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Massachusetts schools get D grade in civil rights history education

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

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.