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Massachusetts schools get D grade in civil rights history education

Kenneth J. Cooper | 4/3/2014, noon

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.