Human 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.  
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.  
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
 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.
 Sebba, J. and Robinson, C. (2010) Evaluation of UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting School Award. London: UNICEF UK.
 Covell, K. (2010) School Engagement and Rights-Respecting Schools, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40 (1) 39-51