As this report illustrates, states are failing to set high expectations for student knowledge about the civil rights movement. This is probably due to a confluence of factors. We already know that state history standards are generally poor, regardless of the era in question. The Fordham report identifies a number of causes for this, including reliance on bare and over-general content outlines coupled with vague pronouncements about student learning outcomes. We see these amorphous aspirations in play with the civil rights movement, as in other historical eras. Students are to:
• “[D]emonstrate knowledge of the key domestic and international issues during the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by examining the Civil Rights Movement and the changing role of women” (Virginia);
• “Understand the causes, course, and impact of the civil rights/equal rights movements” (Oregon); and
• “Analyze the origins of the various Civil Rights movements (African American, Native American, Women, Latino American, and Counter Culture etc) and how they manifested themselves during this time” (Minnesota).
Without detailed content, teachers are left to their own devices to decide what to cover in classes. Certainly, many teachers will cover the civil rights movement in appropriate detail regardless of state pronouncements, but what of the three-quarters of American social studies teachers who did not major or minor in history?22 Tightened state budgets have resulted in major cuts in professional development funds. States looking to make the most of their education dollars would do well to set clear expectations for teachers.
Students must learn about the civil rights movement. More than an essential chapter in our nation’s history, it educates us about the possibilities of civic engagement while warning us about the kinds of resistance that stand in the way of change. It helps minority students to find themselves in history classes that are often alienating and confusing. It helps students in the now-tenuous demographic majority to understand current cultural conflicts, political controversies and economic inequalities. When students learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about the democratic responsibility of individuals to oppose oppression. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens.
22 Diane Ravitch, “Who Prepares our History Teachers? Who Should Prepare our History Teachers?” The History Teacher 31 (1998).