The seeds of the Teaching Tolerance program were planted in 1991 when Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, was speaking to an NAACP meeting about the bravery of Beulah Mae Donald, a Mobile, Ala., woman whose lawsuit bankrupted one of the country’s most notorious Ku Klux Klan groups after its members murdered her son.5
When Dees referred to the martyrs of the civil rights movement, he was surprised that the students in the audience didn’t know the names. They didn’t know Medgar Evers. They didn’t know James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. They didn’t know Emmett Till.
Dees launched Teaching Tolerance to keep the lessons and the people of the civil rights movement alive. The program produces films, teaching kits and lessons to help educators teach the civil rights movement in the classroom. What we have learned in 20 years is that materials are not enough.
We continue to hear reports of just how little students in American schools are learning about history, particularly the history of the civil rights movement. Most recently, 2011 brought the news that only 12% of high school seniors who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam were marked as proficient in U.S. history. Only 1% scored at the advanced level. Of the seven curriculum subjects NAEP tested, students scored the lowest in U.S. history.
The low scores are the logical result of three factors that have converged to make this generation the least well served when it comes to having access to high-quality history education.
1. There is no instructional time. Over the last decade, history and social studies have been crowded out of the classroom. Research shows an overall decline in classroom time devoted to social studies.6 The No Child Left Behind Act has increased the emphasis on testing in math and reading, subjects on which schools must show progress under the law. The overall result is that history education has been left behind, as social studies instructional time in our most challenged schools has fallen by more than a third.7
2. Teachers are not well prepared. As Diane Ravitch has reported, as recently as in 1998 three-quarters of American social studies teachers had not majored or minored in history.8 More recent data shows that nearly 60% of those teaching history in grades 7-12 had neither a history major or minor.9 Although many have since received training from Teaching American History grants, the fact remains that even those teachers who majored in U.S. history may not have taken a single course in the civil rights movement.
3. States fail to set high expectations. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute survey of state content standards has clearly documented the inadequacy of most state history standards. This failure to set high expectations for proficiency in history has been constant since 2003, with the average Fordham grade for history standards remaining at a D from 2003 to 2011.10
While the Southern Poverty Law Center is concerned about the overall decline in history education, we are particularly concerned about how this decline affects what students learn about the civil rights movement, as well as how and when they learn it.
5 Beulah Mae Donald was represented by Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center in the suit, which resulted in a $7 million verdict against the United Klans of America in 1987.
6 Beth A. Morton and Ben Dalton, Changes in Instructional Hours in Four Subjects by Public School Teachers, (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 2007). http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo. asp?pubid=2007305.
7 Center on Education Policy, Instructional Time in Elementary Schools: A Closer Look at Changes for Specific Subjects, (Washington, D.C.: Center on Education Policy, 2008). http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument. cfm?DocumentID=309.
8 Diane Ravitch, “Who Prepares our History Teachers? Who Should Prepare our History Teachers?” The History Teacher 31 (1998).
9 Ingersoll, Richard M. “Out-of-Field Teaching and the Limits of Teacher Policy.” Center for the Study of Teaching and Poilicy. http://repository. upenn.edu/gse_pubs/143/.
10 Sheldon M. Stern and Jeremy A. Stern, The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011, (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2011). http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2011/20110216_SOSHS/ SOSS_History_FINAL.pdf