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Most states fail miserably at teaching the ‘movement’

Though the civil rights movement is one of the defining elements of U.S. history, the Southern Poverty Law Center says most states deserve a failing grade when it comes to teaching the movement to students. Though the civil rights movement is one of the defining elements of U.S. history, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says most states deserve a failing grade when it comes to teaching the movement to students.

“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, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance director.

“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 need learn.”

The SPLC, in a first-of-its-kind study, “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 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. The study was released Wednesday (Sept. 28).

Generally speaking, states farther away from the South or with small African- American populations are less likely to require that their students learn about the civil rights movement in great detail, the Center found.

Tennessee and Mississippi both received grades of “C” from the Center, while Arkansas was given a “D.” Three states – Alabama, New York and Florida – received an “A,” while three others – Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina – and the District of Columbia earned a “B.”

Thirty-five states received a grade of “F.” In 16 states, where local officials set specific policies and requirements for their school districts, there are no requirements mandating that instructors teach or discuss the civil rights movement at all.

Memphis perspectives

The grade given to Tennessee did not come as a surprise to local civil rights leaders, who say they supplement materials and information available to young people on the movement.

“I would have to say that the low rating in the southern states is consistent with the young people that I have seen in our schools, said Madeleine C. Taylor, executive director of the Memphis Branch NAACP.

“This is why we spend a great deal of time and effort sharing the history of our people and the civil rights movement with the young people in our NAACP Youth Council. It is our hope that they will share the events and discuss the ideas with their family and peers. This is another reason why we must constantly monitor the school textbooks to ensure that our people, events and ideas are properly represented.”

Barbara Andrews, director of Education and Interpretation for the National Civil Rights Museum, said though disappointing at this juncture in our nation’s history, it is not altogether surprising that a number of states are making failing grades with regard to the teaching of civil rights history.

“What is notable, however, is the number of states that have no requirements for teaching this history at all. Teaching American history without including this important thread is an incomplete teaching of the citizens’ push and demand for the expansion of democracy,” said Andrews.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s especially opened the doors for so many of the freedoms and rights we enjoy today, she said.

“The museum is in the content development stage of its renovation of the permanent exhibitions in part to address this dirth in history many students visiting the museum express,” said Andrews.

“With statistics like those reported, the National Civil Rights Museum clearly must extend its outreach using a myriad of technological approaches and strategies to reach students, educators, administrators, governors and mayors with the information they need to correct this omission in America’s proud history.”

Youth on youth

Lindsey Burgess, a senior at Central High School, is president of the Memphis Branch NAACP Youth Council. Burgess said she tells her peers about coming to join the NAACP Youth Council all the time. Ninety-percent, she said, are oblivious to what the organization is.

“African-American studies is not widely taught in schools, and most of the knowledge I have acquired about ‘my’ history has come from my parents/relatives and the NAACP organization itself,” said Burgess.

“I can sit here and essentially blame the state and public school system for not teaching our kids, but it is up to us as people to educate our young about our history,” she said.

“Waiting around till they (public school systems) come out with curriculums geared towards African-American history may take years, and what happens while we’re waiting? Nothing, but time lost.”

Why do a report?

The SPLC 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 urges colleges 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 African-American 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 leaders and events. They are considerably less likely to include the obstacles that civil rights activists faced, such as 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.”

(Read the report.)

state content grade context grade overall score grade
Entire U.S. mean 14% 25% 16%
Alabama 69% 75% 70% A
Alaska 0% 0% 0% F
Arizona 17% 50% 22% D
Arkansas 15% 50% 20% D
California 9% 50% 15% F
Colorado 1% 0% 1% F
Connecticut 0% 0% 0% F
Delaware 0% 0% 0% F
District of Columbia 24% 50% 28% D
Florida 62% 75% 64% A
Georgia 54% 75% 57% B
Hawaii 3% 25% 6% F
Idaho 3% 0% 2% F
Illinois 55% 50% 54% B
Indiana 4% 25% 7% F
Iowa 0% 0% 0% F
Kansas 9% 0% 8% F
Kentucky 0% 0% 0% F
Louisiana 46% 25% 43% C
Maine 0% 0% 0% C
Maryland 37% 0% 31% C
Massachusetts 28% 0% 24% D
Michigan 7% 50% 13% F
Minnesota 0% 25% 4% F
Mississippi 30% 100% 40% C
Missouri 2% 0% 1% F
Montana 0% 0% 0% F
Nebraska 1% 0% 1% F
Nevada 5% 25% 8% F
New Hampshire 0% 0% 0% F
New Jersey 13% 25% 15% F
New Mexico 7% 50% 14% F
New York 63% 75% 65% A
North Carolina 0% 25% 4% F
North Dakota 0% 0% 0% F
Ohio 7% 25% 10% F
Oklahoma 5% 0% 4% F
Oregon 0% 0% 0% F
Pennsylvania 0% 0% 0% F
Rhode Island 0% 25% 4% F
South Carolina 52% 50% 52% B
South Dakota 0% 0% 0% F
Tennessee 33% 75% 39% C
Texas 28% 75% 35% C
Utah 5% 25% 8% F
Vermont 0% 0% 0% F
Virginia 34% 25% 32% C
Washington 8% 25% 11% F
West Virginia 3% 25% 6% F
Wisconsin 0% 0% 0% F
Wyoming 0% 0% 0% F
* State standards are anything but consistent in content, format, number of supporting documents or location. Once standards were located, it was often unclear whether content listed was required or merely suggested. We made great efforts, including phone calls to confer with state officials, to determine both where the relevant expectations could be found and which content was required.

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