Many countries, the United States included, have a compulsory education policy for children, meaning children of a certain age are required by law to attend public school. The second part of this public education system is referred to as secondary education, especially in the US.
In the US, primary school covers the youngest students, those enrolled in kindergarten and elementary school. Older students are secondary education students although the grade level that delineates the two is somewhat blurred.
In most public school systems, secondary education encompasses grades 9 through 12 but others include some or all of the middle school years (5 through 8) in their secondary education programs.
Teachers working in secondary education (about 1.1 million in 2006) outnumber those teaching in middle school, kindergarten, and preschool programs. Their number falls just below that of elementary school teachers, who number about 1.5 million.
In order to become a teacher of secondary education, a bachelor's degree and state-issued license are needed. Each state sets the number of semester hour credits a college student must complete in education classes in order to qualify for licensure. In many cases, a degree in education is not required as long as licensing requirements are met.
Many states have experienced a shortage of school teachers of all levels, including secondary education, over recent years and have adapted licensing programs that allow graduates with a bachelor's degree in any area of study to become licensed school teachers when they complete an alternative licensure program. Such teachers usually teach the subject their college degree covers and often become actively involved in the classroom while they are completing the alternative licensure program.
Some school districts require a secondary education teacher to hold a master's degree but this is the exception instead of the rule. However, most school districts reward the advanced education with a higher rate of pay than a school teacher teaching the same program but holding only a bachelor's degree.
More than half of the primary and secondary education school teachers in the US belong to one of two unions that help negotiate salaries, hours, and contract terms and conditions. One union is the American Federation of Teachers; the other is the National Education Association.