Provides free education to the U.S. Army

United States

The US educational system

Harvard, Stanford, Yale: Higher education in the United States is often referred to as the "gold standard" for any modern knowledge society. Some American universities can boast that they are the best in the world. On the other hand, it looks quite different in the social distribution of educational opportunities in the school system.

Students stroll through Harvard Law School on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge. (& copy AP)

If there was a copyright on the term "educational republic", the USA would undoubtedly have earned it. Some American universities can boast that they are the best in the world. Thanks in part to its great dynamism and efficiency, American higher education is often referred to as the "gold standard" for every modern knowledge society. On the other hand, it looks quite different in the social distribution of educational opportunities in the school system. High tuition fees and exclusive elite universities - at least that is what many non-Americans think - are indications that the system is problematic. And American public schools, especially those in the poor cities and rural areas, are often undemanding and quite poor. But, as is so often the case when it comes to the United States, views diverge widely and the waves beat high. The fascination remains - not least because of the many inconsistencies and contradictions in the American education and university system. What about the "American republic of education"?

In fact, good "education" - and that means not just job-related knowledge and skills, but also general and personality training - remained a privilege of the white, Protestant upper and middle classes for a long time in the USA. The chances of access to the elite universities at the top of international rankings, not to mention the posh private "prep schools" on the east coast, are still very unevenly distributed today. But much earlier than anywhere else in the United States, a comprehensive and sustained expansion of education began, which marks one of the most important secular trends of the 20th century: Even before the Second World War, a secondary school certificate had become the norm for more than half of American adults. With the GI law, which granted demobilized soldiers free study and scholarships, a new era in higher education began shortly afterwards: that of "mass education" as we now know it from almost all developed countries.

Clear leader in the OECD

Today, about 85 percent of Americans over the age of 21 finish their twelve-year school with a "high school diploma." However, this qualification is not comparable to the German Abitur, because the performance requirements are relatively loose and the diploma does not automatically entitle you to attend a university. 39 percent of Americans aged 25 to 64 have a college degree. This means that the country is still the clear leader in the OECD, although others like Japan and Sweden are hot on its heels. However, this figure also includes the graduates of so-called two-year colleges, which are to be regarded as higher technical schools or vocational schools rather than universities. "Only" 27.6 percent of Americans have a bachelor's degree and thus a regular university degree - which is still ten percentage points more than in Germany. In relation to the population there are twice as many universities and about one and a half times as many students in the USA as in Germany.

The reasons for the high participation in education go back a long way. They are deeply rooted in the political culture of America, in the conviction that in the land of unlimited possibilities everyone is their own blacksmith and has it in their own hands whether they achieve something. Driven from their old homeland by hardship and persecution, many immigrants were drawn to the "American Dream", which promised the rise from dark hardship to abundance, from dishwasher to millionaire - and a gradual improvement in society as a whole through "hard work" and just "Education". The founding fathers of the USA already emphasized the enormous importance for each individual and for the whole country. Prosperity and well-being, the greatest possible equality in spite of the most varied of assets, a just, free, democratic society - "Education" should make all of this possible. To this day, one ascribes true miraculous powers to her. Why did the US become the leading economic power of the 20th century, asked the conservative editorialist David Brooks in the New York Times on July 29, 2008: "The best short answer is that a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom. " ("The best short answer is that with a strong belief that people have the power to shape their own lives, Americans value education, hard work, and economic freedom like no other country.")

Belief in education is one of the cornerstones of the United States

Enthusiasm for education and a deep trust in the educational ability of all people are among the cornerstones of the American "Contrat Social". Not least because of this, the public school system is uniformly divided into grades everywhere. Sorting children from middle school into separate school types depending on their performance and ability would be perceived as simply indecent in the USA. The vast majority of Americans still firmly believe that talent, hard work and education can make it from the very bottom to the very top in their country, even though the connection between social origin and, in particular, race and educational background Life chances are obvious.

The "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2002, which was passed almost unanimously by the US Congress and praised as a reform of the century, is for the time being the last creed of the educational republic of the USA: A bundle of measures is intended to close the massive gaps in equipment and quality in public schools and ensure that the achievements of black and poor children within ten years are no longer inferior to those of the white and rich offspring. This show of strength did not come about out of sentimentalism, but because it was the only way to break the vicious circle of economic misery and social neglect, educational misery and crime.

Grievances in the school system

Indeed, the US public school system has many weaknesses. In contrast to higher education, in which diversity and competition ensure a motley, dynamic and, despite some downsides, highly attractive mixture, it cannot capitalize on its confusion. The problems have been obvious for a long time, many grievances scream to heaven: But there is neither a lack of money - with 3.8 percent of its gross domestic product, the USA spends more on schooling than Germany with 3.5 percent - nor of good ideas or energetic, experienced reformers. The "spirit" in schools is consistently positive, in poorer schools it is often particularly encouraging. Supervisory authorities and school administrators are doing their best to manage the misery, and all of this is unbureaucratic.

However, an imbalance in the distribution of funds, a lack of coordination and unclear requirements for teachers and students alike lead to blatant grievances. Towns and municipalities are primarily responsible for school education; School operations and teachers' salaries are financed from property taxes. Although they are allowed to set this themselves, poor communities can of course not collect as much money as rich communities. In most states, financially weak districts receive compensation payments and grants. Nevertheless, there are huge differences in equipment and level from place to place, state to state, school to school.

Access is not just a question of money

How good or bad the situation is, determines the social profile and the tax power of the community: In socially better positioned districts there are excellent teaching and support offers and excellent schools; Depressing conditions often prevail in poor areas where good education is particularly important. Not all countries have defined performance standards for core subjects and special qualification requirements for teachers. Many parents of school-age children therefore spare neither the time nor the effort to move to a place with good schools, even if they have to pay significantly higher real estate prices or rents there.

Those who can afford it should send their children straight to a private, often religiously oriented school that promises high quality and the best prospects for admission to a top college. None of them receive state aid. All are funded only by donations and fees, which can easily exceed $ 20,000 per year per child. But access is not just a question of money: the best institutions have very high performance requirements and can choose their cadets from a long line of applicants. Despite the financial burdens, almost 11 percent of all American children attend private school - an indication that Americans value a good education.