Virginia Has Rolled Out Its Third Version of History Standards. Critics Say Problems Remain.

The Virginia Department of Education will hold the first of six in-person hearings about the draft history and social science standards. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

By Nathaniel Cline

March 14, 2023

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

The Virginia Department of Education’s newest draft of the state’s history and social science standards aims to address objections raised this fall over content and omissions. However, some history and education groups claim there are still lingering issues that must be addressed as the agency prepares to host a series of public hearings on the latest version beginning March 13 in Williamsburg.

The newest draft of the standards requires students to analyze “The Final Solution,” the euphemism used by the Nazi regime for the mass killing of Jewish people during the Holocaust, and includes mentions of Juneteenth, the Chinese Exclusion Act and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, all of which were excluded from the last draft. 

The draft also requires high school students to study the gay rights movement, an issue omitted in the previous draft, and corrects an erroneous statement that Virginia’s capital was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg in the 18th century. The capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780. 

The in-person hearing in Williamsburg is the first of six events scheduled across the commonwealth to get public feedback on the standards, which outline learning expectations for every student in Virginia. 

By law, the state’s history and social science standards must be reviewed every seven years. The Virginia Department of Education began its most recent review under Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration in October 2020 and produced an initial draft last August based on input from thousands of Virginians, educators and organizations.

But in August, the review process took a notable turn when Jillian Balow, the former Superintendent of Public Instruction under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, asked the Board of Education to delay its review of the draft to correct what VDOE called “serious errors and omissions.” A new draft put forward in November caused a firestorm of controversy over its exclusion of influential figures and events and the separation of the standards from the curriculum framework, which details the specific knowledge and skills necessary for students to meet the state’s educational standards in various subjects. 

Critics also questioned the lack of transparency regarding who authored the changes. The Department of Education has said nine outside individuals and groups contributed to the drafting of the standards, including the conservative-leaning Civics Alliance, Fordham Institute and Hillsdale College. 

Sheila Byrd Carmichael, a consultant hired by the department, described the draft standards as “deeply flawed” after her review.

Following a tense meeting this November, the Board of Education opted to delay its review of the standards and asked the Department of Education to draft a third version. That version was accepted by the board to be put forward for public review and comment.

Balow has since resigned as superintendent of public instruction. The Youngkin administration has not announced a replacement.

Some members of the board said the latest draft shows improvements from the prior version. Suparna Dutta, a Youngkin appointee whose reappointment to the board was recently blocked by Senate Democrats, described the draft as “fantastic” during the Feb. 1 work session and encouraged her colleagues to move forward with it.

However, education and other groups have continued to raise objections to the proposed new standards. Here are some of their concerns.

Content is ‘too complex’

Critics, including the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, American Historical Association, Virginia Council for the Social Studies and National Council for the Social Studies, say the latest draft includes complicated material that goes beyond a student’s grade-level ability.

For example, the consortium points to the requirement that second grade students learn about complex conflicts such as the War of 1812 and figures such as Steve Jobs and Jonas Salk, who the group says would require considerable background knowledge to understand.

The history groups also say it’s inappropriate to require second graders to learn about the state motto, the image on the Virginia flag and its meaning. Virginia’s motto is the Latin phrase “Sic semper tyrannis” — “thus always to tyrants” — and its flag features a nude female figure standing on top of a murdered king. 

“This is far too complex for students to understand in terms of needed context and background knowledge, and it is further socially inappropriate to expose 7- and 8-year-old children to depictions of nudity and political violence and assassination,” the history groups said in a Jan. 17 response. “This standard is more appropriately placed in the secondary level.”

More mistakes and omissions

Critics say the latest draft still continues to have mistakes and omissions, including the omission of geographical themes and Indigenous Peoples’ Day from the elementary curriculum. 

“The name of Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday is not a matter of opinion; it is a presidential proclamation,” wrote the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, American Historical Association, Virginia Council for the Social Studies and National Council for the Social Studies in their Jan. 17 response to the drafts. 

The history groups said the draft should have mentioned that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replaced Columbus Day because Indigenous people view Columbus as a colonizer rather than a discoverer. 

Additionally, they say the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are incorrectly placed in another section about the Cold War. 

“[It] has nothing to do with 9/11,” the groups wrote. “These are not matters of interpretation; they are straightforward facts.

Former Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who has since been elected to Congress, also criticized the ongoing omission from the draft standards of discussions of the history or modern-day culture of the Latino community and Asian American and Pacific Islanders. 

Coursework sequencing

Critics say the proposed course sequencing — the order in which students will learn specific coursework under the standards — will cause significant disruptions. The latest draft proposes to move selected high school coursework to the middle school level, and certain middle school coursework to the elementary level. 

The Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, American Historical Association, Virginia Council for the Social Studies and National Council for the Social Studies claim the changes would “negatively” impact educators, schools and students already in the middle of a particular course sequence. 

“Making these changes without allowing time for the creation of high-quality, enriching, and age-appropriate supporting resources will disrupt student learning and negatively affect social studies education,” the groups wrote in January. “Without sufficient evidence, research, and data that the re-sequencing of these courses improves student learning, we cannot support the order prescribed in the January draft standards.”

Board member Alan ​​Seibert, a Youngkin appointee, also expressed concern about how the current draft language does not provide enough flexibility for school divisions at the Feb. 1 work session. The January draft states that schools are “strongly encouraged” to adopt its recommended history and social science course sequence. 

“Maybe we’ve been kind of prescriptive on the grade levels here, because people thought we weren’t being prescriptive enough, but I just don’t want to undo long-term, local-built approaches to meaning and content,” Seibert said.  

Christonya Brown, the Department of Education’s history and social science education coordinator, recommended during a Feb. 1 work session that the board consider adjusting the draft language to make it clearer to school divisions that they can keep their current course sequences in place.

Draft relies on high rate of memorization

Last month, speakers at the board’s public hearing expressed displeasure with the high rate of memorization they said the latest standards will require.

According to the history groups, a total of 187 figures are featured in the draft, and fourth grade students would also be required to identify the spouses of the eight U.S. presidents from Virginia.

The history groups said this method is not “viable,” and the amount of content knowledge is “unrealistic unsustainable, and poorly designed, presenting standards that teach students what to think, not how to think.”

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