Elementary schools in the United States

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An elementary school is a primary school which is the main point of delivery of primary education in the United States, for children between the ages of 5–11 and coming between pre-kindergarten and secondary education.

A teacher and her students in an elementary school classroom

In 2001, there were 92,858 elementary schools (68,173 public, 24,685 private) in the United States, a figure which includes all schools that teach students from First Grade through Eighth Grade.[1] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2017 almost 35.6 million students attended public primary schools. It is usually from kindergarten through fifth grade.[2]


Primary education tends to focus on basic academic learning, vocational skills and socialization skills, introducing children to the broad range of knowledge, skill and behavioral adjustment they need to succeed in life – and, particularly, in secondary school. In general, a student learns basic arithmetic and sometimes rudimentary algebra in mathematics, English proficiency (such as basic grammar, spelling, and vocabulary), and fundamentals of other subjects. Learning standards are identified for all areas of a curriculum by individual states, including those for mathematics, social studies, science, physical development, the fine arts, and reading.[3] While the concept of state learning standards has been around for some time, the No Child Left Behind Act has mandated that standards exist at the state level.

Basic subjects are taught in elementary school, and students often remain in one classroom throughout the school day (until starting different blocks), except for physical education, library, music, and art classes. However, in the majority of schools, especially primary, physical education, art and music are not taught.[citation needed]

Typically, the curriculum in public elementary education is determined by individual school districts. The school district selects curriculum guides and textbooks that reflect a state's learning standards and benchmarks for a given grade level.[3]

The broad topic of social studies may include key events, documents, understandings, and concepts in American history and geography, and in some programs, state or local history and geography. Topics included under the broader term "science" vary from the physical sciences such as physics and chemistry, through the biological sciences such as biology, ecology, and physiology.

There is much discussion within educational circles about the justification and impact of curricula that place greater emphasis on those topics (reading, writing and math) that are specifically tested for improvement.[4]

The teaching of social studies and science are often underdeveloped in elementary school programs.[citation needed] Some attribute this to the fact that elementary school teachers are trained as generalists; however, teachers attribute this to the priority placed on developing reading, writing and math proficiency in the elementary grades and to the large amount of time needed to do so. Reading, writing and math proficiency greatly affect performance in social studies, science and other content areas.

Standardized testingEdit

Most, if not all, teachers are held accountable for testing scores towards the end of the academic year. This pressure compromises the pedagogy of teachers and the extent to which other subjects are taught.[5] Moreover, it is reported that the desire for accountability in education requires teachers to contradict their pedagogy by teaching students in ways they don't consider professional, conducive, and successful.[5] This new unwanted adjustment in pedagogy, which reduces the extent to which teachers teach other subjects, leads them to emphasize the specific information that is likely to appear in multiple-choice standardized tests. Consequently, the enormous amount of information that students need, and tend, to memorize for these multiple-choice tests, leads to neglect of material that involves critical thinking and problem-solving skills.[5]


Elementary School teachers are trained with emphases on human cognitive and psychological development and the principles of curriculum development and instruction. Teachers typically earn either a Bachelors or master's degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education.

Certification standards for teachers are determined by individual states, with individual colleges and universities determining the rigor of the college education provided for future teachers. Some states require content area tests, as well as instructional skills tests for teacher certification in that state.[6]

Public Elementary School teachers typically instruct between twenty and thirty students of diverse learning needs. A typical classroom will include children with a range of learning needs or abilities, from those identified as having special needs of the kinds listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Act IDEA to those that are cognitively, athletically or artistically gifted.

Teachers use a variety of ways to teach, with a focus on getting pupils attention. Humor is sometimes used. Cartoons, for example, can capture ideas in one image.[7]

A study of seven industrialized nations found that in 2006, the average starting salary of American public primary school teachers with minimum qualifications was $34,900. In this regard the United States was second only to Germany (non-U.S. salaries were converted to U.S. dollars at purchasing power parity).[8]

The 2007 a survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reported that the average salary for an American teacher was $51,009; this is also recorded as the first time in history the average pay for teachers has exceeded the $50,000 mark.[9]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are roughly 1.4 million primary school teachers employed in the United States, with average earnings of $55,270, and median earnings of $52,840.[10]


Authority to regulate education resides constitutionally with the individual states, with direct authority of the U.S. Congress and the federal U.S. Department of Education being limited to regulation and enforcement of federal constitutional rights. Great indirect authority is, however, exercised through federal funding of national programs and block grants although there is no obligation upon any state to accept these funds. The U.S. government may also propose, but cannot enforce national goals, objectives and standards, which generally lie beyond its jurisdiction.

Most states have predetermined the number of minutes that will be taught within a given content area. Because the No Child Left Behind Act focuses on reading and math as primary targets for improvement, other instructional areas have received less attention.[11]

Learning Standards are the goals by which states and school districts must meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This description of school governance is simplistic at best, however, and school systems vary widely not only in the way curricular decisions are made but also in how teaching and learning take place. Some states and/or school districts impose more top-down mandates than others. In others, teachers play a significant role in curriculum design and there are few top-down mandates. Curricular decisions within private schools are made differently from those made in public schools, and in most cases without consideration of NCLB directives.

