The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Executive Summary

The landscape of education in the United States is characterized by diversity. This includes diversity in the socioeconomic backgrounds of students, curricula, types of programs, size of classes, and resources available to the schools. This diversity is generated, in part, by a tradition of local control of schools by boards of education, which are composed of members chosen through local elections, and it is these boards of education that bear the responsibility for overseeing the funding of schools. The resources available to schools depend on the size of the local tax base and the willingness of local residents to approve increases in funding for schools.

Diversity was evident in the actual practices and resources among the schools in the three locations. One elementary school was experimenting with nonage-graded classrooms. Another was using portfolios instead of grades to evaluate students. Whole class instruction was observed, as well as the use of cooperative learning groups. In terms of resources, some schools had the latest model computers, for example, while the computers available in other schools were more than a decade old.

We try in this volume not to concentrate on these types of diversity but to focus on typical public schools in the United States at three levels: elementary, junior high, and senior high. The challenge has been to provide a composite profile of typical schools. The findings that emerged from the interviews and observations allow us to attempt to draw such profiles.


We found that the typical school has adopted curriculum standards or guidelines proposed by state departments of education, rather than by a national body. One exception is the influential set of national guidelines developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Many schools have used these guidelines to upgrade their mathematics curriculum and have enthusiastically embraced the NCTM guidelines. These guidelines describe the accomplishments that would be expected of students at various grade levels. In addition, a set of national education goals, known as Goals 2000, has served to provide goals to be attained by the nation in the next several years. By indicating, for example, that the nation should be number one in math and science by the year 2000, the goals function as additional guidelines for schools. It seems unlikely, on the basis of comments by teachers and parents, that the interest in improving standards for education will result in explicit sets of national guidelines or goals, but rather that such efforts will result in the adoption of voluntary standards prepared by nongovernmental organizations.

Most of the teachers, administrators, parents, and even students recognized the need for increasing academic standards and were supportive of adopting higher such standards for all students. At the same time, many expressed concerns about the standardized tests and examinations used to measure attainment of standards. Some teachers and administrators criticized standardized tests as being administered too frequently and without a clear purpose.

Teachers and administrators were also concerned about having the results from standardized tests evaluated in comparison with those from schools in other, more advantaged neighborhoods with fewer social problems. Others expressed concern that cultural biases were inherent in standardized testing. At the same time, the greatest fear among many of the teachers was that higher standards could lead to the need to "teach to the test" rather than to nurturing the unique qualities and abilities of each child. Standardized test scores of students, in addition to informing the teachers and administrators at a school, often were interpreted by parents as an index of the quality of the school and became an important influence in such matters as parents' decisions about where to live or to purchase housing.

Despite the general interest in improving standards, both parents and teachers, especially teachers at the primary research site, expressed reservations about the need to adhere to state standards. However, in the typical school, teachers were not expected to organize their lessons in a manner that would be considered "teaching to the test." Rather, teachers were given a great deal of autonomy in presenting the curriculum and in developing their own unit tests for in-class use. A limited amount of test preparation, often including in-class review of questions from old examinations, did take place in some schools several weeks before the administration of the state's standardized tests.

Ability Differences

Discussions held with parents and teachers about differences in ability among children revealed broad recognition of differences in students' achievement in mathematics and science. The breakdown of the family, poverty, and lack of parental involvement in their children's schooling were often cited by parents, teachers, and students as barriers to academic achievement for many students, and they perceived the demographic trends in these areas as the primary sources of problems that have emerged in the country's schools. Most respondents stated that, more than anything else, the presence or absence of family support was the basis of differences in students' achievement in mathematics and science.

The schools we visited dealt with differences in ability in many ways, but nearly all had developed some form of tracking or ability grouping. Tracking was common in junior and senior high schools, while the more common practice in elementary schools was to rely on "pull-outs," in which children needing special assistance were removed from their regular classroom for special tutoring. Separating students into tracks or ability groups on the basis of academic achievement was a source of friction between teachers, administrators, and parents. The contradictions between the goal of meeting each students' needs and objections to the practices of tracking and grouping were hard to resolve for many parents, many of whom stated that they wanted fairness but also wanted their children to be challenged academically.

Programs for gifted students were less common than remedial programs, and most schools that we visited spent a considerable portion of their resources on remedial instruction. Special education programs were also common, but enrolling children with disabilities in regular classrooms was a frequent practice, especially during the elementary school years.

Many of the conversations about ability differences eventually resulted in discussions of special education programs for students of low academic ability, as well as for those with emotional, psychological, and physical handicaps. Every school in the sample had remedial and special education programs, but the degree to which physical and monetary resources were available for these programs varied widely.

Among high school students, individual differences in ability and achievement were typically handled by enrolling students in classes of different levels of difficulty. This was true for high school courses in mathematics and science, where courses were usually taught at vocational, general, and advanced levels. Many high schools also offered advanced-placement courses. The courses in which college-bound students enrolled depended upon their ability, interests, and prior preparation. The typical school system attempted to meet the instructional needs of students of different levels of achievement and motivation through these procedures, while at the same time attempting to maintain equality of access and opportunity to all students.

