The Findings

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority … that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. … We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Based on the quotation [above] and your knowledge of history, describe the conditions that this 1954 decision was designed to correct. Be as specific as possible in your answer.
—Question on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History Exam

It wasn’t hard to ace this question from the 2010 NAEP U.S. History Exam. Scorers looked for only two particulars: that the decision—which students did not have to identify as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas—was prompted by the existence of segregation, and that the segregation applied to schools.

Yet, only 2% of the 12,000 twelfth-graders who took the exam wrote down the two bare facts required to yield a score of “complete,” the highest possible score on the question. Fully 73% either supplied an answer deemed “inappropriate” (by parroting phrases from the question or providing irrelevant information) or simply skipped the question altogether.

Given what states expect them to be taught, it’s no surprise that American students know so little about the modern civil rights movement.2 The comprehensive review of state standards and curriculum frameworks set forth in this report reveals that the state of education about the civil rights movement is, in a word, dismal.

How dismal? In this assessment of state requirements, no state received a raw higher than 70% [See Table 1]. The scores reflect the degree to which a state’s frameworks or standards encompass the generally accepted core knowledge about the movement.3 A score of 100% would mean that a state requires all of that content to be taught; 50% means that half of the content is covered. Based on the scores, letter grades were assigned on a scale that recognizes the best state efforts. Only three states—Alabama, Florida, and New York—earned a grade of A.

• Sixteen states do not require any instruction at all about the movement. These states—along with 19 others whose coverage is minimal (with raw scores from 0 to 15%)—received grades of F.

• Four states—Arizona, Arkansas and Massachusetts and the District of Columbiaearned grades of D for raw scores between 20 and 30%.

• Six states, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—earned grades of C for scores between 31 and 50%.

• Three states—Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina—earned grades of B for scores between 50 and 60%.

• For all states, there is room for improvement.

Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, most states mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students. Nine of the 12 highest-scoring states are from the former Confederacy.4 They are joined by the states of Illinois, Maryland, and New York. Generally speaking, the farther away from the South— and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention is paid to the civil rights movement.

Imagine if children in Texas, California and Minnesota were exempted from lessons on the American Revolution— or if students in Alaska, Hawaii and Montana got a pass on the Civil War. We all recognize that the American Revolution and the Civil War are critical events in our growth as a nation, important for all students to study. It is time to recognize that the civil rights movement, too, is one of those critical events that defines us as a nation. It is a recent and important reminder of how individual self-governing Americans can act collectively to correct grave injustice.

The civil rights movement is a national, not a regional, issue. It has lessons for more than just the students in the South. In the words of noted civil rights historian Taylor Branch, “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”

The findings here should alarm educators and policymakers, regardless of their political stripe. They describe a nation that is failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.

By issuing this report, the Southern Poverty Law Center hopes to spark a national conversation about the importance of teaching America’s students about the modern civil rights movement. We call for states to integrate a comprehensive approach to civil rights education into their K-12 history and social studies curricula. And we call for a concerted effort among schools and other organizations that train teachers to work to ensure that teachers are well prepared to teach about the civil rights movement.

2 For the purposes of this report, the “modern civil rights movement” refers to the events and people active in the struggle for equality from the mid-1950s until passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

3 The core knowledge—and the process used to identify it—is discussed in “Our Approach,” on p. XX and shown in Table X.
4 Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.