School system in the USA

If you want to immigrate to the USA with a Green Card, and you have children of school age, you should learn more about the American school system. Our guide provides you with a comprehensive overview of the different types of schools, everyday school life, and the particularities of the school system in the USA.

Daycare for children under five years

There are various daycare options for children up to the age of 5 in the USA – from daycare centers to preschools and kindergartens. The advantage: children have the opportunity to learn English and make new friends at a very early age.

Daycare center in the USA

Families can have their children cared for in daycare centers, also known as nursery schools. These are professional care facilities for children who are not yet of school age. Nursery schools can be either half-day or full-day and accept children as young as six weeks of age. In most cases, however, they charge a fee.

Preschools in the USA

Preschools exist in the USA on both state and private levels. Unlike daycare centers, they provide an educational environment in addition to childcare. Here, good preparatory work is already being done for entry into school.

When children reach the age of three or four, it is advisable to switch from a daycare center to a preschool. Children who still need to learn the English language in particular benefit from the educational opportunities offered at the preschool. In addition, some of the private preschools, for which a fee is charged, offer specific learning focuses (e.g., mathematics, language, or music) so that parents can provide their children with targeted support.

Kindergarten in the USA

In the USA, kindergarten is the first grade level of elementary school. The care provided in the facilities is based not on playing but has a strict curriculum and is led by trained teachers. Among other things, the children are taught reading and mathematics.

Attendance at kindergarten is free and compulsory in only 15 US states. The age of entry for the child, and whether it is half-day or full-day care, also depends on where the child lives.

Children in preschool age

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Elementary School or Primary School

In elementary school or primary school, American students primarily learn writing, reading, and mathematics. This is also where they receive grades for the first time. School districts individually determine which educational model is used: depending on where they live, students attend elementary school for four, five, six, or even eight years.

Middle School and Junior High School

Families can have their children cared for in daycare centers - also known as nursery schools. In these schools, children with strong learning abilities are not separated from those without but continue to be taught in the same class.

The difference between middle and junior high schools lies in the educational concept. At the middle school, the focus lies on teamwork and thus on promoting the social skills of the students, while the junior high school is already very performance-oriented and focuses more on academic education.

Students and school bus in the USA

High School

In the USA, middle or junior high school is followed by high school. It starts with the ninth or tenth grade and ends with the twelfth school year. A special feature of the school system in the USA is that the students in the individual classes are given a special nickname.

Grade Nickname
9 Freshman
10 Sophomores
11 Juniors
12 Seniors

The course system in the USA begins as soon as students start high school. Students can individually determine their elective subjects. However, there are also some compulsory subjects in which they must attend.

At the end of each school year, students take their final exams, and upon completion of the twelfth grade, they receive their high school diploma.

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After graduating from high school, each student can decide whether to continue their school career in college or enter the workforce. However, since higher education is very important in the USA, it is recommended for students to attend college.

Colleges and universities usually differ in the subjects they offer. Colleges mainly offer undergraduate studies, which are completed with a bachelor's degree. In the course of an application, admission exams must usually be passed, and, if necessary, letters of recommendation from teachers must be submitted. Generally, universities in the USA charge high tuition fees.

Specifics of the US school system

A typical American experience: everyday school life in the land of opportunity is unique in many respects. Find out everything about grades, course selection, and the typical yellow school buses:


In the USA, grades do not come in numbers. The evaluation system consists of the letters A through D for tests that are passed and F for unsatisfactory performance. A grade of E is not given. In tests, which are often multiple-choice in the USA, teachers also have the option of further differentiating grades with a plus (+) or minus (-).

Grade (percent) Evaluations
A > 90% very good
B > 80% good
C > 70% satisfactory
D > 60% passed
F < 60% not passed


In the USA, the schedule can generally be very individually planned. Only a few compulsory subjects such as mathematics, English, and history must be taken by all students. In addition, American students have a wide range of electives to choose from according to their preferences and talents. These include foreign languages, IT, journalism, photography, astronomy, psychology, and many more. The schedules are created each semester with the help of a counselor.

For the most part, American students do not spend their courses in class. Each teacher has their own classroom, and students switch rooms depending on the subject they are studying. Thus, each course is made up of different students from the same grade level.

Teaching time

The school year in the USA begins in August or September and ends in May or June. Students attend classes from Monday to Friday. The first lesson usually starts between 7 and 8 am, and classes end around 3 pm.

Lunch break

Around 12 o'clock, American schools have their lunch break. Children can either bring their own lunch to school or buy it from the school's cafeteria. For children who cannot afford to eat at school, the US government also provides nutritious meals for free or at a small price.

After-school Activities

After regular classes, American high schools have numerous after-school activities available for students to pursue their interests and socialize. Sports such as American football, basketball, track and field, and cheerleading are very popular. But there are also other activities like theater, school band, school newspaper, debate club, Bible club, or cooking.

American football, cheerleading and theatre

Getting to school

If the school is so far from home that students cannot walk to it, they can take the bus. State schools have free buses, which can be recognized by their typical bright yellow color. In most cases, students board the bus at a bus stop near their homes. In rural areas, buses sometimes pick up students directly from their homes.

Some parents also bring their children to school in their own cars or carpool with other parents in their area to take turns driving their children to school.

School uniform

School uniforms are not common in the USA. They are mainly worn at private schools. However, many American schools do specify a dress code. This dress code is determined individually by each school and defines what type of clothing is allowed at school.

The US school system in comparison

The school system in the USA differs in many ways from those in other Western industrialized nations, such as Germany. Let's take a closer look at the most important differences in the school systems of the United States and Germany:

Hardly any differences in terms of authority

The school systems in the USA and Germany have one important thing in common: the regulations regarding responsibility for the schools are almost the same.

