Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

“I have told people who thought that this was all an attempt to whitewash, ‘No, no, no, calm down. We’re really just trying to get it right.’ I no longer have that confidence. I no longer can say that to those folks.” — Anne Holton, Virginia Board of Education member

History was a hot topic at the Virginia Board of Education meeting held on Thursday, Nov. 17. 

Here’s what happened: approximately two years ago, the Board under Gov. Ralph Northam began a review and revision process of the commonwealth’s History and Social Science Standards of Learning (SOL). The document—released in August 2022—provided a comprehensive overview of standards that broadly aligned with curriculum already in the classroom for each grade level, with modifications when deemed appropriate.

Experts including educators, historians, professors, museums, organizations, parents, teachers, and Virginia Department of Education staff each had a hand in forming the 402-page document, which included the now-federally recognized holiday, Juneteenth.

The Board under Gov. Glenn Youngkin—comprised of only a handful of the same members and several different members than under Northam—withdrew the standards proposal. After scrapping the 402-page document in August, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and her team created a 53-page redraft.

The redraft—which we’ll call the November document—had several issues, some of which included:

  • It was only 13% of the length of the more comprehensive August document
  • When published on Nov. 10, it omitted both Juneteenth and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • When published on Nov. 10, there was no mention of Martin Luther King, Jr. in elementary school 
  • Ancient societies including China, Mali, and Egypt were taken out of third grade learning in exchange for ancient Greece and Rome 
  • Referring to Native Americans as “America’s first immigrants,” despite being indigenous
  • Reducing content on contributions from the Sikh and the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community
  • Not going through the same system of checks and balances as the two-year August document

A little after 11 a.m. on Nov. 17, Dogwood received an email from a spokesperson in the communications department at the Virginia Department of Education. The individual noted that the November draft had since corrected an “inadvertent omission of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Junteenth (sic) from elementary SOLs.” 

We asked the spokesperson when the information was updated on the draft—and while we received a reply on a different topic we didn’t inquire about, our question went unanswered. Noting, the online draft as of 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 18 still contained the update date of Nov. 10 and no mention of adjustments beyond that even though they are present. 

Discussing the Drafts

Following multiple hours of public comment on the proposed standards, potential COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students, and more, the Board went into a discussion.

For over 12 minutes, Board member Anne Holton, appointed under Northam, expressed her concerns with the proposed standards while appearing to hold back tears at some points. 

“[The November document] says Virginia’s History and Social Science Standards aim to restore excellence, curiosity, and excitement, etc. etc. I was taught, like, I had teachers in the Virginia public schools who changed my life teaching me history and social studies. I had, my children had, history and government teachers who changed their lives teaching history in the Virginia public schools,” Holton said. “The work that I have seen go into this [August] document by hundreds of historians, educators, [Department of Education] staff, etc. over the last two years, it is—I’m sure it’s absolutely, I hope and pray that it’s not intentional—but that’s disrespectful to them to say that we need to restore excellence. We have excellence, and we’re looking to make it better.”

Holton noted that both publicly and privately, she defended the administration’s handling of the matter. However, her opinions changed over time.

“I have told people who thought that this was all an attempt to whitewash, ‘No, no, no, calm down. We’re really just trying to get it right,’” Holton said. “I no longer have that confidence. I no longer can say that to those folks.”

While Martin Luther King, Jr. Day made it back onto the holiday list as of Nov. 17, Holton noted that the influential Civil Rights leader was still missing from the nation’s leaders list—along with Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and Cesar Chavez. Pocahontas was also not present in the November document, nor was the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama. 

In comparison, there were six mentions of President Ronald Reagan. Holton noted that Reagan made “very, very significant” contributions and deserved inclusion, but comparing the lack of others mentioned concluded, “I don’t know how you can’t call it whitewashing.”

“No doubt we’ve made progress, but we’ve got a long way to go from removing the consequences of the original sin of racism in this country,” Holton said. “And this document does not advance that goal.”

Also to her point, Holton noted the changes to third grade learning, where ancient societies including China, Mali, and Egypt were taken out of the standards—which previously explored a condensed world history—in exchange for just ancient Greece and Rome.

“There is no discussion of Africa or Asia in the list of continents that I learned in third grade, fourth grade. In my coming up, you learn the continents, right? The seven continents and the five oceans, it’s gone,” Holton said. “I’m sure that much of that wasn’t intentional, but it’s just sloppy.”

By not starting with the template of the 2015 standards, the November document could significantly disrupt classroom instruction. Holton warned that the changes could require years of developing new curriculum and reteaching elementary school teachers.

Two Different Documents

In addition to the standards redraft, Balow’s team also put together a document on history frameworks. Holton noted discrepancies between the November standards and frameworks. 

“They don’t match up,” Holton said. “You know, in grade 3.1, in the frameworks we’re talking about the Constitution, and in the standards we’re talking about European rivers. I mean, they…just, they don’t work together.” 

Board Vice President Dr. Tammy Mann, appointed under Northam, also noted issues with two documents in play.

“The framework talks about ‘how,’ but the content is ‘what.’ And if there are not references in the ‘what’ of it, the choice to sort of determine the ‘how’ is a choice,” Mann said. “It’s not exactly equating it with ‘these are important things to know.’ So that’s a worry because we trust and hope that the importance of some of the things that contextualize the ‘what’ are important for critical thinking and all of the other skills we’ve talked about. So I do think we have to be careful in sort of saying it’s all there because there will be different weights placed on ‘what’ you need to know versus ‘how’ you help elevate that understanding.”

Decision Delayed

Discussing the documents and their discrepancies, Board President Daniel Gecker pointed out that while the August document had approximately two years of work behind it, the November document on the table awaiting Board approval to move on to the next step had only been in front of the members for a matter of days. 

“One of my goals as a board member and as president of this Board has been to elevate the stature of this Board to one that thinks seriously about policy,” Gecker said. “And I don’t think that any of us can say with a straight face that we’ve had enough time to go through, you know, in the six days that we’ve had it, the documents provided by the Department to say that we are in fact a body that studies things.”

Gecker expressed that he doubted the members had time to adequately absorb and analyze the information, and further noted that he felt it would be a breach of faith to the public to move forward with the November document as presented.

“It is heartbreaking to me to see a Board that has been steeped in study; research-based, evidence-based policy, come down to putting out a document as if it’s ours on five days’ review with absolutely no idea how we got there. And frankly, no idea what’s changed from the original document that was ours to this one,” Gecker said. 

Holton also expressed concerns about the rapidity of the process in her remarks.

“The speed with which this matter has been pressed has been disrespectful to the Board and the public—giving us Friday afternoon documents, giving us corrections on Monday and corrections on Tuesday, and more documents submitted to us in the middle of the day today [Thursday],” Holton said. “It’s indefensible.”

Ultimately, the Board voted unanimously to delay the first review of the proposed 2022 History and Social Science Standards of Learning. They plan to hold a special meeting in the New Year for that purpose. 

The Board also directed Balow to:

  • Revise the November draft standards to include content from the draft standards presented to the board in August
  • Provide the Board with a crosswalk document before the special meeting comparing the August, November, and upcoming drafts
  • Correct all factual errors and omissions identified in both the August and November drafts