The American education system: An overview


One important decision, if you’re moving to the United States with family, is how to ensure that your children have the best possible education. Because the states set their own educational standards, and play a big part in structuring and funding public schools, there are wide variations in both how schools run, and the standards that they attain. As an expat, you can choose to send your child to a state run public school, a private school or home educate them. If you choose a fee paying school, you'll also be able to select the syllabus and exam system you think is best for your child. For example, you might choose an international school which follows the international baccalaureate programme, or look for a school that uses the curriculum of your home country if you intend to return there after living in the USA.

If you’re considering your options, you can compare the standard of education in the United States with that available in your home country, with the PISA assessment framework from the OECD. The USA hits a level on a par with other OECD countries, when reviewed by subject, but it's interesting to note that US public schools get especially good results for immigrant students compared to other countries.

Whether you’ve already got your American work visa and have your move fully planned, or are just starting to think about life overseas, it helps to know a little about the education options in the United States.

Here is a quick guide to get you started.

The American education system

The American education system has varied structures which are set at state level. For most children, compulsory schooling starts at around the age of five to six, and runs for 12 consecutive years. Education is mandatory to the age of at least 16 in all states, with some requiring students to stay in a formal education setting to 18.

Usually pre-school, known as pre-K or pre-kindergarten, is offered for children aged from around three to five years old. Kindergarten is the first year of compulsory education, which is typically taken at the age of five or six. Education then runs for 12 years, either following an elementary, middle, high school structure or splitting into elementary, junior and senior high.

| Pre-K (Pre-school) | Optional in most states, for ages three to five or six years old |
| Elementary(Primary School) | Compulsory education, usually from age five or six for all childrenElementary school lasts for five or six years depending on the state structureEducation at primary level is free |
| Middle School or Junior High | In some states, elementary school runs to grade five, before children move to middle school. Elsewhere, elementary runs to grade six before three years of junior high schoolFree of charge |
| High School or Senior High School(Secondary School) | If the state runs a middle school system, then the last stage of education is high school which students attend from age 14 to 18. If there's a junior high structure, then senior high is the last stage of education, from around age 15 to 18 |

Pre-School (Pre-Kindergarten, or Pre-K)

Pre-school, which is often known as Pre-Kindergarten or Pre-K in the United States, isn't compulsory. Pre-K classes typically run for a year or two, for children ages five to six, but arrangements vary from state to state. Pre-schools are operated by private companies, community organisations, independent childcare providers and can have a specific focus, such as language learning or be a general early education programme. If you want your child to attend you have to enrol directly with the school you have chosen.

Primary School (Elementary)

From the age of around six (depending on state laws), it’s compulsory to attend elementary school in the United States. This stage of schooling is provided free of charge, with places often offered based on where the family lives.

Elementary school usually lasts for five or six grades, starting from kindergarten class. Students progress to the next grade as along as they reach a satisfactory level. If they miss their grades or are otherwise falling behind the class, they're able to redo the year. The curriculum is set on a state and county level but is broad, covering basic skills in math and reading, physical education and in some cases, languages.

Middle School or Junior High

Different states operate slightly different schooling structures after elementary. Some opt for a middle school system, and others have junior high, which starts a year later than the typical middle school. Usually middle school begins when students are around 11 years old, and junior high at age 12. Both typically last for three years.

Middle school is free of charge in the United States and covers both compulsory and elective subjects. The curriculum at this stage remains broad, covering math, science, English, social studies, art and PE.

High School or Senior High School

If the state operates a middle school structure, then students will progress to high school at around age 14. In the junior high system, students move to the senior high school a year later, usually around age 15. In both cases, the school runs through to age 18, although some states allow children to leave school earlier, if they have the permission of their parents. Core subjects are taken by all students, with ‘elective’ subjects selected by the individual to make up the full timetable.

Secondary education varies enormously from place to place, both in terms of structure and quality. Most publicly funded schools offer places based on the residence of the student, with those living closer favoured. However, there are also specialist and vocational schools which accept students under different terms, regardless of where the family lives.

Around ten percent of American students attend privately funded, fee paying schools, which are run by independent organisations and faith groups. Home schooling is also more popular in the USA than in many other countries, with figures suggesting some one and a half million American children learn at home.

What’s the typical school calendar and hours?

The school year in the American public school system runs from around the end of August or early September, through to the end of May or early June. The exact dates are set by states and individual schools. School years are usually split into two semesters or three trimesters, with holiday breaks in between.

Hours vary significantly between schools, and are set on a local level. Because most students in public schools will travel to school on a bus provided by the education department, bussing schedules are taken into account when the timetable is set. The day starts as early as 7am in some school districts, although 8am is more common.

What’s the cost of education?

Public schools in the USA are funded largely through taxes, and are free to parents. However, there can be additional costs for things like uniforms, transport and school materials. If you don't choose the state system and decide to find a private school, the costs are often high.

Private, fee paying schools exist across all states with costs varying depending on the curriculum offered and the location. The national average is around USD 10,000 a year, but some state average costs are over USD 20,000 a year.

Whichever route you decide is best for your family, there will be costs involved in educating your children in the USA. Schooling is often pricey, and you don’t want to be lose any money you don’t have to. If you’re funding your child’s education from your account back home, consider using Wise to get the real exchange rate and cut out expensive international bank transfer fees.

*Please see terms of use and product availability for your region or visit Wise fees and pricing for the most up to date pricing and fee information.

This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.

We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

Money without borders

Find out more

Tips, news and updates for your location