Education System in USA: History, 3 Structure, Features

Education System in USA: The education system of the United States of America has a long history, especially from the 18th century to present for making the best education system of learning and career making in the world. The Federal government of the United States has the least involvement in the control of the education system in USA. In this article we have discussed the history of US education system, levels (structure) of the education system in USA, types and stages of compulsory secondary education, American higher education: its stages, features, and why international students prefer US higher education in comparison to other countries, and many more.

Table of Contents


History of Education System in United States

The history of education system in the United States has a long journey starting from the 16th century to the 21st century. It was reformed and adjusted many times to prepare the best children to take on the coming world. Let’s know the history of education in the United States in brief.   

History of Pre-public School Education in the USA

American educational opportunities varied widely depending on region, race, gender, income and social position before the first and second Industrial Revolution in the 1600s and 1700s. However, the children who received education, generally white, were taught through a hotchpotch arrangements of schooling, such as

  • Dame schools managed by women in their homes
  • Home-schooling or Private tutoring 
  • Tuition schools of traveling schoolmasters
  • Church schools
  • Local schools organized and run by groups of parents or towns
  • Charity schools for poor children run by churches or reach people
  • Boarding schools for children of the reach people

The first public school in the United States was the Boston Latin School opened on April 23, 1635 in Boston, Massachusetts. This boys-only public secondary school was led by a Puritan settler schoolmaster, Philemon Pormont.

Also read: Meaning of education & its role in individual life

History and Evolution of Public Education in the USA

The key objective of the establishment of the public education system in USA was to prepare American people for democratic citizenship. The Founding Fathers of American democracy believed that preserving democracy would require an educated population who could understand social and political issues. They would participate in civic life, perform their duties and protect their rights. They would participate in political processes like voting and resist tyranny and demagogues. The leaders also believed in character building of American people by educating them through public schools education.

19th Century Education System in USA

Thomas Jefferson argued about the need for a Public Education System for  the newly independent USA just after the American Revolution by funding through taxes, but it was ignored. Some public schools education system in USA popped up by the 1840s but were not good for quality education as Horace Mann of Massachusetts and Henry Barnard of Connecticut wanted. As a result, Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school laws in 1852, New York in 1853.

20th Century Education System in USA

All American children were given the opportunity to attend at least elementary school by 1918. And by 1954 public schools education system in USA became open to children of all races by the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown Vs Board of Education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1965 along with the Individuals with Disabilities Act, etc. opened educational opportunities for children of low-income parents and minority families, children with limited English proficiency, children with disabilities, girls, and other groups.

21st Century Education System in USA

The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 provided federal aid to the states for standardized state exams in mathematics and language skills. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education 2006 evaluated the higher education system in the USA. President Barack Obama signed legislation for replacing “No Child Left Behind” with the “Every Student Succeeds” Act  in December 2015.

Characteristics of American Education System

Features of Education System in USA

Education System in America reflects the values and preferences of American society. The characteristics of American education system are democratic ideals, commitment to individual freedom, and respect for the diversity of the population. The education system in the USA strives to help individuals realise and reach their true potential, serve the country as active citizens, and also participate in global social processes. Some of the important features of Education System in USA are as follows:

1. American Education System is Decentralized: The education system in the USA  is decentralized. According to the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the USA federal government has no authority to formulate a national education system. Because power over education is reserved for the US state and local authorities including individual schools and higher education institutions.

2. US Education is for All: The American democratic government is committed to mass education for all children and formal education is not only freely available but is also compulsory. Education expenses in the USA are financed by taxes levied on each and every citizen of the country.

3. US Education is an Antidote to Social Evils: Education in America is taken as the remedy for all social evils in the society. The American schools are considered as a positive factor in changing the attitude and behavior of individuals. In the beginning, the education system in USA was used as a tool to make immigrants ‘Americanised’ and to civilise the Native Americans. But later on its realm has been expanded to solve many problems like criminal activities and drug addiction.

