Introduction to the American Curriculum
How is the US curriculum different from that of the UK?
Unlike the UK, the United States does not have a single, centralised curriculum. Instead, education is the responsibility of state and local government - meaning that the curricula can vary from state to state. Each state has its own department of education, financing systems, hiring practices for teachers, rules on student attendance and curriculum. Each state also determines the ages and/or years of compulsory education. In some states, education is only compulsory until age 16; in others students must continue until the age of 18.
That said, states are required to test students in reading and maths in Grades 3 to 8, and then once during their time at high school.
Other differences between UK and US Curricula
In the British National Curriculum, there are "key stages” and children are usually tested at the end of each key stage. This is followed by the two-year GCSE program and more exams, and then the two-year A Level program and more exams. The British system could be considered a "winnowing” system as students are moved towards increased specialism on the way to university.
The US system places less emphasis on exams, and students continue to study all subjects through all school grades to the end of high-school.
A broad base of learning
In the UK, students will choose "options” in Year 9, dropping several subjects in favour of specialising in a handful at GCSE level. Although the core subjects of Maths, English and Science are compulsory, this system does force children to drop one or more humanities, arts and languages in order to focus on GCSEs.
In the US there is a more broad base of learning, and students are encouraged to continue learning all subjects for as long as possible.
In the UK, from 16-18 students study A Levels which again cuts back their learning base to a handful of subjects. In the US, high-school usually continues until the age of 18, without the necessity to remove any subjects. Many feel that this is a significant advantage of the US curriculum, as it allows pupils to continue studying a wide range of subjects without having to choose specialisms at the age of 14 (for GCSEs) or 16 (for A Levels).
What does this mean for international schools?
Since there is no standardised curriculum across the US, each American international school will have a different curriculum. American international schools are usually accredited by a regional body in the US, and will follow the curriculum of that particular state.
Here in the UK, children begin school in Reception Year at age 4, moving into Year 1 at the age of 5. In the US, Kindergarten begins at age 5, making it the equivalent of the UK Year 1. Grade 1 in the US is equivalent to Year 2 in the UK, and this goes on through Grades until Grade 12 when the student is aged 17-18.
In the US there is preschool, but state provided education does not begin until Kindergarten at age 5 - one year later than in the UK. In many school districts Kindergarten is only part time.
In the UK, students will leave school with either A Levels or GCSEs - a set of standardised, nationally recognised exams which are the same across the country. In the US, students leave high-school with a collection of assessments which aim to demonstrate they are ready for either college or work. Some high-schools do issue a high-school diploma upon satisfactory completion of Grade 12, but this is not standardised across the country in the same way as A Levels; the requirements for the high-school diploma are set by each individual state and so can vary.
At the end of high-school, students are issue with a Grade Point Average or GPA which is the average score taken from the student’s tests, mid-terms, final exams, essays, homework assignments, group work, classroom participation, projects and attendance. In some states and schools students also receive a class rank, showing how they compare to their peers. The GPA is not standardised across schools or states and so can vary; an A graded essay or assignment in one school or state may be a B or even a C in another.
Students across the US do sit SAT which is a standardised test used for college admissions.
The federal government has made an attempt to standardise the curriculum across the United States, introducing the Common Core. This is a set of standards in maths and English outlining what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each school grade.
The Common Core is voluntary, and forty-two states originally adopted it, alongside the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity. Since its inception, a handful of states have withdrawn from the Common Core, and it has proved controversial.
Moving forward, President Trump looks set to introduce more changes to the American education system
Popularity of the American Curriculum
Despite the struggles involved in standardising education across states, the American curriculum is still very popular; in fact, it is the third most widely used curriculum in international schools, after the British National Curriculum and the International Baccalaureate. Up to 75% of pupils in American international schools are not American; some are from the host country, and some from other countries. Many non-Americans will opt to use the US curriculum because it helps to familiarise children with the American education system, preparing them for attending a college in the United States.