Understanding American Schools Fifth Edition:
The Answers To Newcomers' Most Frequently Asked
by Anne P. Copeland and Georgia Bennett
PUBLICATION DATE: MARCH 31, 2015
The Fifth Edition guides newcomers from around the world through the challenges
of understanding the US school system, from pre-school through high school.
Written by two internationally-known experts in international relocation
and education, this thorough but user-friendly guide is packed with information
not found in any other single source. We’ve checked every URL and updated every statistic using the latest available data from a range of government, international and education agencies. We’ve included the latest numbers (average teacher salaries, average SAT scores, average high school graduation rates, average private school tuition fees). We’ve included lots of international comparisons, so parents aren’t reading in a vacuum.
About the authors: Anne P. Copeland and Georgia
"A superb book! We use it to train our consultants and give it
to our families. Practical and insightful at the same time."
- Peggy Love, President
Full Circle International Relocations, McLean, VA
"Bottom Line: This is a must-read for any expat parents relocating
to the US"
-Joshua Wood, ExpatExchange.com, New York, NY
121 pages, $18.95 with multiple-copy
Readers Will Learn:
- Why teachers in the US do what they do.
- How to evaluate schools and help their children get the education
- Practical information about school lunch, dress codes, graduation requirements, expectations for parents, and more.
- Vocabulary for understanding the school experience.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The American Educational Context
The long view
What American teachers value
Who makes the decisions about schools in the U.S.?
All schools are not created equal
Chapter 2: Choosing the Type of School
Your Child Will Attend
What choices do we have?
Which public school will my child attend?
How much does it cost to go to a public school?
Who can go to a private school?
How much does it cost to go to a private school?
What are “boarding schools?”
What is an “international school?”
What is a “magnet school?”
What is a “charter school?”
What are “vouchers?”
Can my child earn an International Baccalaureate degree?
Can I send my child to a school based on my home
Can my children go to a school run by a religious
organization if that is not our religion?
Should we be considering single-sex education?
Chapter 3: School Structure
At what age do children go to school in the U.S.?
What age child will be at my child’s school?
How are classes formed?
Are academically-oriented students educated
differently than those who will not go on to university?
Who makes the local decisions about education in the
Chapter 4: Comparing Schools
How can I learn about the specific schools in my area?
What do these comparative statistics mean?
Can I visit a school while we are trying to choose?
What should I look for when I visit a school?
How can I tell if the school will be safe?
It’s so confusing; how do we finally decide which school is
Chapter 5: Admissions and Enrollment
How do I enroll my child in a public school?
How does my child apply to a private school?
Can I enroll my children in school if they have not yet
come to the U.S.?
How will the school determine what class and level
to place my child in?
What should I explain to the school about my home country’s
education system and my child’s own learning history?
How can I be sure the school understands my child’s
transcript from home?
Chapter 6: The Early Years
Can my child go to school before kindergarten?
What should I know about choosing a preschool?
Chapter 7: Daily Customs and Practical Issues
When will my child go to school?
What can my children do during the long summer vacation?
I work full time. What are the options for my child after
regular school hours?
How will my child get to school?
Does it matter what my child wears to school?
What will my child eat for lunch?
What should my child do if the class is expected to recite
the “Pledge of Allegiance?”
What should I do if my child is sick?
Chapter 8: Academic Curriculum
What will my child study?
I have heard that American students do not
score very well on math and science tests. How
can I be sure my child learns math and science?
Some topics seem to be taught in too much detail,
while others are only given light treatment; why?
What kind of computer training should we expect?
What if my child does not speak English?
Will the school help my children maintain
their native language?
What can I do to help my child learn English?
What should I do if the school does not seem challenging
enough for my child?
What should I do if my child needs special help?
How will I learn about my child’s academic progress?
Why is class participation seen as so important?
What are “standardized tests” and how will they be used?
Why doesn’t my first grade child have textbooks?
If we don’t like my child’s teacher, can we ask to have
her changed to another teacher?
