Education in the United States
State governments set overall educational standards, often mandate standardized tests for K–12 public school systems and supervise, usually through a board of regents, state colleges, and universities. Funding comes from the state, local, and federal government. Private schools are generally free to determine their own curriculum and staffing policies, with voluntary accreditation available through independent regional accreditation authorities, although some state regulation can apply.
In 2013, about 87% of school-age children (those below higher education) attended state funded public schools, about 10% attended tuition- and foundation-funded private schools and roughly 3% were home-schooled.
By state law, education is compulsory over an age range starting between five and eight and ending somewhere between ages sixteen and eighteen, depending on the state. This requirement can be satisfied in public schools, state-certified private schools, or an approved home school program. In most schools, compulsory education is divided into three levels: elementary school, middle or junior high school, and high school. Children are usually divided by age groups into grades, ranging from kindergarten (5–6 year olds) and first grade for the youngest children, up to twelfth grade (17–18 years old) as the final year of high school.
There are also a large number and wide variety of publicly and privately administered institutions of higher education throughout the country. Post-secondary education, divided into college, as the first tertiary degree, and graduate school, is described in a separate section below.
The United States spends more per student on education than any other country. In 2014, the Pearson/Economist Intelligence Unitrated US education as 14th best in the world, just behind Russia. In 2015, the Programme for International Student Assessment rated U.S. high school students No. 40 globally in Math and No. 24 in Science and Reading. The President of the National Center on Education and the Economy said of the results “the United States cannot long operate a world-class economy if our workers are, as the OECD statistics show, among the worst-educated in the world”. Former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. acknowledged the results in conceding U.S. students were well behind their peers. According to a report published by the U.S. News & World Report, of the top ten colleges and universities in the world, eight are American (the other two are Oxford and Cambridge, in the United Kingdom).
Colonial New England encouraged its towns to support free public schools funded by taxation. In the early 19th century Massachusetts took the lead in school reform, with programs designed by Horace Mann that were widely emulated across the North. Teachers were especially trained in normal schools and taught the three Rs (of reading, writing, and arithmetic) and also history and geography. Public education was at the elementary level in most places. After the Civil War, the cities began building high schools. The South was far behind northern standards on every educational measure, and gave weak support to its segregated all-black schools. However northern philanthropy and northern churches provided assistance to private black colleges across the South. Religious denominations across the country set up their private colleges. States also opened state universities, but they were quite small well into the 20th century.
In 1823, the Reverend Samuel Read Hall founded the first normal school, the Columbian School in Concord, Vermont,  aimed at improving the quality of the burgeoning common school system by producing more qualified teachers.
In the mid-20th century, the rapidly increasing Catholic population led to the formation of parochial schools in the largest cities. Theologically oriented Episcopalian, Lutheran and Jewish bodies on a smaller scale set up their own parochial schools. There were debates over whether tax money could be used to support them, with the answer typically being no. From about 1876, thirty-nine states passed a constitutional amendment to their state constitutions, called Blaine Amendments after James G. Blaine, one of their chief promoters, forbidding the use of public tax money to fund local parochial schools.
States passed laws to make schooling compulsory between 1852 (Massachusetts) and 1917 (Mississippi). They also used federal funding designated by the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890 to set up land grant colleges specializing in agriculture and engineering. By 1870, every state had free elementary schools, albeit only in urban centers. According to a 2018 study in the Economic Journal, states were more likely to adopt compulsory education laws during the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1914) if they hosted more European immigrants with lower exposure to civic values.
Following Reconstruction the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1881 as a state college, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to train “Colored Teachers,” led by Booker T. Washington, (1856–1915), who was himself a freed slave. His movement spread, leading many other Southern states to establish small colleges for “Colored or Negro” students entitled “A. & M.,” (“Agricultural and Mechanical”) or “A. & T.,” (“Agricultural and Technical”), some of which later developed into state universities. Before the 1940s, there were very few black students at private or state colleges in the North, and almost none in the South.
Responding to the many competing academic philosophies being promoted at the time, an influential working group of educators, known as the Committee of Ten and established in 1892 by the National Education Association, recommended that children should receive twelve years of instruction, consisting of eight years of elementary education (in what were also known as “grammar schools”) followed by four years in high school (“freshmen,” “sophomores,” “juniors,” and “seniors”).
Gradually by the late 1890s, regional associations of high schools, colleges and universities were being organized to coordinate proper accrediting standards, examinations, and regular surveys of various institutions in order to assure equal treatment in graduation and admissions requirements, as well as course completion and transfer procedures.
By 1910, 72 percent of children were attending school. Private schools spread during this time, as well as colleges and – in the rural centers – land grant colleges also. Between 1910 and 1940 the high school movement resulted in rapidly increasing public high school enrollment and graduations. By 1930, 100 percent of children were attending school (excluding children with significant disabilities or medical concerns).
The 1946 National School Lunch Act, which is still in operation, provided low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified low-income students through subsidies to schools, based on the idea that a “full stomach” during the day supported class attention and studying.
The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas made racial desegregation of public elementary and high schools mandatory, although white families often attempted to avoid desegregation by sending their children to private secular or religious schools.   In the years following this decision, the number of Black teachers rose in the North but dropped in the South.
In 1965, the far-reaching Elementary and Secondary Education Act (‘ESEA’), passed as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s War on Poverty, provided funds for primary and secondary education (‘Title I funding’). Title VI explicitly forbade the establishment of a national curriculum. Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 created the Pell Grantprogram which provides financial support to students from low-income families to access higher education.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 made standardized testing a requirement. The Higher Education Amendments of 1972 made changes to the Pell Grants. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities. The 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education report, famously titled A Nation at Risk, touched off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts, but by 1990 the country still spent only 2 per cent of its budget on education, compared with 30 per cent on support for the elderly. In 1990, the EHA was replaced with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which placed more focus on students as individuals, and also provided for more post-high school transition services.
The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, passed by a bipartisan coalition in Congress provided federal aid to the states in exchange for measures to penalize schools that were not meeting the goals as measured by standardized state exams in mathematics and language skills.   In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court diluted some of the century-old “Blaine” laws upheld an Ohio law allowing aid to parochial schools under specific circumstances. The 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education evaluated higher education. In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed legislation replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The Great Recession of 2008-09 caused a sharp decline in tax revenues in all cities and states. The response was to cut education budgets. Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package included $100 billion for public schools, which every state used to protect its educational budget. In terms of sponsoring innovation, however, Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan pursued K-12 education reform through the Race to the Top grant program. With over $15 billion of grants at stake, 34 states quickly revised their education laws according to the proposals of advanced educational reformers. In the competition points were awarded for allowing charter schools to multiply, for compensating teachers on a merit basis including student test scores, and for adopting higher educational standards. There were incentives for states to establish college and career-ready standards, which in practice meant adopting the Common Core State Standards Initiative that had been developed on a bipartisan basis by the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The criteria were not mandatory, they were incentives to improve opportunities to get a grant. Most states revised their laws accordingly, even though they realized it was unlikely they would when a highly competitive new grant. Race to the Top had strong bipartisan support, with centrist elements from both parties. It was opposed by the left wing of the Democratic Party, and by the right wing of the Republican Party, and criticized for centralizing too much power in Washington. Complaints also came from middle-class families, who were annoyed at the increasing emphasis on teaching to the test, rather than encouraging teachers to show creativity and stimulating students’ imagination.