First of all, a disclaimer: This node will cover the history and current state of public American high schools. The evolution of private and/or foreign high schools will not be covered; however, I will contrast the current American public school system with international school systems2 I was PLANNING to contrast the American public school system with international models, but the writeup just got too friggin' long.


In relation to the span of human teaching, the modern American school system is quite new. While education has existed since children watched their parents hit furry creatures with stones, the cohesive, (relatively) efficient machine called the American school system has only been around for about 150 years.

The year is 1837. Thomas Jefferson died nine years ago, and now, the liberal state of Massachusetts created a state board of education. The board's first secretary, Horace Mann, is oft credited with the rejuvenation of the educational system in Massachusetts.

Mann roved the entire state, interviewing and gathering data. He wrote up his findings into candid reports, sparing nothing and nobody. Of course, he made enemies, but after twelve years and his resignation, he had done an amazing feat.

During his reign, school appropriations had doubled. Teachers were paid more; they were also expected to teach more. Massachusetts built three state-sponsored schools to assist the teachers; these schools were the first of their kind in America.

The idea that forcing children to learn the same material was good had taken root in Massachusetts. Henry Barnard, quieter and more reserved than Mann, achieved in Connecticut and Rhode Island similar results to that of Mann. The idea flowered, and began to spread its seeds…

These schools focused on primary education. Once the common school was firmly entrenched, people began to wonder if it would be beneficial to allow children to extend their education. Thus, the high school was born.

The first high school opened in Boston in 1821. Originally known as the English Classical School, the institution was soon called the English High School. In 1825 New York followed suit, opening the first high school outside of New England.

However, the general idea of a secondary, tax-supported school system remained in contention until the 1870s, when Michigan's supreme court declared that the high school was a necessary part of the state's public institution.

From that point, the general format of education stayed wholly consistent, while a number of landmarks made sudden and significant changes, such as desegregation, bussing, etcetera. The material taught, on the other hand, slowly evolved as new discoveries were made.

Current State:

Most likely, you've already read the 'angsty teen bullshit' that fills the rest of this node. That is, for the most part, the general consensus amongst geeks regarding high school. A place that sucks, at its best. I will try and take a slightly less emotional approach, although it should be noted that I generally agree with the above nodes. The following draws largely upon my own high school; others WILL be different. I present mine only as an example.

There are three main types of high school in the United States. There is the common public high school; I refer to that most of the time when I speak of a high school.

There are also vocational high schools. These are designed to allow people to learn an economically useful skill, such as plumbing, carpentry, etc. A certain amount of vocational training is built into the common public high school; however, if you truly wish to learn one trade at an early age, this is for you.

Behind door number three, and by far the least common, lies the specialized school. They often teach music; many teach a more traditional kind of art. Some even teach science. See High School of Music and Art in New York City and the Bronx High School of Science

As jw_rush notes, the American high school system is broken up thusly: After completing kindergarten and first through sixth grade, students will usually go to middle- or junior high- school for two years. After this, they will proceed to high school. At 18 (or later, should they be held back) they will graduate and go beyond the free, public, state-sponsored, tax-supported school system. Some will get jobs and begin work immediately; others will go to college for however long is necessary and/or feasible.

Due to state-, rather than government- sponsorship, curriculums vary somewhat from state to state. Of course, to a lesser degree, they also vary district-to-district, and even year-to-year.

All high schools teach the basics: English, History / Social Studies, Science, Mathematics. Most also include a foreign language (French or Spanish are favorites). Music, either through an instrument or chorus, is often found, as are artistic courses. Health and Physical Education are staples of the American high school.

Electives vary from school to school; the wealthier the neighborhood, the more enriching the curriculum will be. Subjects such as Home Economics, Keyboarding, and Cooking can be found in nearly all schools. Programming, Metalworking and Business Law are examples of what may be found in a wealthier institution.

Courses are usually the basics plus a few electives. A computer mixes and matches the students to create a schedule where everyone gets courses they like, and no teacher is too overburdened.

This is done some weeks or even months before school starts, in order for the students to have proper notification.

At the beginning of the school year (normally late August or early September), pupils have a week or so to 'get oriented,' where assignments are sparse and weak. Summer assignments may be scrutinized during this adjustment period.

The standard courses are generally split up so that bricks my be spit out uniformly. That is to say, 'intelligent' kids are lumped with 'intelligent' kids, while 'normal' kids attend classes with other 'normal' kids.

