United States

United States

Overview of USA’s Educational System

The United States (US) has had no national education system; instead, education is primarily the responsibility of state and local government. School policy is a matter for each state to decide. The Federal government’s only way to influence education is through any funding that it offers, but this is limited. There is no national high school graduation examination but some students in some states must pass the state graduation examination. Curriculum is decided at the district level, which is based on state standards, a set of goals that each school must reach. An important value in US education is equal access. At all levels, the goal is for each student to reach his or her potential, whatever that might be—a goal which is not always reached, so disparities remain.

Formal schooling lasts thirteen years, until around age 18. Compulsory schooling ends by age 16 in most states with the remaining states requiring students to attend school until they are 17 or 18. All children in the US have access to free public schools.

The US has basically four levels in children’s education: preschool, elementary school, middle school/junior high school, and high school. The configuration of the grades within these levels has some flexibility and will depend on the school district’s preferences.

US colleges and universities require a HS diploma in order to enroll. They will also sometimes require certain HS credits and/or tests (e.g., SAT) for admission so students need to plan their HS career with these requirements in mind. During HS, students are given grades for all of their courses and these are recorded. This record is called a transcript and students will be required to send this transcript along with other information when they apply to a college or university. At the end of grade 12, these grades are averaged to provide a “GPA” or Grade Point Average. This GPA will also be considered in the application process. Many colleges and universities also require the results from at least one standardized test, such as the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) or ACT (American College Tests). These tests are usually taken in grade 11 so that the results are available at the time of application the first semester of grade 12, though students can take them again in grade 12 to try to bring up their scores.

Most English-speaking educational programs overseas prepare American students to return to a classroom in the United States. If a student attends school in another language, it would be important to make sure that child can read and write well in English. To learn more about what colleges and universities in the US require for entrance, please see the Global TC&E College Prep Handbook.

Alternatives to Public Schools

Christian schools abound in the US, but they do cost money. Christian schools have varying qualifications for admittance – some require a student to be a Christian and others just use a Christian curriculum or add the Christian perspective to an otherwise secular curriculum.

Some states now allow charter schools, which are schools that get state funding but are subject to fewer rules and regulations than public schools. They may provide a specialized curriculum, such as in mathematics or science but not necessarily. The students are usually required to take any state exams issued to those in public school. Class sizes are sometimes smaller. Many accept new students through a lottery system.

Private, non-Christian schools are also available. These are usually expensive, but some may offer scholarships.

Home schooling is becoming more and more prevalent among conservative families in the US. There are many different curriculums available that give you everything you need, and parents have the option of picking and choosing different curriculum for different subjects. Each state has its own rules that govern homeschooling, so it is important to find out the requirements for the state you plan to reside in. Many areas have co-ops, some of which offer classes, especially on the high school level, and some that mainly meet to offer music, drama, and similar type programs that need more students to be successful.

In-country Resources Available to Families

There are many resources available on the Internet to help parents from the US teach their children. One site to start looking at would be this website. Also SIL parents can find information on homeschool curriculum {link:https://www.ic.insitehome.org/sil/ou529/ou540/iched/hmscl_discounts discounts} on Insite.

Cultural Differences for Teachers to Know About

Parental involvement is a key aspect of the US education system. Parents are encouraged (not required) to be involved in their local parent association by attending meetings and showing an interest in the school through their participation in such things as parent days, “Back-to-school” Nights, parent-teacher conferences and other school activities. Parents are involved most during their children’s lower elementary grades, and that participation is lessening as more and more mothers work.

The value of individual responsibility has an important place in the American value system. Throughout the years of schooling, students and parents are made aware of the school’s expectations through a handbook of their policies and procedures and the consequences for violating them. In many schools, parents and students are expected to read the handbook and sign a form stating that they are aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Challenges/Recommendations for MKs on Furlough

Since there is no national curriculum, there is a lot of variety in when and how the academics are taught in school districts and in different states. As a result, students might miss something key due to the different schedules or might find themselves ahead (or sometimes) behind due to different levels of rigor in the programs. Also, it will be important to make sure that US students have course(s) in American history, geography, and government in order to have a good background of their passport country.

