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A Snapshot of Our Public Schools

Facts amd figures, some that may surprise you, about schools and the people you find there.

The Center on Education Policy is a Washington, D.C.-based research organization that  advocates for public education and more effective public schools. Earlier this year, CEP released a report called “A Public Education Primer: Basic (and Sometimes Surprising) Facts About the U.S. Educational System.”

Here, with CEP’s permission, are excerpts from that report, which can be read in its entirety at the Center’s website (

Public education matters, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, administrator, employer or taxpayer. Although you undoubtedly know something about public education, you may be unaware of important facts about the U.S. educational system or may be surprised to learn how things have changed in recent years.

As much as possible, the data compiled here come from the federal government—primarily the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the data-gathering arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Where NCES data are not available, we’ve carefully chosen data from other reliable sources.

This primer is meant to give an overall snapshot of elementary and secondary education in the nation’s public schools.

Nine out of 10 students in the U.S. are educated in public schools.
In the fall of 2008, the most recent year with actual data, U.S. public schools educated 90 percent of the nation’s 55 million students in grades pre-K through 12, while private schools educated 10 percent. Total enrollments are projected to reach 57.9 million in the fall of 2020, with a slight increase in the public school share and a slight decrease in the private school share.

Two-thirds of African-American and Latino students attend public schools in which more than half of the students are from low-income families.
Disparities in enrollments by race and ethnicity are especially striking among schools in which more than three-fourths of the students are from low-income families. Thirty-five percent of African-American students and 37 percent of Latino students attend schools with this very high level of poverty, compared with just 13 percent of Asian-American students and 5 percent of white students. In total, 66 percent of African-American students and 67 percent of Latino students attend schools in which more than half of the students are poor, compared with 32 percent of Asian-American students and 24 percent of white students.

Forty-seven percent of African-American students and 44 percent of Latino students are educated in urban schools, compared with just 17 percent of white students.

Most white students attend schools with low enrollments of children of color.
Seventy-nine percent of Latino students and 74 percent of African-American students—as well as 58 percent of Asian-American students—attend schools in which more than half the students are children of color. Only 14 percent of white students attend schools with this high of a concentration of children of color.

Thirteen percent of students change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade.
Another 18 percent transferred schools three times during the same period in their education.

Nearly 12 percent of K–8 schools had high mobility rates, meaning that more than 10 percent of their students left by the end of the school year. Schools with high mobility enrolled larger percentages of poor children, students with disabilities, and English language learners than schools with lower mobility rates.

Almost half of American public school students are now children of color.
In 2008, about 55 percent of K-12 students were white, 22 percent were Latino, 17 percent were African-American, and 5 percent were Asian. Since 1999, the white enrollment has declined from 62 percent, the African-American enrollment has remained at 17 percent, and the Latino enrollment has increased from 16 percent. The proportion of public school students who are Latino is projected to continue growing through 2020, while the proportions of white and African-American students are projected to decrease.

Children of color comprise the majority of public school students in 11 states (not including Virginia) and the District of Columbia.

Almost one-fifth of the nation’s school-age children are from families with an income below the federal poverty threshold.
The Census Bureau defines poor families as those with annual incomes below $22,050 for a family of four. More than 40 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

One in 10 public school students are children whose first language is not English.
Four out of five English language learners are native Spanish speakers. The number of students who are English language learners has climbed by more than 50 percent over the past decade. More than 400 languages are spoken by English language learners in U.S. schools.

About one in 8 public school students receives special education services because of a disability.
Most children with disabilities are now educated in regular public schools, but this was not always the case. After passage of the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the percentage of children with disabilities ages 6-17 who were educated in public schools jumped dramatically—from 20 percent in 1970 to 95 percent in 2008-09.

The U.S. educational system is more decentralized than those of most industrialized nations.
Unlike most of the G-8 nations and many other countries, the U.S. has neither a national curriculum nor a national exam that all students must take. In many other nations, the results of national exams are used to make major decisions about students’ educational careers, such as promotion to the next grade level, admission to particular types of secondary education programs, or awarding of diplomas and certifications.

The central governments of many countries also have more authority than the U.S. federal government does in areas such as credentialing and hiring of teachers, requirements for graduation, and rules for compulsory education.

