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SPLC Issues Guidelines to Help States Teach Civil Rights History

After finding that more than half of all states fail at teaching the civil rights movement to students, the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project released a set of guidelines today to help states improve the teaching of this pivotal period of U.S. history.

Teaching the Movement: The State Standards We Deserve provides model learning standards to help states improve their existing standards or create expectations where none exist.

“We were dismayed last year to learn that for many students, civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and ‘I have a dream,’” said Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello. “This report moves from diagnosis to treatment by providing states with clear standards for improving the teaching of this important period of U.S. history.”

The guidelines use the teaching standards for Alabama, Florida and New York as a starting point. These states received the highest scores in an earlier Teaching Tolerance study, Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011. But despite their high marks, they failed to meet all of the criteria identified by Teaching Tolerance. A shocking number of states – 35 – received grades of “F.”

The model standards are designed to help ensure that students will be taught a body of knowledge reflecting what historians and educators consider core information about the civil rights movement.

“We didn’t want to criticize these states without providing solutions,” Costello said. “Our goal is to provide an example of teaching standards that would have received a perfect score.”

Also included are several “best practices” to provide additional guidance to educators as they revise their state standards. These practices include linking the movement to current events and having students study primary documents, such as King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Sue Blanchette, president of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), said Teaching Tolerance’s set of standards “belongs in every social studies classroom.” The NCSS is the largest association in the country devoted solely to social studies education.

Teaching the Movement: The State Standards We Deserve provides a concise yet detailed outline for teaching the civil rights movement,” Blanchette said. “By building on already-existing standards in several states, it provides a workable model which other states can and should emulate.”

Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children. It produces and distributes tools at no cost to teachers, including Teaching Tolerance magazine, online curricula and professional development resources, and multimedia teaching kits that introduce students to various civil rights issues.