50 states, 50 different ways of teaching America's past

Kids taught inconsistent civil rights history

As part of a two-month-long investigation into how black history is taught in the U.S., CBS News took a look at the social studies standards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The analysis uncovered problematic lessons, varying interpretations of history and recommendations for what students should learn. 

There are no national social studies standards to mandate what topics or historical figures students must learn about. The state social studies standards are a document or documents that detail what public school students are expected to know in specific states. 

During the state standards analysis, CBS News found that seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and eight states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only two states mention white supremacy, while 16 states list states' rights as a cause of the Civil War.

Here's a closer look at CBS News' findings:

Slavery and civil rights movement

While most state standards do directly mention the teaching of two defining moments in American history, slavery and the civil rights movement, what states expect their students to learn about these topics can vary drastically. 

In Massachusetts, the social studies standards mention slavery and enslaved people more than 60 times. In 3rd grade, students are expected to learn "that colonial Massachusetts had both free and enslaved Africans in its population." Two grades later, students are asked to grapple with slavery, the legacy of the Civil War, and the struggle for Civil Rights for all.

But in neighboring New Hampshire, the state standards simply mention the words "slavery" and "racism" as part of a thematic lesson about social and race relations.

States also reference slavery in some problematic contexts within their standards. In West Virginia's state standards, slavery is listed as an example in a lesson on "explaining the concept of supply and demand in specific historic" situations. In North Carolina's state standards, "immigration of Africans to the American South" is mentioned as part of a lesson on why people move from place to place.

CBS News contributor and author of "How to Be An Antiracist," Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, said referring to Africans as immigrants or as immigrating to the United States is not accurate because they were brought by force. 

"And certainly did not want to come to the United States in chains," he said.  

Kendi is also the founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. 

As for the states that do not—or only briefly mention—slavery or the civil rights movement, Dr. Tina Heafner, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said this does not necessarily mean students are not learning about these topics. 

Some state standards focus on the process of learning and development of skills, leaving it to the local school districts to determine what specific historical figures and topics are taught. 

For example, while New York's social studies state standards span more than 150 pages and offers details on teaching "the development of slavery as a racial institution," Delaware's social studies standards are just five pages and focus on developing skills like comparing "competing historical narratives."

But Heafner, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said having topics like slavery and the civil rights movement in standards makes it more likely to be taught in the classroom.

"When teachers think about what they have to teach, they turn to the curriculum standards as their guideline," she said. "So the fact that they are not there could give a perception that is not something that is absolutely essential that they have to address."  

Cause of the Civil War

CBS News looked at each states' standards to see how they describe the cause of the Civil War, and again found, it greatly varies.

Utah's state standards assert that, "The Civil War era and Reconstruction are important aspects of U.S. history, essential to understanding modern America, including race relations and inequality." Many states, including Oklahoma, correctly list slavery as the "principal cause" of the Civil War. 

Yet, CBS News found many other states offer different—and often inaccurate—reasons for the cause of the war. The 16 states that still list "states' rights" as one of the causes often do so alongside other issues like sectionalism, tariffs and economic disagreements. 

Kendi took issue with the term states' rights. 

"This was the term that the confederate states, that later segregationists, and even some slaveholders, utilized to hide that they were really fighting for the rights of slaveholders," he said.

U.S. history lesson on “states’ rights”

In their secession documents, Mississippi, Texas and South Carolina each said slavery was their reason for leaving the Union. And as Kendi points out, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens declared in his "Cornerstone Speech" of 1861 that the new government is formed "upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

Historians have said it is only after the war when the institution of slavery was abolished that southerners began listing "states' rights" as a cause for the Civil War. 

Keven Ellis, the chair of the Texas State Board of Education, defended including "states' rights" in Texas' social studies standard, but pointed out it's in a different context than it previously was. 

"I think that even when you look at states' rights it focused around slavery," he said. "So what we are doing now is just being clear, that those states' rights that the South was fighting over, was states' rights for them to have slavery." 

In 2018, Texas reviewed its state social studies standards, leading to heated debates over whether states' rights should be considered as a cause of the Civil War—and whether defenders of the Alamo should be considered "heroic." Language around states' rights changed in the state standards, but calling defenders of the Alamo heroic remained.

