Education in the United States: Then and Now

Posted by: Sheryl Bistransky, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kyiv

Читати українською

On the first day of school in Ukraine, we asked Cultural Affairs Officer Shari Bistransky to talk about education in the US and share her experience about the first day of school.

Sheryl Bistransky, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kyiv
Sheryl Bistransky, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kyiv

The United States doesn’t have a Ministry of Education or a national education policy. The US education system is set up as state system rather than a national system. There normally is a state structure, a Department of Education or an Office of Education, where they make decisions about curriculum, textbooks, and things like that. We do have regulations nationwide that say the curriculum has to meet certain requirements.

We start at kindergarten at 5 years old. Now it is really common to have organized pre-school, and many kids start at school at 3-4 years old learning letters, learning songs, and counting. So, then there’s primary school that goes from 5 till about 11, then middle school, and then our traditional high school, which goes for 4 additional years, which is 9th grade through 12th grade. And then off to college.

I remember my first day of school as if it were yesterday. I was 5 years old. I was wearing a purple dress. I had on white lace tights I was so proud of. I had my hair cut fresh and brushed. I had a little sign that was cut in green construction paper that had my name on it, my address, and my telephone number. Because we had a school bussing system, and for the first day of school for the new kindergarteners you wanted to make sure to be labeled, so that people could get you where you needed to go. And I could hear the bus, and I was so excited, and I ran out the front door, and I ran to the bus… and I fell. I tripped on the step of the bus, went down hard, broke the skin on both knees, tore my white stockings, and I was injured so severely that there was blood pouring down both of my legs. The bus monitor picked me up, put me on a seat, and the first thing I saw at school on my first day was the nurse. Terrible story. (Laughing)

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

School year in the US starts in August. When I went to school, it was traditional for school to start on the first Tuesday after Labor Day (the first Monday in September).  But now with more and more schools in the States going to a year-long school calendar or wanting to fit in more vacation during the school year, a longer break at New Year for example, or a spring break, school start times are getting earlier and earlier and earlier.

On average, kids have a class three hours a week. When I was in middle school, the school day was organized in seven 50-minute classes and with a 5-minute break between, so that you had every class that you took every day. So in high school it was Math, English, Grammar and Composition, English Literature, Science, Foreign language (I studied French in high school), and then the seventh period would be some kind of arts, whether it was choir or instrumental music, or drama. What I see now in schools where my kids are and where their friends are, they’ve gotten away from every class every day, and have done more like a class three hours a week or four hours a week, and what this allows is for longer class periods and lab time for sciences.

Speaking about the financial side of school, public school in the United States in all districts is free of charge. Public schools are supported by local property taxes. School is required, and school is provided. There are private schools that you can send your child to, but they are generally expensive and the government will not provide that for you.

One of the greatest things about the university education is the opportunity to meet people you disagree with. When you are in school, when you are young, you hang out with your friends, you’ve got your peer group, the people like you. In university, that all kind of goes away, and you have to learn to make your way with people who are not like you. That is huge.

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

There is a lot of freedom at university. University students actually do not have to say what degree they are pursuing until the third year of university education. You will, in your first two years, take Math, Science, Psychology, and History, etc. Only once you do that, then you start on the course work for your specialty, your major, your minor – what your main course of study is and then your secondary course of study. Within that major and that minor, there are requirements that you have to fulfill. My sister, who did s pre-medical school program, and I, who studied international relations, we did the same first two years more or less, but then she did a lot more in Organic Chemistry, Heavy math, Biology, and I am taking History and Politics. Once you finish those liberal education requirements, there is still a lot of space, especially in your last two years, to design and customize your program to your interests. You have to be careful when you do it though, because if, at the end you’ve turned in your transcript, you’ve called your mom and dad, you’re like “I’m gonna graduate”, and then the dean says, “Hmm, you didn’t take Introduction to Sociology, and that was a requirement in your first year. Guess what, we won’t give you a diploma till you take that class.” Surprise!

The Public Affairs Section of the Embassy administers and supports a wide range of exchange programs. Many people will recognize the name of the Fulbright exchange program, which is one of our oldest. We celebrate 70 years this year. In the course of my work, we are often meeting with teachers at universities, language teachers, rectors. We ask them to help us publicize our network like EducationUSA, which helps students interested in studying in the United States find out how to do that. Many students, for example, are surprised that the process of applying for U.S. university takes about 18 months. We are always interested in helping people grow those networks. The education beat is one of the best things about the office that we work in here, because it helps us stay in touch not only with the education system of a country but also with students, because students really are where it’s at. It’s where the country is going. Students are going to take you there.

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