A disturbing report on how poorly schools teach American slavery


Consider this from a disturbing new report on how U.S. schools teach – or, rather, don’t teach – students about the history of slavery in the United States:

  • Only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
  • 68 percent of the surveyed students did not know that slavery formally ended only with an amendment to the Constitution.
  • Only 22 percent of the students could correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
  • Only 44 percent of the students answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

These results are part of an unsettling new report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” which was researched over the course of a year by the Teaching Tolerance project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. The report includes results of surveys of U.S. high school seniors as well as social studies teachers in all grades – nationally representative of those populations – as well as an analysis of 15 state content standards, and a review of 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against a rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent.

Teaching Tolerance also published a framework to help teachers properly teach the subject, with suggested resources and materials.

The report argues that the United States “needs an intervention in the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery,” which will require work “by state educational departments, teacher preparation programs, school boards, textbooks publishers, museums, professional organizations and thought leaders.”

“Slavery defined the nature and limits of American liberty; it influenced the creation and development of the major political and social institutions of the nation; and it was a cornerstone of the American prosperity that fueled our industrial revolution. It’s not simply an event in our history; it’s central to our history.”

It found that while teachers say they are serious about teaching the subject, they are uncomfortable doing so. State content standards do not largely convey the need to teach about the history of slavery and most textbooks fail to convey the reality of slavery, the report said. Other problems include the prevalence of lessons that portray slavery as only a Southern institution, that fail to connect slavery and white supremacy, and that provide no real context about slavery, “preferring to present the good news before the bad.”

The report says:

“In elementary school, if slavery is mentioned at all in state content standards, it is generally by implication, with references to the Underground Railroad or other ‘feel good’ stories that deal with slavery’s end, rather than its inception and persistence. Young students learn about liberation before they learn about enslavement; they learn to celebrate the…



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