Forty-five states (not including Virginia) and the District of Columbia have agreed to adopt the Common Core State Standards for what children should learn in English language arts and mathematics.
To help ensure that children across the nation receive a comparable, high-quality education, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2010 released a set of common academic standards outlining the knowledge and skills students at each grade should learn in English language arts and math. States can voluntarily decide whether to adopt these standards, which were developed by the states with input from a variety of constituencies.

More than 90 percent of funding for public schools comes from state and local sources.
In school year 2007-08, 48 percent of all revenues for public elementary and secondary education were provided by the states, while 44 percent came from local sources. More than three-fourths of this local portion was derived from local property taxes. The federal government contributed a relatively small share, just 8 percent, of total revenues for elementary and secondary education.

Although education spending has increased, the level of public investment in education has changed very little over the past decade compared with the nation’s total economic output.
The Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, refers to the market value of all goods and services produced in the domestic economy and is often used as an indicator of a nation’s economic health. Comparing education spending to total GDP is one way to determine the level of public effort to finance education. In 1999, the percentage of the GDP spent on K-12 education was 4.4; in 2009, it was 4.6.

About three-fifths of the money spent on public elementary and secondary education goes toward instruction.
The largest share of spending for public education, about 61 percent, goes toward instruction, including teachers’ salaries and benefits and supplies. Operations and maintenance, the second largest category, accounts for 10 percent of spending, and administration accounts for 8 percent.

More than half of all public school teachers have advanced degrees.
In addition, more than half also have at least ten years of teaching experience. About 52 percent of public school teachers have a master’s degree or higher. (By comparison, 38 percent of private school teachers have an advanced degree.)

Public school teachers are a far less diverse group in terms of gender, race and ethnicity than the students they teach.
Three-quarters of all teachers are female, and more than four-fifths are white. These demographic characteristics of the teaching force have remained relatively constant since 1999.

About 8 percent of teachers leave the profession each year, and roughly the same percentage changes schools.
Teachers in the early years of their careers are somewhat more likely to change schools or leave the profession than more experienced teachers. Teachers in high-poverty schools are slightly more likely than those in low-poverty schools to change schools, but somewhat less likely to leave teaching altogether.

Teachers spend a significant amount of time doing school work outside of regular classroom teaching hours.
In 2006, teachers worked an average of 52 hours per week. Thirty-seven of these hours on average were worked during the required school day. The rest were devoted to additional instruction-related activities, such as lesson plans and grading, and other non-instructional work for which teachers may or may not be compensated.

U.S. teachers spend more time teaching than their counterparts in European countries and many other developed nations.
U.S. teachers at the primary and secondary levels spend more than 1,000 hours per year teaching students—well over the averages of the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among the OECD nations, the U.S. is second only to Chile in average number of teaching hours at the primary and secondary levels.

Teachers’ salaries in the U.S. are relatively low compared with earnings of experienced, college-educated employees in this country and in many other developed nations.
According to an OECD analysis, U.S. primary and middle school teachers with 15 years of experience make 61 percent of the average salaries paid to other U.S. employees with the same experience and a college education. At the high school level, the average teacher makes 65 percent of what these similar workers earn.

More revealing, however, is the fact that the U.S. ranks 22nd or 24th out of 28 OECD countries in the ratio of average teacher salaries to average earnings of other workers with similar experience and education.

Public schools are called upon to provide a range of special services, programs, staff, and supports to help meet students’ needs.
In addition to providing regular classroom instruction, public elementary and secondary schools offer various kinds of services, programs, special staff, and other supports. Some of these supports are aimed at improving students’ learning, while others address health, emotional, and social needs, and include a wide range of programs, such as before and after school care, health clinics, special education, International Baccalaureate, distance learning and psychological care.

Although the majority of schools have experienced some type of criminal incident, the number of crimes against students has fallen sharply during the past decade.

Schools have taken various measures to improve safety and reduce violence. In 2007-08, about 86 percent of public schools reported having a criminal incident, ranging from a less serious crime, such as a theft or fight without weapons, to a serious violent crime. Nonfatal crimes against students at school, however, have decreased by more than half during the past decade.

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