I have been asked to discuss exactly how it is we are educated in the US. I have made my biases about “the system” clear in posting on vouchers and on higher education, but I guess it is time to explain how everything here is supposed to work in case you don’t know anything about US education. Obviously there’s going to be lots of editorializing, because I think it’s best to talk about my experience.
Public schools exist for elementary and secondary levels of schooling. Elementary school I’m going to skip over – all you need to know is that from 6-14, no one is asked to pick a subject they really like, or make giant career decisions, or even take tests that determine whether they are fit for more schooling or not. There’s testing, to be sure – tons of it. But it doesn’t have the weight of determining someone’s status in society forever or not.
You’re probably familiar with secondary school in the US through movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Superbad. Secondary school, or high school, holds people between 14-18. The day is usually organized into periods where different teachers hold different classes, and one can take electives in addition to what is mandated by law. In my old high school, I think 2 years of US history were mandatory, as was 2 years of Math and Science and 2 of Health. There were more requirements, but I forget.
Now the high school I went to was private – it was a Catholic school. I had to pay tuition to go there, and many of the courses I took were required by state law. We had uniforms and religious instruction, and regarding the latter there’s all sorts of “establishment” and “free exercise of religion” jurisprudence explaining how a state can help fund and establish guidelines for a private school without promoting a particular sect.
Per pupil spending for my private high school was probably half that of the public schools in my area around the time I went to school. People in the public school across the street from me got to take these courses called AP courses for which college credit could be obtained. My high school offered 2 of these courses, one in Art, the other in History. The public school across the street probably offered, at that time, a heck of a lot more – I’m pretty sure one could AP in English and History and Calculus and Physics and Biology and Chemistry and a number of other subjects there.
You would think going to a private school is the province of the rich, but the truth is that state and local coffers pump public schools full of cash, and teacher’s unions are notoriously powerful and have been that way for some time. They got Carter back in 1976 to create the Department of Education in order to give their cause more public legitimacy, and for years it was part of the Republican platform to abolish that colossal waste of money. I know, some of you are gasping, but think what universities do when they know Dept. of Education aid is forthcoming to individual students – they simply hike tuition. Hence, Harvard can sit on billions and still charge people 40 grand or whatnot per year to go there.
Our curriculum in the States doesn’t filter people out or force them to be focused until college, and college isn’t mandatory. There are vocational schools, which teach more practical skills, that one can go to instead of a regular high school, but I would really caution those of you reading too much into the diversity of subjects we have during high school. Most high school English classes introduce people to really basic things, like who Mark Twain or who Milton is. The liberal artsy brush I seem to be painting high schools with really doesn’t hold up – everything I learned about poetry and close reading I learned from one class in college.
I’m not saying high schools don’t teach anything, it’s just that they’re more all over the place for the most part. The Columbine killers are famous for having skipped a bowling class the day of the attack – yes, their high school offered the game “bowling” as a course. I know some people that came out of high school English prepared to teach college courses on T.S. Eliot, but most I know came out scared of writing or reading anything.
College, as you know, requires nothing. There are “distribution requirements” that one has to take to fulfill any degree and requirements in a major. None of that adds up to a core curriculum unless you’re at the school I’m at right now, because those requirements can be fulfilled by multiple courses usually. Furthermore, in any given major there can be tremendous flexibility – when I was poli sci in undergrad, I wrote on Milton for my major and took a heavy amount of courses in analytic philosophy. The hard sciences, it should be noted, are more demanding. It’s not that they won’t let you take other courses, but that your coursework will usually be so intense that you won’t have time to do anything else.
Also, the quality of our education varies from school to school, both in high school and college, and the quality of departments in any given school varies. So that makes it nearly impossible to talk about American education creating a “product” as a whole. In fact, as you’re probably gathering from this blog, the most notable thing about America is our lack of education as a whole – how some of us can be talking fairly regularly about what is key in Xenophon or Aristotle or Dickinson, and the rest of the country can be obsessed with how two people represent “change” vs. “experience”with no further explanation needed (or possible).