It ought to be elementary, but…

My official first grade school picture.

My official first grade school picture.

So, I was reading some other blogs, and over at Twist in the Taile blog, the author listed as one of her goals for the new year: “I want to learn how the American school system works. It is just SO DARN CONFUSING. Even after reading all these books about kids in high school (?) I still do not understand which age corresponds with which year. (And honors classes?? What are they?)” My first thought on reading it was, “Good luck with that!” Then I started figuring how I could explain why it is so confusing.

I grew up in U.S. public schools (the term “public schools” in the U.S. refers to the taxpayer-funded schools that are administered by the government and are free to attend for all children), and it was confusing to me. I hang out on enough writing forums, follow enough writer blogs, and so forth to also attest that lots of other people who grew up in this system who are now trying to write books that involve characters who are either students or teachers feel compelled to ask questions about the ages of kids in certain grades, or what subjects they should be studying and so forth.

To understand the U.S. school system the very first thing you must understand is: there is NO U.S. school system. Americans, particularly Um-merr-uh-kins, are deeply suspicious of central authority (yes, most especially the ones who wave American flags all the time), and insist that schools must be subject primarily to local control. Even when a good ol’ boy Republican President like George W. Bush proposes something as harmless-sounding as “no child left behind” conservative Americans rise up foaming-at-the-mouth angry about the federal government sticking its nose in and telling us how to educate our children.

Even when states try to impose minimum standards, there’s a lot of resistance. A local school board organized on a town level is too much central control for some people, which is at least part of what fuels the Charter Schools mania.

As a kid, because of my dad’s work in the oil fields, I attended 10 different elementary schools during the course of kindergarten through sixth grade. Each of those schools was in a different local school district, and scattered between four states. There was no standardization. To illustrate, let me tell you one of my experiences in third grade:

To set things up, we moved twice in the third grade. I attended the first couple of months of third grade in Kimball, Nebraska. Then we moved in December, and I attended a couple more months of third grade in Opal, Wyoming. Then, in late February or early March we moved again, and I finished third grade in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado. (Sidebar: often when I mention this place, people interrupt or try to correct me that Cheyenne is in Wyoming. They are correct that there is a city in Wyoming named Cheyenne. We did not move there. We moved to a very tiny town in eastern Colorado called Cheyenne Wells, about 10 miles from the Kansas state border.)

A screenshot of part of Wikipedia's article on the Distributive Property.

A screenshot of part of Wikipedia’s article on the Distributive Property.

My first week in Cheyenne Wells, during the math section of the day, the teacher explained the Distributive Property of Arithmetic. She did some examples on the chalk board, then passed out a worksheet of problems for us to do. We were told that this wasn’t a test, so we were free to ask each other for help if we didn’t understand. Then she started walking around the room watching us work.

The boy sitting next to me didn’t understand it at all. So I explained it to him. And he understood my explanation and started doing the problems. Now, I wasn’t able to explain it to the kid because I was some sort of genius in arithmetic (even though later I majored in mathematics at university). No, the reason I could explain it was because I repeated, almost word-for-word, the explanation that I had received two years earlier from my first grade teacher. I attended all of kindergarten, first grade, and about half of second grade in Ft. Collins, Colorado. And in Ft. Collins, at O’Dea elementary, we learned both the Associative and Distributive Property of Arithmetic during first grade.

Unbeknownst to me at the time I was explaining to the kid sitting next to me, our teacher was standing behind us and watching. Once it was clear my classmate understood my explanation, the teacher stopped all the other students and made me stand at the front of the class and re-explain it that way I had just now. Once again, I was simply repeating the explanation I had received two years earlier from a different teacher. Probably the only reason I remember this experience is because I was completely embarrassed to be paraded at the front of the room and explain to everyone else the lesson which our teacher had been unable to explain adequately for most of them. It’s bad enough in grade school to be a new kid, but in a single incident to be exposed as a smart kid and become suddenly the teacher’s new favorite. That made the rest of the school year pretty miserable, let me tell you.

But the thing you should take away from this anecdote is, despite being in the same state, these two school districts had very different curriculums at the different grades. When I was older, I began to wonder just what kids in Cheyenne Wells had been learning before third grade about arithmetic, if they were only getting to stuff I’d learned two years earlier?