Structure of Education in USA: Study levels in US Education System

Structure of U.S. education or say study levels of the education system in USA is based on a pattern similar to many educational patterns of the world. The early childhood education for children of 3 to 5 years starts with preschool which comprises Nursery and Kindergartens (KG). It is followed by primary school education (elementary in US), middle school and then high school. And the post secondary education is called higher education which includes non-degree for diploma or certificate courses and 6 degree levels courses. Thus, the stages of American education comprises the following given below:

A. Early childhood education through preschool (nursery and KG)

B. Compulsory education through formal schools

  • Primary or elementary school
  • Middle school  
  • High school

C. Higher education through colleges and universities


Structure of US Education System




Education Year

A. Early Childhood Education (not compulsory/optional)





Kindergarten (KG)



B. Compulsory (formal) Education in USA (Free)



1. Elementary Education



Elementary School (or Primary in other countries) 

1st grade



2nd grade



3rd grade



4th grade#



5th grade##



2. Secondary Formal Education 



Middle School

6th grade



7th grade



8th grade



High School: Junior High School


Senior High School

OR Non-formal below

9th grade/ Freshman (Frosh)*1



10th grade/ Sophomore (2nd)*2



11th grade/ Junior



12th grade/ Senior



3. Secondary Vocational/ Technical Education (TVET)*3  [2 years minimum]    



High School Diploma

9th to 12th grade



General Educational Development (GED)

9th to 12th grade



College Board Advanced Placement (AP)

11th to 12th grade in school

After 12th in college




11–12 years

1–2 years

C. Higher Education (Bachelor, Master & Ph.D)




Undergraduate course/study 




Master course/study  




Doctoral course/study  



D. Postdoctoral Study/ Education

26 +

20/21 onwards

University/Research Institute/company 

Research & development work on fellowship or job 

26 +

20/21 onwards

4th grade#: In North America the 4th grade is the 5th school year of elementary school.   

5th grade##: The 5th grade in most U.S. schools is the last year of elementary schooling, whereas in other schools it may be the 1st year of middle schools. 

*1 Notes: Freshman or frosh is the 1st year of a student at an educational institution, generally a secondary or post-secondary level.

*2 Notes: A sophomore is a student at a high school or college in the 2nd year of education in the USA.

*3 TVET : Technical and vocational education and training

Also read: When & why concept of school came in the mind of whom?

School Education System in USA

The school education system in the USA is a diverse landscape marked by a blend of public, private, and charter institutions. With a decentralized approach, each state has its own educational policies, curriculum standards, and funding mechanisms. From kindergarten through 12th grade, students typically progress through primary, middle, and high school levels. While common core standards provide a framework for consistency, there’s considerable variation in teaching methodologies, extracurricular activities, and resources available, shaping the educational experience nationwide.

Early Childhood Education System in USA

The pre-compulsory or pre-elementary education system in USA comes under the early childhood education and care (ECEC) program of child learning. The early childhood education system in USA comprises part-day, full-day, and full-work-day school programs for children of age 3 to 5 years. It works under educational, social welfare, and commercial bodies. Its objective is to care and prepare children for compulsory formal elementary or primary school education. 

US preschool education usually includes 3 to 5 years of early age of a child for nursery to kindergarten (KG). The school calendar generally starts in August or September and ends in May or June of every year.

Is preschool compulsory in USA?

No, preschool is not compulsory in USA. Children are not required to attend school unless they attend the age of 5 to 8 years in the United States. As age requirements to attend school compulsorily vary state to state in America. However, early childhood education through preschool for children is an ideal way to become familiar with a classroom environment.

Is preschool in America free?

No, preschool is not free for all students in public schools if schools have arrangements of nursery and KG classes.  Some states have started rolling out preschool education system in the USA, but free programs are only available to the children of low-income families.

What is nursery school called in the USA?

