Publication

Teaching the Movement: The State Standards We Deserve

The National Assessment of Educational Progress—commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card”—tells a dismal story: Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And it’s no surprise. Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history.

Want to read the PDF version instead? Click here.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress—commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card”—tells a dismal story: Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And it’s no surprise. Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history.

Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. Sixteen states do not require any instruction whatsoever about the movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. In almost all states, there is tremendous room for improvement.1

As the nation prepared this year to dedicate a monument to its greatest civil rights champion, the Southern Poverty Law Center undertook a comprehensive review—the first of its kind—of the coverage accorded the civil rights movement in state educational standards and curriculum frameworks. This report sets out the results of that review. It provides a national report card on the state of civil rights education in our country. Most states, unfortunately, get a failing grade.

Dedicating a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall is of great symbolic importance. But if we, as a nation, are to move beyond symbolism, teaching our children about the great movement that Dr. King led is a national imperative.

 


1 The report examines the educational standards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We use “states” in reference to all 51 entities.

Forward by Julian Bond

I began teaching civil rights history some years ago at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Fearful that I might be ‘speaking down’ to my students, I gave them a brief quiz when the first class gathered. The results showed me that my fears were misplaced.

None could tell me who George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was. One thought he was a CBS newsman who had covered the Vietnam War. They knew sanitized versions of the lives and struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but nothing of their real stories.

Mrs. Parks was still alive and the civil rights movement was closer in time to these young people’s lives then, but the stories of bravery and sacrifice in the movement for civil rights were absent from their memories and their high school curricula. “My teacher didn’t have time to get to it,” they told me. “The semester ended too soon.”

During my long teaching career, little has changed.

Part of the problem is revealed in this report. The civil rights movement is given short shrift in the educational standards that guide what students learn. Although Southern states generally do a better job teaching the movement than the rest of the country, they have little to brag about. At the University of Virginia, my students are often outraged to learn that they have never been taught about events in their own hometowns.

An educated populace must be taught basics about American history. 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.

As James Baldwin taught us, “History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many wanys, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Julian Bond chaired the NAACP Board of Directors from 1998–2010 and is now Chairman Emeritus. He is a Distinguished Scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He is also a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center Board of Directors.

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.”
—1954

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 Columbia—earned 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.

Background

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

Why The Civil Rights Movement Matters

The civil rights movement is one of the defining events in American history, providing a bracing example of Americans fighting for the ideals of justice and equality. When students learn about the movement, they learn what it means to be an active American citizen. They learn how to recognize injustice. They learn about the role of individuals, as well as the importance of organization. And they see that people can come together to stand against oppression.

We are concerned that the movement, when it is given classroom time, is reduced to lessons about a handful of heroic figures and the four words, “I have a dream.” Students need to know that the movement existed independently of its most notable leaders, and that thousands of people mustered the courage to join the struggle, very often risking their lives. They need to know that the dream to which Dr. King gave voice was not realized simply by the election of a black president in 2008. They need to know that as long as race is a barrier to access and opportunity, and as long as poverty is commonplace for people of color, the dream has not been achieved.

We are also concerned about the historical narrative promoted by some pundits and political figures who would deny the nation’s legacy of institutionalized oppression. There is tremendous pressure from the political right to teach a wholly false history that ignores our blemishes and misrepresents struggles for social justice. In this revisionist version, the framers worked tirelessly to end slavery, the nation was perfect at birth, and states’ rights—not slavery—was the motivation behind Southern secession. Together, these interpretations deny the everyday reality of millions of today’s students—that the nation is not yet perfect and that racism and injustice still exist. This narrative also ignores the agency of minorities and denies the need for group action to promote social justice.

The narratives being promulgated are not only false. Simply put, they are no longer persuasive to the majority of our students. Teaching the civil rights movement is essential to ensuring that American history is relevant to students in an increasingly diverse nation. History educator Terrie Epstein’s research has shown that students enter classrooms with pre-existing worldviews that differ, often dramatically, depending on race, ethnicity, class and other demographic factors.11 Students whose real-life experience suggests that history is being “white-washed” are unlikely to learn. These worldviews are very difficult to dislodge, especially when the standard narrative used to teach the civil rights movement is simplistic or distorted.

What little we know about civil rights movement instruction is not promising. We know that textbooks and core materials too often strip out context and richness to present a limited account of the movement.12 We know that no comprehensive content standards exist for teaching about the movement. We know that even the most experienced teachers of U.S. history tend to rush to the finish line once the course passes World War II.

