The NCSL Blog


By Benjamin Olneck-Brown

Increased efforts to examine state standards promoting racial equity, oppose implicit bias, and encourage curricula that recognize the contributions of minority groups and the complex history and impact of racism in the United States are circulating in the nation’s legislatures.

Many states already imbed racial justice issues or ethnic studies into their social studies standards. For example:

  • Nevada requires its Council to Establish Academic Standards to establish standards of “content and performance for ethnic and diversity studies for pupils enrolled in high school.”
  • California requires its Instructional Quality Commission to develop a model ethnic studies curriculum for use in public high schools.
  • Washington recently required its Superintendent of Public Instruction to make materials in ethnic studies available for use in schools teaching Kindergarten through 12th Grade. 
  • Indiana requires high schools to offer a one-semester elective course for “the study of ethnic and racial groups.”
  • Nebraska requires civics courses in all grades to “include and adequately stress contributions of all ethnic groups to (a) the development and growth of America into a great nation, (b) art, music, education, medicine, literature, science, politics, and government, and (c) the military in all of this nation's wars.”
  • Virginia recently created a Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee, tasked with providing standards that include “[1]. Slavery, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of historical dehumanizing injustice and discrimination; [2]. The ignored and untold history of the indigenous people of Virginia and North America; and [3]. The untold histories of other groups historically underrepresented in American and world history.” The committee will also provide recommendations on anti-bias instruction for students and professional development for educators.

Pending legislation to update standards includes:

  • Massachusetts House Bill 581 - Requires including the events of Black History in instruction at schools and institutions of higher education, including the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, and the vestiges of slavery in this country.
  • Illinois House Bill 4954 - Amends the School Code; adds certain commemorative holidays; provides that the teaching of the history of the United States and Black History shall include the study of the American civil rights renaissance and the study of pre-enslavement history (pending).

Some states require teaching historical events that connect to issues of bias and discrimination today. For example, at least 12 states require teaching the Holocaust in K-12 schools, and state standards often require this instruction be used as a tool to teach students about enduring issues of discrimination worldwide.

A report issued by the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center found curriculum on the history of slavery in the U.S. varies substantially from state to state, district to district, and classroom to classroom. The Center issues model standards for anti-bias and diversity education in all grades and a model framework for teaching the history of American slavery and its legacy today.

Some states and districts incorporate discussions of equity, bias, and discrimination into their teaching of civics. All but nine states have a civics requirement, and at least eight states require meaningful civics assessment. The CivXNow coalition, a cross-partisan civic education advocacy group with which NCSL partners, offers a policy menu for legislators focusing on meaningful civic education, which can encourage civic participation across racial and ethnic lines and reduce disparities in civic knowledge and participation. NCSL recently hosted a virtual meeting in which participants discussed the link between civic education and racial justice.

NCSL continues to track legislation related to racial justice and other education issues, and publishes timely information on pressing questions for state legislators on our education page.

Benjamin Olneck-Brown is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

Email Benjamin.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.