Pre-school system in the USA embraces all formal and informal early childhood education before compulsory primary schooling starts. It includes play school, nursery school or pre-kindergarten (Pre-KG) and kindergarten education programs.

Elementary Education System in USA

The elementary education system in USA is called primary education in other countries. It is the first stage of compulsory education free in American public schools. It starts admitting children when they attend 5 years of age in 1st grade and continue upto 5th grade till 11 years of age. There are some schools in the USA which include nursery and kindergarten classes. Whereas some elementary schools enroll students through the 8th grade. The subjects of academic courses at the primary level generally consist of language, arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.

Secondary Education System in USA: Middle School

The middle school is a part of the secondary education system in the USA. That is why middle school is also called junior high school in the secondary school system of education. It usually enrolls students in 6th standard at 11 years of age through 8th standard (grade). In some of the middle schools students are also admitted in 5th grade at the age of 10 years. The purpose of middle school is to facilitate educational services in the transition from primary to secondary education environment. 

The difference between middle school and junior high school is that middle school begins from 6th to 8th grades whereas junior high school starts from 7th to 9th grades. Consequently, middle school students start high school in 9th standard, and junior high school students begin high school in 10th standard or grade. 

Secondary Education System in USA: High School

High school or say senior high school is the final stage of the secondary education system in the United States of America (USA). It begins education for students from 9th or 10th grades through 12th grade. The schools in the USA are managed by district local authority or management committees rather than by the central (federal) government. Students usually have the choice to choose subjects according to their interest or future career planning. But it varies from state to state and school to school.

Special High School in USA

In US education system some states and cities operate special high schools admitting students of highest performance in entrance examinations. Some examples of these high schools are Boston Latin School or Alexandria, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School, etc. Other special schools cater to the arts and some for those students who are weak in study and can’t succeed with normal academic standards. While some special schools are also established for special groups of children like LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) for example, Harvey Milk High School.

Which is the oldest existing public school in USA?

The oldest existing public school in the USA is Boston Latin School. It was established in Boston, Massachusetts on April 23, 1635. It is also the oldest public school of British America. The school curriculum also follows that of the 18th century Latin School basics of grammar of the Latin language.

Grading System of US Schooling

The performance of students in the United States school is judged on the basis of examination’s result. As students study’s progress is evaluated or assessed throughout the year and they receive a Grade Point Average (GPA) to go on to a higher level of schooling or after completion of school to a college or university. The table given below shows the grading system of US schooling and their corresponding GPA and percentage.

US Grading System in Schools

Grade in Study Assessment







































The US Higher Education System

Post secondary education in USA is called the higher education system. The US higher education system can be divided broadly into 2 categories: a) postsecondary vocational education and training, b) higher education. The first is a non-degree education system consisting of diploma, certificate, professional, occupational, technical courses after completing secondary education from high school. This type of vocational education is available either in some high schools or in vocational or technical colleges, and sometimes also in academic colleges or universities. The second is the higher education system for academic degrees of bachelor, master, and doctorate (Ph.D.).

Types of Higher Education in USA

In the United States, higher education encompasses a rich tapestry of institutions offering diverse academic paths. Primarily, there are universities, comprising both public and private entities, known for comprehensive undergraduate and graduate programs. Additionally, community colleges provide accessible two-year degrees and vocational training. Technical institutes focus on specialized fields like engineering and technology. Liberal arts colleges emphasize a broad-based education. Each institution contributes uniquely to the types of higher education landscape, catering to the varied needs and aspirations of students across the nation.

Levels of Higher Education System in the United States

After completing 12th grade school education in USA a student undertakes admission in undergraduate courses in a college or university for bachelor degree. Then he or she may pursue a postgraduate course for a master degree. And if like can go finally for research work through doctoral and research programs for Ph.D (doctorate) degree.

Direct link for Structure of US education system

Is USA good for higher education?