Racism and white supremacy

Recent movements like Black Lives Matter and the attack in Charlottesville helped jumpstart conversations about race and racism in America, but those conversations appear to be happening less frequently in the nation's classrooms. Less than half of the states in their social studies standards directly ask students to learn about racism. 

In some state standards, like in Pennsylvania, teachings on racial discrimination are introduced in elementary school. Students learn about "racial relations" and the "treatment of minority groups in history" in third grade. 

Meanwhile, Texas expects students taking a high school sociology elective course to be able to "explain instances of institutional racism in American society." But it does not directly mention institutional racism in its mandatory U.S. history classes.

Just Massachusetts and Maryland mention the word "white supremacy," in their state standards, even though Kendi said it's important students learn about the issue.

"That's American history," he said. 

Politics and other challenges

There is no national curriculum for teaching United States history. And Heafner said the process for adopting state standards, especially in a field like social studies that wrestles with the history of racism or white supremacy, can be politicized. 

"There are ideologies and beliefs that tend to guide the decisions that are made at the policy level in states to determine what can be included and what cannot be included in standards," she said. "Given that nature it does not surprise me that the language is not present because many policy makers are unwilling to tackle those hard issues."

When asked why change has been slow when it comes to textbooks and the state standards in Texas, Ellis, the chair of the Texas State Board of Education said: "I think (Texas), as well as a lot of states in the South, were behind the times in coming to change that process," he said.

Ellis told CBS News as the board has changed and new people have been elected, more progress has been made. He pointed to changes the board has made in recent years, including adding the teaching of Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan to the state standards, and making sure slavery is listed as the central cause of the Civil War. The state is also poised to add a high school African American studies elective this year, which Ellis has been publicly pushing for. Ellis told CBS News he feels it's important all children are able to see themselves reflected in what they are learning, and the board strives to do that.

"I think that we are in a much better place than we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago and I'm optimistic that even five years from now we are going to be in an even better place than we are even today," he said. 

Still Dan Quinn, a researcher and press secretary for the Texas Freedom Network, a progressive advocacy group, argues more must be done. 

"For many decades, we haven't done a very good job teaching about the contributions of people of color in our history and our culture. We're finally seeing some progress toward that," said Quinn. "But you need to see more of that progress toward that in the core courses, rather than just relegating those to courses in ethnic studies that are not taken by most students in the classroom."

Some school districts, including Philadelphia, have made a yearlong African American studies course a requirement for high school graduation. States including Florida, New Jersey and New York mandate black history be taught in public schools, but some critics fear those mandates aren't being enforced.

Overall, studies show classroom time devoted to social studies education continues to decline—and there are questions about what that continued decline means for black history education. A 2016 survey conducted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture estimated that under 10% of total class time is devoted to teaching African American history. 

"If students don't have access to social studies—learning civics to learning history—then they are certainly not going to be prepared for the jobs and responsibilities they have as engaged citizens," said Heafner. "(History) does help us understand the world in which we live and the complexity of that world and the issues that we are grappling with and the various perspectives that we are trying to find some compromise on."

Role of teachers

And while states set expectations for what students learn, experts say in the end, it is up to individual districts to decide what and how students are taught—and up to teachers to bring those lessons to life. 

That can be a problem, too. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture report found that teachers often lack "content knowledge" and "confidence in the information they currently know" when it comes to teaching topics like slavery. 

Heafner said her organization provides resources and professional development to help.

"Teachers want to understand and learn the complexity of the history that many of them did not learn in their own education experience because the curriculum that was taught to them while they were in school was distinctly different—very whitewashed curriculum—that has changed and transformed over time," she said.

After reviewing the state standards data collected by CBS News, Kendi said he would like to see some changes to how history is taught in schools.

"I do think every state should have the ability to write its own history, but there's the nation history and then the state history," he said. "Certainly it should be historians who are gathered at a national level to set national history standards that should be taught to all American children."

Curious what students are expected to learn in your state? Click below to be directed to the state social studies standards. 

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico (Grades 5-8, Grades 9-12)

New York (Grades K-8, Grades 9-12)

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah (Grades K-2, Grades 3-6, Grades 7-12)

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

Anna Phillips and Milan Miller contributed