America has had a great respect for education from its earliest times. Education is now the most important factor in determining a person’s social role and economic prospects. Universities were founded in the earliest days of the settlers who had come across from England. Harvard College was founded by religious refugees from Cambridge, England in 1636, only fifteen years after the Pilgrim Fathers had landed, and there were eight other colleges before 1776, though for a long time they had few students. Religious bodies were also very active in developing elementary and secondary schools, and soon after 1800 progress was made towards universal education paid for from taxes. Except in the South, America was before Europe in providing schools for all children, and more recently in providing free education up to the age of eighteen.
Under the United States Constitution, the Federal government has no power to make laws in the field of education; each state is fully responsible within its own territory. The Federal government can give financial help, and new laws have vastly increased its powers to help in this field. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare, headed by a member of the Cabinet, is responsible for these functions at federal level. Since 1960 it has contributed ever – increasing amounts of federal funds to local programmes at all levels, including special assistance to schools in disadvantaged areas. Total public expenditure on education doubled in real terms up to 1980, to an amount twice as great per person as in any Western European country. However, during the 1980s, federal government contributions were cut, and in most states the total public expenditure per student in real terms was less in 1987 than in 1977.
Each state has an educational administration, not subject to federal
control, and the state authorities lay down generul principles concerning the organisation of schools and such matters us the ugcs of compulsory education. Schools are provided and managed by local community boards of education. A fairly large city has a board of its own, and otherwise a board may cover the area of a county or of several local communities. All states have for some time had compulsory school-attendance up to the age of sixteen, and some beyond that, but the laws are not everywhere enforced with the same vigour. With so much local control the standards of education provided in different parts of the United States are by no means uniform. In the South the authorities spend less per pupil than in most other parts; more people are illiterate (having attended school irregularly or not at all, in spite of the law), more leave school early, fewer go to universities.
Most children attend mixed schools, with boys and girls together all through the school time up to the age of eighteen, though there are a few separate schools for the older pupils. Education in nearly all parts of the United States is comprehensive, in that there is no selection of children who attend full-scale secondary schools. Distinctions within the educational system are based in part on the use of private institutions by the few who can pay for them and think it worth while to do so, and, more important, on the different social characteristics of the areas in which schools are placed. Racial factors may be involved, although segregation has been formally abandoned.
Elementary education begins at the age of six. At this stage four- fifths of all the teachers are women, mostly married. The atmosphere is usually very friendly, and the teachers have for a long time now accepted the idea that the important thing is to make the children happy and interested. The old rigid and authoritarian methods of education were discredited in America rather a long time ago – so much so that many people now think that education has gone too far in the direction of trying to make children happy and interested rather than giving them actual instruction.
The social education of young children tries to make them accept the need for human beings in a society to work together for their common good in all sorts of ways. The emphasis is on cooperation rather than competition throughout most of this process. This may seem curious, in view of the general idea that American society is highly competitive, but the need for making people sociable in this sense has come to be regarded as one of the main functions of education. In spite of all this most Americans do grow up with
competitive ideuM, aiul quite a lew become criminals, but it is not fair to say thut the нукісш Tails. It probably does succeed in making most people sociable and ready to help one another both in material ways and through kindness and friendliness.
Partly because for several generations many children have had foreign-born parents, schools have been used to build up a sense of Americanness. For many decades the school day began in the classroom with the flag salute. One child held up the United States flag and all recited together: ‘I pledge my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’
In 1942 the Supreme Court ruled that no child should be obliged to take part in the flag salute, and since then it has restricted this practice as well as religious prayers. But in most places a majority of parents want to keep these traditions alive.
The practice of obliging children to travel long distances, so that schools may be racially more mixed than their immediate neighbourhoods, has been unpopular. But there have always been many children who have needed to travel quite long distances to school each day, and the school bus is a long-established institution, much older than court-directed busing. The school bus is painted yellow, with the words ‘School Bus’ in enormous letters along its sides. When it stops, all other traffic must stop. It flashes lights and waves arms marked ‘Stop’ to make this absolutely clear. Thus the children, while being themselves protected, daily see the community impose upon itself a well-justified and symbolically-dramatised discipline.
