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Massachusetts schools get D grade in civil rights history education


Massachusetts leads the nation in scores on achievement tests in reading and math, but the state does not do nearly as well when it comes to teaching public school students about the Civil Rights Movement.

In that subject, Massachusetts deserves a D, according to a new report that evaluates every state’s curriculum materials for social studies and history.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., gave the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework and related lesson plans the minimum passing grade, the average among all states, in part because the historic movement is not introduced until high school.

“Massachusetts’ standards make an effort to tell part of the story of the civil rights movement,” the report concludes. “They isolate several key individuals, even as they neglect to mention instrumental groups” such as the Congress on Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

A curriculum specialist at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education accepted the criticism of the voluntary standards, in place since 2003.

“I think it’s an excellent report,” said Susan Wheltle, the department’s director of literacy and humanities. “I am well aware that we have a curriculum for history-social science that’s now 11 years old and I, frankly, am positive that it is time that we got a panel together to view it and to make recommendations for changes in it.”

In recent years, Wheltle said, the department has been busy revising language arts and math standards to conform to the new Common Core curriculum. In addition, changes in state standards for science are nearing completion, she said.

Department spokeswoman Lauren Greene said “we can’t just upgrade all of our standards at once” because it takes time to review advances in the teaching of each subject and still more time to prepare teachers to implement changes.

The social studies and history framework is the last of four subjects to undergo an update. When that will happen, Wheltle said last week, is uncertain and depends on a decision from the department’s commissioner, Mitchell Chester.

Massachusetts school districts do not have to follow the state curriculum standards and are free to go beyond them. Some districts do, including Boston.

James Liou, Boston’s director of history and social studies, said that the city’s teachers do provide lessons about the Civil Rights Movement in elementary and middle schools. The high school curriculum also pays attention to organizations that the state standards omit.

“We feel we do very well in comparison,” Liou said last week.

Liou cited an eighth-grade unit focused on the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and 10th grade lessons on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, the Freedom Riders of 1961, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and the desegregation of the Boston schools in the early 1970s.

“Those are two heavier units built into our history sequence,” Liou said. “They are required parts of the curriculum.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center report specifically criticizes the state standards for not covering the conflict in Boston over busing.

In the elementary grades, Liou said students learn about the Juneteenth holiday in first grade and about slavery in the fifth grade.

One criteria the report applies is whether state standards cover slavery as a historical background to the movement.

Massachusetts’ grade of D was unchanged from a similar report the center issued in 2011. The state’s numerical score inched up, from 24 percent to 28 percent, because the new report considers model lesson plans as well as the curriculum framework.

The report found those lesson plans “show promise” but “focus on individuals rather than on the movement as a whole and do not reach beyond the basic narrative of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Wheltle said the department posted, too late for the report to consider, a unit on the history of the civil rights movement for a U.S. history course in high school.

The state’s standards did win praise for including an “especially strong” list of civil rights events, including the Supreme Court decision in “Brown v. Board of Education,” Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.

But the report faulted Massachusetts for covering too few leaders of the movement and the tactics it used, and nothing at all about prominent civil rights groups, the movement’s historical origins, and the opposition to civil rights.

Wheltle said other school districts besides Boston go beyond the standards. But no one has conducted a survey to identify those districts.

Whenever the history and social science framework is updated, Wheltle said the department would use the report as a resource. She indicated an interest in a adding lessons about school desegregation in Boston, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision approving same-sex marriage, and movements for women’s and gay rights.

“I think it’s important for students to understand that the fight’s never over and to be able to look at things that are going on in their world right now and realizing they can be part of a movement for greater equality and opportunity,” Wheltle said.

The report gave the highest grades to southern states, with an A going to South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. Another eight states received a B. Of those, only California and New York are in the North.

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