This report is a first step in a call for change. The United States has a civic and moral imperative to ensure that all children learn about the history of the civil rights movement. As Jeremy Stern notes, “Today’s students need to actively learn what older generations either lived through or experienced as a strong part of their cultural surroundings: Even basic knowledge of the civil rights movement cannot be taken for granted among today’s children.” As the movement recedes from recent memory into history, it is more important than ever to assess the state of learning and teaching about these essentially American events.

 

 


11 Terrie Epstein, Interpreting National History; Race, Identity, and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities, (New York: Routledge, 2009).
12 Derrick P Alridge, “The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Teachers College Record 108 (2006): 662-686.

Why Now?

“Often cast in a ‘Montgomery to Memphis’ frame that parallels the public life of Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement has taken on an air of inevitability in the popular imagination. Images and film footage have frozen the movement in time as an era when people risked their lives to end the crippling system of segregation in the South, and to secure the rights and privileges fundamental to American citizenship. For many young people, it looms as a shining moment in the distant past, with little relevance to contemporary issues concerning race, democracy, and social justice.”
— Waldo E. Martin Jr. and Patricia Sullivan, Introduction,
Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom’s Bittersweet Song, p. xi.

We are now in the midst of anniversaries, commemorations and memorials of the civil rights movement. As movement figures die or withdraw from the public sphere, the struggle for civil rights will recede from active into historical memory. While there has never been a unified understanding of the movement, the disappearance of key actors brings risks that its lessons will be simplified and ultimately lost to students and our civil society.

In many ways, the civil rights movement has been separated from a “movement” for quite some time.13 Popular narratives create the impression that a small group of charismatic leaders, particularly Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were primarily responsible for civil rights gains. Parks is justly venerated for her activism in triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet too many depictions of her portray a lone woman who was simply tired and did not want to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. In reality, she was a trained participant in a well-organized social movement.

This should be cause for alarm. The reduction of the movement into simple fables obscures both the personal sacrifices of those who engaged in the struggle and the breadth of the social and institutional changes they wrought. The King- and Parks-centered narrative limits what we teach students about the range of possible political action. Students deserve to learn that individuals, acting collectively, can move powerful institutions to change.

We should be just as concerned that the civil rights movement will be recast in a cooperative frame. “[T] here is a powerful tendency in the United States to depoliticize traditions for the sake of ‘reconciliation,’” writes historian Michael Kammen. “Memory is more likely to be activated by contestation, and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation.” 14 Kammen observes that King’s image has been depoliticized, turning him in the eyes of the public from a radical anti-poverty activist into a charismatic integrationist. Small wonder, then, that it is now commonplace for some politicians and media figures to use King’s words about a color-blind society as a wedge against expanded opportunities for minorities while drawing a curtain across contemporary injustices.

Teachers and textbooks routinely avoid conflict and controversial issues while creating what Terrie Epstein has called “sanitized versions” of important national events—slavery without enslavers, struggles for civil rights without racism and resistance—all culminating in a national triumph of good over evil.15 “As a consequence of teaching a disingenuous national history,” writes Epstein, “millions of young people leave the public schools knowing a nationalistic perspective but not believing it, while those who accept it have no framework for understanding racism and other forms of inequality today.”16

Even as we face these pitfalls, we must do the best we can to teach the civil rights movement just as we teach other parts of American history. It is clear from our review that the civil rights movement is seen mainly as African-American or regional history. This view is profoundly misguided. Understanding the movement is essential to understanding American history. When students learn about the movement, they study more than a series of dates, names and actions. They learn about what it means to be American and come to appreciate the importance and difficulty of struggling against tyranny. We teach the civil rights movement to show that injustice can be overcome.

 


13 See e.g., Deborah Menkart, Alana Murray, and Jenice L. View, eds, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching: A Resource Guide for Classrooms and Communities, (N.p.: Teaching for Change, 2004).
14 Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, (New York: Random House, 1993), 13.
15 Linda M. McNeil, Contradictions of control: School structure and school knowledge. (New York: Routledge Press, 1986). Diana Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, (New York: Routledge, 2009).
16 Epstein, Interpreting National History; Race, Identity, and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities, 9.

Why Look at State Content Standards?