At times, an individual school district identifies areas of need within the curriculum. Teachers and advisory administrators form committees to develop supplemental materials to support learning for diverse learners and to identify enrichment for textbooks. Many school districts post information about the curriculum and supplemental materials on websites for public access.[12]

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, public schools receiving government funding are required to test and assess student progress each year. Individual states and not the federal government are required to develop their own set of standards by which they measure student progress.[citation needed] Although standardized testing is seen as a valid way for measuring content knowledge and progress in areas such as math and reading at the primary level there is much dispute within the scientific community on how to measure the progress of scientific knowledge.

In 1996 the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) got together with other science organizations to develop the "National Science Education Standards". In the past simply the study of and presentation of core content knowledge for areas such as: physical, life, earth, and space sciences; was seen as sufficient. After the development of the new "Science Standards" concern shifted from teaching content alone to learning science “disciplines in the context of inquiry, technology, personal [and] social perspectives”.[13]


A boy in an elementary school in Kentucky, 1946

Originally, elementary school was synonymous with primary education, taking children from kindergarten through grade 8; and secondary school was entirely coextensive with the high school grades 9–12. This system was the norm in the United States until the years following World War I, because most children in most parts of what was then the mostly rural United States could go no further than Grade 8. Even when the high schools were available, they were often not accessible.

As the population grew and became increasingly urban and suburban instead of rural, the one-room schoolhouse gave way to the multi-room schoolhouse, which became multiple schools. This produced the third genre of school – the junior high school – which was designed to provide transitional preparation from primary school to secondary school, thus serving as a bridge between the elementary school and the high school. Elementary schools typically operated grades Kindergarten through 6; the junior high school, often housed in the same building as the senior high school, then covered grades 7 through 9; and the senior high school operated grades 10 through 12. At the same time, grade 9 marked the beginning of high school for the purpose of GPA calculation.

It was typical during this period for state departments of education to certify (in California, "credential") teachers to work in either primary or secondary education. A Primary School Certificate qualified the holder to teach any subject in grades K through 8, and his/her major and minor subjects in grade 9. A Secondary School Certificate qualified the holder to teach any subject in grades 7 and 8, and his/her major and minor subjects in grades 9 through 12. Certain subjects, such as music, art, physical, and special education were or could be conferred as K through 12 Teaching Certificates.

By the late 1960s, the lines of transition between primary and secondary education began to blur, and the junior high school started to get replaced by the middle school. This change typically saw reassignment of grade 9 to the (senior) high school, with grade 6 sometimes included in middle school with grades 7 and 8.[14] Subsequent decades in many states have also seen the realignment of teacher certification, with grade 6 frequently now included on the secondary teaching certificate. Thus, whereas 20th-century American education began with the elementary school finishing at grade 8, the 21st century begins with the American elementary school finishing at grade 5 in many jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, the older systems do persist in many jurisdictions. While they are in the minority today, there are still school districts which, instead of adopting the "middle school", still distinguish between junior and senior high schools. Thus, high schools can be either 9–12, which is most common, or 10–12.

Over the past few decades, schools in the USA have been testing various arrangements which break from the one-teacher, one-class model. Multi-age programs, where children in different grades (e.g., Kindergarten through to second grade) share the same classroom and teachers, is one increasingly popular alternative to traditional elementary instruction. Another alternative is that children might have a main class and go to another teacher's room for one subject, such as science, while the science teacher's main class will go to the other teacher's room for another subject, such as social studies. This could be called a two-teacher, or a rotation. It is similar to the concept of teams in junior high school. Another method is to have the children have one set of classroom teachers in the first half of the year, and a different set of classroom teachers in the second half of the year.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Digest of Education Statistics, 2001" (PDF). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 2010-05-05.
  2. ^ "Fast Facts". Nces.ed.gov. Retrieved 2010-05-05.
  3. ^ a b "Illinois State Board of Education – Illinois Learning Standards". Isbe.state.il.us. Archived from the original on 2010-04-14. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ a b c Anderson, Lauren W. (February 2009). "Teaching Upper Elementary Students: Upper Elementary Grades Bear the Brunt of Accountability". Retrieved November 30, 2016.
  6. ^ "Illinois Certification Testing System (ICTS)". Isbe.state.il.us. Archived from the original on 2010-04-13. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  7. ^ CURTIS, SUSAN. "Humor in the Classroom". Middle Web. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  8. ^ Miller, D. C.; Sen, A.; Malley, L. B. & Burns, S. D. (2009). "Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2009 (NCES 2009-039)" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. p. 61. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  9. ^ "Transfer to". American Federation of Teachers. Archived from the original on February 12, 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-05.
  10. ^ "Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education". Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  11. ^ "Archived: No Child Left Behind Act Is Working". Ed.gov. 2009-02-02. Retrieved 2010-04-14.
  12. ^ "St. Charles Community Unit School District 303". Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved December 7, 2013.
  13. ^ Zemelman,Steven, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde. Best Practice: Today’s Standards for Teaching & Learning in America’s Schools. New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2005
  14. ^ Wraga, William G.; Hlebowitsh, Peter S.; Tanner, Founding Editor; Tanner, Daniel (6 August 2012). Research Review for School Leaders. Routledge. ISBN 9781135660956 – via Google Books.