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Because school attendance is compulsory until at least age 16 in all 50 States and the District of Columbia, elementary, middle, and secondary schools are the most numerous of all educational establishments. Elementary, middle, and secondary schools provide academic instruction to students in kindergarten through grade 12, in public schools, parochial schools, boarding and other private schools, and military academies. Some secondary schools offer a mixture of academic and career and technical instruction.
Postsecondary institutionsuniversities, colleges, professional schools, community or junior colleges, and career and technical institutesprovide education and training in both academic and technical subjects for mainly adult students and those who have graduated high school. Universities offer bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees, while colleges generally offer only the bachelor's degree. Professional schools offer graduate degrees in fields such as law, medicine, business administration, and engineering. The undergraduate bachelor's degree typically requires 4 years of study, while graduate degrees require additional years of study. Community and junior colleges and technical institutes offer associate degrees, certificates, or other diplomas, typically involving 2 years of study or less. Career and technical schools provide specialized training and services primarily related to a specific job. They include computer and cosmetology training institutions, business and secretarial schools, correspondence schools, and establishments that offer certificates in commercial art and practical nursing.
Also included in this industry are institutions that provide training and services to the education industry, such as curriculum development and student exchanges. Also included are schools or programs that offer nonacademic or self-enrichment classes, such as automobile driving and cooking instruction, among other things.
In recent decades, the Nation has focused attention on the educational system because of the growing importance of producing a trained and educated workforce. Many institutions, including government, private industry, and research organizations, are involved in improving the quality of education. The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 established Federal guidelines to ensure that all students in public elementary through secondary schools receive a high-quality education. Through this act, individual States are given more flexibility on how to spend the educational funds they are allocated. At the same time, the Act requires standardized testing of all students in core subject areas. In this manner, students, teachers, and all staff involved in education will be held accountable for the results of testing, and teachers and teacher assistants will demonstrate that they are sufficiently qualified in the subjects or areas in which they are licensed to teach. States are responsible for following these guidelines and can lose Federal funding if the standards are not met. Prior to passage of the Act, in an effort to raise academic achievement among students and set standards for graduation, many States had already begun to introduce performance standards. Moreover, a growing number of States were requiring prospective teachers to pass basic skills tests before allowing them to teach.
In an effort to promote innovation in public education, many local and State governments have authorized the creation of public charter schools, in the belief that, by presenting students and their parents with a greater range of instructional options, schools and students will be encouraged to strive for excellence. Charter schools, which usually are run by teachers and parents or, increasingly, by private firms, operate independently of the school system, set their own standards, and practice a variety of innovative teaching methods. Businesses strive to improve education by donating instructional equipment, lending personnel for teaching and mentoring, hosting visits to the workplace, and providing job-shadowing and internship opportunities. Businesses also collaborate with educators to develop curricula that will provide students with the skills they need to cope with new technology in the workplace.
Quality improvements also are being made to career and technical education at secondary and postsecondary schools. Academics are playing a more important role in career and technical curricula, and programs are being made more relevant to the local job market. Often, students must meet rigorous standards, set in consultation with private industry, before receiving a certificate or degree. Career and technical students in secondary school programs must pass the same standardized tests in core subject areas as students who are enrolled in academic programs of study. A growing number of career and technical programs are emphasizing general workplace skills such as problem solving, teamwork, and customer service. Many high schools now offer technical preparatory ("tech-prep") programs, which are developed jointly by high schools and community colleges to provide a continuous course of study leading to an associate's degree or other postsecondary credential.
Computer technology continues to affect the education industry. Computers simplify administrative tasks and make it easier to track student performance. Teachers use the Internet in classrooms as well as to communicate with colleagues around the country; students use the Internet for research projects. Distance learning continues to expand as more postsecondary institutions use Internet-based technology to post lessons and coursework electronically, allowing students in distant locations access to virtual classrooms.
Despite these improvements in quality, problems remain. Dropout rates have not declined significantly over the decade, and employers contend that numerous high school students still lack many of the math and communication skills needed in today's workplace. School budgets often are not sufficient to meet the institution's various goals, particularly in the inner cities, where aging facilities and chronic teacher shortages make teaching difficult.
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