The United States stands alone among economically developed democracies in its lack of national curricular standards, let alone a common core curriculum. States take responsibility to develop standards and curricular frameworks that establish expectations for teaching and learning. In recent years, states have joined with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop and promote the adoption of Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math. These standards have now been adopted in 43 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In adopting the Common Core Standards, governors and state education officers underscored the important role that well-defined standards play in setting high expectations. Speaking about the new standards in English and math, Steve Paine, West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools, noted that the standards “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents have a roadmap for what they need to do to help them.”

Such support and consensus is not likely to happen for history, however. While 18 states and more than a dozen professional organizations are currently involved in a process to develop some common approaches to social studies, those efforts have yet to bear fruit.17 Development and adoption of any common state standards for social studies promises to be challenging and complicated by the inevitable politic debates. After the battles of the mid- 1990s to achieve national standards, few believe that a rigorous set of national history standards is anywhere on the horizon.

Because there is no national set of core standards, the only way to measure the nature of our common expectations about student knowledge of the civil rights movement is to look at state standards and frameworks. These documents have substantial practical and symbolic value.

As a practical matter, these state standards may be reflected in testing and accountability mechanisms as well as in instructional materials, teacher training, and professional development and textbooks (particularly in larger markets like Texas and California, whose decisions traditionally shape textbooks sold in smaller markets all over the country).18

Symbolically, a state’s standards and curricular frameworks make a strong statement about the shared common knowledge considered essential for residents of that state. Just as teachers set expectations for their students, states set expectations for their education system—their largest expenditure as well as their best investment in future prosperity.

But as much as state standards tell us, they leave many important questions unanswered. Even if we agree with the proposition that state content standards dictate what teachers teach (a hypothesis with limited empirical support), the present analysis leaves us to guess at how the civil rights movement is taught. Some states give glimmers of guidance, particularly in their supporting documents; their model lesson plans suggest tactics such as reading primary source documents, engaging in role-play or interviewing community members. We would be remiss, however, to take these recommendations as anything other than well-meant advice.

Realistically, when we examine state standards we learn only what states expect students to learn. Standards are not necessarily followed. We simply do not know what students are learning about the civil rights movement. If education were a machine that dispensed comprehension as expectations mandate, we would not see near-daily reports of the “education in crisis” variety. Even if we were to see detailed state standards covering the civil rights movement (and the Fordham report shows that even those states with otherwise detailed standards tend to shortchange those for events after World War II), these frameworks are not meaningful without testing and accountability—all too often lacking in history assessment, in particular.

Despite these limitations, this report examines state content standards and curriculum frameworks because those documents represent the expectations that states set for their students. If there is any single finding that has held true in educational research over the last 100 years, it is that high expectations are necessary for high achievement. When states say that an essential event like the civil rights movement is not essential content, or must only be studied in a superficial manner, why would we expect students—or teachers—to draw different conclusions?

 

 

 


17 Catherine Gewertz, “Social Studies Fresh Frontier for Standards,” Education Week, May 25, 2011.
18 Trends toward greater use of standards-based high school exit exams and end-of-course exams are increasing the practical importance of state standards in classrooms across the country. Center on Education Policy, State High School Tests: Exit Exams and Other Assessments (Washington, D.C.: Center on Education Policy, 2010). http://www.cep-dc.org/index. cfm?DocumentTopicID=7.

Our Approach

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.

Standards Analysis
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.

How Do States Compare to Each Other?

In most states, the requirements for teaching about the civil rights movement are grossly inadequate to non-existent. The average score across all states and the District of Columbia was 19%, for an average grade of F.

Sixteen states require no instruction at all about the civil rights movement. A majority of states earned Ds or below, with 35 earning Fs.

Only three states, Alabama, Florida and New York, received an A. Only Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina received a B. Six states received a C for a low pass, even when a score of just 30% was required to earn a C and a score of 50% was required for a B. Four states received a D.

In awarding letter grades, we opted to scale grades to recognize the full range of standards quality, so that the states with the most rigorous standards—even if they didn’t cover more than 70% of recommended content—received A’s. In part, this was because these requirements have never been extracted and assessed before. Also, we needed a way to more effectively recognize effort on the part of lower-scoring states. There are significant qualitative differences among the states scoring less than 50% on our rubric: Arizona’s score of 22% represents requirements to learn about movement figures and landmarks such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, integration of the armed forces, Jim Crow, literacy tests, poll taxes and nonviolence. West Virginia earned its 6% score by requiring students to learn only about King and linking the civil rights movement to other movements.

