacher had to write down something) but that the student has not completed the same work as the other students in class (perhaps due to an unfortunately-timed hospital stay). In most cases, the student still has the opportunity to make up the missed work and receive an actual letter grade.
In some states, such as Louisiana, an F is replaced with a U for "Unsatisfactory" because "failing" is considered too harsh and not necessarily accurate.
The first half of secondary school. This can be Grades 5-8, 6-8, 7-8, 6-9, or 7-9. If it includes 5th and/or 6th grade, it will probably be referred to as a middle school. If it includes 9th grade, it will probably be referred to as a junior high school. This is a compromise between treating the middle years as the first half of secondary school (as is done in Europe) and treating them as a continuation of elementary school (as was common in parts of the country until The '50s and still done by most parochial schools).
For the first time, students will move from classroom to classroom. Instead of teachers who teach one grade level, teachers instead teach one subject matter, often to two or three different grade levels throughout the day. Class times are often referred to as periods. A student will go to English in first period, math in second period, and so on.
When moving through the halls to these classes, the students will notice that the opposite (and/or same) sex is strangely interesting. More interesting, possibly, than math class.
Some schools, but not all, have a "homeroom", where students of the same grade gather before heading out to their various classes for the day. A school's homeroom period can range from a short (15 minutes or so) period, during which teachers generally take attendance and make announcements, to a full length class - in which case it may just be called First Period instead. Sometimes students' first class for the day is their homeroom as well, to save everyone a trip (after all, walking to classrooms takes time you can use for teaching).
This is the first level where students have some choice about their curriculum, though typically much fewer than in high school. Students may opt for classes such as band, choir, art, various foreign languages, or just to take another study hall. This is also usually the first level of school to have school-sponsored sports.
The second half of secondary school. High school usually covers Grades 9-12, and less often 10-12. A few rural and small-town districts combine middle and high schools on a single campus (typically 712), and an even smaller number of districts operate 812 high schools. Students in 9th grade are referred to as freshmen, 10th as sophomores, 11th as juniors, and 12th as seniors. Students continue to travel from classroom to classroom, typically taking 6 or 7 classes a day, depending on the length of the school day and how it's divided up. Some high schools have switched to "block scheduling," in which instead of going to each class every day, a student might have 3-4 classes a day, which lasts twice as long, and which they attend every other day or twice a week, or every day for a semester. The idea is to give students and teachers more time to delve into a topic in-depth, and give students more time to work on longer (and presumably more rigorous) homework assignments. Block scheduling also somewhat emulates scheduling at colleges and universities, where individual classes are not offered daily, but generally alternate and meet two or three times a week. In some areas, students may have the option to take an additional class before or after regular school hours. This may be done to make up for prior failed classes, to complete the school's requirements and graduate early, or to provide some flexibility in the student's schedule (particularly in the last two years, students may have jobs or other responsibilities).
Students are granted even more choice in their classes, often with elective additions to regular classes. What these are depend on the school. Generally, students are required to take certain classes - an English class, a math class, a science class, and a history class each year is typical - but they are allowed to choose how they fill in the rest of their schedules. A student may take a creative writing course that's taught by the English teacher, or may decide to continue taking math courses beyond the minimum, so that they learn trigonometry and calculus before going to college. They might also take a business, home economics, or shop class (which used to be required, but now tends to be an elective).
Just to be clear, trig and calc are taken up by those who intend to go on to college and take a math-heavy major such as math or engineering. Creative writing is taken by those who intend to go on to college and take a liberal arts degree (or, in many schools, those who want an easy A). Business, home economics, and shop students tend to be those who intend on going to community college, vocational/technical school, the workforce, or the military.
For many students, while they may have had rudimentary Spanish classes in grade school, high school will be the first time they take a serious foreign language course. They are offered in all high schools, because most colleges have a foreign-language requirement. Spanish and French are the two standards; other popular options include Italian, German, and Chinese (given the large ethnic communities with those backgrounds). Foreign language classes are fairly expensive, what with audio tapes and whatnot, so the number of languages a school offers is a decent gauge of how much funding it has. Modern foreign language education got its start in Florida (particularly Miami) in The '60s, when Cuban exiles sought to have their children learn Spanish in school; before that, there was a period from World War I (when anti-German paranoia saw the effective destruction of German-American culture) to the early '60s when foreign languages were not taught in public schools in any form, and in fact speaking anything other than English in the classroom was seen as unpatriotic and a sign that one was rejecting assimilation.
Grades out of 100% translate into a letter grading system. Passing grades are A, B, C, and D, although some districts do not use the D grade. A failing grade is an F. Plus and minus are used to show distinctions between grades; some students and their parents are surprised to find that there's such a thing as an F- (usually a grade of 50 or below). A student's grades in high school translate into a grade point average, or GPA, according to a formula. By most systems, the highest GPA possible is a 4.0.note GPAs are of great interest to colleges; they also determine class rank. The two students with the highest class ranks are the valedictorian and salutatorian, who usually have to make a speech at graduation.note
Most schools have "honors" courses (which AP courses — see below — are usually lumped in with for grading purposes), which are ostensibly tougher than regular courses. Accordingly, they often count more towards graduation and are "weighted" more heavily, which is to say, a high grade in an honors course will boost your GPA more than a similar grade in a regular course. They also look better to colleges. In order to take an honors class, you may have had to meet a certain grade requirement in your last class in the subject, and if you fail an honors class, you may be bumped back down to regular classes. In theory, this system separates gifted and motivated students from the rest and gives them a chance to cash in on their potential. In practice, an honors class might be tougher in name only, especially if the teacher is unengaged and doesn't assign challenging work. Word often gets around when an honors class is a lot easier than it should be, and less able students will take it in order to boost their GPAs. It's also not uncommon for Brilliant, but Lazy students to coast through high school getting low B's and C's in honors classes, with the mindset that if they're not going to do any work they might as well get the best possible results for it.
