What Is Secondary Education?

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In the United States, secondary education generally refers to the last four years of compulsory formal education, consisting of grades 9 through 12. Schooling in those years offers many challenges and rewards for teachers and students.


Secondary schools prepare students for college, work, and life in general, including responsibilities as a citizen in a democracy. Many believe the school should also prepare students to be global citizens. In these grades, students’ sense of personal and social identity typically develops and changes.

History of Secondary Education

Public high schools opened in a number of communities in the early 1800s. In 1892, the “Committee of Ten” of the National Education Association recommended four years of secondary school with courses in English, mathematics and history1, and also advised on biology, chemistry, and physics instruction2.

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act established a significant federal role, providing funding to assist in teaching disadvantaged children. Special education funding followed a decade later. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 set up federal requirements for annual standardized testing, which were reduced in the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.

Secondary Education Stats

There were 14.8 million students enrolled in public secondary schools in 2012-2013, projected to increase by 4 percent to 15.3 million students by 2024-20253. North Dakota and Utah are expected to see increases of 20 percent or more for those grades, while Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, and Rhode Island are likely to see reductions of 10 percent or more4. In addition, about 1.3 million students are enrolled in private secondary schools5.

There were 3.4 million public school teachers in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012, of whom 76 percent were female and 56 percent held a master’s degree or higher. Almost half, or 1.7 million, were secondary school teachers6.

Governance and Financing of Secondary Education

Primary and secondary public schools are governed by locally elected school boards, which set curricula, budgets, and policies, while states set educational standards. The federal government contributes funds for disabled and disadvantaged students, among other missions.

Overall, local governments typically provide an average of about 44 percent of school funding, mostly from local property taxes, and states contribute an average of 44 percent. The remaining 12 percent comes from federal funds. Each state, however, has different standards and different funding structures and formulas; the share of local, state, and federal resources varies widely7.

Some states are wealthier and willing to spend more. For example, New Jersey spent $17,379 per student in 2009-2010, while Utah spent only $6,452 per student. There are also often big disparities among districts in a single state7. Overall, total expenditures for public schools in the U.S. were $621 billion in 2011–2012, or $12,401 per student8.

Trends and Challenges

Technology has brought many new resources to secondary education and continues to evolve in areas such as mobile, online, and personalized learning. Interactive whiteboards are being used in classrooms, and big data are being used to enhance learning strategies. Meanwhile, educating in an environment of increasing economic, cultural, and social diversity presents a challenge.

St. Joseph’s University’s online MS in Secondary Education prepares you to excel in this learning environment. With courses including Adolescent Psychology, Language and Culture, Inclusive Classroom Practices, and Foundations and Critical Issues in Special Education, you will build confidence as a teacher, mentor, and leader. You can learn more by requesting more information below.

1National Association of Biology Teachers; Biology First: A History of the Grade Placement of High School Biology https://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/File/pdfs/publications/abt/2006/068-07...
2National Center for Education Statistics; Public School Enrollment http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cga.asp
3National Center for Education Statistics; Public School Enrollment http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cga.asp
4National Center for Education Statistics; Private School Enrollment https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_cgc.pdf
5National Center for Education Statistics; Number and Percentage Distribution of Teachers https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_209.10.asp
6New America Foundation: PreK-12 Financing Overview http://atlas.newamerica.org/school-finance
7National Center for Education Statistics: Fast Facts http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66
8New Media Consortium New Horizon Report 2013: K-12: http://redarchive.nmc.org/publications/2013-horizon-report-k12

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