Pep rallies & diplomas:
Surprising facts about the U.S. school system

In this month’s Learning Nugget, we’re talking about something close to our hearts: education.

If you’ve ever seen a movie about life in a U.S. school, you’ve probably realized there are some big differences in German and U.S. academics. Today we take a look at the aspects of the U.S. system most likely to surprise Germans.

Where can you go to school?

In Germany, parents and their children are largely free to choose which schools they attend. If the school has room and a student can get there on time, they’re allowed to go no matter if that school is just around the corner or an hour’s train ride away.

That’s not how things work in the United States.

There, public schools (i.e., the schools that are free) are largely funded by local property taxes. Which schools people’s taxes fund depends on what school district they’re in. When you want to go to a public school, you must attend the school associated with your district unless you receive a special waiver.

The logic behind this is that areas have high property taxes specifically to maintain high-level schools. If you’re not paying these higher taxes, why should you benefit from the better schools they provide?

Of course, the flipside is that poorer areas typically have poorer schools with fewer resources to teach students – students who often need more support than their counterparts in richer school districts. Unsurprisingly, this property tax-based school funding system and strict districting are often associated with creating cycles of poverty and limited upward mobility.


13 years of school – for everyone

The goal is for all students in U.S. schools to graduate after 13 years – kindergarten and then first through 12th grade. Keep in mind that ‚kindergarten‘ is not childcare in the states. It means a student’s first year in school, which is around age five or six. 

During these years, students may go through up to four different types of school: elementary, middle, junior high, and senior high school. In some places, junior and senior high are combined into one high school that’s typically for students in ninth through 12th grade.

If you’ve ever heard the words Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior, they refer to students in grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 in the U.S. system. The same words (in the same order) are used for students in their first, second, third, and fourth years at U.S. universities.

All U.S. schools are similar to Germany’s Gesamtschule concept where students of various academic abilities go to school together. However, starting around sixth grade, students can elect to take classes that have higher and lower demands. Students who plan to attend universities are encouraged to take the classes with higher demands as they look better on college applications (also, ‚university‘ and ‚college‘ are used as synonyms in the U.S.).

Unlike in Germany where students can leave school at various points after finishing a program that prepares them for a trade, U.S. students typically only have the choice to get a high school diploma by finishing 12th grade. This diploma is needed to go to a college or university. However, it has come to mean less and less in terms of qualifications for a well-paying job by itself.

Notably, because giving out diplomas is seen as the main work of schools, ones where a high number of students never graduate or don’t graduate in the expected number of years are often depicted as failing at their work. This creates an environment that incentivizes schools to pass students on to grades they aren’t truly ready for in order to avoid bad press and government intervention.


Extracurricular activities

A huge difference in the U.S. and German school systems is how closely extracurricular activities are tied to schools. This is particularly true for sports teams, which are typically run by private clubs in Germany but are part of the U.S. school system’s DNA.

In the U.S., achievements of sports teams are often announced school-wide and team members wear fancy clothes or jerseys on game days. If a game is particularly important, classes may be put on hold so that the student body can attend a ‚pep rally‚ which is all about the school showing support for its student athletes.

Of course, the amount of attention paid to sports at a place that’s supposed to be focused on academics can be controversial, and there are plenty of debates across the country about the cost-benefit ratio. Though critics say sports like basketball and American football receive too much money and focus, advocates say the revenue from these sports makes funding less lucrative extracurriculars like theater groups and orchestras possible.


More differences to come

We’re planning more Learning Nuggets that explore important and intriguing cultural differences between Germany and English-speaking nations.

Get in touch if there’s a topic you’d love us to take a look at!



pep rally: a pep rally isn’t a competition. It is a gathering of students meant to show support for a sports team before a big game. Cheerleaders, a marching band, maybe a speech from a coach or team captain.

education – (Aus)Bildung 

most likely to surprise – höchstwahrscheinlich zur Überraschung

attend school – Schule besuchen

have room for – Platz haben für

no matter if – ganz gleich ob

train ride – Zugfahrt

i.e. – (lat: id est) das heißt 

largely funded by – größtenteils finanziert durch

local property taxes – lokale Grundsteuern

associated with – verbunden mit

receive a special waiver – eine Verzichtserklärung erhalten 

flipside – Kehrseite 

fewer resources – weniger Mittel/Ressourcen

counterparts – Pendant, Gegenstücke

cycle of poverty – Armutszyklus

limited upward mobility – eingeschränkte Aufstiegschancen

grade – Klasse

childcare – Kinderbetreuung

refer to – verweisen auf

academic abilities – akademische Fähigkeiten

elect – auswählen

higher and lower demands – höhere und geringere Ansprüche 

college application – Unibewerbung

trade  – Berufsstand

be depicted as – dargestellt werden

incentivize – Anreize schaffen

pass on to grades – in die nächste Klasse kommen

extracurricular activities – außerschulische Aktivitäten

be tied to sth. – gebunden an etw. 

achievement – Errungenschaft, Leistung

put sth. on hold – etwas aufschieben

controversial – strittig, kontrovers

plenty of – reichlich

cost-benefit ratio – Kosten-Nutzen-Verhältnis

advocate  – Befürworter

less lucrative – weniger lukrativ / gewinnbringend 

intriguing – faszinierend, fesselnd

Excite Your Senses

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