"Honors students" may or may not take a lot of honors classes. Generally, to make the "honor roll," you have to have gotten only A's and B's (i.e. grades of 80 or higher) for a given term/year. To make "high honors," it's all A's (grades or 90 or higher). Students who do get a nice certificate and maybe some kind of reward. Like honors courses, the honor roll also looks good on a college transcript.
At many high schools, particularly motivated or pressured students are permitted to take a subset of college courses. These courses are dubbed "dual enrollment" as the student can apply the class towards both their high school and college diplomas. These courses are often taken remotely, but certain programs exist that may allow students to actually spend part of their day on a local college campus. More common, however, is cases of a college class being taught on the high school campus. Though rare, occasionally a student will end up receiving an Associate's Degree before their high school diploma.
Note that, in schools that offer both dual enrollment and AP classes, dual enrollment is seen as slacking off. For example, one could take American History at the local community college (with a 100% acceptance) with students who (more often than not, though obviously there are exceptions) didn't have the grades to go to a four-year college/university, whereas another student could take AP US History at the high school which, since it would be an AP/Honors class, would consist entirely of highly motivated, hard-working students and (usually) taught by the best teachers.
It's possible, in America, to not finish high school. Legally, students can "drop out" after reaching a certain age (16 in most states), because they would rather shovel manure and harvest crops than hear another word in a classroom. Dropping out of high school tends to look very bad to potential employers, however, and can doom a person to a life of work flipping burgers or pushing shopping carts.
Those who wish to leave early, but want to avoid the stigma of not having a diploma, can go for a GED. GED stands for General Educational Development, but is usually referred to as a General Equivalency Diploma. (Or a "Good Enough Degree" by the cynical.) It consists of five tests, all of which must be passed to earn it. While GEDs are legally equivalent to a high school diploma (one can enroll in college or enlist in the military using a GED), they are seen as somewhat less desirable by employers and colleges. Because of this, teenage immigrants may find it better to re-do the last year of high school rather than get a GED. However, GEDs are still stigmatized by colleges (often requiring higher SAT or ACT scores to compensate) and by the military (especially the Navy, many job fields are closed to those with GEDs, or require a higher ASVAB score than if the applicant had a diploma).
This can lead to amusing situations when a Brilliant, but Lazy student drops out at age 16, promptly gets his/her GED, and has a diploma equivalent 2 years before their peers. Theoretically they could get an Associate's Degree while everyone else is graduating, but this is much rarer, hence the "lazy" part. A real-life example of this is current Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper, who took and passed his GED at 16 so he could enter junior college early, thus getting a head start on a professional baseball career.note To prevent students from gaming the system in this manner, some states require a GED candidate to be at least 18 years of age.note
SATs and ACTs
The SAT and the ACT are standardized tests, both overseen by non-profit organizations.note Students usually first take them during their junior year of high school (though some take them in 7th grade and upward), but because they are one of the criteria used by colleges in approving students for enrollment, some will retake them to achieve a better score. All regionally accredited colleges in the US will accept a score from either test, but some prefer one over the other.
The SAT score currently consists of 800 points for math and 800 for reading, making a perfect score 1600. A writing portion was added in 2005, with another 800 points possible. During this time, when the writing portion was used, the possible perfect score was 2400 points. In 2016, the perfect score again became 1600; the writing score is now reported separately from the main test, and uses a completely different scoring scale (0 to 24, in one-point increments). The test is frequently retuned so that the national average score falls around 500 points per section. Most colleges, however, still use the old system for admissions, and the minimum score for admission tends to fall between 1100 and 1300 for the math and reading sections combinednote . Some colleges include minimums in math or reading as well as the total score. In areas where the SAT is popular (generally the East Coast), students might also take a PSAT (Pre-SAT) as a practice in the 10th Grade (and possibly again in the spring). This test is also used as a qualification test for the National Merit Scholarship.
The ACT consists of math, science, reading, and English exams, which are each graded on a 36-point scale; these scores are averaged to give the composite score, also out of 36 points. Most universities require both a minimum composite score and minimum scores on each of the individual subjects; these minimums may vary based on a student's potential major (see below). The ACT is much more popular at colleges in the Midwest, with the result that many high schools and some states in the Midwest include it as part of their standardized testing regimen.
Students may take the SAT and the ACT as often as they want, and may use the best score, even if it's not the most recent. Each time they take the test, however, they must pay a fee to the non-profit organization that issues the test.
Until 2016, a key difference between the SAT and the ACT was how they were graded. The SAT penalized takers for wrong answersin other words, a wrong answer took away from the overall score. A wrong answer on the ACT neither added nor took away points. The SAT removed its guessing penalty in 2016.