The teacher I observed didn’t seem to be doing much
teaching. What was going on?
What training do the teachers have?
Will my child play sports at school?
What about the arts?
What other kinds of activities besides sports and arts
will be available?
Why does the teacher seem so interested in whether my
child has friends?
Will my child be prepared to re-enter school at home
at the end of our stay in the U.S.?
Chapter 9: The Role of Parents, the Home, and Community
Will my child have much homework?
How much homework help do American teachers expect
Am I expected to participate in the schools?
What happens during a parent-teacher conference?
What should I do if I have a concern or worry about the school?
How can I be sure my child gets the best teacher?
What can I do to help my child as the “new kid” at school?
What community resources are available
to help my child and me?
Chapter 10: Issues Specific to High School Students
What are the graduation requirements in the U.S.?
The state we have moved to requires high school
students to pass a state-wide test in order to graduate;
will this test apply to us?
What should I do to be sure my high school child will be
able to graduate on time?
What is a Guidance Counselor?
What is the “G.E.D.?”
What are “AP courses?”
What about IB courses?
What are “dual credit” courses?
My child is very interested in sports. What can we expect at a
U.S. high school?
What should we be doing about university admission?
The Education Passport
FAQ: Are academically-oriented students educated
differently than those who will not go on to university?
In elementary and middle schools, all children are educated in the
same schools, regardless of their abilities. However, American teachers
begin individualizing children's learning from kindergarten on, so
that children who excel in reading or math, for example, may get more
challenging assignments than other students. Some schools begin to
"track" (put children of different ability levels in different
classes) in middle school.
In some communities or regions, there are vocational school alternatives
to high schools, in which students learn job-related skills (like
auto mechanics and food preparation) in addition to basic academics.
But the majority of Americans go to a regular high school regardless
of their academic future. Although there is some tracking based on
ability in many high schools, American students who will go on to
be university professors, doctors, and lawyers typically go to the
same high schools (and are in some of the same classes) as those who
will not go on to higher education at all.
FAQ: What are "AP
"AP" stands for Advanced Placement. AP courses are taught
at an advanced, more difficult level than the standard courses. High
schools may offer them in a number of subjects. The most common courses
are in English literature, U.S. History, and Calculus, but your school
may also offer AP courses in such topics as biology, chemistry, English
and other languages, European history, U.S. government, art history,
statistics, and economics. After completing an AP course, students
may take a national AP exam in that subject. Students who get a score
of 3, 4, or 5 on the AP exam may be eligible to earn university credit
for that course, and/or be allowed to start at a higher level in university.
FAQ: Some topics
seem to be taught in too much detail, while others are only given light
American teachers sometimes choose one narrow topic (like "wolves"
or "Beethoven") to study in detail. Why wolves, not "mammals?"
Why Beethoven, not "composers?" By teaching a single topic
in detail, teachers are trying to give students a sense of how to study
a topic in depth, integrating such notions as habitat, migration, and
the interconnected web of life. On the other hand, in the American system,
many important topics (like "decimals" or "medieval history")
are taught at several different ages, in increasing detail and sophistication.
What seems to be "light treatment" may be just the first introduction
of a topic that will be taught again and again over several years.
is class participation seen as so important?
International families from some countries are surprised at the American emphasis on speaking in class, as opposed to listening to the teacher lecture. In the American system, discussion of ideas and putting thoughts into words are highly valued. Children are taught to speak aloud in class from the earliest days of kindergarten. They have "Show and Tell" or "Sharing Time," when each child is expected to speak to the whole class about something that has happened in their lives (a trip to the zoo, a visit from a grandmother, etc.) This skill at speaking becomes especially important in later years, as children are expected to ask questions, think creatively about solutions (even if the solutions are wrong!), and even argue with the teacher. The American value of individualism is taught in this way.
FAQ: Am I expected to
participate in the schools?
