When the National Assessment of Educational Progress — commonly referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card” — was administered to 12,000 high school seniors last year, it became clear that when it comes to teaching the civil rights movement in America’s classrooms, there is a terrible disconnect.
Asked to describe the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas — which made it illegal to segregate schools — just two percent of the students were able to sufficiently answer the question.
A new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” found this type of ignorance rampant in schools across America. The study gives 35 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, failing grades when it comes to teaching students about the Civil Rights Movement. The civil rights movement period is generally recognized to be from 1954 up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” said civil rights activist and former center president Julian Bond, in his preface to the report. ”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.”
“Schools across the entire state teach civil rights in detail,” said Tim Heller, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “It has always been an area of emphasis in curriculums across Pennsylvania.”
In the SPLC’s evaluation, states were given a grade of F if they required less than 20 percent of the content recommended by the SPLC based on textbooks, existing curriculum and expert opinion. As an example, just 12 states require their schools to teach about Rosa Parks, largely viewed as the “Mother of the movement” for her 1955 refusal to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus.
Pennsylvania scored 0; New Jersey notched 15 percent.
To receive and A, a state had to include at least 60 percent of the SPLC recommended content. Alabama, with 70 percent, received the highest grade. Also receiving an A were New York and Illinois, with scores of 65 percent and 64 percent, respectively.
In Philadelphia, a course in African American history, including the civil rights movement, is a graduation requirement.
This left some Pennsylvanians puzzled.
“It has been a part of our curriculum for a long time,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Fernando Gallard. Gallard said that the school district’s policy of making the study of the civil rights movement mandatory has been in place for years, adding that he believed that Philadelphia was, for a long time, “the only large district” in the country where it was mandatory for graduation.
In New Jersey, a 2002 state law made it mandatory for African American history to be a part of the social studies curriculum. From the law sprang the Amistad Commission, which provides and promotes an African-American history curriculum, related teaching resources, professional developmental opportunities and grants.
“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance director. “When 43 states adopted Common Core Standards in English and math, they affirmed that rigorous standards were necessary for achievement. By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the civil rights movement, they are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn.”
The SPLC said it issued the report to encourage a national conversation about the importance of teaching the civil rights movement. The report calls for states to include civil rights education in K-12 history and social studies curricula. It urges colleges and other organizations that train teachers to ensure that they are well prepared to teach it.
The report found that students in regions where the movement took place knew the most about the movement. It also determined that physical distance from the region where the movement took place – the south – also influenced the way it was taught.
“Region and proximity to the movement mean a lot,” Costello said.