Revised Virginia History Standards Move Forward Despite Public Concerns About Accuracy and Equity

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

By Amie Knowles

February 20, 2023

The newest draft of Virginia’s History and Social Science Standards of Learning continues to generate controversy, omits Indigenous Peoples Day while including Columbus Day, and is considerably smaller in size and less comprehensive than the August draft.

A 5-3 vote moved the highly contested Virginia History and Social Science Standards of Learning forward during the February Virginia Board of Education meeting. The move happened after four hours of public comment, with most individuals directing their remarks against the standards.

Teachers, parents, grandparents, and activists brought forth concerns about the newest revision of the standards, with many stating their preference for the first version released in August.

Dr. James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, called the January version “a disservice to our students and educators.” 

“It falls short in sequencing, rigor, accuracy, pedagogy, nonpartisanship, and in the process used to create it. And so VEA members [are] calling you to reject it. Instead, we believe you should adopt the collaborative standards developed by the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium,” Fedderman said. “The [Glenn] Youngkin administration rejected the first draft of the standards last year, claiming that there were missing voices in creating it. Today it appears that these voices were those of the right wing and partisan think tanks and others with no particular expertise in Virginia history. But with political views more to the administration’s liking, the result in the current draft—which is watered down—fails to sufficiently encourage critical thinking, relies on too much rote memorization, and features factual inaccuracies.” 

So far, the Board of Education has considered three different versions of the proposed standards.

The 402-page August 2022 document involved collaboration among a multitude of experts including educators, historians, professors, museums, organizations, parents, teachers, and Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) staff. 

A November 2022 draft produced a 53-page document with multiple errors, omissions, and significant grade level curriculum changes. 

The newest draft—the 68-page January 2023 version— includes controversial changes like omitting Indigenous Peoples Day while including Columbus Day and contains an introduction striving to “restore excellence, curiosity, and excitement around teaching and learning history.”

Sam Futrell, president of the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, expressed that there’s no need to “restore excellence, curiosity, and excitement.” 

“‘Restore.’ That word was chosen carefully. That word was chosen so that this draft would begin with an indictment of history instruction in the commonwealth, as if educators in Virginia are not already fostering excellence, curiosity, and excitement around teaching and learning history,” Futrell said. “As if we need to be reprimanded. As if we have not taught, cared for, and learned with our students through a pandemic, a phone tip line, threats to our safety, and questions about our character.”

And that’s just one of the many salient issues citizens of the commonwealth raised about the revised curriculum standards.

Delving Into Diversity

Several individuals weighing in on the possible curriculum changes raised concerns over the apparent lack of content focusing on races, ethnicities, and cultures beyond white Europeans included in the proposed standards. 

Zowee Aquino, policy and communications team lead at the Hamkae Center, addressed the board with concerns that previous communications from the grassroots, community-based nonprofit that organizes Asian Americans in Virginia for social, racial, and economic justice weren’t heeded. 

“In August 2022, Hamkae Center first approached you to ensure Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Virginia communities are comprehensively included in the history SOL revisions. Echoing the sentiments of my colleagues, this January draft is not a viable foundation for the acknowledgement and understanding that AAPI communities and, frankly, any community in our state deserve,” Aquino said. “How can AAPI leaders, impacts, and stories be incorporated into standards that don’t even fundamentally acknowledge our communities as participants in American history?”

Aquino also noted that the Virginia AAPI Caucus released a public statement “in the middle of an extremely hectic legislative session” to clarify that they were not consulted on the January revisions. The VDOE had erroneously named the caucus as a group it had consulted in developing the new standards.

The proposed standards also omit Indigenous Peoples Day while including Columbus Day, and they fail to mention Palestine, as some individuals pointed out to the board during public comment.

Cutting Contributions

Also taking issue with the proposed standards, Monica Hutchinson noted the lack of African American contributions included in the current draft.

“Where is teaching how Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and the first Black woman to seek the nomination for president from one of the two major political parties? Or what about Fannie Lou Hamer, a powerful organizer, activist, and civil rights leader?” Hutchinson said. “I see President [Barack] Obama and Justice Thurgood Marshall included, but where are Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman US Senator, or Vice President Kamala Harris or Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman elected to the Supreme Court? But you made sure to include the Dobbs decision.”

Hutchinson continued, listing noteworthy individuals who weren’t included in the commonwealth’s history standards. 

“If you’re uncomfortable learning about the truth, I wish for just one day you could walk in my shoes and live in my truth,” Hutchinson said. “Allowing our children to learn all of our history, including our uncomfortable history, while engaging in critical thinking and discussions will help our children be better than we ever could be.”

A Need for Improved Standards

Makya Little also took the stand, recalling a personal experience with her daughter in 2019 when reviewing a fourth grade study guide. 

“I asked her the question from her study guide, ‘What was the status of the early Africans?’ When she responded with the answer ‘unknown,’ without looking back at the paper, I told her that wasn’t right,” Little said. “So she decided to expand on her answer by saying they were either slaves or servants.”

As a graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Little recalled African American Studies as a required first-year course. She knew differently than her daughter claimed.

“I was disappointed that she would give such an answer, being a smart little girl, until I looked back at the study guide and saw that was exactly the answer that was on the paper: ‘unknown period; they were either slaves or servants,’” Little said.

The incorrect information set Little on a course to correct the narrative for students across the commonwealth, which eventually led to her becoming a member of the Virginia Commission on African-American History Education.

“There seems to be erroneous messaging surrounding the inclusive set of standards and curriculum presented to you for approval last year, that somehow the voices of parents and certain groups were left out,” Little said. “Not only is that completely false, when you bypassed the August 2022 set of standards and curriculum, what you said to parents who look like me is that our voices don’t count and that the educational experiences of our children aren’t as important as those of other children. That when you say you want to ensure parents have rights, you’re not talking about parents who look like me.”

Time’s Ticking

Another concern raised during public comment centered around classroom instructional time.

Beau Dickenson, the K-12 social studies supervisor for Rockingham County, noted that the January draft included 132 additional standards–but no extra time to teach them.

“This is simply unsustainable and unviable. I don’t know how a teacher will do this, honestly,” Dickenson said. “This does not even include snow days, assemblies, field trips, guest speakers, projects, or even days for tests and assessments. This is simply not viable.”

Holding a decade of teaching experience, Dickenson expressed concern that the curriculum proposed couldn’t fit into a normal school year schedule. 

“This amount of content knowledge is unrealistic, unsustainable, and just poorly designed,” Dickenson said. “This outdated approach of simply memorizing content knowledge, that teaches students what to think and not how to think.”

Linda Deans, a retired educator who taught in Virginia and North Carolina for approximately 40 years, also commented on the amount of information students would have to learn under the newest set of proposed standards. 

Deans alleged that the proposed standards required rote memory, a term expressing memorization of facts lacking reference to the meaning, emotions, or context of the material. The former standards, she claimed, required students to participate in critical thinking.

“I participated with the group that came up with those collaborative social studies standards way back when, and I believe that those standards are more comprehensive than those that you have now,” Deans said. “So I say ‘no’ to the January standards, and I say ‘yes’ to those collaborative ones that had deans of education, teachers, parents, pastors, all involved, and over an 18-month period of collaboration, to come up with those standards.”

Moving Forward

Following public comment, the board discussed the history standards for approximately one hour. Ultimately, via a divided vote, the standards moved forward. 

The three board members who voted against accepting the January version of the proposed standards were appointees of former Democratic Governors Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe. They included President Daniel Gecker, Vice President Tammy Mann, and board member Anne Holton. 

All board members appointed by Youngkin, a Republican, voted to accept the standards for first review. 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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