There are also numerous prep courses devoted to preparing students for the SAT and ACT. Some tutoring services are run through schools, but many students go to private classes and tutors after school to take practice tests and learn test-taking strategies. Sort of like an American version of Cram School. Combined with the test fees, the fees for attending test prep courses can make standardized tests very expensive for many families. The College Board, which owns the SAT, took steps to counter the tutoring issues in 2014, contracting with a tutoring company to provide free online practice problems and instructional videos for the SAT.
Advanced Placement tests
Advanced Placement (usually abbreviated AP) tests can be taken by high school students in May. They are administered by the College Board, the same organization responsible for the SATs. (The College Board also offers a different test that serves much the same purpose, the College Level Examination Program or CLEP test ... confused yet? If you're thinking about taking one, contact the college you're interested in to see which they prefer.) The format of the test varies widely with the subject (ranging from calculus to psychology), but usually features multiple-choice and essay portions. Each test uses a five-point grading scale, with 3 being "Qualified" and 5 being "Extremely Qualified". Many high schools offer AP courses designed to prepare students for the associated AP Test, and some will pay the $87 testing fee.
Colleges will often offer credit for certain courses if an acceptable score on a related AP test is offered; very selective schools will only offer credit for a 5, while some schools will accept a 3. One hyper-selective school, Caltech, doesn't offer AP credit at all. Some schools, usually private schools, have credit caps. This means that students are only permitted to use a certain number of AP credits for college credit, although AP scores may be used to place out of lower-level classes. These credit caps often come in one of two forms. One is an overall credit cap limiting the total number of credits that can be gained via AP testing. Another is a cap on the number of credits that can be gained in the subject area of one's major, while having no cap on the number of AP credits a student can use to fulfill other requirements.
Note that some schools are able to offer many more AP classes than others — don't visit a school that's falling apart and has the highest drop-out rate in the state and expect to find the Russian Language and Culture course on the curriculum, although they might have English, World History, U.S. History, Calculus,note and other more basic subjects.
Because AP classes follow a curriculum standardized on the federal rather than on the state or district level, they're notable among high-school classes for usually actually being as rigorous as everyone says they are. One of the key aspects of getting ready for an AP exam is taking as many practice exams as possible, which are usually parts of official exams from past years.
Another dramatic difference between AP tests and the ACT and SAT is that each AP test can only be taken once in a lifetime.
It is the rule, not the exception, for a high school to have sports programs. School athletes tend to be at or near the top of the Popularity Food Chain, especially if they're on a winning team and the sport they play is basketball and/or football. A sizable chunk of a school's budget will be devoted to supporting its athletic programs, much to the ire of teachers and the more academically inclined. Student athletes are nominally required to maintain a certain GPA in order to stay on the team, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that student athletes have better than average disciplinary records and academic performance. However, there is often a lot of pressure placed on teachers from coaches, the administration, and the community to give athletes special favors in the grading department. Sometimes, even school districts will be redrawn in order for a high school to get at a hot prospect for its team. All of this is especially true in rural communities, where the high school football field or basketball court is often, along with the church, one of the main focal points of community life (as seen in Friday Night Lights). The most popular sports at the high school level are usually football and basketball, although most schools also have soccer, Ice Hockey (mostly in New England and the Great Lakes states), wrestling, volleyball (mostly a girls' sport in the US, with California a partial exception), lacrosse (mainly in the eastern states), baseball and track programs.
Most schools offer both boys' and girls' sports. This is due to Title IX, a law passed in 1972 which mandates that schools offer sufficient athletic opportunities to female students. Controversy arises from the fact that schools with limited budgets are often forced to cut boys' sports in order to establish and maintain equivalent girls' sports programs (the general perception, more often than not, is that boys' sports are more worthy of attention). The benefit is that programs and opportunities for girls (and for women in college) have become dramatically better, and the results play out on the international stage the United States is a powerhouse in international women's sports. For example, while the US men's national soccer team has long been viewed as a joke by the rest of the world (although nowadays, it's seen as a middle-tier team), the women's soccer team has won three FIFA Women's World Cups and four Olympic gold medals in the last twenty years. It's saying something when there aren't that many well-known male American soccer players but also few big-name female footballers from outside the U.S. The main sports for female athletes tend to be basketball, soccer, softball, track, volleyball, field hockey, lacrosse (again, especially in the eastern US), ice hockey (again, mostly in its US heartland of the northern tier of states) and, of course, cheerleading.
For the record, the status of cheerleading as a legitimate sport is a point of controversy in many school districts. On one hand, there are those who feel listing it as a sport is an excuse for schools to de-fund other women's sports programs while still maintaining compliance with Title IX. On the other hand, there are those who feel that not calling it a sport is an insult to the strenuous activity that cheerleaders do and the risk that they put themselves in, and that they don't have the protections given to other athletes statistically, cheerleading is the most dangerous athletic activity in high schools, even more so than football.note Some schools dodge the issue entirely by making their cheer squads co-ed, though there is a strong stigma against male cheerleaders in such schools oftentimes, they're stereotyped (unfairly) as either Ambiguously Gay or, conversely, having joined the squad just to get laid.
