The US education system has similarities to likes of Canada, Germany, and the UK, though with notable differences. It is important to understand these to ensure that there are no surprises for you and your children when moving to the US.

School governance

To start, the US federal government has very limited involvement, as each state emphasises different and additional aspects of a vague national curriculum, such as in the Canadian education system.

Even local districts within the same state may have individual criteria, similar to the German education system. It is advisable to contact your state board or school directly to ascertain the suitability for your child if you are uncertain.

American school terminology

Typically children start some sort of regulated schooling around five years old until the age of 17 or 18. Prior to this, preschools are available (nursery schools in the UK).

US GradeAge
9th (Freshman)14-15
10th (Sophomore)15-16
11th (Junior)16-17
12th (Senior)17-18

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In the USA, each year group is known as a ‘grade’, and children start ‘elementary school’ at ‘Kindergarten’ in the USA, equivalent to a primary school ‘reception’ class or year 1 in the UK. After finishing high school, students generally move on to college (university) dependent upon grades and aspirations for tertiary education.

If you’re moving to the UK from the US, read our guide to the differences between the UK and US education system.

Subjects taught in American schools

States set lists of subjects required for graduation from high school including:

  • English
  • Math
  • Foreign language (languages vary by school availability)
  • Physical education
  • Art or music
  • General science
  • Social studies (history, politics, and geography)

Students’ progress throughout the academic year are noted in report cards, sent home for parents and other caretakers to review. Grades are given out in letter form: A, B, C, D, and F, with A as the highest.

School guidance counsellors assist students, with the agreement of parents, as the path to higher education is decided upon. A student completing 12th grade to a satisfactory standard is granted a “high school diploma”.

Advanced Placement courses

Choices of non-compulsory subjects and level of study are offered, and there are Advanced Placement (AP) courses that students can elect to take.

These courses culminate in a nationwide final exam in May, where upon passing with a certain grade (not standardised across colleges), students may earn college credit simultaneously.

The US academic year

The US school year is shorter than the UK academic year, for example, with 2 semesters rather than 3 terms for primary and secondary school. Semesters generally start late August/early September to mid December and then from January to May or mid June.

There are generally seven individual public holidays (similar to Bank Holidays) that are observed, though each state may have its own additional holidays.

Semester breaks are usually two weeks for Christmas, one week in the Spring, and two days in the fall (autumn) for Thanksgiving. However, each school district across the country can have a different schedule.

Public school vs private school in the US

Like in the UK, there are two school systems in the USA; the terminology however is reversed. Roughly 85-90% of children attend ‘public schools’ which are funded by the federal government and the particular state the school is in.

Public schools are free and are allocated according where you live within the school district. Similar to the UK ‘catchment’ areas, every neighbourhood has a designated elementary, middle, and high school, though you may apply to another under certain circumstances, or if you want your child to attend a magnet or charter school (see below).

While open to all children, public schools allocate to classes according to educational abilities and aspirations – what has been known as “streaming” in the UK. Later, those hoping to go to university will find themselves in different classes to children who wish to take a vocational route.

Magnet and charter schools

Within the American public school system are magnet and charter schools, which are free to attend, though there is usually an application process.

The difference between these schools and usual public schools in America is that these types of schools may have a particular focus in certain subjects, such as the sciences or performing arts.

American private schools

Only around 10% of children in the US attend fee-based private schools. Run by governing boards, these schools are not required to adopt regulations that public schools are legally obliged to adhere to. They also do not have the same standards of teaching or follow the same curriculum as public schools.

There are many private schools with excellent reputations, though the costs are usually more than the average American family can afford, especially families with multiple children. Some schools have scholarships and other means of financial aid to students with educational promise.

The benefits are a smaller student population, usually with access to less widespread school subjects and an assumption that all of the pupils wish to attend four year colleges or further study.