That elementary school in Ft. Collins got me in trouble again in seventh grade, in Rangely, Colorado. The reading teacher got angry at me when I started talking about Latin roots. We weren’t supposed to know about Latin roots and Greek roots, yet. Almost none of the other kids in my class had heard of them, and I had to explain I’d first learned about them in second grade back in Ft. Collins. I have so many stories I could tell about that seventh grade teacher, but let’s do that another day.

To explain just how anti-central-control many Americans are, when the territory of Colorado became a state, the Constitution of the state (as approved by voters at the time) specifically forbid the state government from even recommending text books to be used by local school boards. In 1948, just 72 years after adopting that Constitution, the voters of Colorado amended the Constitution to allow for the election of a state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and allowed the State Board of Education to make curriculum recommendations. But only two years later, the first person to be publicly elected to that position, campaigned on a platform to repeal the amendments that created the position. And she won!

I’ve typed a lot of words here, and so far I haven’t actually answered any of the questions, I’ve just explained why most of the answers are going to be confusing. Let’s tackle age at different grades. Elementary School (also sometimes called Grade School or Grammar School) consists of Kindergarten, First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth grades. Except that Kindergarten isn’t always required. And sometimes Sixth grade is considered part of Middle School, not Elementary. In districts where kindergarten is required, usually the starting age is five years old.

Though it’s not that simple, because they have to set a cut-off date. And while some states set a state-wide cut-off date, others leave it up to the district. Where we were living when I was five, in order to be enrolled in kindergarten, a child had to turn five years old by September 20. I know this because, since my birthday is five days later, I had to wait a year longer before I could enroll. And yes, I was the kind of nerdy kid that was unhappy when the neighbors who were my age went to school and I had to stay home.

I was thus the oldest kid in my class. I knew this because they made a very big deal out of birthdays in that class. The teacher had this plaster birthday cake that she could stick candles in (want it was big candles, not the usual little birthday cake candles, so the teacher could reuse the candles many times). The whole class would sing “Happy Birthday” before you blew out the candles. At least a few kids had birthdays before mine that year, and each of them turned five. I was the first kid that she had to get the sixth candle out for. From there on, each time a classmate had a birthday, they got out the plaster cake and the teacher would put in six candles and we’d sing.

Until late March. Usually when one of us had a birthday, the kid’s mother would come to the school with cookies or cupcakes or a big cake to cut up for us to eat after singing the song and the kid blew out the candles. This kid’s mom brought a big sheet cake, which she was carefully cutting into little pieces while the teacher was setting up the plaster thing with the candles. As the teacher was lighting the sixth candle, the kid stopped her. “I’m only five, today.” The teacher didn’t believe the kid. She turned to his mother, who calmly nodded. When the teacher repeated the question, “how old is he?” her tone of voice was not pleasant. “He just turned five today,” the mother repeated. “He shouldn’t have been enrolled this year this year. Someone would have had to lie to get him enrolled this year,” the teacher said. I don’t remember what the mother said, in reply, but after a few minutes we moved on. The teacher removed the sixth candle. She lit the others, we sang, and he blew out the candles.

I remember that it was March because I was outraged. I’d been born only five days after the cut-off date, and they wouldn’t let me come to school the year before. He was born more than five months after the cut-off, and yet there he was, only four years old for most of the school year.

The thing was, as far as I know he was having no trouble keeping up with us. And despite being older than him and everyone else in my class, I wasn’t horribly out-of-place with my classmates.

The age ranges are arbitrary, and the cut-offs are even more arbitrary. I turned 18 just a few weeks after starting my senior year in high school. Assuming this other kid had proceeded up through the grades without any problems, he didn’t turn 18 until more than a year after graduating from high school. Just as my almost-twin cousin who is only 8 days older than me, graduated from high school a year before I did. She turned 18 years old during the fall of her first year in college, in the exact same month that I was started my final year in high school.

So ages vary wildly, and can be influenced by all sorts of things, not just arbitrary cut-off dates or parents fudging kids ages to get them in school early. You can be held back and forced to repeat a grade for all sorts of reasons. Much less frequently, kids are allowed to skip a grade or two if they are determined to be “advanced for their age.”

