Human Rights Education in the U.S. is About to Get a Boost

FeaturedHuman Rights Education in the U.S. is About to Get a Boost

Within the next two years, Massachusetts K-12 students will delve more deeply into the ins-and-outs of international human rights in their history and social studies classrooms. New readings and lesson plans will focus on international human rights treaties, cover a variety of human rights movements both inside and outside the United States, and include more comprehensive discussions on the topic of discrimination. Students will be exposed to human rights concepts from the earliest grades, with the material gradually increasing in complexity through high school.

This is thanks in part to a new initiative on the part of The Advocates for Human Rights and our partner Human Rights Educators USA (HRE USA) that seeks to improve human rights education in schools across the country. To this end, with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, we evaluated how each state’s social studies standards handle the subject of human rights. Alongside this, we gathered information on when those standards will be updated and how the public can provide input on changes, so that we could act on our findings. First up was Massachusetts. We reviewed their proposed social studies standards and submitted our feedback. Happily, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took our comments to heart. The end result is a curriculum that invests additional time and energy into teaching human rights.

These changes are about much more than facts and figures. Human rights education significantly impacts the life of each individual child. When they understand what their and others’ rights are, children can more easily identify human rights violations and take action accordingly. Even at a young age, they can begin to tackle issues like prejudice and inequality and become more aware of what’s going on around them. Research confirms this. In schools that instituted human rights programming, students developed an ability to analyze their lives through the prism of human rights, were more motivated toward action, and had a deeper appreciation of diversity and inclusion. [1] [2]

Introducing this type of material during these formative years may also increase children’s social awareness. Schools that incorporated human rights education reported that students showed an increase in tolerance, empathy, and respect. Bullying decreased and students exhibited more respectful behavior toward both their teachers and other students. Additionally, students became more engaged in their schoolwork and felt increased confidence in their academic ability. [3] [4]

Equally as important is the impact human rights education at the K-12 level can have on our country’s future. Imbuing our children with a meaningful and deep understanding of these topics is essential if we want to build a culture where human rights are respected. Imagine a world where all of the refugees at our border were treated with dignity, where everyone had access to sufficient food and housing, where racial and gender equality gaps had closed, and where the prison population was small and treated with dignity. This may sound utopian but the more we teach today’s children to see human rights as vital, the more such a world becomes a possible future, since tomorrow’s leaders will be more likely to prioritize human rights.

Unfortunately, in spite of these many benefits, our review process of existing state social studies standards revealed that most states provide little human rights education and eight states do not cover the subject at all. This means that even when teachers see the value of human rights education, there’s little they can do since they must cover state guidelines and standards before adding optional content like human rights. In Massachusetts, those very standards now give more weight to human rights education, ensuring that children will engage with this powerful topic. States with upcoming review periods include North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. We look forward to achieving similar results in these states and others as we continue to engage in this process.

A huge thank you to all of the talented volunteers who helped to make this a reality. We couldn’t accomplish this without you!

By Rachel Adler, Research, Education, and Advocacy Intern at The Advocates for Human Rights

[1] Bajaj, M. (2011) Teaching to Transform, Transforming to Teach: Exploring the Role of Teachers in Human Rights Education in India, Educational Research, 53 (2), 207-221,

[2] Sebba, J. and Robinson, C. (2010) Evaluation of UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting School Award. London: UNICEF UK.

[3] Covell, K. (2010) School Engagement and Rights-Respecting Schools, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40 (1) 39-51

[4] Tibbits, F. (2010) Impact Assessment of the Rights Education Action Programme (REAP). Final Report Submitted to Amnesty International Norway. HREA.

Connecting Nationally

flickr--friendscentralschool
flickr–friendscentralschool

By Sarah Herder

I was sitting on a plane headed to Boston in fall 2011 when I pulled out a slim packet I was to read in advance of the conference I was attending – “Building a Human Rights Education Strategy for U.S. Schools,” co-sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), the National Education Association, and the University of San Francisco’s School of Education.

Flipping through the pages as the airplane soared over America’s heartland, I knew why I’d made representing The Advocates at this conference a priority.

As I read, I realized that much of the educational policy work that we had been doing was also being done by individuals around the country. Individuals who would be at the conference and wanted to connect. I quickly devoured the pages. It was validating and exciting that they had come to many of the same conclusions about priorities and strategies for moving Human Rights Education forward in the United States.

At the conference, I found interesting, thoughtful people and engaging dialogue. I found that I had a lot to say.

“Our children are growing up in a world where globalization is changing reality in ways we don’t even understand yet. We can’t afford to have this be political. Kids have to start learning it.”

Everyone else had a lot to say, too.

“Only 8% of the public has heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it’s U.S. history! Eleanor Roosevelt was the key player in drafting and passing it.”

“Have you seen Mississippi’s standards? They’re great – some of the most progressive in the country.”

“We work with schools on bullying. It’s an intensive, schoolwide process if you want to do it right.”

“’Free and online’ is how lessons ought to be shared.”

“We are thrilled to report that they are close to passing the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training.”

The environment seemed ripe, and the energy remarkable. We voted to establish a network.

HRE USA logo-med res

Somehow, 16 months later, I now have the privilege of serving as the co-chair of this amazing collective of talented, dedicated individuals. Known as Human Rights Educators USA (HRE USA), the group defines itself as “a national network of individuals and agencies supporting Human Rights Education in formal and non-formal educational settings in the United States.”

HRE USA facilitates mutual collaboration and support to maximize members’ efforts to:

  • integrate HRE into formal and non-formal educational settings, such as schools, universities, and organizations that work with youth;
  • advocate for the inclusion of HRE in national and state education policies, standards, curricula, and pedagogy;
  • provide pre-service and in-service teacher training programs and HRE resources;
  • contribute to global research and scholarship on HRE; and
  • empower educators and learners.

As a testament to the demand it was meeting, HRE USA now has more than 200 members, including Pre-K to university-level teachers and students, administrators and policymakers, nonprofit organizations, unions, and other individuals committed “to promote human dignity, justice, and peace by cultivating an expansive, vibrant base of support for Human Rights Education (HRE) in the United States.”

The network’s values framework requires its members to operate with basic human rights principles. And we do. I have honestly gone to colleagues after conference calls and commented that the efficiency, intelligence, and kindness with which the group conducts itself continues to inspire and impress me.

In addition to my administrative role, I am also active in the Policy/Advocacy Working Group, which focuses on strategies to promote HRE-related policies and practices at all levels. This is one of several such groups that were created to allow the different strands of interest to continue simultaneously. Other working groups center around the themes of After-school/Community-based Programs, Higher Education, K-12, Online Resources, and Pre-School/Early Childhood.

The network is open for membership, and we welcome anyone who shares its mission and values. Interested individuals can simply go to our website, hreusa.net, and click on “Join Us.”

Once you are a member, you can join a working group, access our resources, develop or highlight your own initiative, and vote on leadership. Most importantly, you will find the exceptional community that I did in fall 2011 – one that will allow you to connect with others around the United States in a growing movement to promote Human Rights Education.

Sarah Herder is the Education Director at The Advocates for Human Rights.