Breaking with tradition


Americans are firmly wedded to their decentralised education system, which leaves control to each of 14,400 local school districts.

That does not mean, however, that there is much of a difference from one community to the next in the way students are assigned to schools.

Generally, youngsters must present themselves no later than the age of five at the school nearest to their home. Here, they take a series of required subjects along with other students in their grade.

Secondary schools students are sorted by ability within their grade and assigned to courses of varying difficulty in a given subject, or they can select vocational training.

In every state but Mississippi, the law requires that they remain in the school to which they are assigned until their 16th birthday.

This straitjacketed system, a tradition for more than 150 years, is gradually being challenged by education reform efforts that are giving students more of a chance to select their schools and academic courses.

"Communities are no longer accepting cookie-cutter approaches to education, and they're demanding that the schools reflect that," said Alex Medler, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

More options are gradually been made available. There are cash vouchers equal to the district's expenditure per student for parents who want to send their children to a secular private school at public expense. The Cleveland and Milwaukee school districts have issued vouchers on a limited basis.

Increased choice allows public school students who are dissatisfied with their education to attend school in another district. The theory is that this will force the home districts to improve, rather than pay a neighbouring school the cost of educating their disgruntled students.

Charter schools are publicly funded independent schools designed by parents, teachers and community leaders using diverse educational techniques and unencumbered by state regulation. About 500 charter schools have opened since the idea was first tried in 1992, with about 100,000 students.

"Charter schools are an example of how people have become frustrated with what the traditional schools have done for them," Mr Medler said. "We don't have one-size-fits-all kids; we shouldn't have one-size-fits-all schools."

Within traditional schools, reformers have tightened requirements in subjects such as mathematics, science, social studies, English and, increasingly, a foreign language. But secondary school students are increasingly allowed to choose elective courses within those categories. Growing numbers opt for college-level classes.

The College Board has seen enrolment double to more than 535,000 in the past 10 years for Advanced Placement courses, which are more challenging than other classes and allow students to earn college credits. "These are students who are responding to a challenge, to see if they can do college-level work," said Wade Curry, national director of the programme. The courses are available at more than half of America's high schools.

At the other end of the scale, some secondary students choose vocational training. Of the nation's 79,946 schools, 359 are devoted to vocational training, mostly in agricultural or inner-city districts. But as the economy shifts away from manufacturing and farming, vocational schools are becoming less popular; the proportion of students taking eight or more vocational credits has declined from 15 per cent to 9 per cent in the past 10 years.

There is one more choice for students: dropping out. Just under 12 per cent of Americans aged 16 to 24 are public school drop-outs, according to the US Census.

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