Yes. Many international newcomers are surprised at how involved American parents are with their children's elementary schools. Schools expect parents to:
- stop by the classroom to chat with the teacher periodically,
- observe or help in the classroom,
- volunteer time in the school library, student clubs, or special events,
- speak informally with the school principal from time to time,
- attend Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) or Association (PTA) meetings,
- go with your child's class on trips to museums or plays,
- give money, items to sell, or time for fund-raising events.
Middle and high schools also welcome parental involvement in fund-raising, supervising school activities, and sharing their expertise and judgment. Schools at all levels expect parents to bring questions and concerns to them. Make an effort to meet your principal and guidance counselor now, even if you do not have questions. Then, when you do, it will be easy to approach them for help.
"The authors obviously know their audience well, and have written a clear, detailed and thorough book
their work demystifies the diverse and complicated US educational system
indispensable not only for families moving to the US, but also for all those who work with them - educators, counselors, deans, relocation services, and human resource managers alike."
- Jessica Barton, LICSW, Director, spouses&partners@mit, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
"A quick guide to the rules of the game of placing an expatriate
child in the US school system
you will find all the answers in
one handy place!"
- Kay Eakin, former Education Officer, Family Liaison Office, US State Department., Washington, DC
"This book will provide the reader with the nuts and bolts, and the power tools to understand US education in all of its parts."
- Mary Rabbitt, VP, International Schools Services, Princeton, NJ
Reviewer: Norma M. McCaig, Founder, Global Nomads International
A quick perusal of the Table of Contents of Anne P. Copeland and Georgia Bennett’s recently published handbook, Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions, is the first tip-off that this is not your standard Education in the U.S. manual.
In moving well beyond mere recitation of the structure of U.S. schools and a glossary of relevant terms, the authors (based on long experience in the field) posit tough questions parents new to the U.S. American education system are likely to have, such as:
What do these comparative statistics mean?
It’s so confusing, how do we finally decide which school is best?
I have heard that American students do not score very well on math and science tests. How can I be sure my child learns math and science?
How can I tell if the school will be safe?
Each of which is answered with honest, practical advice.
The book provides a good overview on where specific decisions regarding education are made (and a chart for readers to compare the process with that in their own countries) and how U.S. American values inform the educational process. Working back from the university level and desired outcomes at that point, Copeland and Bennett show how these outcomes influence the curriculum and teaching methods from elementary school onward. An excellent example of this is a piece answering, “How are Educational Values Put into Practice?” with a list from Best Practices:
New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools contrasting teaching methods in “good” schools with those in “bad” schools. As many of those in the former list quickly would be assigned to the latter in many systems outside the U.S., the authors cushion the impact of this 180° value shift for parents tied to more didactic approaches to learning.
In addition to focusing on cultural conventions regarding school dress, for example, or the emphasis on class participation and the teacher’s concern with a child’s ability to make friends, the authors also gently direct parents to questions they may not think to ask: “What should I explain to the school about my country’s educational system and my child’s own learning history?” for example. The answer, not surprisingly, alludes to the lack of knowledge of other educational systems and philosophies on the part of so many U.S. teachers and administrators, underlining the need for parents to function as advocates for their children.
Parents are guided through each step of understanding the system and its nuances: asking the right questions when choosing a school, negotiating the shoals of the admission process, preparing themselves and their children for the environment they are entering, providing tips for summer vacation time along with hints on how to help children develop friendships, and, importantly, taking the long view toward each child’s reentry into the educational system of their home country.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how important I believe this book to be for returning U.S. Americans and their children as well. As a global nomad educated in three different U.S based systems abroad before age 18, I was stunned at how little I knew about the intricacies of the U.S. American system on home turf. Certainly there are U.S.
American parents today who are equally uninformed about the current realities of the school system Stateside. So, for repatriating U.S. parents as well as those from abroad, the level of detail Copeland and Bennett bring to light for the reader is exceptional-and they have provided those of us in the field of cross-cultural orientation and training with a gem of a resource for guiding the newly arrived sojourning family.
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