Many schools have "pep rallies" which the entire school must attend. These rallies are supposed to get students enthused over an upcoming sports event, to instill school spirit, and to give them a chance to recognize the various students participating. One quarter of the attendees of these pep rallies have no idea what sport is in season. Another quarter can recite the win-loss stats for the team for the last two decades. Another quarter are just really glad to be out of class. The rest have all "cut" (skipped) the rally to do something more interesting.
The High-School Dance is one of the major events of high school, although naturally, there are always those students who couldn't care less. In most schools, the biggest dances are the homecoming dance, which occurs around late September or early October, and the prom (originally short for "promenade," but no one calls it that nowadays), which is at the end of the year. The homecoming dance is part of a larger "back-to-school" celebration, also known as 'homecoming', which includes parades, pep rallies, and picnics, and is usually capped off with a big football gamenote
The prom, meanwhile, is a formal event that's designed to act as a big going-away party for the students. Emphasis on the "formal" tuxedos are mandatory for the guys, as are fashionable dresses for the women. Most students spend hundreds of dollars on the prom, what with the ticket price, the clothes, the corsages, and the obligatory limo service (it's considered embarrassing to take your own car or worse, your parents' car to the prom). The prom usually ends with the election of the King and Queen, decided by ballots filled out beforehand.
Most schools have two proms one for juniors, one for seniors although some (particularly smaller schools) have a single junior-senior prom.note The senior prom is usually considered more important, although at some, it's junior prom that's the really big deal, with senior prom being more of a chance for a last fling with your friends before graduation. On a similar note, in fiction, Prom is seen as a night for high school couples to "go all the way." The reality is less impressive; teens who are inclined to do it have probably already done it.
Who can attend can be controversial. Generally speaking, it's automatically considered open to anyone from the school of the proper age/class, but it gets complicated when they want to bring a date who's not in the same class (a Junior wanting to bring a Sophomore) or, even more problematically, someone who doesn't go to that school (an out of town boyfriend/girlfriend), or, worst of all, someone of the same sex (regardless of what class they're in or where they're from). Legally schools aren't allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples, but in practice, they may try to do it anyway.
Most students reach the minimum legal age (usually 16 or 17, although it varies by state) to drive a car part way through their sophomore or junior year in high school. This has a huge impact socially, as students now have the ability to plan social engagements that do not require their parents to accompany them (assuming they can scrape together enough money to buy a car, or enough trust to borrow their parents'), as well as take summer jobs to gain some disposable income (jobs being generally available to people over 14). As a result, high school is often seen as the period in an American's life when they have the most social freedom and the least financial responsibility, at least in fiction.
After the Columbine massacre, high schools began taking very strong measures regarding security in an effort to prevent another shooting from taking place. One of the most visible signs of this increase of security was the metal detectors installed at school entrances to prevent students from bringing weapons into the school, and the presence of an armed police officer or hired security guard within the school to deal with such problems. Dress codes were modified to ban trenchcoats and limit the amount of black clothing a student can wear. School administrators began to believe that all shooters fell under a certain list of stereotypes (which often conveniently overlapped with the "shy, bullied loner" and the goth subculture), and that watchlists could be created for "problem" students before they kill (not unlike terrorist watchlists). Finally, zero-tolerance policies came into effect, with students being suspended or even expelled for violence or the threat of it, or for bringing onto school grounds anything that can be used as a weapon (even something relatively innocuous).
These policies quickly became highly controversial, with many people, particularly students and social scientists, feeling that they go too far and violate the First Amendment. A report by the Secret Service stated that schools were taking false hope in such security measures, and that they wouldn't do anything to deter another massacre. Metal detectors? The kids could just be shot at as they wait in line. Scrutiny of goths and loners? The Columbine killers were neither, so singling out those two groups would allow real killers to fly under the radar note . Zero-tolerance policies? They concluded that such policies may actually backfire, as they could very well drive an unstable student over the edge by getting him or her suspended or expelled for a minor infraction.
Of course, this is all seen in the case of an Active Shooter situations (cases where the perpetrator is killing with no pattern or method to his or her victims). These are the most common to be featured in media, but it goes without saying that not all school shootings are Active Shooter events. Weapons are brought to school with intention to kill specific victims for any numerous reasons. In some cases, shootings at schools may be related to criminal activity, and while may occur on school grounds, may not occur in the school building (another critical part of an Active Shooter event). The reasons these are not covered as much are best discussed someplace else. Many school systems have taken practice of employing a school officer, typically a fully deputized police officer of some kind, to assist in security matters. This is Older Than They Think. The first police response in Columbine were made by an on-duty school resource officer, who engaged in a brief firefight with the shooters before they retreated inside, less than 5 minutes after the shootings occurred.
College is optional, if you want to shovel manure and harvest crops, or you have made enough money in the stock market already to buy colleges. While a college degree isn't necessary to find work, most white collar jobs require a degree of some sort, so not having one will severely limit one's career choices (although some professions prefer to use apprenticeships). Oddly enough, if your parents could buy a college, they probably did, and attendance is mandatory if you want that trust fund.
This is not literal now, in the sense that one "buys" a college the same way one would go "buy" a plot of land. Instead, a very wealthy donor gives a big chunk of cash to the college or university, and gets something named after them, such as a particular building, a campus, or, back in the 18th and 19th Centuries when very wealthy people did actually buy a whole university or college, the entire college. So if your last name is the same as the science department's building and it's the same as your father (or mother) then chances are you'll be going to that school, and more likely than not the school will have to take you, especially if it wants to see more money in terms of donations later on.
