Understanding the Education System in the USA

School Children
Source: pixabay.com (Creative Commons)

Moving to the USA can be a daunting prospect, and there is so much to think about. If you are moving overseas with your children, you will want to make it as stress free for them, and a big part of any child’s life is their education.

Here we explore the education system in the USA, give you some history, how things are structured now as well as comparing the USA to the education that your children currently have in the UK.

Table of Contents: Table of Contents

  1. History of the Education System in the USA
  2. Structure of the Education System in the USA
  3. The Role of the US Government in Education Policy
    1. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)
    2. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  4. Pros and Cons of the US Education System
  5. Comparing the UK and USA Education Systems
  6. Current Challenges for The US Education System

History of the Education System in the USA

Early settlers to the USA established the first schools to teach the basics of reading, writing and mathematics to their children. There wasn’t a formal education system until the 19th century, when it was decided due to the population growth and the need to educate the next generation to develop the country, meant US states began to establish their own education systems.

Although US States began making education compulsory in 1852, it wasn’t until 1918 that all American children were required by law to attend school, at least at elementary school. During the 20th century there was a shift towards the “progressive education movement” which was more student-centred and integrated subjects such as science, history and the arts.

Structure of the Education System in the USA

There are three levels in the US education system, it is split between primary, secondary and higher education. The primary level is known as the elementary education level, begins around the age of five or six. This level lasts for around five to seven years and teaches the basics to younger children.

Next is the secondary level, which is know as high school education, this is the level that children attend for the next four years. As with the elementary school level, children are taught English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and other less academic classes such as Music, Art and PE.

After high school comes post-secondary education, or higher education. This is offered to students at colleges and universities and includes both vocational and academic studies. As in the UK some universities are private and some are public.

The Role of the US Government in Education Policy

The education system is the USA is shaped by the federal government through funding and legislation. There have been Federal Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and funding is also provided through the Title I program which concentrates on resources for low-income students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in 2015 by President Barrack Obama, and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The idea of ESSA is to give US states much more flexibility in their educational policies, and requires them to ensure there is regular assessment in reading and mathematics, identifying where schools and/or districts need more support.

ESSA also requires states and districts to not relying solely on test scores for assessment, and to include factors such as school climate and student engagement in the system of identifying where additional support is required.

There is an emphasis on the improvement of opportunities for students of colour, low-income, disabilities or those that do not have English as their first language, which includes the chance for these students to attend schools in the district that are higher performing.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Initially passed in 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that makes sure that children who have disabilities are able to have a free and appropriate education. The law states that children with disabilities should be taught alongside non-disabled children in general education wherever possible.

IDEA also ensures that provisions are in place for US states to offer children with disabilities “individualised education programs” or IEPs. These are documents that outline the child’s individual educational goals, the services that they will receive and the expectations for the child’s progress through the education system.

The law also ensures that the rights of children with disabilities and their families have their rights protected, giving parents the right to appeal decisions that the districts make in relation to their child’s education.

Pros and Cons of the US Education System


  • Access to education for all children
  • Large variety of educational options
  • Use of advanced technology


  • Disparities in funding, especially between low-income and high-come areas.
  • Large emphasis on standardized testing.
  • Achievement gaps between students of differing race, income and other groups.

Comparing the UK & US Education Systems

There main difference between the education systems in the UK and USA is the role in the national government. In the UK, the government play a large role in setting the curriculum and education standards, through the Department for Education. In the USA this is different, as the individual States have much more power to determine their own policies and standards.

There is also a difference in the systems that are used in both countries for the way that the academic levels are known, for example in the UK these are known as “Year 1, Year 2 etc” and in the US the “grade” system is used.

This table shows how both systems compare and to which age group they correspond;

AgeBritish systemAmerican system
5-6Year 1Kindergarten
6-7Year 2Grade 1
7-8Year 3Grade 2
8-9Year 4Grade 3
9-10Year 5Grade 4
10-11Year 6Grade 5
11-12Year 7Grade 6
12-13Year 8Grade 7
13-14Year 9Grade 8
14-15Year 10Grade 9
15-16Year 11Grade 10
16-17Year 12Grade 11
17-18Year 13Grade 12

Current Challenges for The US Education System

One of the most pressing issues currently in the US education system is the differences in funding between schools in affluent areas, and those that are in low-income areas. This can lead to lower achievement levels in the low-income areas due to inadequate resources being available.

However, this is an area that is likely to see reforms in the future, with a focus on development of the educational opportunities for students in the lower-income areas through increased federal funding.

As well as disparities between lower income and more affluent areas, there are also concerns as to opportunity differences between different groups of students, for example racial or ethnic groups. Again, this is likely to be an area that the federal government will continue to look to reform, and give similar opportunities to all children.

Some would also argue that there is a reliance on standardised testing in the US education system, and this in turn means that there is too much focus on preparing for tests instead of other classes in the curriculum.

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As the Managing Director of 1st Move International, Mike Harvey brings more than two decades of logistics expertise and three years of specialised experience in international relocations to his role. His comprehensive knowledge spans the intricacies of overseas shipping, secondary yet crucial areas such as visa application processes and immigration requirements, and the wider topic of moving abroad including topics such as comparative analyses of cost of living, healthcare and educational systems worldwide. This expertise allows 1st Move International to equip people with the information they need to not just move overseas, but to make informed decisions about whether, and where, to relocate.