Table 2 breaks out the scores for each state in terms of the rubric’s major categories: leaders, groups, events, causes, obstacles, tactics and context of coverage. There is considerable variance among the content categories. Scores are highest in the leaders category, with an average score of 21%. The lowest average score, 8%, is in the opposition category. The average content grade is extremely low, only 14%.

Average context scores were higher, with states averaging 25%, or about one in four, of the following categories:

• Did the state’s coverage of the civil rights movement include connections to other social movements? This was true in 23 states.

• Did it link the civil rights movement to current events and concerns? Seven states made this linkage explicit in their standards.

• Was civil rights movement coverage incorporated into civics instruction so that, for example, students were encouraged to apply the lessons of the movement when forming their own ideas about effective citizenship? Five states made this explicit connection.

• Did the state reserve teaching about the civil rights only to high school or did it incorporate it into other grades (not including a mention of King in the frequent unit on national holidays in the early grades)? Fifteen states made connections prior to high school.

Scoring for these context categories was liberal. If the civil right movement was mentioned in a state’s civics curriculum, for example, this was enough to count as inclusion, even though a mention is obviously not the same as thoughtful integration. Since this is the first analysis of this kind, we made an overarching decision to err on the side of states; we were not looking to fail any states.

State Grades at a Glance

Each state has a Report Card showing the scores for each rubric category as well as the overall grade for the state. In addition, the civil rights movement-related content included in each state’s standards and frameworks is reported in detail.*

Reading the Report Card Grades:
Each state earned an A, B, C, D or F based on its percentage score (0-100%). The highest possible score was 100 percent, which would mean that a state requires all of the recommended content needed for a thorough grounding in history of the civil rights movement. Letter grades were assigned on a scale that recognizes the best efforts.

A
The state includes at least 60% of the recommended content. Even though these states can do more to ensure that students have a comprehensive understanding of the civil rights movement, they set higher expectations than other states.

B
The state includes at least 50% of the recommended content. These states should do more to ensure that students have a comprehensive picture of the civil rights movement, but did demonstrate a commitment to educating students about it. Standards were clear but limited.

C
The state includes at least 30% of the recommended content. These states have significant additional work to do to ensure that students have a satisfactory, comprehensive picture of the civil rights movement. In general, these states are missing content in more than one key area—covering the movement in patches rather than systematically. Standards are often jumbled.

D
The state includes at least 20% of the recommended content. These states should significantly revise their standards so that students have a satisfactory and comprehensive picture of the civil rights movement. In general, these states are missing content in several key areas, covering the movement incidentally or haphazardly.

F
The state includes none or less than 20 percent of the recommended content. Sixteen of these states do not require students to learn about the civil rights movement at all. Those that do require movement-related instruction miss essential content in most of the key areas. These states should substantially revise their standards so that students have a satisfactory and comprehensive picture of the civil rights movement.

Categories. Each state received a score for specific content students should learn. We divided this content into six categories: events, leaders, groups, causes (history), opposition and tactics. Content contributed to 85% of a state’s overall score.

The remaining 15% was allotted to how the state contextualized the movement. Here, we looked at whether instruction spanned several grade levels, whether teachers were required to connect the movement to other social movements and to current events, and whether it was included in civicsstandards.

Items the State Requires. These reflect the level of detail the state considers essential and required knowledge for students. These are the only specific leaders, groups, events, history or tactics specifically required by the state.