Colleges in the United States may be public or private, as with primary and secondary schools, but these terms are used slightly differently at the tertiary educational level. A "public" university derives some of its funding from the state (about 20-25%, in the case of the University of California system), and scrapes up the rest through tuition/patents/hitting up alums for money/etc. Private universities rely solely on tuition/patents/hitting up alums for money/etc. Public universities (also called state universitiesnote ) generally tend to be less expensive than private universities, though this is not always the case. Neither public nor private universities are required to take everyone (with the exception of community colleges; see below) you must apply, and admission can be very competitive indeed. However, public universities are usually easier to get into than private universities, if for no other reason than they are usually larger and can therefore afford to accept a larger number of students. Students are also much more likely to go to their home state's university for various reasons they may have grown up cheering for the sports team, their parents are often alumni, and tuition is often drastically reduced for in-state students (even if the students themselves aren't taxpayers, their parents are, after all). The ease of gaining entry to a private university is variable, as the tuition is often drastically higher, and the minimum standards are usually stricter (even, oddly enough, if your parents own it).
Colleges and universities are not regulated by a local school board, but have their own administration, often complex and confusing enough that it would leave a Vogon in tears.
American colleges are delineated between community colleges (sometimes called Junior Colleges) and four-year colleges. Community colleges will focus on Associate's Degrees and various certification programs, which usually take only two years to attain, while four year colleges will focus on Bachelor's Degrees (which, as the name suggests, usually takes a minimum of four years) and have post-graduate programs available. However, some community colleges also have Bachelor's programs (the actual degree being conferred by a cooperating senior college or university, classes offered on the community college campus), and many four-year colleges have certification programs (which may be incorporated into a degree).
Community colleges, unlike four-year colleges, are required by law to accept everybody, and have much lower tuition costs than four-year schools, usually as little as a hundred dollars per credit for in-state students. This has led to the stereotype of community colleges as being for those too dumb, lazy, or poor to get into a "real" college. Or, as it has been more eloquently put, "loser college, for remedial teens, twenty-something dropouts, middle-aged divorcees, and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity."
In reality, however, many people transfer to a four-year college after getting their two-year Associate's degree to a four-year school, to upgrade to a Bachelor's. It's often suggested, especially in the current economy, to recent high school grads that they go as cheap as possible with their Bachelor's degree, as unless it's from an elite Ivy League school, most employers and post-graduate programs won't care about what college you got it from as long as it's properly accredited. Others feel that a four-year education isn't worth the time or money. Others still take courses for a vocational skill. Unlike the European master-apprentice system, most trades are now taught in community colleges. Auto repair, electricians, paralegals, plumbing, police, fire, emergency medical technician, cooking, and some forms of nursing are commonly but a few of the courses done at community colleges. High school dropouts who tire of flipping burgers or pushing shopping carts can get their GEDs there. Thus, college is more or less necessary for anyone but unskilled laborers.
The term "university" is reserved for schools that offer both undergraduate (Associate's and Bachelor's) and post-graduate (Master's and Doctorate) programs. "College" is often used informally to refer to either a college or a university, as in, "I went to college at Rutgers University." To make things even more complicated, there are some universities that are still called "College" because they were named that way, way back when (such as Boston College). And on top of that there's Vincennes University in Indiana, which has never offered postgraduate degrees, and offers only associate degrees in the vast majority of its academic programs; much like Boston College, it was named as a "University" way, way back when.
Students may choose their entire curriculum. While there are certain standards that must be met in order to graduate, students have a great deal of leeway in when and how to meet those standards. Graduation requirements vary from institution to institution and even from department to department; some schools let you take whatever classes you want whenever you want; others have a very strict core curriculum and set "tracks" for majors, though most schools are somewhere in between. This is where the trig and calc students from high school move on to the even more complicated math or start learning to apply that trig and calc while building things, and the creative writing students of old have taken up law or begun the process of becoming teachers.
Four-year colleges almost always refer to incoming students as freshmen, second-year students as sophomores, third year as juniors, and fourth year as seniors.note Anybody on their last year before graduating can also be referred to as a senior, although students may teasingly refer to those who have been there for 5+ years as "Super Seniors". This is not the same as being "kept back" in primary or secondary school and does not carry much of a stigma; a student may abort a half-completed major to start over on a new one, may take a sabbatical,note or may suffer other impediments to their progress, such as money problems or illness. For instance, California's San Jose State University has an Animation department which is so under-staffed and so over-attended (due to its proximity to Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic) that its students are only allowed to take one animation course a semester, resulting in a seven-year program whose graduates take longer to obtain their Bachelor's degree than their contemporaries take for their Master's. Similarly, not finishing college at all has nowhere near the stigma that dropping out of high school does. Bill Gates, one of the world's richest people, dropped out of Harvard at 19 to found Microsoft. In fact, open disdain for college degrees has become fashionable in some corners of Silicon Valley.