The high school I am familiar with classifies its courses thusly, in ascending order of knowledge required: Fundamental, Standard, College Placement (CP), Honors, and Advanced Placement (AP).

The day, for the students, starts as early as six o'clock in the morning, when they get up to have breakfast, shower, etc, before the bus comes to whisk them to school. Some kids are driven by their parents, or they walk, but they remain in the minority. The day begins at school around eight AM, when homeroom and announcements are over, and classes begin.

The students have seven (plus or minus a few) periods per day. These periods can range from a half-hour to an hour and a half in length. Five minutes are given to shuffle between classes, book bags slung low on the back. It seems that book bags are allowed to be carried with students at all times; this came as a pleasant surprise to somebody who had been forced to struggle with ungainly piles of books and papers daily.

Homework is usually given at the end of each class; the amount varies, although it seems like a total of two hours of work per night, five days a week, is considered ideal.

Midway through the day, the drones march to the cafeteria, where they buy glop, which they proceed to eat. 2 High school food should have a node of it's own, and probably does. I will not discuss it here.

Homework, test averages, class attendance, and whatever else the teacher feels like including are tallied at the 14, 12, 3/4, and at the end of the school year. The teachers give each of their students a grade. For each individual student, a report card is written up, listing the various grades that they have accumulated throughout the year in their courses.

The exact grades vary from school to school; some classes give pass/fail rather than percentage marks; some give Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory / Outstanding marks. These are from my school; YMMV:

Letter Grade || Percentage
A || 93-100
B || 85-92
C || 77-84
D || 70-76
F || 69 or below

It is customary for two large exams1 to be given at the halfway point and at the end of the school year; these are known as the midterms and the Finals. Plurals are due to the fact that all of the classes, even most of the electives, have their tests during the same two week period.

At the end of the year, the grades are tallied. If a person has collected enough points in each course, a quarter-credit is awarded for each marking period that the disciple has taken the course for. If enough credits have been accumulated, then the student is passed, ushered into the next level. A freshman (9th grade) becomes a sophomore (10th grade) becomes a junior (11th grade) becomes a senior (12th grade) becomes graduated.

Should the student fail to accumulate enough credits (that is, fails enough courses, or fails English), then they are held back: they must repeat that grade until they complete the curriculum to the satisfaction of their teachers.

There are a number of complaints about the American school system; some are legitimate, some are not. I will not cover any here, other than to say that I personally believe that the school system has done a hell of a good job at what it does.


And now for something completely different:

12:17 <xdjio> "high school is all about the cock"

See also:

1 I always have preferred the French term for a quiz: L'interro. Makes me all warm and tingly inside as I think of a torturing….

2 Random Facts about the French Educational System

The 12th grade is entirely optional. (Update:Linca says: School is compulsory until 16, and baccalaureat is nearly compulsory to get to University. How you score on it isn't as important as getting it.

However, most attend, in order to gain an edge

On the test from Hell.

Imagine the SATs, five times as hard and fifty times as important.

You're getting closer.

Known as the baccalauréat, informally as le bac, this test determines the future of whoever takes it. Do poorly on the test, and you are almost guaranteed to be barred from the best jobs; fail the test entirely, and you"ll be lucky if you get a job at all.Update: mkb says: "Splitting" to spit out bricks uniformly is called "class tracking". Scheduling is getting more complicated with blocks and stuff. The diminutif of baccalauréat is spelled "le bac", not le bacc. French students may get wednesdays off, but they have an 8 hour day AND they have to go in Saturday mornings!

It is said that the teenage suicide rate increases sixfold around the time of le bac; I do not know the veracity of the origin of the rumor, but it does not seem entirely unlikely.

French kids also get two hours per day for lunch, which isn't always held on school grounds, and they also get Wednesdays off.

The French grading system is done on a 1 to 20 point scale. It is a very harsh grading system; 10 or 12 points is the average. Students usually hover just above the point of failing. A grade above 17 is extremely rare, and usually reserved for when the teacher is taught something significant by the student.

Britannica: Micropædia Ready Reference -> High School
Britannica: Micropædia Ready Reference -> Secondary School
The World Book Encyclopedia -> Education

And, of course, much thanks to: Apple Computer for making awesome computers, and
That crazy goat who discovered caffeine, as well as: