Think about Ferguson and the Justice Department’s recent report that condemned the Ferguson police department and court system for biased and discriminatory law enforcement against Blacks. Think about the 50th anniversary of the Selma march.
Then think about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) damning report that cites Michigan as one of the states failing on civil rights education in schools, and then wonder why that is the case. The report, “Teaching the Movement,” also lists in the F grade states like Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, North Carolina, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon and others. Surprisingly the only states that made the A grade are New York, Florida and Alabama. Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina got a B.
The report said civil rights education is mostly seen as a subject important to only Black students.
“Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the Civil Rights Movement, most states mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for Black students,” the report noted. “Nine of the 12 highest-scoring states are from the former Confederacy 4. They are joined by the states of Illinois, Maryland and New York. Generally speaking, the farther away from the South and the smaller the African American population, the less attention is paid to the Civil Rights Movement.”
SPLC also indicated in the report that it was concerned “that the movement, when it is given classroom time, is reduced to lessons about a handful of heroic figures and the four words, “I have a dream.” Students need to know that the movement existed independently of its most notable leaders, and that thousands of people mustered the courage to join the struggle, very often risking their lives. They need to know that the dream to which Dr. King gave voice was not realized simply by the election of a Black president in 2008. They need to know that as long as race is a barrier to access and opportunity, and as long as poverty is commonplace for people of color, the dream has not been achieved.”
In the case of states like Michigan with the F grade, SPLC said it includes less than 20 percent or, in many cases, none of what the center recommended.
“Sixteen of these states do not require students to learn about the Civil Rights Movement at all. Those that do require movement-related instruction miss essential content in most of the key areas. These states should substantially revise their standards to ensure their students have a satisfactory understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The states with an A grade include at least 60 percent of the recommended content.
“Even though these states can do more to ensure that students have a comprehensive understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, they set higher expectations than other states,” the report indicated.
The states with a B grade “include at least 50 percent of the recommended content. These states should do more to ensure that students have a comprehensive picture of the Civil Rights Movement, but did demonstrate a commitment to educating students about it. Standards were clear but limited.”
In the foreword to the report, Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, said, “An educated populace must be taught basics about American history. 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.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said it is hoping the report will spark a national conversation about the importance of teaching students about the modern-day civil rights movement.
“We call for states to integrate a comprehensive approach to civil rights education into their K-12 history and social studies curricula. And we call for a concerted effort among schools and other organizations that train teachers to work to ensure that teachers are well prepared to teach about the Civil Rights Movement,” SPLC stated.
Arthur Horwitz, chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, said it is time for the state to change course in light of this unacceptable report.
“For a state that has been at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, it is disappointing and embarrassing that Michigan continues to earn a failing grade when it comes to teaching our grade school students about it in a comprehensive and compelling way. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s Department of Civil Rights, in tandem with the Michigan Department of Education, is determined to find ways to elevate civil rights knowledge in our schools,” Horwitz said. “Concurrent with these efforts, it is very important for teachers, principals, school district superintendents, parents and the students themselves to expect and demand our state to do better. They must educate, inform and hold accountable those at the local and state level who have the ability to provide the resources needed for curriculum development, teacher training and other tools necessary to teach the movement fairly, fully and effectively.”
Bond said little has changed.
“The Civil Rights Movement is given short shrift in the educational standards that guide what students learn. Although southern states generally do a better job teaching the movement than the rest of the country, they have little to brag about. At the University of Virginia, my students are often outraged to learn that they have never been taught about events in their own hometowns,” Bond said in the report.
Sheryl Jones, director of the Detroit Public Schools Office of Social Studies, said when the report was brought to her attention last April, she moved quickly to form a Civil Rights Education Committee the following month to create material for the new African American history course and the Teaching the Movement Civil Rights curriculum.
“I am sure all social studies educators across the state share my frustration and disappointment that the state of Michigan received an F grade for civil rights education from the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Jones said. “As a district, DPS has always ensured African-centered education is embedded in our social studies curriculum. However, to support a statewide reform, I quickly formed a committee of social studies teachers and key administrators to draft a specific civil rights curriculum for K-12 educators in Michigan titled, ‘Teaching the Movement.’ We also created a syllabus for a new African American history course for middle and high school students.”
Jones said she submitted both documents last October to James Cameron, social studies consultant for the Michigan Department of Education to be shared with state educators. The content has yet to be approved at the state level and Cameron said he needed more time to provide information to this writer on the status of the matter.
But Jones is looking forward to the new curriculum being rolled out for the 2015-2016 school year district-wide.
To underscore the long road ahead for public schools in Michigan and across the country, the SPLC report noted that, “The National Assessment of Educational Progress — commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card” — tells a dismal story: Only 2 percent of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, and it’s no surprise. Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history.”
Another issue in the report is that there is no instructional timeline in civil rights education in schools.
“Over the last decade, history and social studies have been crowded out of the classroom. Research shows an overall decline in classroom time devoted to social studies. The No Child Left Behind Act has increased the emphasis on testing in math and reading, subjects on which schools must show progress under the law. The overall result is that history education has been left behind, as social studies instructional time in our most challenged schools has fallen by more than a third,” SPLC wrote in the report.
SPLC also stated that teachers are not well prepared to teach civil rights history.
“More recent data shows that nearly 60 percent of those teaching history in grades 7-12 had neither a history major or minor. Although many have since received training from Teaching American History grants, the fact remains that even those teachers who majored in U.S. history may not have taken a single course in the Civil Rights Movement,” the report stated.
Meanwhile on April 1 at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, students are convening a civil rights academy in conjunction with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission led by professor Barry Checkoway.
“The Department of Civil Rights continues to play a significant role in the effective operation of ALPACTs across Michigan and is expanding them into additional communities in 2015. (ALPACT stands for Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust). These groups have helped to build bridges between communities and their respective law enforcement agencies. If they had an ALPACT in Ferguson, Missouri, the situation there could have been much different,” Horwitz said. “The Commission and its Department of Civil Rights continues at its core, to work to assure that ‘fair is fair’ and that Michiganders can enjoy full and equal civil rights protections. With that as a framework, the Commission’s primary policy initiatives focus on ongoing efforts to diminish racial inequality, to extend protections contained in the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to LGBT individuals, to provide equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities and to better educate Michiganders about their rights and ways they can report alleged acts of discrimination.”