Write what you know… unless it’s wrong – the US school system

4/13/2010 5:26:23 PM

As most of my readers probably know, I write fanfiction. I’m partial to Thunderbirds, the 1960s Supermarionation TV show. I also write for the 2004 live-action movie of the same name, though not as much (one work-in-progress and one simmering plot bunny so far).

The movie has a unique problem; it is partially set at a private, all-boys school in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, a lot of the writers for the movie aren’t American. They don’t know what the American school system is like. So, they make the school English (and sometimes even ignore the movie and place the school in England). These are usually young writers, who don’t really feel it’s important to actually do any research. One recently told me that she couldn’t find a site online that explained things and she didn’t know any Americans to ask.  

So, this post is going to be that reference. It’s a copy of what I posted at Thunderbirds Central’s forum. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to add them to the thread or to email me.


The US Department of Education mandates that children be educated from ages 5 through 18. There are basically two different models used. Where they are used is up to the individual school system (town or county level usually, sometimes state).

Elementary/Junior High/Senior High model

  • Elementary school – age 4 through age 12 – grades are Kindergarten 4 (4 years old), Kindergarten 5 (5 years old), grades 1-6
  • Junior High – age 12-14 – grades 7 and 8 (sometimes grade 9 might be added here if there’s no room at the high school level
  • High School – ages 14-18 – grades 9 through 12 (also known as Freshmen (9), Sophomores (10), Juniors (11), and Seniors (12) )

Elementary/Middle/High School model

  • Elementary school – ages 4 through 11 – grades Kindergarten 4, Kindergarten 5, grades 1-5
  • Middle school – ages 11 through 14 – grades 6-8
  • High School – ages 14-18 – grades 9 through 12 (also known as Freshmen (9), Sophomores (10), Juniors (11), and Seniors (12) )

Age breakdown:
(Students begin at the first age and are usually the second before the school year ends. The cut-off for birthdays varies from place to place. Usually a child must be the lower age before school starts; it is seen as desirable that a child be the appropriate age before starting school.)

  • Kindergarten 4-age 4 to 5 (usually not mandatory)
  • Kindergarten 5-age 5 to 6 (mandatory from here on out)
  • Grade 1-age 6 to 7
  • Grade 2-age 7-8
  • Grade 3-age 8-9
  • Grade 4-age 9-10
  • Grade 5-age 10-11
  • Grade 6-age 11-12
  • Grade 7-age 12-13
  • Grade 8-age 13-14
  • Grade 9 (Freshman)-age 14-15
  • Grade 10 (Sophomore)-age 15-16
  • Grade 11 (Junior)-age 16-17
  • Grade 12 (Senior)-age 17-18

After age 18, a student may choose to go to college or university. The two are distinguished by both the breadth of the major courses of study they offer and which terminal degree. Colleges usually will offer Bachelor’s and Master’s; a University will offer the first two, and also offer Doctorate programs. Some students choose to go to a technical college, where they can learn a trade and gain a two-year Associate degree. Going on to higher education is not mandatory, and is dependent largely on a student’s interests, their financial situation, and their scores on the SAT or ACT tests, which they would take their Junior and Senior years in High School.

Some British to American translations:

marks = grades. “He had bad grades on his report card.”
headmaster = principal. “Alan was sent to the principal.”

There’s no real “head teacher” over a school, though there might be a department head for each subject. This position is at the middle/junior/high school level and has more to do with organizing the teachers than disciplining the students. Some larger middle or high schools may have “Vice principals”; their job is discipline if the school is too big for the principal to handle.   Many US schools also have a  “resource officer”, a police officer who is attached to the school. They can make arrests–as in the case of fights or contraband–or bring in a K-9 officer to conduct drug searches. Also, most public schools do not use uniforms, though they usually have some sort of dress code. Private schools often do require uniforms, and those that do not tend to have stricter dress codes than public schools do.

Expulsion is almost last resort. Detentions both during school hours or after school would be first, then possibly an in-school suspension; a short expulsion of 3 days to a week might follow. Final expulsion is a very last resort and I believe might have to be approved at levels higher than a school principal, and accompanied by legal hearings with the local school board. There would have been conferences with the parents long before things got to that level. Even then, an expelled student might be sent to an alternative school program, depending on the offense. There are some offenses for which expulsion is immediate: carrying drugs or weapons, for example. Here in the States, every effort is made to keep a troublesome student in an official learning environment.  

Homeschooling is acceptable for educating children in most states, for a variety of reasons. Each state has its own requirements and guidelines that parents must adhere to in order to have their children’s education recognized.

Studies and grading:

Both of these would change at the school system level; I can only give a general overview from my own experience.

At the Kindergarten levels, subjects would be very basic Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science, with a heavy emphasis on reading. Marks are E for Excellent, S for Satisfactory,   N for Needs Improvement, or U for Unsatisfactory.

Grades 1-3 would have Language, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies (History), PE (physical education), Art, and Music. There might also be courses for computer use. PE, Art, Music, and Computer might be considered “Related Arts” courses, as they are not integral to the basic curriculum. Related arts would be taught by a teacher other than the primary one; everything else is taught by one teacher throughout the day.

Grades 4-5 or 6 would have Language, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Spelling, Writing, Reading, PE, Art, Music, and Computer. PE would use a gymnasium and possibly outdoor fields and basketball courts. Again, PE, Art, Music and Computer might be considered “Related Arts” and be taught for one quarter or one semester.  

The grading for this level either uses letters or numbers. My children’s school system uses numbers,and break them down like so: A = 100-93, B = 92-85, C=84-77, D=76-70, and U=69 and below. The S for Satisfactory, U for Unsatisfactory would be used in classes like Music, Art, PE and Computer.

Grades 7-8 (grade 6 if the middle school model is used) would have English, Math, Science, Social Studies (or History), and elective classes including languages, keyboarding, computer technology, PE, Art, Music, Band, Drama, Shop (Woodworking or other hands-on courses), Family studies (cooking, sewing, nutrition, etc.). Each course would have a different teacher.

Elective courses are chosen by the student (that doesn’t mean they get their first or second choices, though) and would last usually a half year and others would chosen to replace them for the second half.

Sciences and Math classes would differ according to grades and proficiency. Some advanced classes would earn the student high school credit, as well as fulfilling middle school/junior high requirements.

High School (grades 9-12) usually has a wider variety of course choice. Students are required to have a certain number of credits from each major study group (English, Mathematics, History/Social Studies, Science, and Languages), and some courses are required or serve as prerequisites for higher-level choices. It is here that preparation for college truly begins.

English may include electives such as Mythology, Young Adult literature, and other literary electives, with actual writing courses alternating. Mathematics are scaled to grade and proficiency: Geometry, Algebra 2, and Calculus are a few of the courses that come to mind. Social Studies would focus on one aspect of history: World History, American History, State History, or Geography are possible subjects. Science would also be scaled to grade level and proficiency: Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics are possible subjects.

A foreign language is usually required. Most schools teach French and Spanish; some will add in German or Latin.

The list of elective courses would expand as well, and some courses would be taken by either the quarter or the semester. Students who do not do well in the academic courses might be put on a course track that would lead to graduation, but not to higher education at college or university. Those who show proficiency in both their coursework and their standardized testing (some form of which is done every year from third grade on) will be recommended for more advanced coursework. Some students will be tapped to take Advanced Placement (AP) level courses; these courses earn college credit.

Students only graduate by completing their coursework and passing a proficiency exam.


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