United States Guide: The K-12 System

For students who are planning to study abroad in the U.S., this guide introducing the K-12 System is a great starting point to understand America's unique education system.
k-12 system

To understand American high schools, you first need to understand the American school K-12 system. In this article, you will learn:  

  1. American K-12 school system  
  2. American middle school and high school credit system  
  3. American high school curriculum  
  4. American teaching method 

K-12 system in the United States

The American education system is divided into elementary education (primary school [Grades K-5]), secondary (junior high school [Grades 6-8], high school [Grades 9-12]) education, and higher / tertiary / post-secondary (college or university) education. Although different states adopt different educational systems and curricula, each state must guarantee 12 years of compulsory education. Americans are used to calling it the K-12 school system.  

Secondary education includes middle school and high school. Middle school (Middle School/Junior High School) generally runs from grades 6 through 8 for a total of three years; high school (High School) typically runs from grades 9 through 12. The U.S. government attaches great importance to education, but the federal government does not directly provide education support funding to K-12 schools. Instead, U.S. states and municipalities invest in education based on state and local taxation. Most states spend about 40% of their taxes on education.   

More specifically, American middle schools are divided into public schools and private schools. Public schools are set up according to the school district’s population density, which is suitable for students nearby. According to the U.S. statistics for K-12 education in 2021, 90% of all school-age students enter public schools, and about 9% of students enter private schools. (Data from https://nces.ed.gov/)  

The government subsidizes public high schools for local students, and students are exempt from tuition (tuition-free) when attending public education. Private high schools include schools of religious groups, non-profit independent schools for local or international students, as well as for-profit private schools for local or international students. The student’s family pays for all expenses such as tuition, teaching materials, meals, and accommodation

Credit system

American middle schools and high schools all use a credit system; however, each school has different requirements for credits to be promoted to the next grade or graduate. Generally speaking, schools divide courses into required courses and elective courses. The credits required for each grade are different. If you want to advance to the next grade, you need to complete the previous grade’s required credits.  

In the composition of credits, the credits for elective courses account for a high proportion of the total. The variety and scope of elective courses are related to the United States’ emphasis on personal development. The ratio of social science and natural science credits in the set of required courses is basically the same, which reflects on American society’s requirements for basic societal knowledge.  

Curriculum (Using American High Schools as an example)

The curriculum of American high schools is mainly divided into regular / non-Honors courses, honors courses, AP courses, and Advanced courses. To learn more in detail about the curriculum, please refer to our article about the different kinds of courses available in American High Schools.

Some American high schools have canceled AP courses and instead opened advanced courses in line with their own school system, called Advanced Courses or Accelerated Courses. Schools have done this because they don’t want to be restricted by the AP curriculum requirements. The content in these courses differs from the AP curriculum, but in many cases offers a good preparation for a student to take the AP exam after completing the course. 

Regular / non-Honors courses

In American high schools, regular/non-Honors courses can be roughly divided into 6 categories, including English, Mathematics, Natural/Physical Sciences, Social Science, World Language, and Art. These required courses encourage students to develop a comprehensive understanding of all areas of knowledge so that they can further explore their interests and advance their passion in college.   

Honors Courses

Honors courses are unique to the United States and are different from standard courses. Comparing honors courses to regular/non-Honors academic courses, the difference lies in the breadth and depth of topics as well the learning pace. Honors courses emphasize critical and independent thinking. To encourage classroom participation, honors courses generally have a smaller teacher-student ratio. Most high schools in the United States have Honors courses. When a course’s difficulty reaches a certain level, it can be classified as an honor course.   

AP courses

AP (Advanced Placement) courses are generally equivalent to a first-year university course but are taken in high school. AP courses are recognized by most US colleges and universities for credit. AP Courses are taught according to the syllabus developed by the College Board and provided to American high schools. The difficulty is equivalent to introductory courses at American universities. If students do well in the AP course, they can take the AP exam in the spring and receive their AP scores by June. 

Teaching methods

Many American high schools, especially public schools, refer to Common Core’s teaching requirements in the United States to formulate the syllabus for each class. However, there is no unified set of teaching materials or education resources for American high schools. The teaching materials and methodologies for each subject are selected by the school, the department head, and the teachers.  

What is the Common Core? The Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life.

American classrooms are mostly based on teacher-student discussions, with small class sizes. The number of students in each private high school class does not exceed 20, and the number of students in each public high school class does not exceed 30. 

The assignments are mainly based on group collaboration/independent project research, aiming to cultivate students’ independent thinking ability. Math, natural science, and physical science classes tend to be more lecture-based. Natural and physical science classes also have many labs for students to participate in experiments, collect data, learn about the scientific method, and gain experience writing lab reports. 

Further reading:  

Aralia Education provides academic courses to improve students’ GPA and provides complete learning plans customized for each student. We will match the most suitable teachers according to the specific needs of each student. Aralia’s teachers fill knowledge gaps according for every student to ensure they can overcome their own shortcomings. After taking classes, students will be able to increase their GPA over the long-term and receive a strong academic foundation for later grades and college applications.   

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