No national policy exists regarding the treatment of ability differences among students. Although federal law mandates particular types of programs for students with special needs, local school districts and school administrators tended to implement those practices that they believed were most appropriate for their situation.


Adolescents in the United States juggle many activities, of which academic performance is important but not necessarily central. Many expended a great deal of time in nonacademic activities, such as socializing with friends and participating in sports and other types of extracurricular activities.

High value was placed on being well rounded, and most students said they strove to be good at a number of things, including their schoolwork. Parents, teachers, and students alike said that colleges expect more from incoming students than solid academic records; as a result, many students try hard to do well in nonacademic endeavors. Rather than being perceived primarily as places for academic learning, schools in the United States were seen by both students and their parents as places for social, athletic, and career development.

Many of the high school students we interviewed reported having part-time jobs. Part-time employment was valued by many students and parents as a way for students to begin the transition to adulthood and independence, but part-time jobs competed with academics for time and energy.

Most adolescents viewed school as a necessary passage to the next stage in their lives, whether their futures involved additional schooling or seeking a job. Very few schools we visited were oriented toward preparing students for work, in spite of the large numbers of students who enter the work force immediately after graduation. Efforts at counseling and guidance and the materials available for students generally tended to be primarily relevant for college-bound students rather than for the students in vocational education programs.

Middle-class students were generally positive about school and were especially enthusiastic about their math classes, which they often mentioned as their favorite classes. The majority also looked forward to the future and expected that after completing their education they would be qualified for a well-paying job. Students from disadvantaged homes, however, were less enthusiastic about their education and their future and often questioned whether they would be able to find any job at all.


The picture that emerged from discussions with teachers revealed a profession that required its participants to assume multiple roles and to accommodate ever-increasing demands from administrators and parents. Playing these multiple roles often limited the amount of time and energy teachers had available for their professional development and for preparing for their classes.

Teachers had entered the profession for many reasons, including long summer vacations and favorable working conditions for women. It did not take long for them to realize, however, that the profession they had entered was very demanding and often stressful.

Elementary school teachers were trained primarily in professional schools of education, rather than in academic departments in the sciences and humanities. After a period of student teaching, the new teachers in elementary schools were assumed to be capable of handling a full teaching load, which typically included all academic subjects. High school teachers, in contrast, spent much greater amounts of time during their college years studying in the discipline in which they hoped to specialize and either majored or elected many of their courses in that academic subject. Most high school teachers anticipated teaching in no more than one or two subject areas.

Teachers reported working in relative isolation, with limited time and opportunities for collaboration with colleagues. This was not universally the case, however, for in some schools teachers were given high degrees of responsibility for developing the curriculum and the practices and procedures that would be followed in the school. In the case of beginning teachers, in some schools they were given little opportunity to learn from their experienced colleagues; in other schools, it was expected that the new teachers would be guided and assisted by experienced colleagues in their adjustment to full-time teaching.

The schedule of U.S. teachers typically involved teaching at least four or five classes each day. This obligation, in addition to other duties required of teachers, meant that there was little free time for them to interact with other teachers, discuss professional matters, prepare for classes, or grade papers. As a result, most teachers completed some of these duties at home, after-school hours. Teachers generally arrived at school early each morning and unless they were required to attend meetings or to supervise extracurricular activities, left for home in midafternoon.

There was a tendency for teachers to seek positions in suburban school districts at the expense of urban schools. Suburban districts often offered teachers more flexibility, higher pay, more motivated students, and more favorable working conditions. In addition, suburban students were often better prepared for school and there was greater parental support and involvement in education. Given these incentives, urban schools experience difficulty in retaining skilled teachers.

In an era when efforts at school reform have become widespread, teachers reported that they were often overburdened by the need to adhere to the reforms in curricula, innovations in teaching practices, and new administrative tasks. In schools where there was little or no assistance for teachers, these additional responsibilities were reported to be overwhelming. Because of the rapidity of change and the increase in demands, the main complaint of U.S. teachers was lack of time to accomplish all of the tasks for which they were responsible.

General Attitudes

The choices made by parents, teachers, and students reflected many values, of which the desire for independence was one of the strongest. The desire for independence appeared repeatedly during the interviews and observations. Allowing students the freedom to dress as they wished in school and to choose courses that matched their personal interests and goals were some of the ways in which schools met the students' need for independence. The large number of elective courses in American high schools and the ability of teachers to devise their own interpretations of the curriculum are other examples of the desire for independence that appears to characterize participants in education in the United States.

There was a great deal of optimism among students, especially among students from middle-class families. Many expressed high academic and occupational aspirations for themselves-aspirations that were sometimes unlikely to be met because the student's poor performance in school would limit his or her access to the accomplishments and experience necessary for obtaining the desired schooling or job.

We conducted this study in a time of many transitions and innovations in U.S. school systems and of increased emphasis nationally on the improvement of education. As a result of this heightened level of activity and interest in education, we observed a degree of diversity in approaches to education that has seldom been matched in the history of education in the United States. The next step will be to evaluate how successfully these various approaches meet the increasing demands that are being placed on U.S. schools.


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