Putting Education Reform To The Test

“Civil Rights Education Boils Down To Two People, Four Words”


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are the two most common civil right's figures K-12 students learn about.

When it comes to teaching K-12 students about the nation’s civil rights movement, more than half of U.S. states are failing, according to a new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the study, “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011”, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance arm looked at each state’s required education standards and curriculum, and compared that to what civil rights historians consider core information about the civil rights movement.

Florida is one of three states who scored an “A” letter grade in civil rights education, along with Alabama and New York. But authors say there is still room for improvement in every state.

“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance director. Costello said one of the most shocking findings is that educators make the movement “seem easy,” she said, because there is very little attention placed on opposition and racism.

The Findings

  • 35 States earned “F” grades
  • 3 states and the District of Columbia earned “D” grades: Arizona, Arkansas and Massachusetts
  • 6 states earned “C” grades: Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia
  • 3 states earned “B” grades: Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina
  • 3 states earned “A” grades: Alabama, New York and Florida
  • 16 States are not required to include the civil right’s movement in their curriculum

The study finds less attention is paid to the civil right’s movement the farther states are from the South. Authors of the study say that suggests most states view the movement as having regional significance instead of national significance, and as being a subject of interest primarily to black students.

Why Does Florida Stand Out?

  • Civil rights education in Florida starts early.
  • Kindergarteners and 1st grade students are fist introduced to the movement around the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
  • Teacher then go back to the movement in 4th grade when kids learn about Florida’s history.
  • And then in high school, Costello says Florida really digs in to some of the various elements of the movement.

“So that you’re not just looking at King,” Costello said. “So that you’re looking at events and at the tactics, the fact that not everyone agreed that non-violence was the right way to go. So Florida does a really good job of putting a lot of different pieces together.”

How much do you know about the civil rights movement? You can take a quiz from Teaching Tolerance here.


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »