When It Comes to Teaching Civil Rights, Not All Schools Are Equal
By J.D. PROSE Beaver County Times | 4/1/2014, 1:40 p.m.
BEAVER, Pa. (AP) - Imagine Pennsylvania students not being taught about the Revolutionary War, the Great Depression or World War II.
Sounds unbelievable, right?
But, according to a new Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) study of state teaching standards, that's exactly the case with the civil rights movement.
In "Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States,'' the SPLC graded states on what they "expected teachers to teach and students to learn.''
Pennsylvania, while receiving praise for linking resources and materials to standards as a guide for teachers, still received a D, as did 13 other states, including neighboring Ohio.
"It's disappointing, and I know we can do better and we should be doing better,'' said Todd Allen, a Big Beaver Falls Area school board member and Geneva College communications professor, who lectures extensively on the civil rights movement. "There's enough blame, so to say, to go around for all.''
Although low, Pennsylvania's grade was still an improvement over 2011 when it received an F, but the SPLC said many states improved because the study expanded its area of evaluation.
Pennsylvania's "Academic Standards for History'' does not mention the civil rights movement, the SPLC found. "The standards for civics and government mention civil disobedience, but not in the context of the civil rights movement,'' the study said.
The SPLC's evaluation of Pennsylvania had a sharper tone. "Pennsylvania does not require students to learn about the civil rights movement. This represents a missed opportunity to set high expectations,'' the study said.
While 14 states received a D grade, 20 received an F; five and Washington, D.C., received a C; eight received a B and only three -- South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia -- received an A.
When it came to D-graded states, the SPLC study said, "These states should significantly revise their standards and resources so that students have a satisfactory and comprehensive picture of the civil rights movement.''
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in the introduction to the SPLC study that fewer than half the states include the history of Jim Crow laws -- which separated Americans by color -- in their curriculum.
Without that foundation, Gates wrote, students will be hard-pressed to put the efforts of the Rev. Martin L. King Jr., the U.S. Supreme Court's seminal ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into context.
"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?'' Gates asked. "What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?''
Rochester resident Elizabeth Asche Douglas is a Geneva College professor emeritus of humanities and fine arts, and a longtime social activist. During Black History Month in February, she assisted in a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored series of films and community discussions titled "Created Equal: America's Civil Rights Struggle'' at B.F. Jones Memorial Library in Aliquippa.