what is post secondary education

Secondary education refers to the stage of formal education that occurs during adolescence, typically between the ages of 11 to 18. It follows primary education and precedes higher or tertiary education.

The main aims of secondary education are to:

  • Provide students with core academic knowledge, skills, and competencies. This includes subjects like English, math, science, history, and geography.

  • Support students’ intellectual, social, emotional, and moral development. Schools aim to foster critical thinking, teamwork, leadership, and other important life skills.

  • Prepare students for higher education, careers, and adult life. The secondary school sets the foundation for future academic and career pursuits.

  • Transmit culture and common core values. Schools impart important social norms and shape students into engaged citizens.

The standard secondary school curriculum consists of:

  • Core subjects like math, science, English, and social studies.

  • Elective subjects like foreign languages, arts, music, and physical education.

  • In some cases, vocational subjects like woodworking, typing, or accounting.

Secondary education schools may be called high schools, gymnasiums, lyceums, middle schools, colleges, vocational schools, or preparatory schools, depending on the region and education system. However, they generally serve the same goal of equipping students with the knowledge and competencies needed for higher education and adulthood.

History and Development

Secondary education has its origins in the monastic, cathedral, and palace schools of the High Middle Ages, which taught young males destined for careers in the church, government, and public administration. These schools initially focused on rhetoric, grammar, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to the establishment of tax-funded public secondary schools open to all, as an alternative to church-run schools. Over time, curricula expanded beyond the liberal arts to include natural philosophy, engineering, commerce, modern languages, and physical education.

In the 19th century, secondary schools proliferated and attendance became compulsory in European countries. Educational reforms in the early 20th century focused on providing practical vocational training along with classical studies. Following World War II, many secondary schools aimed to prepare students for university as well as directly for careers.

Today, secondary education aims to provide foundational knowledge, skills development, and specialization opportunities to equip students for higher education, skilled trades, the workplace, and civic life. Curricula continue to evolve, with an increasing focus on technology, data literacy, media literacy, social-emotional skills, and global competencies. Secondary schools now aim to nurture well-rounded individuals prepared to thrive in a complex, interconnected world.


The curriculum in secondary education refers to the lessons and academic content taught in middle and high schools. It aims to provide students with a broad base of knowledge and skills that prepare them for higher education, careers, and life.

Core Academic Subjects

The core curriculum focuses on foundational academic topics:

  • Mathematics: Courses cover topics like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and calculus. Students learn problem-solving, mathematical reasoning, and real-world applications.

  • Science: Includes biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and computer science. Students engage in hands-on labs, experiments, and the scientific method.

  • Language Arts: Covers reading, writing composition, literature analysis, grammar, and communication skills. Students interpret texts and articulate ideas through writing.

  • Social Studies: Encompasses history, geography, government, economics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Students examine cultures, governments, and the forces that shape society.


In addition to core academics, secondary schools offer elective subjects that allow for specialization:

  • World Languages: Options like Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Mandarin help students gain fluency.

  • Arts: Music, drama, visual arts, and graphic design cultivate creativity and technique.

  • Career and Technical Education: Provides practical job skills training in areas like business, engineering, tech, culinary arts, nursing, and automotive technology.

The curriculum aims to develop well-rounded students prepared for higher education and careers. Academic subjects establish foundational knowledge while electives allow students to explore particular interests and talents.

Teaching Methods

Secondary education utilizes a variety of teaching methods to engage students and facilitate learning. Some of the most common methods include:


Lecturing is a teacher-centered approach where the teacher verbally delivers information to students. Lectures allow teachers to share knowledge with many students at once. However, lectures do not provide opportunities for discussion or hands-on learning. Lectures work best for introducing new topics, presenting factual information, and reviewing content.


Class discussions encourage student participation and two-way communication between teachers and students. Discussions allow students to think critically, exchange perspectives, and articulate their understanding. The teacher acts as a facilitator, providing guidance and asking probing questions. Discussions help students build on their knowledge and develop deeper insight into topics.

Hands-On Learning

Hands-on learning engages students in active exploration and problem-solving. Activities like experiments, simulations, and model building provide meaningful ways for students to acquire and apply knowledge. Hands-on learning also improves student motivation and memory retention. However, adequate resources, class time, and guidance are needed to ensure learning objectives are met.

Group Work

Having students work collaboratively in small groups encourages teamwork and peer learning. Group projects, presentations, and discussions allow students to learn from each other. Working together also builds social skills and interpersonal relationships. Teachers must provide clear goals, facilitate group dynamics, and assess individual contributions when assigning group work.

