Focus on State Standards
This study examines all current and available state standards, frameworks, model curricula and related documents archived on the websites of the departments of education of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It focuses on standards for social studies, social science, history and related subjects like civics or geography. Any mentions of the civil rights movement in English language arts standards or standards for other subjects are omitted by design.
This was not a simple task. There is no common approach to developing, formatting or publishing standards. In addition, every state has different methods for archiving, updating and releasing their standards and related documents. Some break up documents into grade levels, separating multiple support documents into dozens of independent files. Others, such as Florida, have moved standards, benchmarks and objectives into complex but searchable databases. Still others are in transition from one set of standards to another. Wherever possible, this study identified the standards that will be used in the 2011-2012 school year for each state’s social studies divisions. All grade levels were examined. When key documents seemed to be missing, or when states seemed to have exceptionally limited coverage of the civil rights movement, officials at state departments of education were contacted by telephone and email to verify the completeness of the search.
Rather than use keyword searches that might overlook core concepts or ideas and leave out essential context, this research proceeded by reading all related documents for all states. This means it is the first study to provide a comprehensive look at state requirements and suggestions for studying the civil rights movement.
Our analysis proceeded in three stages. First, we created a standardized rubric of content expectations. Then we assigned scores to each state by comparing its standards and frameworks to the rubric. Finally, we looked at aggregate levels of detail required overall in state content standards. The rubric allowed us to compare states to each other fairly, while the secondary analysis gave us a sense of both the breadth and the “middle” of state expectations regarding the civil rights movement.
Events and major figures in the civil rights movement were predominantly southern, so it was important for this study to create a fair rubric that would not advantage states based solely on their geography. Most states, along with the District of Columbia, require a class or unit on state history. Students in southern states might, in theory, be required to learn more about the civil rights movement than students in western states. This study controls for that imbalance as much as possible.
The rubric was developed through closely reading a dozen of the most widely used American history textbooks over a variety of grade levels and in consultation with historians in the field. It evaluates states based on their required coverage of essential content as well as their integration of the civil rights movement into a larger instructional approach.19 It tries to set out an approachable span of core knowledge that a competent citizen needs to gain a reasonably full understanding of the civil rights movement. It is not complete or exhaustive; rather, it represents an attempt to synthesize essential information while appreciating the time constraints faced by modern teachers.20
Required vs. Suggested Content
For the purposes of this study, only required content was included in the state grade assignments. When content is only suggested, it cannot fairly be described as a learning expectation. For example, a teacher in Connecticut could fulfill high school social studies grade level expectation 2, “Trace the evolution of citizens’ rights (e.g., Palmer Raids, struggle for civil rights, women’s rights movements, Patriot Act),” by entirely omitting the civil rights movement.
Where there was ambiguity over whether content was required, we erred on the side of coding that content as required. The most notable state in this “gray zone” was South Carolina, where the documents issued by the South Carolina Department of Education’s Office of Standards and Support clearly tell teachers what information about the civil rights movement is essential for students to know. Those items from our rubric that were included in the “essential” category were coded as required.
This study closely considered what state documents said about the nature of their included examples; for some states, “e.g.” designated required content, while for other states content prefaced with “e.g.” was simply illustrative. State documents or, where necessary, conversations with state department of education officials were used to make a final decision about what elements of the standards and curriculum would be considered required.
State Standards, Frameworks and Curriculum
We read a variety of documents for each state, including many that index suggestions rather than requirements. Where appropriate, relevant excerpts are included in the state-specific appendices. We hope that these inclusions will provide a richer portrait of each state’s body of work on teaching the civil rights movement. For example, the 2008 Kentucky Social Studies Teacher Network Curriculum Framework for United States History suggests a unit called “Civil Rights and Cultural Transformations.” This unit explores the civil rights movement in considerable detail and is archived on the state department of education’s website. It is outlined in the account of Kentucky’s civil rights movement offered here, but its suggested content is not included in our coding of the state’s mandates.
Only 35 states (including the District of Columbia) required study of the civil rights movement as part of their state-mandated standards, framework or curriculum. Standards and frameworks were said to require study of the civil rights movement if they mentioned the term “civil rights movement” or analogous terms such as the “struggle for civil rights” or “African-American liberation movements.”
Since we were also interested in what states might require that went above or outside our “core content” rubric, we created a matrix that included all required names, events and key concepts from the civil rights movement sections of the state standards. Some of these were included only in one state as part of courses in that state’s history or a desire to make explicit connections to local and state history (Albert Gore Sr. in Tennessee, for example, or Oliver Hill in Virginia).
Coding of Items
No item was coded twice. For example, if a state mentioned the importance of studying civil disobedience in the movement, this was coded as “civil disobedience.” The “tactics” code was reserved for state requirements that asked students to compare, evaluate or simply learn about the tactics and strategies used in the civil rights movement. Any mention of racism or opposition to the civil rights movement that was not accompanied by a specific reference (e.g., Bull Connor, Jim Crow, Dixiecrats) was coded as “White resistance.” A number of states require students to read documents by Martin Luther King Jr. These were coded as “Martin Luther King Jr.” unless the requirements were specifically linked to an event or concept (i.e., reading “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in the context of a tactical discussion or reading King’s 1963 Lincoln Memorial address in the context of understanding the March on Washington). In those cases, the document requirements fell under the event category.
Presidential names were not coded, in part because references to Kennedy, Truman and Johnson tended not to be specifically related to their role in the civil rights movement. Most students should learn about those presidents in their study of the 20th century (although the Fordham report shows that even presidential names may not be part of required content in most states). The Appendix shows all required content for every state.
19 For the most part, civil rights struggles related to Reconstruction were excluded from the present analysis—the earliest events, chronologically speaking, that were included were the desegregation of the armed forces and A. Philip Randolph’s proposed March on Washington. Some states opted to include substantial historical context in their standards. Where appropriate, this is excerpted in the state-specific appendices.
20 Our rubric is necessarily limited. It tries to balance what is most likely being taught in the classroom with what should be taught in the classroom. Of necessity, this means that it still represents a much narrower understanding of the movement than that of professional movement historians.