Students may declare one or more majors and minors, indicating the course of study they will pursue. This is typically done at the end of the sophomore year. Students who have not yet indicated a major are referred to as underclassmen. Having more than one major is called double-majoring (having more than that may be possible, but is ridiculous), and is usually very difficult (you must meet all the requirements of both majors). Having a minor is, at many colleges, strictly optional; it consists of taking a defined subset of the courses required for the major. Some academic departments will not recognize minor subjects, even if a minor is earned.note
Classes are often numbered with a three or four digit number, e.g. 101, 102, 134, 305 or 1001, 1002, 2005, 3267. The first number indicates what year they expect most students will take that class in — 1 is for freshmen, 2 for sophomores, and so on. This isn't a requirement by any means, just a pretty good predictor of what year most of the students taking it will be in; going back and taking a 100-level class as a senior and finding yourself surrounded by freshmen can be a very odd experience. The next two numbers are generally an indication of complexity: 01 is the simplest possible, so 101 would be the most basic class in a field (this is the origin of the expression "X 101" for a lot of topics). Numbers close to one another generally indicate a continuation of that class over the next semester — History 101 being World History BC-1000 AD and 102 being World History 1000 AD-present, for example. Higher numbers indicate electives or other classes on rather specific topics that would not be interesting to students who are not either majoring in the subject or intending to do so. History 134 might be Roman History; a basic (and broad) topic, but much more specialized than History 101. 100 and 200 level classes can be and are taken by underclassmen or students majoring in another topic, but 300 and 400 level classes are restricted to students who are majoring or minoring in the subject. This is done either by making having the topic as a major or minor a prerequisite for taking the class, or by simply making the class specialized enough that students not devoted to the topic will quickly fail or drop out of it. 500 and higher X00 level courses tend to be reserved for students that have already graduated college and are going for a higher degree in their field. (ex. a Master's Degree)
Most colleges use semesters, although some use the "quarter" system, and at least one uses trimesters. Semesters split the academic year into two semesters (fall and spring) of sixteen weeks each, while quarters split it into three quarters (fall, winter, spring) of ten weeks apiece. Classes usually last one semester or one quarter, though a given class may be part of a longer sequence of classes (e.g. Physics 1A/1B/1C/1D). While most colleges do have summer vacation, they also usually have a smaller selection of courses offered in a summer semester or quarter.
It is possible to take some courses in college as "pass/fail." Instead of getting a normal letter grade, a student either passes the class or fails it. Grades achieved this way often do not factor into one's GPA.
College sports are Serious Business in the United States, a multi-billion dollar enterprise with considerable investment by the television networks, the professional leagues and corporate sponsors. Some schools have teams so successful that the reputation of the team is stronger than that of the school it plays for. Playing well for a big team is often a surefire way to get noticed by the professional leagues. Schools with sports programs in NCAA Divisions I and II (but not Division III) are allowed to employ athletic scholarships in exchange for a student playing on the team, the school will pay for that student's education, often in full. Big sports schools have "recruiters" that are sent to high schools (and sometimes even middle schools) to entice promising players to come and play for their team. College sports often produce rivalries comparable to the English Premier League witness the vitriol slung between fans of Ohio State and Michigan (called the greatest rivalry in North American sports by ESPN), or Duke and UNC, or Auburn and Alabama, or UCLA and USC, or...
Student athletes aren't allowed to be paid directly by the schools the argument is that their education is payment enough, and that paying them in cash would allow richer schools to buy up all the best talent. Cases of Division I schools being punished by the NCAA for slipping money or perks to players under the table are all too common. However, there have been calls to change this, the argument being that college sports stopped being "amateur" a long time ago there are massive amounts of money involved, many college teams have sponsors and TV deals, and the entire system is essentially a "farm" for the big leagues, so it is argued that not paying the athletes is tantamount to exploiting them. Indeed, at at least one university, players have attempted to unionize. The fact that college sports has gotten big enough for such a debate to happen in the first place, of course, has itself raised concern among academics, who feel that the transformation of many colleges and universities into "sports schools" has detracted from their academic mission. This was the main reason why the Ivy League schools, which had once been sports powerhouses, all but withdrew from the NCAA in The '50s. The NCAA has been listening to these concerns, implementing new standards in 2011 regarding academic performance of student athletes if a team doesn't graduate at least half of its players, then it's disqualified from post-season play.
Since colleges are home to a large number of high-paying education and research jobs, they tend to have a great economic benefit for the surrounding area. In addition, thousands of young people with disposable income are a blessing for local businesses, and a strong sports program can bring in boatloads of tourists. So-called "college towns" have grown around these institutions, their economic and social life dominated by them. They tend to have a highly educated populace, a lot of alternative lifestyles, an active music scene, a disproportionate number of bars, and unusually left-wing politics.
This leads into another aspect of college culture the politics. Since the student protests of The '60s, colleges and academia in general have been a popular strawman target for conservatives, being stereotyped as hotbeds of flaky leftist politics pushed by radical professors and student groups. While this is sometimes Truth in Television, most colleges are also home to rival conservative groups, some of which may wield considerable influence. In particular, religious colleges and less elite state colleges have been known for their conservatism. For every Berzerkeley, there is a Jim Jones University. Modern universities have also been criticized from the left for the aforementioned college sports detracting from academics, the focus on corporate-friendly majors like computer science and engineering at the expense of liberal arts, the shift from stable tenure-track faculty positions to lower-paid adjuncts, as well as the massive debt that students take on to finance their educations.