Technology Integration

Leveraging technology cultivates 21st-century skills for today’s digital world. Interactive whiteboards, educational software, online learning tools, and digital devices engage tech-savvy learners. However, overuse of technology can distract from learning objectives. Teachers should carefully select and implement technology to enhance instruction, not replace best practices like hands-on and collaborative learning.


Assessment is an important part of secondary education as it measures student learning and progress. Teachers use a variety of assessment techniques to evaluate student knowledge and skills.


Grades are the most common form of assessment. Students are assigned grades for assignments, tests, quizzes, projects, and other work. Grades aim to quantify student achievement and mastery of learning objectives. Typical grading systems use letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) or percentage scores. Grades impact a student’s academic record and class rank.

Standardized Testing

Standardized tests are administered to large populations of students under consistent conditions. They allow performance comparison across schools and districts. Common standardized tests in secondary schools include state assessments, SATs, ACTs, and AP exams. Critics argue these tests encourage teaching to the test rather than deeper learning.

Exit Exams

Many states require students to pass standardized exit exams in core subjects to earn a high school diploma. Supporters believe exit exams hold schools accountable and ensure graduates meet minimum competencies. Critics say they prevent students from graduating for reasons unrelated to their coursework.

College Admissions Testing

Tests like the SAT and ACT are used in college admissions. High scores don’t guarantee admission but low scores can harm prospects at selective schools. Critics say these exams favor wealthier students and perpetuate inequities. Many colleges have made these tests optional to increase access.

In summary, assessment plays a major role in secondary education. Educators balance different forms of testing to evaluate learning while incentivizing meaningful instruction. Assessments aim to uphold standards though their implementation remains hotly debated.

School Models

There are several predominant school models in secondary education:

Comprehensive Schools

Comprehensive schools offer a broad curriculum to all students under one roof. They provide a wide range of academic and vocational courses to prepare students for both college and career. Comprehensive schools aim to provide equitable educational opportunities for all students in a community. They do not screen or select students based on measures of aptitude or achievement.

Magnet Schools

Today magnet schools aim to provide specialized course offerings or instructional approaches not found in traditional schools. Admission is often based on interest, motivation, and academic record.

Charter Schools 

Charter schools operate independently from traditional school districts under a charter or contract. Most are newly created schools, while some are conversions of existing public schools. Charter schools are exempt from many regulations and curriculum mandates. They have flexibility over budgeting, staffing, scheduling, and educational programs. Admission is based on applications and lottery systems, not residency. Charter schools are accountable for academic and financial performance to continue receiving their charter.

Private Schools

Private schools are independently funded through tuition, donations, and private grants. They have flexibility in their curriculum, methods, and operations. Private schools can be secular, faith-based, or follow alternative philosophies like Montessori and Waldorf education. They can set their own admission criteria, though many administer entrance exams. Private schools are accountable to a board of trustees and parents rather than public authorities. However, they still must meet state educational standards.

Boarding Schools

Boarding schools are private schools where some or all students live on campus during the school year. Most boarding schools offer highly structured environments with a rigorous blend of academics, extracurricular activities, and personal development. Boarding school students receive constant supervision from dorm parents and faculty. Traditional boarding schools cater to 6th-12th grade students, while the growing semester schools host high school students for a single academic term. Boarding schools typically have competitive, selective admissions.

Issues and Reforms in Secondary Education 

Secondary education faces several key issues and debates around reforms. Some of the major areas of focus include:


Funding levels for secondary schools vary greatly depending on the school district. Some districts struggle with budget shortfalls and must make difficult choices around cutting programs, staff, and resources. 

Inequalities in funding between wealthy and poor districts lead to disparities in educational quality and opportunities. Many advocate for funding formulas that aim to equalize spending across districts.

The debate continues around whether simply increasing funding leads to improved student outcomes. Wise use of funds and quality teaching seem to make more of a difference.

Teacher Quality

  • There are concerns about teacher shortages in key subjects like math, science, special education and English learning. This makes it difficult for schools to find qualified teachers.
  • Teacher education programs vary greatly in quality, leading to inconsistent preparation. Induction programs for new teachers are lacking.
  • Discussion around tenure, unions, compensation, and accountability divides opinions on how to improve teacher quality. Merit pay, changes to tenure, peer review, and professional development are debated.

High-Stakes Testing

  • The use of standardized test scores for accountability purposes has increased. Concerns focus on “teaching to the test” and excessive focus on tested subjects.
  • The appropriate use of test results is debated. Should they inform policy, evaluate teachers, or provide diagnostic information? What rewards/sanctions are appropriate?
  • Opt-out movements object to the time spent on testing and test preparation. However, others argue accountability requires measurement. How to balance these remains controversial.