State scores in each major rubric category

state leaders groups events history opposition tactics
Entire U.S. mean 19% 10% 19% 10% 7% 14%
Alabama 100% 100% 75% 29% 25% 43%
Alaska 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Arizona 25% 0% 17% 57% 0% 14%
Arkansas 25% 0% 8% 0% 25% 29%
California 13% 0% 25% 14% 0% 0%
Colorado 0% 0% 0% 14% 0% 0%
Connecticut 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Delaware 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
District of Columbia 13% 0% 58% 14% 25% 29%
Florida 100% 67% 67% 14% 25% 57%
Georgia 100% 67% 50% 29% 25% 29%
Hawaii 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 14%
Idaho 13% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Illinois 75% 100% 83% 29% 0% 0%
Indiana 13% 0% 8% 0% 0% 0%
Iowa 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Kansas 13% 0% 33% 0% 0% 0%
Kentucky 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Louisiana 50% 33% 42% 43% 25% 71%
Maine 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Maryland 50% 0% 50% 0% 25% 71%
Massachusetts 0% 0% 75% 0% 0% 14%
Michigan 13% 0% 8% 0% 25% 0%
Minnesota 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Mississippi 50% 33% 17% 43% 25% 14%
Missouri 0% 0% 8% 0% 0% 0%
Montana 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Nebraska 0% 0% 0% 14% 0% 0%
Nevada 0% 0% 8% 0% 0% 14%
New Hampshire 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
New Jersey 25% 0% 25% 0% 0% 14%
New Mexico 0% 0% 0% 14% 0% 29%
New York 75% 100% 75% 14% 0% 57%
North Carolina 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
North Dakota 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Ohio 0% 0% 8% 0% 0% 29%
Oklahoma 0% 0% 8% 29% 0% 0%
Oregon 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Pennsylvania 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Rhode Island 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
South Carolina 50% 0% 75% 71% 25% 86%
South Dakota 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Tennessee 38% 0% 67% 14% 50% 29%
Texas 50% 0% 25% 14% 25% 43%
Utah 0% 0% 8% 0% 0% 14%
Vermont 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Virginia 63% 0% 50% 29% 25% 29%
Washington 25% 0% 17% 0% 0% 0%
West Virginia 13% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Wisconsin 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Wyoming 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%

 

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.

What Content Do States Require?

In addition to comparing states using a standardized rubric, we took a closer look at the kind of content they required. Some states went into a surprising amount of detail in their civil rights-related requirements. Sometimes these details were specific to events in a state (e.g., the Tallahassee bus boycott in Florida); at other times, they did not seem to have a particular relationship to a state’s particular history (e.g., Massachusetts’ requirement that students learn about the Nation of Islam).

The table below shows all required details found in the state documents for all the states, ranked first by frequency and then listed by category. These details were included if they were mentioned in required content, regardless of context. This means the table fails to capture nuance in state standards; unfortunately, for most states there was little nuance to capture, as these requirements tended to appear in lists rather than as part of meaningful and well-constructed learning expectations.

There are a number of ways that this list surprises. Only 19 states require students to learn aboutBrown, while 18 include Martin Luther King Jr. Not even a quarter of states include requirements to learn about key legislation (i.e., the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act). Only four include the 24th Amendment as essential content. One state (California) requires students to learn about the Ku Klux Klan when they learn about the civil rights movement.21 This is consonant with the overall low state scores in the rubric’s “opposition” category and serves as some confirmation of the “sanitization” hypothesis advanced by Epstein and others.

States require students to learn about very few female figures in the civil rights movement. Although Rosa Parks is frequently included in suggested state content, only 12 states require students to learn about her. Only three states require students to learn about Watts and other urban uprisings in the “long, hot summers” of 1964-1968. And only one requires students to learn about the Kerner Commission. These latter omissions likely reflect periodization of the civil rights movement as well as the well-documented tendency of history standards to become more vague as they approach the present time.

In general, state requirements are few and scattered. Even when states agree about the need to teach the civil rights movement, they do not agree about the essential knowledge needed to understand the movement.

Specific requirements from state mandates

Ranked by frequency

Brown v. Board of Education 19
Martin Luther King Jr. 18
1964 Civil Rights Act 14
Freedom Rides 12
1965 Voting Rights Act 11
Malcolm X 11
March on Washington 11
Rosa Parks 12
Little Rock 9
Sit-ins 9
Tactics 9
Montgomery Bus Boycott 8
Armed forces desegregation 7
Black Power 7
NAACP 7
Nonviolence 7
Birmingham bombings 6
Black Panthers 6
Jim Crow 6
Thurgood Marshall 6
1968 Civil Rights Act 5
24th amendment 5
CORE 5
Dixiecrats 5
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 5
SCLC 5
SNCC 5
Stokely Carmichael 5
A. Philip Randolph 4
Civil disobedience 4
Mississippi summer 4
Selma-to-Montgomery March 4
1957 Civil Rights Act 3
de facto 3
de jure 3
George Wallace 3
Jackie Robinson 3
James Meredith 3
Literacy tests 3
Medgar Evers 3
Poll taxes 3
Watts, other urban uprisings 3
Briggs v. Elliot 2
Fannie Lou Hamer 2
Lester Maddox 2
Robert F. Kennedy 2
Voter registration 2
1965 ESEA 1
A.G. Gaston 1
Al Gore Sr. 1
Albany Movement 1
Andrew Young 1
Autherine Lucy 1
Bobby Seale 1
Bull Connor 1
Children’s March 1
Clinton HS 1
Constance Baker Motley 1
Fred Shuttlesworth 1
H. Rap Brown 1
Hamilton Holmes 1
Harry & Henrietta Moore 1
Harry F. Byrd 1
Huey Newton 1
James Farmer 1
Jesse Jackson 1
John Patterson 1
Kerner Commission 1
Ku Klux Klan 1
Maynard Jackson 1
MFDP 1
Oliver Hill 1
Orval Faubus 1
Robert Williams 1
Roy Wilkins 1
Ruby Bridges 1
S.B. Fuller 1
Sibley Commission 1
Sweatt v. Painter 1
T.R.M. Howard 1
Tallahassee bus boycotts 1

