Trying to understand US education

I’m overly critical sometimes, and it’s easy for me to think I have all the answers. So this is an information gathering blog post while I wait for something to finish on my computer. In short, I’m trying to figure out the difference in approach between US Middle and High School vs. my experience with British secondary education.

When I went to secondary school (age 11 – think combination of middle and high school), we had fixed class schedules for the first 3 years. In my case, it was required to study the following individual subjects from age 11 to age 14 (mostly determined by the National Curriculum):

  • Art
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Civic Studies
  • Design Technology
  • English
  • French (later German)
  • Games (outdoor PE)
  • Geography
  • History
  • IT
  • Math(s)
  • Music
  • Personal Social Education (PSE – sex education, etc.)
  • Physical Education (PE)
  • Physics
  • Religious Studies

Now, I was at a private school, and some of these topics differ if you’re not, but not many (Latin was dropped the year I started…sadly). Most of these are mandated at various “Key Stages” of the UK National Curriculum as required, even if only for a year or so. In some schools, for example, they combine sciences, but you still have to study science from age 11 onwards. Classes were divided into 40 minute “periods”, with a bell in between, and 5 minutes to get to the next class. There were no “hall monitors”, you just asked if you wanted to go to the bathroom and they trusted you. Also, we all wore uniforms (complete with Blazer and Harry Potter style ties with different School Houses), and (private school bit) were required to stand when a teacher or adult entered the room, as a sign of respect. There were no metal detectors, and the most violent thing I recall ever happening was someone stealing some Potassium from the Chemistry lab.

US secondary education is highly regional in nature, and there are very few national standards (No Child Left Behind, etc. don’t actually attempt to set a national curriculum), so what you learn in one state will vary wildly from another, even down to how the Civil War is described (and thus cannot be agreed upon) in history class. It is my understanding that high school here is a lot more like what would be called “college” in the UK (which is not a University, but is instead an alternative system available to 16 year-olds), and middle school is a half-way point. As I understand it, it’s not required to study science, history, or geography beyond a very elementary level. Classes seem to be longer in duration but focused on fewer topics of study, with a lot more choice.

I made no pretence that I disfavor the notion of allowing children to opt out of classes they don’t like. For example, I suck at German…seriously. I just can’t handle the different genders. I would get everything right, except I would be unable to get the right one of the three possibilities. But I’m glad that I was required to study German. I’m also glad that I didn’t have a choice about studying a foreign language, or art, or other topics I might have chosen to avoid if I had had a choice in the matter (I consistently got over 100% in Religious Studies due to a bonus points system, but I might have opted out – I even once managed to get everyone out of an 80 minute test by keeping the teacher side-tracked in a discussion/debate on cryopreservation as applied to the second coming of Christ). After the age of 14, it was possible to drop certain subjects, but not all. For example, German got dropped :) but a foreign language was required, as was art, both subjects I might have chosen not to pursue with a choice in the matter.

Anyway. If you have links/stories about how secondary education works differently in the US, I would actually be interested. I can hopefully convince myself with enough actual data that not all schools here are just maximum security facilities with metal detectors, cops, etc. and other notions I may have.


4 Responses to “Trying to understand US education”

  1. Tony says:

    Not sure if this is still the case – but when I cam through the UK education system there was an optional exit point at age sixteen (after completing “O” levels or GCSEs). The biggest impact of this was that the school was not full of 17-18 year olds who did not want to be there (ok, there were some there because their parents expected them to stay on for “A” levels). I think this made a big difference to the overall atmosphere at the school compared with modern day US schools where graduation happens after 12th grade.

  2. Author says:

    No idea, we homeschooled. We lived in Silicon Valley and public schools were cesspools of typical hippie bullshit. Staff was more concerned with “citizenship” than with education.

  3. Mike Nolan says:

    [We] (private school bit) were required to stand when a teacher or adult entered the room, as a sign of respect.

    Not just private schools – my pretend Grammar school (it was really a comprehensive that had “Grammar” in its name!) had people stand when trachers entered the class and I have a friend who works at a state Catholic high school where this is still the case.

  4. Karen says:

    I wrote a long comment but it didn’t post… is there a delay, or a word limit for comments? I’ll facebook message it to you instead :)

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