The US is the hub of the best ranking and renowned universities of the world such as Harvard, Stanford, New York, Princeton, Columbia, California, University of Chicago,  and many more. American institutions of higher learning are also known for high academic standards and follow rigorous practices to maintain quality. They have developed innovative ways of educating students through discussion on any topic of curriculum or courses. Teachers and students both discuss any topic by reasons in favor of arguments. Thus, the higher education system in USA is well-supported to offer excellent education to its students.


What are the unique characteristics of US higher education system?

The unique characteristics of US higher education system is that students can change their major (field or trade of learning) multiple times if they choose. It is very common for students studying in colleges and universities to switch majors at some point in their undergraduate studies. Because, students often find a different field that they excel in or enjoy learning later on.

Why is the USA the best for international students?

The learning institutions and universities of higher education system in USA  are the first preference for international students if they have the choice to select among other countries. They prefer American universities or institutions because of the prestige of having a US-certified university degree. The US higher  study programs are known for their exceptional standard of quality in terms of specializations, learning, experiences, intellectual rigor, and innovative practices.

Conclusion of US Education System

It is the American education system which has played a needful role in leading the countries to excel in all fields of development leaving behind all other countries. It is the education system in USA because of it the US scientists are on the top in getting the maximum number of Nobel prizes.It is because of American education system the country is leading in space sciences through NASA. The country has produced the maximum number of richest persons of the world due to the quality education system in USA such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeffrey Preston Bezos (Amazon), Elon Musk (Tesla), etc.

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FAQs on Education System in USA

Q. Why USA has the best school education system?

It is often said that the school education system in USA has the top position in the world in terms of accessibility for every child irrespective of region, religion, race, sex, economic condition, etc. Because education up to secondary level in the USA is free. This free access to education is not limited to those who pay, but to all children from 5 to 18 years of age along with transportation.

Q. How USA has the best education system?

Ans. The education system in USA is considered as the best in the world because of its the most attractive features of the higher education system. It is because of the flexibility the US education system, mainly higher education, provides through the number and diversity of institution types it encompasses. These diversified institutions offer students options to specialize in a variety of academic disciplines and even gain employment training for future career building.

Q. What grade is a 17 year old in USA?

Ans. A 17-year-old is in grade xii in USA.

Q. Which country has the top education ranking?

Ans. The United States of America is on the top in the education system ranking of the world. There has been no change in the international ranking of the higher education system in USA since 2020. The United Kingdom occupies the second rank, Germany third, and Canada, France, Switzerland, Japan, Australia follow downward. 

Q. Why do Americans not study in other countries?

Ans. There are six reasons why American don’t study in other countries and instead the US higher education system attracts international students as a study destination. The reasons are:

  1. Academic flexibility in declaring a major (field of study) at the end of 2nd year.
  2. Taking classes of a wide variety of academic subjects leads to selecting a major at the end.
  3. Emphasis on internship programs to start a professional career. 
  4. It offers a wide range of campus activities in addition to academics.
  5. Diversity of students from all cultural backgrounds of the world provide diverse ideology, culture, thinking, languages, friends, etc.
  6. The education system in USA provides a variety of services to help students both inside and outside of the classroom.

Q. How does the education system in the USA work?
Ans. The U.S. education system comprises three main levels: elementary, middle, and high school, followed by higher education at colleges and universities.

Q. What is the role of standardized testing in the U.S. education system?
Ans. Standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, are widely used for college admissions. They assess students’ readiness for higher education.

Q. How does higher education function in the USA?
Ans. Higher education includes a diverse range of institutions, from community colleges to prestigious universities, offering various degree programs and research opportunities.

Q. What is the significance of K-12 education in the USA?
Ans. K-12 education lays the foundation for students, providing essential skills and knowledge for future academic and professional pursuits.

Q. How does the U.S. education system address diversity and inclusion?
Ans. The U.S. education system is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion, with initiatives aimed at creating equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds.

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