Civic Engagement Can Shape Tennessee History Education

Friday, February 24, 2023 | 09:00am

By Bob Eby, State Board of Education Member for the Third Congressional District

In January 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that Oak Ridge schools would integrate some 100 African American students from the Scarboro community to attend Robertsville Junior High and Oak Ridge High School. On Sept. 5, 1955, the Scarboro 85 were the first students to integrate a school within the Southeastern United States — two years before the Little Rock Nine and one year before the Clinton 12.

This landmark school integration event was closely monitored throughout the nation and subsequently affected the entire country’s effort to integrate public school systems. The history of this special event has been incorporated in various proclamations, including House Joint Resolution No. 135 of the 112th Tennessee General Assembly and the U.S. Congressional Record 167(189), Proceedings and Debates of the 117th Congress.

However, this history-shaping event is not taught under Tennessee’s social studies standards.

Tennessee’s academic standards outline what students should know and understand at the end of a school year. The standards for math, science, social studies and English language arts go through a public review process approximately every six years to collect recommendations on what changes Tennesseans would like to see in the standards.It was through the Tennessee State Board of Education’s ongoing public review of the social studies standards that the omission of the Scarboro 85, whom some have also referred to as the Oak Ridge 85, was identified. As the vice chair of the State Board of Education and a lifelong resident of the Oak Ridge community, I have heard from countless community members on the significance of the Scarboro 85 and the need for their inclusion in Tennessee’s social studies academic standards.

The State Board of Education launched the current social studies standards review process last year with the initial public feedback survey, collecting nearly 115,000 public comments. In the fall, the process continued with a specialized review of the current standards and public comments by an expert educator advisory team. Later, a standards development committee reviewed the revised standards to ensure alignment across all subjects and grade levels. This month, the draft standards will be made available to the public once again for feedback. Through civic engagement, the monumental history of the Scarboro 85 will be recommended for inclusion in the Tennessee social studies standards. This singular change to the social studies standards ensures Tennessee students are able to preserve the history and honor the courageous parents, teachers, and students of the Scarboro 85, as well as the Atomic Energy Commission’s influential civil rights leadership in 1955.

Public feedback is a critical component of a transparent standards review process. At the State Board of Education, we are proud of the substantive feedback we collect from educators and citizens across the state, which helps ensure the standards represent the diversity of knowledge, backgrounds and experiences of all Tennesseans. Engagement of the public in this process allows for consideration of important events and milestones that are important to local communities in the state. Traditionally, a centerpiece of social studies within our schools has been the understanding of our American and Tennessee history. Students must be aware of the past and its impact on the present and the future. I am hopeful that once again, Tennesseans will make their voices heard through this process and provide feedback on the social studies standards.

The second round of public feedback on the social studies standards opens on Feb. 27. Tennesseans can visit the State Board of Education website to access the public feedback survey and learn more about the standards review process.


Robert Eby serves on the State Board of Education as chair, following his 16 years of service on the Oak Ridge Board of Education.