Most colleges have their own radio stations. The prominence of college radio on a particular campus or town may vary wildly. At some colleges, only the communications students care about it, and the signal may not even cover the entire campus. At others, the radio station is one of their most cherished institutions, and may be one of the most popular stations in the area. In The '80s, college radio was a major outlet for alternative rock (sometimes still known by the old name of "college rock"), and while the internet has largely taken up their role of introducing people to new music, many college stations still possess significant cultural clout, playing the kind of music that would not normally see airplay on commercial radio. Seton Hall's WSOU, for example, is one of the premier stations for metal, hardcore, and punk in America, and the only station in the New York area that plays death metal or modern punk rock ironic, given the fact that Seton Hall is a Catholic institution (a fact that, at various points, has led to censorship controversies).
Most college students will, for at least the first year, live in "the dorms" (dormitories, on-campus housing). Living options after the first year vary by school: at some, it's usual to live in the dorms for all four years (e.g. at Stanford, where students can't afford the rents in neighboring Palo Alto one of the public-school-caused million-dollar neighborhoods mentioned above); at others, students live off-campus after the first year, often pooling resources with friends to rent an apartment or (if they're ambitious) house.
Some colleges have a "Program House" system, in which students run on-campus houses based on common interests, and people who want to live there apply as part of housing selection. Examples include a Jewish house, where Jewish students or students who are interested in Judaism live together and may run programs through the house about Judaism and Jewish issues (or just have wild drunken parties mildly connected to a Jewish holiday), or language houses, where residents can only speak a certain language when they are in the house.
Some students, however, will opt for the Greek system. A fraternity or sorority is something like a club, complete with clubhouse. Each one is almost always designated by a different grouping of Greek letters (e.g. Alpha Beta Gamma); generally, an individual fraternity is a chapter of a national organization (e.g. the Stanford chapter of the Alpha Beta Gammas). There are, however, three exceptions to the Greek-letter rule, all fraternitiesAcacia, FarmHouse, and Triangle (the last of these restricted to STEM majors). A chapter will own or rent a large-ish house (frat house) which will then serve as living quarters for its members. Often these houses will be clustered together, in a part of town that will thereby be known as frat row. Note, however, that at some schools, the word "frat" has a negative connotation, and few people in the Greek system will use it. Some might even find it offensive. As a rule of thumb, don't use the word unless you hear someone who is in a fraternity use it first.
Fraternities and sororities often have nicknames: the real-life sorority Delta Delta Delta, for example, is typically called "Tri-Delt". They always have reputations (e.g. "mostly Hispanic women", "mostly biology students", "mostly alcoholic date-rapists"), and they almost always have rivalries and/or partnerships with other fraternities. They are almost always single-sex organizations (hence the delineation between fraternities and sororities), and until very recently, were just as likely to be all people of the same race or ethnic group. There are some coed Greek organizations (sometimes called "societies"), but these are pretty rare (except for honorary societies; see below). Fraternities and sororities have developed a reputation for partying and drinking alarming quantities of alcohol, especially if they are not affiliated with a particular professional or religious attachment. This is largely Truth in Television, and has caused some college to ban all Greek organizations from the campus. Remember, college is where many Americans will be both 1) exposed to alcohol and 2) away from parents or other authority figures who are likely to enforce the 21-year-old drinking age mandated by law. Furthermore, any American college student who waits until 21 to drink was actively trying to avoid it anyone who wants to drink at college is going to have no trouble finding an of-age buddy to buy them beer.
And on the subject of underage drinking, the police of any given college town know that it's going on, but because it's so ubiquitous, they don't bother going after it, and generally avoid going on campus entirely. Only if drunk students wander into town and cause problems will police ever become involved. Most college have their own campus police to handle inter-campus matters of law, and even they generally have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy if a drunk student requests a cop to drive them home (a very common service). And even on campus, at most colleges the campus police will not try to actively "bust" parties with alcohol unless the students are serving alcohol to clearly underage guests, disturbing the peace, or breaking other, more serious laws. There are exceptions, especially at more conservative universities or schools that are trying to lose their reputation as a heavy party school. However, it is worth mentioning that having other types of drugs will get a student or students into a lot of trouble with the police - sometimes, though, a sympathetic officer might make an exception with pot.
Fraternities choose their new members once or twice a year, always in the fall and, more rarely, in the spring. The application process is called rushing. An applicant will choose to rush anywhere from one to several frats, who will then accept or reject the applicant. Once selected, the new member is called a pledge; he or she may be subject to a difficult, dangerous, and/or embarrassing Initiation Ceremony. These ceremonies are another sticking point between frats and college administrations, as they have been known to devolve into hazing and outright abuse (as famously portrayed in Animal House).note
At least two schools in the United States eschew the Greek system in favor of a residential college system: (1) Rice University, in Houston, Texas. The college system randomly places students in one of several (in Rice's case, 10 (Martel is not a college)) colleges; like fraternities, students are members for life. Each college has its own commons and living quarters, where members can live for up to four years. Despite their random demographics, colleges tend to develop personalities, based on student behavior and aptitude toward intercollegiate competition. The week before classes begin is spent orienting students to their colleges, much like pledging for fraternities. (2) University of California, San Diego. Its system is similar to that of Rice (or rather, Oxbridge, from which both stole the idea), except there are 6 colleges, housing is only guaranteed for 2 years, and your choice of college affects your general education requirements (though not your major; but some are obviously easier for certain majors). Not nearly as cool as the Houses of Harry Potter.
