In the United States, the standard school system developed from an uncoordinated conglomeration of dame schools, reading and writing schools, private academies, Latin grammar schools, and colleges into a well-organized system in which a child may progress from kindergarten to college in a continuous and efficient free public system. By 1890 there had evolved the now common twelve-grade system whereby the child enters kindergarten at the age of five, goes to grammar or elementary school for grades one through eight, high or secondary school for grades nine through twelve, and then enters college. Compulsory attendance at school has been legislated in all states, although standards of age and length of the school year vary considerably.
To meet the psychological and social stresses of early adolescence, the junior high school was introduced (1890–1920) in many systems for grades seven through nine. This organization, sometimes called the six-three-three plan, was designed to ease the transition period by having the junior high school introduce its students to many aspects of the high school, such as student government and separate classes for different subjects. Critics of the junior high school, however, contended that it merely copied the program of the high school, which they believed to be inappropriate for the age group that attends the junior high. In response, many districts have established intermediate, or middle, schools, usually encompassing grades five through eight.
To provide opportunity for advanced training beyond high school without a full college course, the junior or community college, which generally includes the first two years of college, has gained wide popularity. Not only does it prepare students for technical careers, it allows states and municipalities to fulfill their commitment to open enrollment, whereby any high-school graduate may enter a specified institution of higher education. More recently, a few high schools have combined a community college curriculum with the last two years of high school. Such a program is designed to encourage bright or disadvantaged students to remain in high school by enabling them to earn an associate degree in conjunction with a high school diploma.
Although in the United States schools are primarily the responsibility of state and local authorities, the federal government has passed a number of measures intended to assist schools and their students. The National Defense Education Act (1958) and the Higher Education Act (1965) were designed to provide financial assistance to college and university students. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965, amended 1966, 1967) was the first national general-aid education program in the United States. It provided funds for school library and textbook services, the education of poor and handicapped children, and educational innovations and construction by local school districts.
Public school services have been extended, in some communities, into the sponsorship of community centers, adult education, summer schools, and recreation programs. In addition, with the increase in the number of households where both parents work and in the number of single-parent households, programs such as Head Start have been established to care for preschool children. Special programs have been established for the deaf, the blind, and the mentally and physically handicapped and in some instances for the gifted. In large cities special high schools are sometimes set up to serve special student needs; e.g., there may be separate schools for artistic, industrial, scientific, and classical subjects. In the latter part of the 20th cent. public schools, particularly in economically depressed urban areas, suffered from economic cutbacks, an increase in student crime, and an inability to find qualified administrators and teachers. Efforts to revitalize public school systems have included such varied approaches as decentralized community control in large urban areas, privatization of public school administration, school vouchers, and charter schools.