In the year the Brown v. Board of Education decision turns 60, a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center says states too often omit the civil rights movement from officially mandated school curricula.
In “Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States,” SPLC has assigned grades to each state based on the depth and breadth of their coverage of the subject.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware each received a “D.”
To be clear, these grades aren’t based on what potentially ends up being taught in classrooms, but, instead, gauges how much value the state’s department of education puts on teaching the content.
“It’s very hard to know what people are doing in classrooms,” said Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. “What we were looking at is: ‘What are the messages that states are sending to teachers and students about the emphasis that they are put on civil rights.'”
In keeping with the trend of teaching skills, not content, Pennsylvania and Delaware provide no specifics on exactly what history needs to be taught.
New Jersey proscribes lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. in its mandated curriculum, but demands no greater context of the genesis of the grassroots movement around him.
“We think the resources leave too much in the hands of individual teachers, schools and districts,” said Costello.” We do encourage states to step up to the plate, and make their expectations about what should be taught clearer…You can’t apply those skills in a vacuum.”
Given the fact that many history courses never make it past World War II in their textbooks, Costello says this creates a troublesome blind-spot in the teaching of modern history.
“There are parts of our history that everybody needs to know,” she said. “When we educate students for citizenship we want them to know how they can affect change, and be leaders in their own right as adults, and the civil rights movement is essential for that…this is history that’s up close and recent, and not yet entirely resolved.”
Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia recieved ‘A’s.’
Maryland, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, California, New York and Florida received ‘B’s.’
Twenty states received ‘F’s,’ including five states—Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming—that “neither cover nor support teaching about the movement.”
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates lamented the report’s findings in its introduction.
“When you add up all the A’s and B’s, seven out of 11 are former Confederate states, only reinforcing the dangerous misperception that black history is regional or only necessary where large pockets of African Americans reside,” said Gates.
Gates writes that he’s even more disturbed by the fact that fewer than half of U.S. states today mandate lessons on Jim Crow laws.
“If students don’t understand these laws, or how they impacted the course of history, how will they ever be able to grasp the century of delay following emancipation that Dr. King pivoted from in the spontaneous “Dream” section of his iconic speech at the March on Washington in 1963?,” asked Gates. “Or what the lawyers in Brown were up against? Or why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were and remain necessary manifestations of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws”?”
This SPLC released its first report on this matter in 2011.
States tended to fare slightly better in this report, largely because the study began rewarding states that provide schools with supplemental civil-rights-related learning materials. The group lauded Pennsylvania, for instance, for having a website that “does an excellent job of clearly linking resources and supporting materials to the state’s content standards.”
Still, the group graded Pennslyvania poorly for not mandating the subject matter in its state curricula.
The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) social studies exam found that only two-percent of high school seniors could correctly identify the tenets of the Brown v. Board of education case.
“All of us are aware of the pressures our teachers and children are under to keep pace with the world’s students in science and math, but without a steep grounding in our history, what will rising generations have to pivot from?” wrote Gates. “What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?”