The American Education System: Characteristics and Role

In this essay, we will try to analyse the educational model of America and how this essential social institution has performed numerous manifest as well as latent functions in the society.

The word “school” is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “leisure”. Even though the link between these two words may seem outrageously improbable, it is important to know that in preindustrial societies, going to school was reserved for the children of the privileged families of the society. Even today, there exists many societies across the globe, where only a handful of people are educated. Even in India, where, according to the Census of 2011, ‘54.6% of the population is engaged in agriculture and allied activities’, schooling is not considered a contributing factor to increasing a person’s productivity, and is considered wasteful (particularly in the economic sense). In such cases, children are not sent to school and made to participate in the labour force. They acquire knowledge and skills through informal socialization processes.

However, with the advent of industrialism, mass schooling became a necessity because the modern industrial society required its people to have “specialized knowledge and skills’ in order to fulfill their roles as members of the society, Therefore, in all industrialized societies, education was established as a central social institution.

What is Education?

Durkheim conceived of education as “the socialisation of the younger generation”. He further stated that it is “a continuous effort to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling, and acting which he could not have arrived at spontaneously”. Education is indeed synonymous to socialisation for it is the agent of cultural transmission and the most remarkable feature of education in modern society is that it has become an institutionalised, formal activity.

Education in America

Education is the single largest industry in the United States; almost one American in three currently participates in the institution in the various roles of student, teacher, administrator, and other staff. Education has gained immense importance in the United States because a modern industrial society like the United States could not survive without the aid of a large number of skilled and educated people. Education is also considered a tool that could induce positive social changes; therefore, Americans believe in mass education to cure all social ills.

The education department in the USA follows the K-12 system, which stands for ‘Kindergarten to 12th’ and is further broken into elementary(K-5), middle school (Grades 6-8) and high school or secondary education (Grades 9-12). As one completes the K-12 system, he/she can proceed for their undergraduate course (for around 4 years), followed by postgraduation (thesis to be written in two years), and, finally, can enter the doctoral program (lasts for a minimum of 3-4 years).

The primary objective of education in America is ‘to ensure equality of access and of opportunity for all boys and girls, including minority groups and the disabled’.

Characteristics of American Education

Education in America reflects the values and priorities of the American society. Education is dedicated to democratic ideals, committed to individual freedom, and respect for the diversity of the population. It strives to help individuals realise and reach their true potential, serve the country as able citizens, and also participate in global social processes.

  • Decentralisation of Education

The education system in America is highly decentralised. In accordance with the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has no authority to formulate a national education system; power over education is reserved for the state and local authorities, as well as to individual schools and higher education institutions.

  • Education for All

America is committed to mass education and formal education is not only freely available but is also compulsory. Education is financed by taxes levied on each and every citizen of the country.

  • Education as an Antidote to Social Evils

Education is believed to be the remedy for all social evils in the society. In America, schools are considered to be a positive factor in changing the attitude and behaviour of individuals. Initially, education was used as a tool to ‘Americanise’ immigrants and ‘civilise’ Native Americans, but its realm has been expanded to ameliorate and solve, for instance, criminal activities and drug addiction.

A Functionalist Analysis of Education: The Role of Education in the American Society

  1. Transmission of Culture

‘Culture consists of all the shared products of human society’ and culture is an integral part of our lives because it frees us from the fetters of dependence on the ‘slow, random, accidental process of physical evolution by offering us a new, purposeful, efficient means of adapting to changing conditions.’ Education plays an important role in transmitting the culture of the society to the young, because without cultural transmission it would be difficult for the society to survive. Schools provide the children with the knowledge, skills, and values that are considered by the society to be important. A child learns the history, geography, and politics of the country alongside numerous values and norms that are venerated in the society. However, it must be noted that this function of education is a traditional one as it leads to indoctrination of existing culture (even if some elements of it may be harmful for the society at large) and does not lead to innovation but rather tends to reinforce existing ethnocentrism.

