Report Gives Most States an F for Teaching Civil Rights

By Erik W. Robelen — September 28, 2011 2 min read
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A majority of states deserve a failing grade for how they handle the teaching of civil rights history in their standards, while just three—Alabama, Florida, and New York—merit an A, concludes a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The analysis is being billed as a first-of-its-kind look at how states approach the teaching of civil rights history.

“In most states, the requirements for teaching about the civil rights movement are grossly inadequate to nonexistent,” says the report, issued today by the Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights organization. “Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the civil rights movement.”

The report comes as a ceremony is slated for Oct. 16 to dedicate a new monument on the National Mall in Washington to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It also comes just three months after a new round of national testing data suggested most American students are not “proficient” in their understanding of U.S. history.

The Southern Poverty Law Center study notes that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. history, only 2 percent of high school seniors could correctly answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

In a foreword to the report, Julian Bond, the chairman emeritus of the NAACP, laments how little many students know about the history of civil rights.

“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” he writes. “One of these basics is the civil rights movement, a nonviolent revolution as important as the first American Revolution. It is a history that continues to shape the America we all live in today.”

The grades for states were based on a rubric that placed the most emphasis on the content students should know about civil rights history, divided into six categories: events, leaders, groups, causes, obstacles, and tactics. Beyond that, 15 percent was based on how each state’s standards contextualized the movement.

The 35 states receiving an F spanned the country, from California and New Mexico to Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maine. Another three states, Arizona, Arkansas, and Massachusetts, plus the District of Columbia got a D. (I should caution that some states generally keep their social studies standards pretty broad, which could help explain some of the low grades. This issue came up in a recent analysis of how state standards handle terrorism and the teaching of the 9/11 attacks.)

The new analysis provides considerable detail about how exactly states approach civil rights in their standards.

“Some states went into a surprising amount of detail in their civil rights-related requirements,” the report says. “Sometimes these details were specific to events in a state (e.g., the Tallahassee bus boycott in Florida); at other times, they did not seem to have a particular relationship to a state’s particular history (e.g. Massachusetts’ requirement that students learn about the Nation of Islam).”

Only 19 states require students to learn about the Brown decision, while 18 include Dr. King. Less than one-quarter call on students to learn about key legislation, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“In general, state requirements are few and scattered,” the report finds. “Even when states agree about the need to teach the civil rights movement, they do not agree about the essential knowledge needed to understand the movement.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.