The Virginia Board of Education proposed revisions to the commonwealth’s history and social science learning standards late Friday evening in a move that would significantly alter the guidelines recommended by the state Education Department and prompted a blistering response from critics who described it as political meddling.
The board had been scheduled to vote on the recommended guidelines in August but it held off to give its five new members – appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R ) – more time to review the standards, and to allow for additional public comment. The original guidelines were developed over months in consultation with museums, historians, professors, political scientists, geographers, economists, teachers, parents and students.
In the introduction to its new draft the boards writes that the aim of the standards overhaul is “to restore excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history.”
“The standards will recognize the world impact of America’s quest for a ‘more perfect Union’ and the optimism, ideals and imagery captured by Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ speech,” the document continues. “Students will know our nation’s exceptional strengths, including individual innovation, moral character, ingenuity and adventure, while learning from terrible periods and actions in direct conflict with these ideals.”
In a fact sheet sent to state legislators obtained by The Washington Post, the board said the changes were made because the “August 2022 draft standards were unnecessarily difficult for educators to understand and implement; they were also inaccessible for parents and families.” It said the new proposed standards would revise “repetitive and vague skills-based standards, which teachers could interpret in infinitely various ways, thus not resulting in ‘a shared knowledge as Virginians and as U.S. citizens.’ ”
But critics said the new standards are politically motivated and interfere with the ability of teachers to do their jobs and deliver impartial academic instruction and curriculum.
“The standards are full of overt political bias, outdated language to describe enslaved people and American Indians, highly subjective framing of American moralism and conservative ideals, coded racist overtures throughout, requirements for teachers to present histories of discrimination and racism as ‘balanced’ ‘without personal or political bias,’ and restrictions on allowance of ‘teacher-created curriculum,’ which is allowed in all other subject areas,” James J. Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, a union representing over 40,000 education workers in the commonwealth, wrote in a statement.
By law Virginia is required to reassess and update its History and Social Science Standards of Learning, known as SOLs, every seven years. The standards – last updated in 2015 – provide general guidance on what subjects and areas must be taught, but the specifics of curriculums are mostly determined by individual school districts.
State Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax) said she was disappointed the new standards didn’t address the contributions of the large and varied communities from Central and South America and Asia who are a significant part of Virginia’s population. She also said it was important for students to learn about history even if it was difficult and sometimes uncomfortable.
“Especially in the world right now with social media really sectioning people off so that they’re not listening to a broader array of information, we need to make sure that in schools students have a safe opportunity to engage with some of these challenging concepts so that they are fully informed,” she said.
Boysko also criticized the new standards for not emphasizing the responsibility students have as citizens to participate fully in society.
“What I want to see is that all students understand that they can contribute to making the world a better place as opposed to just memorizing facts and dates about people who have contributed to history,” she said.
Others, though, supported the changes proposed by the board.
“History is a function of human nature, conflict, and progress. It can be inspiring, it can be dark, and it can be challenging to teach and learn,” Ian Prior, a Loudoun County parent, former Trump administration official and founder of the education advocacy group Fight For Schools, wrote in a statement. “. . . Applied correctly by educators in the classroom, [the proposed changes] will unlock key critical thinking skills that students can use to make their own analysis and decision as they mature into young leaders.”
Education was a key issue in last year’s governor’s race, and Youngkin campaigned on pledges to put parents in charge of learning. During his first week in office, Youngkin, who is often mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024, issued an executive order forbidding the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” an academic framework that examines how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism in the United States.
“This effort to revive social studies content is the latest in a series of efforts by the governor to shape education along the lines of his preferences,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “The governor may be walking into a fight with educators, but that can’t possibly be a surprise to him at this point.”
The board is expected to vote on the new standards early next year. If approved, the standards would begin being taught in the 2024-2025 school year.
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The Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.
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