Social Studies

Tenn. Standards Win High Marks for Handling of Civil Rights Movement

By Erik W. Robelen — August 13, 2013 3 min read
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Newly revised standards in Tennessee are winning strong praise for their coverage of the civil rights movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which in 2011 graded all states on their treatment of the issue, said the social studies standards would move the state from a prior grade of C, to an A. Only three other states have that top grade from the civil rights organization, based in Montgomery, Ala.

The news comes as the United States is in the midst of 50th anniversary commemorations for a series of important milestones in civil rights history. For instance, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington.

“Tennessee’s standards excel in identifying a variety of important figures in the civil rights movement, distinguishing them from many states,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, an initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a letter last month. “They also do an excellent job of covering the major events of the movement.”

She said, “Additionally, the new ... standards provide specific guidance to teachers regarding key groups active in the civil rights movement.”

In the letter, Costello also praises the document for how it integrates content regarding the civil rights movement across many grade levels.

Failing Grades in Many States

In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center graded all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, on their civil rights standards. Thirty-five states were handed an F grade, while just three got As: Alabama, Florida, and New York.

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.

You can review for yourself the new Tennessee standards, adopted by the state board of education July 26, here.

I took a quick look at Tennessee’s new high school standards for U.S. History and Geography: Post Reconstruction to the Present, which touch on a number of civil rights issues. They ask students to examine the role of prominent civil rights advocates, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and President Lyndon Johnson, examine court cases in the evolution of civil rights, and analyze civil rights and voting rights legislation.

Here’s an excerpt that focuses on important civil rights events, as well as some key texts.

In an interview, Costello said Tennessee officials contacted her organization earlier this year seeking feedback on a draft of the social studies standards. Although she said that the initial version shared was already an improvement over the state’s prior standards, the Southern Poverty Law Center offered some feedback.

“They were extremely responsive,” she said.

Her organization is planning a revised version of its report on civil rights standards, to be issued in January 2014.

At the same time, Costello said she understands that there are limits to what standards can accomplish.

“We understand that there is a long way between standards and classrooms,” she said, adding that she’s deeply concerned that in general, social studies is getting less time and attention these days in schools.

Last year, meanwhile, the organization issued guidelines to help states improve the teaching of civil rights history.

For more discussion of teaching civil rights, check out this new essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University, in the online magazine, The Root.

Leaving aside history and civil rights, a story in the Tennessean newspaper notes that some geography advocates are lamenting that the revised social studies standards give their subject short shrift. That’s because, the story explains, the new standards would incorporate geography lessons into history classes.

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