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Poor teaching standards keep students behind on civil rights [Blowback]

October 26, 2011 |  4:58 pm

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Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program, responds to The Times' Oct. 24 Op-Ed article "Testing students'  knowledge of the civil rights movement." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

When the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted research for its report "Teaching the Movement," we found that most states set low and ill-defined standards for the teaching the civil rights movement in public schools -- if they set any standards at all.

The result, we said, is that for too many students, their civil rights knowledge boils down to two people plus four words: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and "I have a dream."

In his Times commentary, Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg accuses us of maligning, even libeling, students with our report. He states that they know far more than we give them credit for. His evidence? A survey of 2,000 students that shows many of them can cite three names: King, Parks and Harriet Tubman.

Wineburg also takes issue with the question we cited from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. history exam, which is administered to 12,000 students. It found that only 2% high school seniors in 2010 could answer a question correctly about the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated public schools.

Wineburg protests the NAEP's stingy scoring of the question, suggesting that far more students can answer it. What he doesn't note is that, even if every partial response -- such as the one he described -- were given full credit, it would still leave 73% of students unable to identify the social problem that the Brown case was supposed to correct.

In our report, we wrote that "the Southern Poverty Law Center is concerned about the overall decline in history education." We noted that one of the main reasons for the low scores on NAEP was that history "has been crowded out of the classroom."

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind law, the curriculum has narrowed. Wineburg agrees.

His sole issue with the report, in fact, seems to be that we didn't go to the trouble of directly querying a sample of the nation's 54 million students to determine exactly what they know about the civil rights movement and, presumably, to ascertain that the NAEP exam got it right.

But there's a good reason for the approach we took. For the last 20 years, there's been universal agreement among educators, reformers and policymakers that rigorous standards laying out what teachers are expected to teach and what students are expected to know are needed for student achievement.

Without strong state standards, the likelihood of a student getting a complete picture of the civil rights movement is left to chance. Too often, it's a matter of having the good fortune of being assigned to a history class where the teacher is willing and able to rise above a state's meager standards. And, as Wineburg himself noted in a Times Op-Ed article he wrote in 2005, "Among high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even minored) in the subject they now teach."

Stronger state standards for teaching history are needed. The 2010 NAEP exam in U.S. history shows that students don't know much about history. Only 12% of the 12,000 high school seniors who took that test scored "proficient." Wineburg might quibble with the way the NAEP is scored, but no scoring system will rescue the 55% of students whose knowledge was considered "below basic."

When states don't set high expectations, we should not be surprised to discover that what most students learn is two names and four words. And it's not something we should be proud of. We're not sure why Wineburg is taking issue with us for calling attention to it.

-- Maureen Costello

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Photo: Firefighters in Birmingham, Ala., douse civil rights activists in 1963. Credit: Bill Hudson / Associated Press

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