Another school, Murray State University in Kentucky, has a residential college system plus a Greek system. In Murray State's system, all students, whether or not they live on campus, are assigned to one of its eight colleges. Unusually for an American school, all faculty and staff are also assigned to a college. Unlike Rice, most of Murray State's colleges do not have dining halls or recreational facilities; unlike UC San Diego, one's college assignment does not affect general education requirements.
The fraternities and sororities mentioned above aren't the only Greek-letter societies on college campuses. There are also many honorary societies, usually but not always bearing Greek-letter names, that recognize outstanding students in one or another field of study. Unlike social fraternities and sororities, these are generally open to all regardless of sex or gender (though a few honorary societies are specifically for women). Usually, students who meet certain academic criteria (typically a GPA above a specified cutoff, either in absolute numbers or in percentage of students in that field) are invited to join as juniors or seniors. Probably the most famous example is Phi Beta Kappa, recognizing high achievement in liberal arts fields.
A student who fails a couple of classes in Middle School or High School might be offered the chance to retake those classes over the summer. If they fail to pass them again, they will be left back a grade. A few optional classes that don't fit into the normal school curriculum (like Driver's Education) may also be offered over the summer. More recently, it has become the norm at college-prep schools to take basic one-semester required courses, such as physical education, speech, and health, in the summer: this frees up space in one's schedule to take electives like band and drama or extra high-level honors courses like AP biology or advanced physics.
At the college level, summer school is a different matter. While most colleges traditionally operate on a fall/spring semester schedule, many also offer summer semesters with abbreviated class options, usually determined by which professors stay around for the summer. Summer semesters alternately have a reputation for being easier than main semesters (fewer students per class, the professor is usually more lenient) and harder than main semesters (the shorter summer term results in an accelerated schedule for the material). A few colleges require students to take a certain number of classes during the summer, but this is uncommon.
The education of physically and/or mentally disabled students has been a contentious issue to many educators, parents, and administrators alike, especially in the context of federal standardization and education reform. Originally (before 1975), states were not actually required to extend mandatory education to all students according to prevailing interpretations of federal law, which led to something like 4 out of 5 students with disabilities being excluded from general education facilities, many by explicit legal fiat at the state level.
These students would typically be placed in separate state facilities where little effective education was being conducted, and the funding that should have been devoted to their education redirected to more suitable students. Legislation in 1975 and later gave parents more power in determining what level of education their children could receive, and school districts were obligated to provide at least a modicum of effort (and more importantly, funding) to that end. All public schools fall under this regulation by virtue of receiving federal funding. Charter and private schools may or may not be required to comply, based on whether they receive any public funding, but where there is demand, supply will be created, and some charter schools have been specifically established to provide special instruction to students with disabilities.
Services and accommodations may include special transportation (including the so-called "short bus"), interpretive accommodations (signers for deaf students or Braille paperwork for blind serving as examples), psychological or medical services, or physical and/or occupational therapy, among any other requirements deemed reasonable and necessary to the student's functioning in an appropriate setting.
The legislation has received a fair amount of criticism. As with most federal projects aimed at state institutions, it functions in large part through federal financial incentives, which have not materialized in sufficient quantities to actually fund the mandated standards. This forces states to pull funds away from general education simply to ensure minimum compliance with federal standards, which itself offends parents who do not feel they are receiving what their children actually require.
Parents occasionally fear retribution from offended schools should they attempt to gainsay what they feel are inadequate services, while schools occasionally become upset by self-serving or misguided parents who attempt to demand unreasonable services at the school's expense. Parents seldom know or are taught what are reasonable and adequate services for their child's education on their own, but are expected to act as their child's advocate with equal voice and authority to the school staff. Even when the school is being helpful and third-party parent advocacy agencies are actively involved, this can result in a plan that either does not provide necessary services or costs the district too much to maintain consistently. When the school is being actively obstructive and the parent is entirely unaware that advocacy groups exist, the resulting plan may verge on the criminally negligent.
The sheer amount of paperwork involved in coordinating school, service, and other local agencies with the federal requirements on reporting to ensure that no students are lost or receive inadequate services can also be mind-numbing, taking large amounts of time from other tasks that teachers could be doing (like teaching students). Taxpayers themselves, who are ultimately footing the bill for all of these services, tend to be concerned that the plan doesn't make any provision for disabled students being excluded as being "lost causes," for lack of a better term; this means that schools can be required by parents to provide full services for a permanently vegetative individual with no ability to communicate or even move, even if there is no indication that said individual will ever benefit. As well, until 2004, there was no provision for funding from private sources on the part of the parent (such as medical insurance companies) in cases where such was available for use, and the 2004 amendments still only cover specific medical surgeries such as cochlear implants for deaf students.
Over-identification is a serious issue as well: certain minorities tend to be disproportionately identified as mentally disabled, and if a school district is not properly educating its general student population, it may also identify as disabled students who simply were never properly taught basic skills.
Despite all of this, the legislation is generally considered a massive step forward from three decades ago, when over 4.5 million students were receiving inadequate or no instruction under state-led initiatives.