Wednesday, July 13, 2011

American Education Explained

Today one of my Twitter followers from across the pond asked me a question about the American education system, particularly about certain phrases I use to identify grades. I realized from this (as well as talking to my UK friends) that not all school systems break down the same way. Since I often reference points in my life in my blog posts by mentioning where I was in my education cycle, I thought I'd give a little primer so we're all on the same page.

Elementary School

American schools refer to the earliest of school as Elementary School. This starts typically when the child is 4 or 5 years old.

The first year that they attend is actually referred to as Kindergarten. For me, in the town I grew up during the 70's, we only went to Kindergarten for a half day. I suspect it was because the schools only had one teacher at that level and thus splitting it to half days allowed for two classes of kids each day (and thus queued them up for the two teachers of every grade level after). Now here in the South, when my son went to Kindergarten in 1999, it was a full day. So, it isn't really uniform.

The rest of Elementary School covers grades 1 through 5. The education curriculum increases in complexity as each year progresses.

Junior High School/Middle School

In a lot of cases, the next three grades (grade 6 through grade 8) are done in a different school. This often went by Junior High School (as it was the precursor to High School). In the 70's, our town switched over to the name Middle School (as it was the schooling in the middle). Now, which name is used will vary on a city by city basis. There is no standard and often folks will use both names interchangeably. But this again usually covers the period from grade 6 to grade 8 (approximately from age 11 to 14, give or take).

High School/Senior High School

The final four years of primary education is known High School (sometimes with the word Senior in front of it, especially in towns where they used the term Junior High School). This most typically covers grades 9 through 12 (ages 14 to 18, or thereabouts). Unless a student is really gifted or has been left back a grade or two for failing classes, a student will graduate high school when they are 17 or 18 years old (birth date dependent).

The four years of High School also come with a name reference. 9th Grade is also known as freshman year. 10th Grade is also known as sophomore year. 11th Grade is also known as junior year. And 12th Grade is also known as senior year. The same would be true for those students enrolled in online high school programs.

Further Education

After graduating High School, the next level of education would be going to a college or university. This further education, usually focusing studies in an area in preparation for a future career is often optional (but in this day and age almost mandatory - a High School diploma alone doesn't cut it in many job markets these days). This level of education is accompanied by some price tag (unlike the first 12 years of education which is paid for by tax dollars of the residents of the community in question) that the student (or family) ends up paying.

The four years of college tend to mirror the four years of high school in name. So, if I am referencing my first year of college I would call it my freshman year of college. Second year then is sophomore year, third year is junior year and last year is senior year. Those names tend to not be so helpful though if the student's degree takes longer than four years or they just get an Associates Degree (typically takes two years, depending). Most Bachelor's Degree programs are four years in duration. Again, you have to be a little more fluid when talking about college years. But if you read about these references in my blog, I'm usually following the above outline.

I hope this education on education is useful.


Jim McClain said...

Middle school is technically a concept different from junior high, though most of the time they are used interchangeably, as you pointed out. I could tell you a number of differences, but it's really not relevant since the people who name schools don't really care.

Derrick said...

For our system, it went:

Middle School 6-8
High School 9-10
Senior High 11-12

4 or 6 middle schools fed into a high school. Then two high schools fed into a Sr High. My school district (Plano, TX - I graduated 1992) had 2 senior highs. I think since then, they have added at least one more. My senior class was 1300+ students!

I shared your post with some of the gang at (Dr Who forums, with lots of Brits).

Martin Maenza said...

Jim and Derrick, thank you both for the comments. And, again, you illustrate my point that not every school system names or organizes their schools identical here in the US. No wonder we confuse everyone. LOL.

I definitely wanted to outline to my readers what my personal school experience was - so they would understand when they are reading my blog and I say "it was the spring of my sophomore year of high school", etc.