Most States Get an ‘F’ on Civil Rights Education


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.”


Iowa doesn't have a required

Submitted by Patricia Diggins on 4 October 2011 - 11:53am.

Iowa doesn't have a required state-wide curriculum so it appears as though we do little to teach about the Civil Rights era. In reality, many of us do teach about this very critical era. In past years, I've included an extensive 3-4 week unit on the topic in my 10th grade English classes. As I'm now teaching American History, I will rework my curriculum to fit this area.

As a student who went through

Submitted by Rhonda POP on 7 December 2011 - 5:51pm.

As a student who went through K-12 education, I didn't realize how alienated African-American history is from the narrative of how this country came to be the nation we know today. The reason that I am commenting is I think it's wonderful that you have come the realization that there is something missing in your curriculum. However, the word"fit" raises a little bit of concern. The connotation (whether intended or not) is as though it does not belong with the rest of American history. When we learn about American History in high school the Revolutionary war is never "fit" into the curriculum. It is a standard for learning how the country changed. A big part of how this country was formed and built thereafter relied heavily on the victimization and persecution of many peoples. I personally feel at the risk of seeming like the "bad guys" the textbooks present slavery without slave owners, it restricts the history of slaves to a predominantly male perspective, and largely makes it seem like the founders were all “do good” Christians. The civil rights movement was not one movement, but several happening simultaneously and all fighting for change. The only reason I am well read in the true history of this nation is because I am in my fourth year of undergraduate studies and most of this knowledge was obtained this past semester. Until we see African-American history as the nation's history, nothing will change. Teachers will forever be attempting to "fit" it into the curriculum and whether they get to it or not will most likely largely depend on the school district they teach in and diversity (or lack thereof) of students in their classroom. A thought to leave you with...students not in the minority learn the history of their country with minority history "fit" into the curriculum. Minority students learn about the history of the majority hardly learning where the politics surrounding their personal lives comes from.

African-American history is American history and should always be treated as such. I wish you all the best with the new curriculum.

Fortunately, the state

Submitted by Andy on 28 September 2011 - 2:10pm.

Fortunately, the state standards don't necessarily dictate what is actually being taught in the classroom.

I was wondering since most

Submitted by Cynthia Walker on 25 January 2012 - 6:14pm.

I was wondering since most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, does the curriculum include the issues relating to the Civil Rights Act?

Great question, Cynthia. The

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 25 January 2012 - 7:05pm.

Great question, Cynthia. The answer is no. The Common Core Standards are in Math and Literacy, and they emphasize skills. Our report looked at content standards for history and civics. These are not covered by the Common Core.

The Common Core does have literacy standards for social sciences and history, but they focus on how to read and deconstruct complex nonfiction texts in those areas. The Common Core does not require specific content.