STEM Focus

  • Policymakers and education leaders have prioritized STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. This aims to prepare students for the modern workforce. 
  • However, some argue this happens to the detriment of other subjects. Concerns around the lack of arts, music, civics, and other areas persist.
  • How to encourage STEM preparation while still providing a well-rounded education is an ongoing discussion. Integrative STEM models are one potential approach under exploration.

Extracurriculars: Sports, Clubs, Arts, and More

Extracurricular activities are an important complement to the academic curriculum at secondary schools. They provide opportunities for students to pursue interests and develop skills beyond the classroom. Here is an overview of some of the most common extracurricular offerings:


Many secondary schools have competitive sports teams in various sports like football, basketball, baseball, soccer, swimming, tennis, and more. Sports help promote physical fitness, teamwork, leadership, competitiveness, and school spirit.

Intramural sports leagues allow more students to participate in sports just for fun rather than competition. These include flag football, volleyball, dodgeball, and more recreational options.


  • Academic clubs allow students to pursue STEM, debate, writing, and other subject-area interests. These help students expand their knowledge and engage with peers who share their academic passions.
  • Special interest clubs cater to hobbies like photography, chess, gaming, coding, and more. These allow students to socialize over shared interests.
  • Identity clubs like Black Student Unions, LGBTQ alliances, and cultural organizations provide community and support.

Performing Arts

  • Band, orchestra, choir, and theater productions allow students to express themselves creatively through music and acting. Performing arts teach collaboration, dedication, and presentation skills.
  • Visual arts like painting, sculpting, and design also allow artistic development. Student art is often displayed around campuses.


Student councils, yearbook committees, newspaper staff, and other leadership roles allow students to develop organization and management abilities.

Community Service

Community service clubs coordinate volunteering like tutoring, food drives, habitat builds, and other service projects. These build character, empathy, and civic engagement.

Extracurricular activities provide valuable personal growth, skill development, and community belonging. They make the secondary school experience more engaging and memorable. Students can discover new passions through extracurricular exploration.

Preparing for Post-Secondary

The latter years of secondary education are often focused on preparing students for life after high school, whether that involves college, vocational school, apprenticeships, or directly entering the workforce. Guiding students through this transition is a critical role for secondary schools.

Career Guidance

Career counseling and aptitude testing can help students think about potential career paths and identify areas of interest that can inform their post-secondary plans. High schools may offer classes and resources on exploring various industries and occupations, steps for researching careers, choosing a college major, developing a resume, and preparing for job applications and interviews. Individual meetings with a career counselor can provide personalized advice based on the student’s unique skills, values, and goals. 

College Admissions Process

Applying to colleges involves meeting admissions requirements, taking standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, researching schools, writing application essays, securing letters of recommendation, and submitting transcripts and test scores – often with early decision deadlines at the start of senior year. Counselors help students navigate this complex process and aim for schools suited to their academic record, test scores, interests, financial situation, and preferences. 

Financial Aid

Paying for higher education is a major concern for most families. Secondary schools assist with the financial aid process, including understanding the types of aid available, completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile applications, applying for scholarships and grants, interpreting award letters, taking out federal or private student loans if needed, and avoiding predatory lenders. This guidance aims to minimize college costs and student debt loads.


Secondary education plays a critical role in preparing students for adulthood. During the secondary school years, students deepen their knowledge and skills, develop interests that can shape their future careers, and gain life experience that prepares them for the responsibilities of adulthood. 

Some key points about secondary education covered in this piece include:

  • Secondary education builds on the fundamentals taught in primary school to provide students with a well-rounded general education as well as specialized knowledge in subjects they wish to pursue further. The curriculum covers core academic subjects as well as electives in the arts, technology, physical education, and more.
  • Teaching methods in secondary school encourage independent learning, critical thinking, and engagement with challenging material. Assessments range from tests and quizzes to projects, papers, and presentations. 
  • School models at the secondary level include traditional comprehensive public high schools, charter schools, technical/vocational schools, private/parochial schools, and more. Issues like funding, quality, access, and reform impact secondary education.
  • Extracurricular activities provide opportunities for students to explore passions, build leadership skills, and connect with peers. Sports, clubs, volunteering, and jobs are common.
  • Preparing for post-secondary education and/or employment is a key focus. Counseling and programs aim to help students choose paths that align with their interests, abilities, and goals.

Secondary schooling is instrumental in shaping young people into educated citizens and qualified workforce needed to advance society. While not without flaws, secondary education systems worldwide provide millions of adolescents with the knowledge, capacities, and opportunities to successfully transition into adulthood. The value of these formative years of learning and personal growth cannot be overstated.

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