In Germany, education is the responsibility of the federal states. Each state has its own Ministry of Education, which is in charge of the curriculum, vacation planning, staff planning, and also the cost of staff. Furthermore, there are municipal authorities in each federal state, which can be found in each school district. These, in turn, take over the costs for school equipment, among other things, and have many organizational tasks.

In the USA, the individual states also have the task of looking after school education. Similar to Germany, there are school districts in each state, which also assume tasks in the school system alongside the states.

Differences between types of schools

Major differences are apparent in the school systems of the United States and Germany when it comes to elementary school, middle school, high school, and college.

Elementary school

In America, elementary school begins in kindergarten. Many elementary school students have already attended a nursery school. In Germany, on the other hand, the “serious side of life” does not begin in kindergarten but in the first grade of elementary school.

Also, there is a difference in the time span that American and German children stay in elementary school. While German students leave elementary school after the fourth grade to go on to secondary schools, elementary school in the United States often extends to the sixth grade.

Middle school

After elementary school, American kids go to middle school or junior high school, depending on where they live. Just as in elementary school, the classes here are reorganized every year, but the children are not separated according to their respective levels of performance. Junior high school usually begins with the seventh grade and ends with the ninth grade.

The situation is different in Germany: after elementary school, German children have the option of attending Hauptschule, Gesamtschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium as a secondary school. Which school is ultimately chosen depends somewhat on the children's current educational level.

Children who find it easy to learn can choose between a Gesamtschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium. However, if children have difficulty learning, they can be well supported at Hauptschule. Students who have attended one of the above-mentioned types of school earn their secondary school diploma when they pass the tenth grade and can then begin vocational training.

In addition, of course, there are also high-achieving children. Both in Germany and in America, these children can skip classes and transfer to a higher educational institution at an earlier age. There are also special promotion programs for American children. These are called "Honors Courses" in middle school and "Advanced Placement Courses" in high school.

In the USA, children with disabilities attend a regular class from elementary school onwards, where they are supported by specially trained teachers. In Germany, there are special schools for these children, where the teaching program and the specialist staff are adapted to the children's needs.

High school

In both Germany and America, school attendance is compulsory until the age of 16. After junior high, American students move on to high school, which begins with the tenth grade and ends in the twelfth grade. Those who successfully complete high school can then study at a college or university.

In Germany, high school does not start before the eleventh grade and comprises two to three years, varying from state to state. German students complete this at the Gymnasium and graduate with the Abitur, which then qualifies them to attend university.

At the German Gymnasium, students can choose for themselves whether they want to pursue a more general education or specialize in business or technical subjects. At business and technical Gymnasiums, the focus is on subjects such as business administration and accounting, or technology and computer science, in addition to the compulsory subjects.

Depending on where they live, students can leave the Gymnasium after the eleventh or twelfth grade and receive the Fachhochschulreife, which allows them to study at a university of applied sciences. Those who remain at the Gymnasium until the 12th or 13th grade, on the other hand, receive the Abitur and can also study at a university.

While the course system in the USA begins in the ninth to tenth grade, German students come into contact with it from the seventh grade at the latest. The choice of subjects and the points awarded, which are then converted into grades, have an enormous influence on graduation later on.


There are also differences between Germany and the USA when it comes to university admissions. In both countries, an application must be sent to the university of choice, but the German selection process is primarily about the Abitur grade. For some universities and highly sought-after courses of study, degrees with a grade of "very good" are practically required. In the USA, admission tests, letters of recommendation, and tuition fees also play a decisive role in university enrollment.


Do you have any unanswered questions about the school system in the USA? These FAQs will give you an overview of some important organizational points:

Yes, school attendance is compulsory in the USA. Depending on the state, it starts between the ages of five and eight and ends at the age of 16 to 18.

US immigrants must immediately enroll their school-age children in a school in the United States. The first step is to contact the school district responsible for the neighborhood. The school district then allocates the children to the corresponding school, which does not necessarily have to be the closest one.

The following documents must be presented for registration:

  • Proof of the child's age (e.g., passport, birth certificate)
  • Proof of residency (e.g., American driver's license, utility bill, lease agreement, tax return)
  • Immunization Certificate (required immunizations vary from school to school)
  • Social Security Card of the child, if applicable
  • Results of a medical examination, including a tuberculosis test

Basically, each school has its own rules and regulations, so we strongly recommend that you check with the local school district in advance.

Schools are responsible for assessing children and placing them in the right class. Students who do not speak English sufficiently receive support from the US government and their state for bilingual education and programs such as English as a Second Language (ESL). However, children must learn what is taught at their grade level in any case, even if they speak little or no English.

Tuition is free for students with physical or mental disabilities. The child will be placed in a regular class whenever possible. However, if the child's disability is severe, they may receive separate instruction outside of the regular classroom.

In most states, children can attend school free of charge until the age of 21.

Public schools in the USA usually offer books free of charge. However, parents must purchase classroom materials such as pads and pencils themselves. Some schools also charge a small fee for classroom materials or events and school trips. Fees are also sometimes required for school sports, music classes, or other after-school activities.

A person who has not obtained a high school diploma by age 21 can take a test to get a General Education Diploma (GED), which is about the same level of knowledge as a high school diploma. The GED test is administered in four subjects (languages, math, social studies, and science) and costs between $15 and $160, depending on the state you live in. In addition, there may be costs for books, prep courses, online learning programs, or tutoring.

More tips for the USA

Do you want to know what's next for young adults in the USA after graduation? Take a look at our guide to the American university system, which explains life and learning at colleges and universities in the States in detail. Or have you had enough of schoolwork? Then learn everything you need to know about finding a job and working in the USA.

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