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Report Highlights Resources for Teaching Civil Rights Movement

Many states falter on how aggressively they push to teach civil rights history, a new study says, but some also provide excellent teaching resources on the subject.

The report, "Teaching the Movement 2014," prepared for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project, is the fourth in an annual series.

"[T]he bad news is that ignorance remains the operative word when it comes to the civil rights movement and much of African-American history," writes Julian Bond, NAACP chairman emeritus, in the report's foreward. He added that he hopes the report can help facilitate an education system in which students can learn "to understand and know each other."

This year's report builds upon past iterations by stressing not just whether states require teaching the civil rights movement, but also how they do it. On the first criterion, based on a review of state standards, Southern states, with larger African-American populations, dominate the top of the SPLC rankings: Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina were the only states to get A's. The only strictly Northern state to earn at least a B was New York, though California, Oklahoma, and Maryland also scored B's, too, along with Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Although many states have shown significant improvement since the reports started in 2011, 20 states failed. The report singles out Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon, and Wyoming as states that "neither cover nor support teaching about the movement."

To judge how the states go about teaching the civil rights, the report's authors reviewed the relevant resources provided to teachers. Here they found an "astonishingly broad snapshot," based not only on a state's standards, but also on available frameworks, model curricula, and any related documents made available online by the state.

The report takes into account that many states allow districts to direct history instruction. Unlike English, math, and science, there are no common standards for history, though the National Council for the Social Studies released a framework in September 2013 that offered guidance on how to teach history. However, that document, the College, Career, and Civil Life Framework, specifically sought to avoid what history to teach, given how thorny doing so would be.

Teachers may find the report especially useful, though, for highlighting some particularly handy resource guides.

"Many teachers would never think to check the websites of other states' departments of education for resources, but our search has revealed a wealth of document, lesson plans and links to original historical documents for teaching the civil rights movement," the report notes.

From those, the SPLC highlighted nine in particular:

  1. The Alabama Learning Exchange
  2. Louisiana's Comprehensive Curriculum
  3. South Carolina's Social Studies Support Document (which the report calls "required reading")
  4. Georgia's "Share the Journey" packets (which the report says ties instruction to the Common Core State Standards)
  5. Maryland's documents formed in collaboration with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
  6. Virginia's History and Social Science Enhanced Scope and Sequence lesson plans
  7. Pennsylvania's Standards Aligned System
  8. North Carolina's Social Studies Unpacking Standards document
  9. Utah Education Network's "Themepark"

Finally, along with individual states breakdowns, the report also offers other online resources for teaching the civil rights movement, including those from the National Archives, Stanford University, Teaching for Change, PBS, the National Park Service, and the Library of Congress.

The report's authors make it clear that their methodology has limits. "Standards are not necessarily followed and resources are not necessarily used. We simply do not know what students are learning about the civil rights movement," they write, noting also that frameworks are not meaningful without testing and accountability.

Here's the full report:

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