When approaching a furlough, it is strongly recommended that you determine where your child will be attending school and find out the schedule that school follows for the various subjects. Then compare that schedule with the one for the school your child attends overseas. If possible, try to match the courses needed, perhaps arranging with the school during furlough to make sure courses missed in the overseas school are taken. Another recommendation would be to use furlough time to take courses unavailable in the overseas school.

High schools contain the gamut of students – from those who don’t care about school to those who do. If your students can handle tougher academic classes, it helps to put them in Honors classes or AP classes. Fewer conversations are likely to occur on subjects that would make your student uncomfortable (i.e., sexual behavior, drugs, gangs…).

Integrating technology into the classroom is a reality wherever your student may attend. They may have a learning curve if they are not used to using an iPad or tablet for homework or having their textbooks in electronic form instead of hard copy. It may be helpful to contact the school about what kind of technology will be used and the parameters for its usage.

There are also nonacademic things to be aware of to make an MK’s stay in the US easier. Be sure to check out if there is a dress code at whatever schools will be attended – sometimes, though, you can petition to be excluded from the dress code if it would be a financial difficulty to buy the clothes. Most high schools will have cliques and a hierarchy of student status (geeks, popular crowd, jocks, etc.). Talk to your child about these and how they are doing with where they fit. Some high schools have gangs, and it would be good to find some way to learn what colors to avoid wearing at school. It also helps to find someone to befriend your MK who can help with things like current pop culture/music/TV programs/movies and current slang.

Challenges/Recommendations for MKs Returning to Passport Country for University


While there are the normal adjustments to cross-cultural transition that are expected and even anticipated, there may also be more subtle issues that can directly impact the adjustment of a student to college/university. The “culture” of the university and dorm life can sometimes be a challenge, especially if one is expecting a Christian environment at a private college. All students attending a Christian college may not be Christian or may bring with them a more secular approach to life. Language (slang or cursing) may be common, disrespect for adults/professors, romantic relationships between genders and same gender, and undermining authority are examples of issues that may arise that are unexpected.

Unanticipated costs can be another surprise. There are a variety of fees in addition to tuition and room and board. A student who chooses the ROTC program may have to pay for weekly haircuts or uniform cleaning! Students may like to get fast food during the week or go out with friends to the movies, bowling, or other activities. Getting rides to church, events, or visiting friends at a nearby college may mean additional expense. It is a good idea to think through what kinds of additional expenses may arise and then have an agreement with parents/family on how to address them.

Rates for room and board will vary depending on what plan the student chooses. Most freshmen are required to live on campus for 4-year institutions, but can petition living off campus depending on their circumstances (i.e., living with an older sibling or parents while on furlough). Some students can cut costs by living together in an apartment off campus and doing a part-time meal plan or cooking on their own. A caution to living with other students is to make sure that they are able to pay their part of the rent/bills, that you have similar cleanliness habits and sleeping expectations, and work on keeping open communications should conflict arise.

Security on campus is another thing to keep in mind. Because of recent events of violence, universities may require a badge/ID in order to enter buildings, buildings may be locked during particular hours, and security personnel may be patrolling various areas/buildings in an effort to ensure safety of students and guests. There may even be a program that students can call to get an escort at night if walking alone on campus. It is a good idea to find out what kinds of security helps are available and have the phone number(s) for campus security or police.


CLEP and AP classes can be a good way to obtain college credits before you arrive depending on the grade for the exams you take and the college/university you plan to attend. However, if a student is attending an elite or Ivy League school, those credits may not be recognized but rather used for placement in certain classes. There may also be a difference in how tuition is charged. Some schools will charge by the credit hour (each class being between 3-5 hours of credit). Others will charge a flat fee and a student can take between 12-18+ hours a semester depending on how their schedules and advisors agree.

Community colleges can be a great place to start taking college classes and generally cost less than 4-year universities. Community colleges usually have no dorm facilities, but may have a variety of apartment options close by campus. While community colleges have generally offered technical training and 2-year (Associate’s) degrees, there are now 20+ states where community colleges can offer a 4-year degree (Bachelor’s) in particular areas of study. This has come about due to the need for additional training for the local community population in order to keep/maintain their current jobs and if the college has qualified staff to offer the degree programs.

For additional and more details information related to college application, scholarships, and transition helps, follow this link to the College Prep Handbook at {link:http://www.iched.org}. Look under the menu for Schooling Options > After Secondary School to find both the College Prep Handbook and the High School to Occupation Handbook.

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