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New Guidelines Aim to Improve Teaching of Civil Rights History

The Southern Poverty Law Center—which last year concluded that a majority of states deserve a failing grade for how they handle the teaching of civil rights history—has just issued a set of guidelines to help states improve the situation.

The civil rights organization is providing model learning standards designed to help states either improve existing standards or develop expectations where none exists, according to a press release. The document draws on the standards in Alabama, Florida, and New York as a starting point, all of which received high marks in last year's study. It also includes a set of best practices that provide additional guidance on crafting high-quality standards.

"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,' " Maureen Costello, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project, said in the press release.

The 35 states that received an F in last year's report spanned the country, from California and New Mexico to Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maine. The grades were based on a rubric that placed the most emphasis on the content students should know about civil rights history, divided into six categories: events, leaders, groups, causes, obstacles, and tactics. Beyond that, 15 percent was based on how each state's standards contextualized the movement.

Among the best practices identified in the new guidelines are calls to identify essential knowledge, engage deeply with primary-source documents, and make explicit connections between the civil rights movement and current events.

(Speaking of the second point, on primary source documents, I'll make a quick plug for a story I wrote last year about the use of primary sources in teaching the Civil War.)

"We didn't want to criticize these states without providing solutions," Costello said in the press release. "Our goal is to provide an example of teaching standards that would have received a perfect score."

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