Generally, then:

Kindergarten: 5 or 6 years old
First grade: 6 or 7
Second grade: 7 or 8
Third grade: 8 or 9
Fourth grade: 9 or 10
Fifth grade: 10 or 11
Sixth grade: 11 or 12
Seventh grade: 12 or 13
Eighth grade: 13 or 14
Ninth grade/Freshman in some high schools: 14 or 15
Tenth grade/Sophomore: 15 or 16
Eleventh grade/Junior: 16 or 17
Twelfth grade/Senior: 17 or 18

But a kid those grades can be a a bit younger or older than each range, in some circumstance.

This blog post has gotten a lot longer than I meant. So I’ll tackle some other confusing things about American schools tomorrow.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

4 responses to “It ought to be elementary, but…”

  1. Appletaile says :

    Thank you, I wasn’t expecting such a response! I don’t really know much about the USA at all, to be honest, so this was every educational for me. (I also find it interesting how all the things I learn about in History might not be learnt by people in other countries, and I probably won’t learn what they learn.)

    I’ve known people to move down a year group due to a late August birthday, but I don’t actually know what the cut-off date is. I assume if a child was born near the beginning of September, then their parents would just make some sort of decision? I’m not too sure. But I’m one of the older people in my year, and I have plenty of friends with summer birthdays. It doesn’t seem different to me, really.

    • fontfolly says :

      In most of the districts I lived in, there was a mandated cut-off date.

      On the other hand, one of my cousins who has an early October birthday, wasn’t allowed to enroll in the taxpayer-funded kindergarten, but his parents were able to enroll him for one semester in a private school’s kindergarten, paying tuition for about four months, and then he transferred to the state school.

      I’ve also heard to districts that allowed kids who had completed a certified headstart or other pre-school program being allowed to enter even though their birthday was after the cut-off date.

  2. jcckeith says :

    The US public school system is not as complicated as it sounds. Due to the common core standards, all public schools across the nation now teach the same thing at the same time. All kids must reach certain levels in mathematics and reading before they are allowed to pass each grade level. Schools are heavily monitored now to ensure that all kids are receiving the education they need. Multiple tests are done throughout the year in each grade to identify where each student is and what they still need to learn to reach the needed level.
    As of four years ago, all day kindergarten became required and all children attend all day kindergarten now and 99% of kids are 6 when they start kindergarten because they have changed the laws about when a child must start school. By the end of kindergarten, kids must know the entire alphabet and be able to count to 100 within a minute. In first grade, they learn to read, write, add and subtract.
    In addition to regulating the curriculum, schools are also now making parents more accountable for their kids. Throughout elementary school, which is kindergarten through 5th grade, students must write down their daily assignments and homework in a planner provided by the school, the planner is brought home every night and must be signed by the parent every night. Parent-Teacher conferences are required, even if the student is doing well. The reason is so that the teacher can meet with parents to make sure they know what is being taught, what is expected of the student by the end of the year, where their student is currently and how their child does with other students in the class.
    Middle School is 6th through 8th grade. High school is 9th through 12th grade.
    If you have any further questions about the US public school system, you can check out the core curriculum at numerous sites, you can find what your local school or any school for that matter teaches, when they teach it, who the teachers are, who the principals are, the school’s mission statement, their scores on standardized tests, their graduation rate and pretty much any information you desire can be found on school websites. You can also find info at the Dept of Education’s website.
    The school system has come a long way in the last 30 years. Great effort has been expended to standardize learning and to train teachers to notice when students are having problems, how to teach to different students learning levels, how to teach more efficiently and so many other things.
    I currently have two children in elementary school and one who is a senior in high school so I deal with the school system daily.

    • fontfolly says :

      I don’t have any questions. I was answering them.

      And the Common Core Standards? Those are suggestions. They are NOT required. Six states have completely refused to join them, one state has only adopted the English Common Core, and several states that initially voted to join, have since repealed that legislation and have abandoned the Common Core.

      I’m glad you seem to live in a state that has adopted them and not yet repealed them.

      I’ll also point out that the Common Core Standards don’t cover science or social studies. So the U.S. public school system remains quite a patchwork. And that doesn’t even get into the lack of an enforcement mechanism, and the infinite human capacity to find ways to claim to adhere to a standard while shirking.

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