School and home are closely linked, and there is, ideally at least, a sense of partnership between teachers and parents. In some places it is the practice for the teacher to stay in the classroom for half an hour at the end of the school day, to be available for any parent who wishes to come to talk to him or her about a child, and there is no need for the parent to make any kind of formal arrangements with the head teacher before going to see the class teacher.
There is a strong tradition by which every school is closely identified with its community, both through the elected local school board and through the parent teachers’ associations. In big cities this tradition has been weakened by the sheer problems of large scale organisation, and the vast bureaucracies have become unpopular. The practice of busing children damages the link between community and school, and strengthens the bureaucratic barriers between them.
There has been bitter argument; the bureaucracies huve been fiercely criticised; parent-teachers’ associations have demanded more influence. Some parents’ organisations have been suspicious of ‘radicalism’ among teachers, and have interfered in the curricula of their schools, mainly in a conservative direction. Parents’ organisations have objected to the use of books which they found to be ‘communistic’, ‘racist’, ‘obscene’, ‘heretical’ or ‘anti-American’.
Although there is so much diversity in the control and organisation of schools, everyone knows what is meant by first grade, second grade and twelfth grade, with one grade for each year. The teaching profession is not quite so simply arranged. It may be difficult for a teacher to get his or her qualifications from one state recognised in another state, as each state has its own arrangements for training teachers. Teachers for the younger children have often been trained in schools of education from the age of eighteen; senior teachers have normally completed university degrees, with teacher-training forming part of the university curriculum at the later stages. Education may be respected and highly valued, but teachers are not. Their pay and prestige, in relation to other professions, are low in comparison with the general standards of Europe.
Secondary education is in one or two stages. From the age of eleven or twelve to eighteen the term ‘high school’ is generally used, though the first three years of this are called junior high school and the senior classes are called senior high school. Where the local population is big enough, the senior high schools may be separate institutions. America is remarkable for the number of people who stay at school until they are eighteen; four-fifths of all young people aged seventeen are still at school, and more than half of those aged eighteen. As full high school education up to the age of eighteen is available to everyone, there is no problem about gaining admission to a senior high school, though in some places there are selective schools or classes for children who show special academic ability. The idea of total equality of opportunity for all people creates a barrier against such segregation, though there are inevitably many people, particularly in the educational world, who think that such segregation is desirable, and current opinion is mainly in favour of some selectivity on academic grounds.
Once children have reached high school they are very conscious of the need to obtain good marks in their high school work if they wish to go on to a university of high reputation. Some universities arc very selective in their admission, while others will admit uny students
provided thut they huve pitted through all of the high school courses up to the final or twelfth grade, even if they have obtained rather low minimum pass marks in their high school courses. High schools generally organise much activity outside the classroom, for example, societies to which the pupils may belong, orchestras and brass bands, and there is also organised school sport. Every large high school has its football team and also teams for basketball, baseball and other sports. The football team is perhaps the most important, supported by cheerleaders, a marching band and majorettes.
One of the characteristics of high school education is its great breadth. Pupils do not specialise in any particular direction, and they take classes in all kinds of subjects all through the high school period. They are given an immense choice of academic and non-academic courses. Sometimes pupils complain that the progress is very slow and that they do not learn very much, but this is a factor connected with the inclusion of children of all levels of academic ability in the same school and in the same class. Children who are rather backward in learning are often allowed to go on to the next grade even though their work suggests that they should repeat a grade.
Although the state school systems are intended to provide equal opportunity for all, there are inevitably great differences between schools. Many high schools in the central city areas include large proportions of pupils who are reluctant to go to school at all. Juvenile delinquency is high among pupils in schools of this type, and teachers often have a very difficult job.
Because many big city high schools have a reputation for roughness, middle-class parents are anxious to place their children in schools in which a different atmosphere will predominate. Such people tend to live in suburbs, and a suburban high school is likely to be dominated by pupils striving towards university entrance. There are a few expensive private schools but there is no significant tradition of privileged or prestigious private education below the level of the university. On the other hand, some unfavourable impressions of the public system, together with devices aimed at increasing the social and racial ‘mix’ in public schools since the 1960s, have tended to stimulate private education in the past few years.