  • Social Integration

Modern industrial societies are marked by a heterogeneous population, that is, people who belong to diverse racial, religious, class, and ethnic backgrounds. The population of the United State is also very diverse. People have immigrated to the United States from all over the world and in this context, education plays a vital role in integrating the young members of various cultures into the common culture, encouraging the development of a homogeneous society whose members hold shared values. Education is a contributing factor to the ‘melting-pot’ process. When immigrant children enter schools, very few of them can speak English or are familiar with the American way of life, but after completing their schooling, they are able to find their place in mainstream American society.

  • Personal Development

Schools provide ample opportunities for personal development and acquisition of skills. The all-round development that happens via the educational system, is not possible to achieve through any other institutions of the society. The formal curriculum teaches the children on various subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, economics, mathematics, history, geography, literature etc. Apart from this, informal interaction with teachers and peers helps the students discover their true selves and truly understand the world around them. A fraction of what one has learned in school helps them satisfactorily occupy their future occupational roles, but most of it is more valuable for ‘personal emotional, social, and intellectual development’. Education helps one to develop opinions, critique the world around them, and better participate in the society in which they live. Education in the United States has also contributed to the personal development of those who graduate from school. With all the formal education and training they receive in school, they become able citizens who contribute to the fulfillment of the American dream.

  • Social Mobility

Education is a crucial factor in promoting social mobility in the United States and other industrial societies. The formal training and education prepare the students for the professional job market and this enhances one’s chance to rise up in the social ladder. A complex process of screening and selection operates in the American educational system. Schools constantly test and evaluate the students to see who is crafted for academics and who should be channelled towards technical vocations. However, even before education plays a role in enhancing social mobility, one’s family background and socio-economic status also plays a vital role. Children from influential, well-to-do families have higher chances of access to education and the screening and selection process, even though impartial, is highly advantageous for those whose parents have a higher socio-economic status and belong to the upper echelons of the society. 

  • Innovation

Like discussed earlier, indoctrination of existing cultural values through transmission via education sometimes hinder innovation and promote ethnocentrism. This is why, the element of innovation has been introduced to the American education system which aids in augmenting the already existing cultural heritage. Innovation comes about when the experience of education stimulates intellectual curiosity and develops the critical acumen of the students. Participation in extensive research- both basic and applied- in every discipline also promotes innovation. Certain cultural elements detrimental to the development of society has been eradicated, the good ones have been enhanced and further transmitted ensuring its continuity.

  • Latent Roles

So far, we have discussed the manifest roles that education plays in the United States. Education, also plays a myriad of latent functions. Robert K. Merton defines latent functions as those functions ‘that are not generally recognized and were never intended.” For example, schools perform the role of “baby-sitting” agencies. Schools basically provide the mother a relief from child rearing activities. Children join schools at a very early age and this gives ample opportunity to mothers to pursue their individual careers. Schools and colleges also act as “marriage markets.” It is in colleges that young people get a fairly high amount of chance to interact with people of the opposite sex, to let romantic relationships develop. This would not be possible if they were confined to their homes.


The United States has always been a model for mass education, where education has played a major role in technological innovation and assimilation of immigrants into the American society. However, social inequality still exists in the country, there is widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the cultural dominance of the country is being perpetually challenged. In such a situation, it is important to assess the education policy and bring about changes to prepare the youths to help build a better America for the future generations.

Also Read: Pros and Cons of Education in America


Robertson, I (1980). Sociology

Shaughnessy, M.F., Code, G. (2015). A Brief History of Education in the United States: An Interview with Alan Singer

Sawhill, I (2006). Opportunity in America: The Role of Education

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My name is Ragini Chettri and I have a Master’s degree in sociology. Although I have a deep sense of attachment to all aspects of the discipline, I am particularly interested in contemporary sociological theories, and gender and media studies. I am fond of reading books (both fictional and non-fictional). I am extremely passionate about teaching, for when you teach you learn more than ever, and I firmly believe that learning is a never-ending process. So, here’s to reading and learning and, of course, to developing what C. Wright Mills termed the “sociological imagination”.