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The American curriculum - key facts

The US curriculum is the third most widely-used in international schools, after the English version and the International Baccalaureate. Nick Morrison gives us the low-down...


According to the International School Consultancy, as of 2016/17 there are 1,787 international schools offering the US curriculum, with concentrations in Japan, China, South Korea, UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as Central and South America.

A significant minority of these are sponsored by the State Department: 193 schools across 134 countries, educating a total of 137,000 students, according to the Office of Overseas Schools. These range from a 25-student school in Sierra Leone to almost 4,000 students at a school in Singapore. Around a quarter of students in these schools are US citizens, another quarter are from the host country and just under half are from a third country.

Unlike England, the US does not have a national curriculum, with states, or even districts, free to set their own education policy. However, in recent years, many states have adopted what is known as the Common Core, an attempt to set consistent standards in English and maths.

Although it has gained widespread acceptance, it has proved controversial, and some states have declined to implement Common Core, while others have adopted it and then repealed it.

In practice, many international schools are aligned to Common Core standards, and follow standards in a particular state for subjects other than English and maths, but do have a degree of flexibility in following a US curriculum, while observing common themes and practices.

"The diploma is accepted for entry at all US universities, and increasingly by universities around the world..."

Tug-of-war at the American International School of Budapest.

Perhaps the most notable of these is a broadly-based curriculum that encourages students to continue with as many subjects as possible, unlike the early specialisation of the English system, for example.

Most US international schools are accredited by a regional body, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges or the New York State Board of Regents.

Early learning at Collegiate American School, Dubai.


The primary years, grades 1 to 5 (age six to ten), see students following a broad-based curriculum that will usually incorporate the history and language of the host country. 

In the US system, children start kindergarten at five and work towards a high school diploma at eighteen, in grade 12 (a system known as K-12 education, from kindergarten to grade 12). The diploma is accepted for entry at all US universities, and increasingly by universities around the world.

Kindergartens usually take a play-based learning approach, introducing children to letters and sounds, numbers and shapes, colours and drawing.

Primary school performance at the International School Saigon Pearl.

Secondary years are generally divided into middle or junior high school, typically grades 6 to 8 (ages eleven to fourteen) and high school, typically grades 9 to 12 (ages fifteen to eighteen).

Here, students will continue with a wide range of mandatory subjects but will also have the choice of elective programmes, such as drama, art or instrumental music. The emphasis throughout the high school years is very much on academic, rather than vocational, education.

Supporting the school's football team at Al-Mizhar American Academy, Dubai.

Science Fair at ES International School, Barcelona.

The subjects studied will vary according to which state’s curriculum the school is following, but generally minimum requirements are for two to four years each of science, maths, English, social sciences and physical education, as well as some foreign language and art study.

Most international schools will also require students to take classes in the host country’s language and history.

Regular testing is a feature of the US system, although this has become increasingly controversial, with opponents of testing claiming that it drives out creativity and puts too much pressure on students. 

Children are also assessed by their teachers, and typically given an end-of-year grade, ranging from A to F. Students who fail, an F grade, in a particular subject may have to retake the whole year. Students gain credits from their courses towards their high school diploma. 

Many schools will also run more challenging classes, known as Honours, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, for grade 11 and 12 students, which can be a requirement for more selective US universities.

 "US schools give a high priority to sports and the same is largely true for American international schools..."

Basketball match at the International Secondary School, Tokyo.

Most international schools offering a US curriculum also administer the SAT, an additional test normally taken at seventeen years, in grade 11. The SAT is required for entry to most US universities. (Students who don't plan to go to university do not have to take this test, and it doesn't affect their diploma.)

US schools give a high priority to sports and the same is largely true for American international schools. Students can expect to take part in US sports such as baseball, American football and basketball, as well as soccer (football) and track and field.

The top image shows the recent graduation ceremony held at the American School of Milan.

Image credits:

Al-Mizhar American Academy, Dubai

American School of Milan

American International School of Budapest

ES International School, Barcelona

Collegiate American School, Dubai

International Secondary School, Tokyo

International School Saigon Pearl

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