Teaching the Movement 2014

This report shows that states vary widely in their support for teaching the civil rights movement. We cast a wide net, reading through tens of thousands of pages to capture the full range of state support documents. When we looked behind state requirements to the broader set of state documents and resources, we found a wide disparity. A number of states are doing an outstanding job of teaching the movement. At the same time, most states continue to have vague standards and inadequate supports.

State documents have practical consequences even when they are largely symbolic, as in local-control states or states that do not formally assess students’ knowledge of history. The major documents communicate an understanding of history that, intentionally or not, shapes conversations about teaching and learning inside and outside of the classroom. State documents and resources are artifacts that tell us the nature and depth of a state’s priorities. States that project amorphous aspirations convey an attitude that accepts mediocrity, as in the cases here:

  • “Students are able to describe the causes and effects of cultural, economic, religious, political, and social reform movements on the development of the United States.” (South Dakota)
  • “Identify and describe the tensions between cultural groups, social classes and/or individuals in Wyoming and the United States. (e.g. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Sacagawea, Chief Washakie).” (Wyoming)
  • “Analyze the struggles for the extension of civil rights.” (Idaho)
  • “Demonstrate an understanding of the causes and effects of major events in United States history and their connection to both Maine and world history with emphasis on events after 1877, including, but not limited to: industrialization, the Great Depression, the Cold War (and its ending), World War I and World War II, the Vietnam era, civil rights movement, Watergate.” (Maine)
  • “In groups students research the actions of the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. The students identify how the actions of participants and groups in the civil rights movement impacted the lives of the individual and changed group decision-making.” (Iowa)

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?10 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.

All students should learn about the civil rights movement and all states should support already overworked teachers in this effort. Unfortunately, both students and teachers who happen to live in the 20 states receiving an F grade are at a serious disadvantage compared to their peers in the 11 states receiving grades above a C.

Study of the civil rights movement 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 students of color 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 and to work for justice. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens. 

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