Listed by category, then ranked by frequency

LEADERS
Martin Luther King Jr. 18
Malcolm X 11
Rosa Parks 11
Thurgood Marshall 6
Stokely Carmichael 5
Jackie Robinson 3
James Meredith 3
Medgar Evers 3
Fannie Lou Hamer 2
Lester Maddox 2
Robert F. Kennedy 2
A.G. Gaston 1
Andrew Young 1
Autherine Lucy 1
Bobby Seale 1
Constance Baker Motley 1
Fred Shuttlesworth 1
H. Rap Brown 1
Hamilton Holmes 1
Harry & Henrietta Moore 1
Harry F. Byrd 1
Huey Newton 1
James Farmer 1
Jesse Jackson 1
Maynard Jackson 1
Oliver Hill 1
Robert Williams 1
Roy Wilkins 1
Ruby Bridges 1
S.B. Fuller 1
T.R.M. Howard 1
Vivian Malone 1
Whitney Young 1
GROUPS
NAACP 7
Black Panthers 6
CORE 5
SCLC 5
SNCC 5
MFDP 1
EVENTS
Brown v. Board of Education 19
1964 Civil Rights Act 14
Freedom Rides 12
1965 Voting Rights Act 11
March on Washington 11
Little Rock 9
Montgomery Bus Boycott 8
Birmingham bombings 6
1968 Civil Rights Act 5
24th amendment 5
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 5
Mississippi summer 4
Selma-to-Montgomery March 4
1957 Civil Rights Act 3
Watts, other urban uprisings 3
Briggs v. Elliot 2
1965 ESEA 1
Albany Movement 1
Children’s March 1
Clinton HS 1
Kerner Commission 1
Sibley Commission 1
Sweatt v. Painter 1
Tallahassee bus boycotts 1
TACTICS
Sit-ins 9
Black Power 7
Nonviolence 7
Civil disobedience 4
Voter registration 2
HISTORY
Armed forces desegregation 7
Jim Crow 6
A. Philip Randolph 4
de facto 3
de jure 3
Literacy tests 3
Poll taxes 3
OPPOSITION
Dixiecrats 5
George Wallace 3
Al Gore Sr. 1
Bull Connor 1
John Patterson 1
Ku Klux Klan 1
Orval Faubus 1

Conclusions

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?<sup>22</sup> 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).

Recommendations

Fortunately, there are many excellent resources available for states interested in improving their content standards and for teachers looking to improve the rigor of their own instruction. There is some hope, too, in the work towards common social studies standards, although past political uproars sparked by attempts to create such standards should warn us of the landmines ahead in such efforts. Like much education reform in the United States, the struggle to improve the expectations we set will inevitably occur at the state and local levels.

It is our hope that this report, and subsequent work in this vein by the Southern Poverty Law Center, will provide states with productive models and possibilities for teaching one of our nation’s most important eras. The rubric included here does not come close to a comprehensive blueprint for teaching the civil rights movement; nevertheless, it should serve as a model for states working to improve their standards and frameworks.

We recognize, of course, that state standards are not necessarily determinative or descriptive of actual teaching and learning. The research to evaluate the knowledge base, practices and needs of teachers has not been conducted. Such research is needed to allow better materials to be created in support of instruction at the classroom level while giving us more information about practices in individual states.

Finally, we should work to create, identify and promote models for best practices. Too many states do not support required civil rights movement instruction. This does not mean that the battle is lost. Teachers can and regularly do set higher expectations for their students than the institutions that govern them. Bringing together and sharing model practices can spread outstanding teaching while convincing institutional authorities that a better world is possible.

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 on 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.