The civil rights movement is one of the defining events of U.S. history, and yet most states fail badly when it comes to teaching the movement to students.
That is the finding of a first-of-its-kind study released today by Teaching Tolerance. The study–Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011– examined state standards and curriculum requirements related to the study of the modern civil rights movement for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It includes a forward by noted civil rights activist and historian Julian Bond.
Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, compared the state standards to a body of knowledge that civil rights historians and educators consider core to understanding the movement. Among other things, the study found that:
• A shocking number of states—35—received grades of “F”;
• Sixteen of those states, where local officials set specific policies and requirements for their school districts, have no requirements at all for teaching about the movement;
• Only three states received a grade of “A”—Alabama, New York and Florida—and even these states have considerable room for improvement; and
• Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the movement.
“For too many students their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance. “When 43 states adopted Common Core Standards in English and math, they affirmed that rigorous standards were necessary for achievement. By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the civil rights movement, they are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students should learn.”
Teaching Tolerance issued the report to encourage a national conversation about the importance of teaching the civil rights movement. The report calls for states to include civil rights education in K-12 history and social studies curricula. It also urges schools and other organizations that train teachers to ensure that they are well prepared to teach it.
Most of the states that earned grades of “C” or better are in the South—suggesting that most states view the civil rights movement as something of regional significance or of interest only to black students, rather than a matter of national significance.
The study also found that when states teach the civil rights movement, they tend to perform well on teaching about leaders and events. They are considerably less likely to include the obstacles that civil rights activists faced, like racism and white resistance, or to mention more than civil rights related-holidays to students before they reach high school.
“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” said Julian Bond in his preface to the report. “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.”
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