While enlisting student input as the Virginia Department of Education began the process of updating its history standards, a light bulb went off for Christonya Brown, the state education department’s History and Social Science coordinator.
Students stressed that while they understood that topics such as the Civil War will appear in any U.S. history course they take, the subject material didn’t vary much by grade level. Brown came to the realization that the students wanted an expanded study of the same topics. She took this realization into her committee meetings when drafting new history standards.
According to state law, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education are required to review Standards of Learning subject areas at least once every seven years. First published in 1995, the History and Social Science Standards of Learning were reviewed in 2001, 2008, and 2015.
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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow has urged the Board of Education to allow more time before its first thorough review of the proposed standards. It now appears the board might not receive a final review of the standards from the Department of Education until January.
Some proposed changes in the newly drafted History and Social Sciences Standards of Learning include an expansion on the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War for high school level U.S. History classes; the introduction of Sikhism as a major world religion in high school world history and geography classes and expanding the focus of the development of the United States Constitution for middle school U.S. History classes.
“What we are advocating for this discipline is that we approach history and social science differently,” Brown said during a presentation of the draft standards during Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting.
“Memorization is no longer going to be enough. We have to help students understand the content rather than [them] memorizing facts, help them connect that content.”
Revisions to the current history standards began during then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. The revision process has garnered over 5,000 public comments regarding the standards.
When crafting the roughly 400-page draft, the Virginia Department of Education worked with several committees made up of historians, students, teachers, school administrators, professors, museums and more.
Ahead of the meeting, Balow recommended that the Board of Education not receive a first detailed review of the updated standards on Wednesday.
Balow rather recommended “that the draft standards undergo further development and input from Virginians and national experts prior to acceptance for first review by the Board.”
“Our shared goal is to have best in class History and Social Science standards,” according to the superintendent’s recommendation in a meeting agenda document.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Balow expanded upon her reasoning for wanting to delay the first formal review of the standards. She said one reason is to allow for Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s five newly appointed board members to have additional time to review all the relevant documents and materials. The other reason is to fix corrections and errors in the draft concerning typos, organization and some content issues, Balow said.
Balow wants to provide a document to the public that is as close to the final draft as possible. Balow requested an additional month to make corrections.
The new and old board members were split Wednesday as to whether or not to delay the final review of the standards. The new members were in agreement with Balow.
Some board members briefly made comments regarding the draft’s content, however a more robust discussion is anticipated at the board’s September meeting.
A few speakers during the Board of Education’s public comment period Wednesday urged the board to sign off on the draft standards.
Sara Ward, a Chesterfield County resident, encouraged the board to move forward in the standards review process as soon as possible.
“Why the delay of this particular standard? The timeline process for revising standards has been in place since George Allen was governor in 1995. Beginning this process in early 2021, the Department of Education has clearly done due diligence to ensure revisions are made in a comprehensive and timely manner,” Ward said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s discussion on potentially delaying approval of the standards, an agenda memo from the education department stated the standards were slated to come before the Board of Education for final review at the board’s Nov. 17 meeting.
Board President Daniel Gecker said he doesn’t like to see timelines slip.
The next steps regarding the history standards include a minimum of eight community roundtable sessions for parents, businesses, educators, and the community at large and a series of public hearings.
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a high school history and government teacher, said in a phone interview Wednesday, “a lot of people are worried about a two-year restart [process on the standards] and that the [Glenn] Youngkin administration will politicize our history curriculum.”
In his first executive order signed Jan. 15, the day he was inaugurated, Youngkin called for “ending the use of inherently divisive concepts” in Virginia’s K-12 public education.
Overall, VanValkenburg said, the standards are “a good product” but there’s room for additional revisions.
“There is no reason why we can’t work together and make the tweaks,” VanValkenburg said. “Let’s spend the next six months making it better and not breaking it up and having a political food fight.”
Youngkin made a surprise visit to Wednesday’s board meeting where he talked about a variety of topics including “a historic investment in lab schools,” the size of the state’s new education budget, teacher raises and school facilities. The state budget includes $100 million in seed money for nontraditional lab schools.
Youngkin also touched upon the history standards before the board.
“We talk a lot about history. And I want to be very clear, I want us to teach all of our history in Virginia. The good and the bad,” Youngkin said Wednesday. “This is the moment for us to take a really serious look at how we are teaching this most important topic.”
Earlier this week Youngkin criticized the standards in an interview with ABC7 News, WJLA, the local ABC affiliate in Washington.
Due to a copy and paste error, an earlier draft of the proposed standards omitted identifying George Washington as the “Father of our Country,” and James Madison as the “Father of Constitution.”
“I disagree with the removing of the nomenclature of George Washington as the father of our country, because of course he was and, of course, James Madison as the father of our Constitution,” Youngkin told the TV station.
“So all these standards still need significant work. And we’re going to reinforce as part of our curriculum, the role of our founding fathers in our country, we’re not going to erode it.”
The state education department said the Aug. 4 draft version corrected the error.
Wednesday’s meeting also marked the first gathering with the newly appointed board members.
Youngkin appointed five individuals to the State Board of Education in July. The appointees solidified the new Republican governor’s majority on the state board, as the remaining four members were appointed by Northam.
All of the new members were present in person during Wednesday’s meeting. The appointees are: Grace Turner Creasey, executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education; Suparna Dutta, co-founder of the Coalition for TJ (Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology); William D. Hansen, president and CEO of Building Hope, “the nonprofit leader in charter school facilities”; Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder and partner of Bellwether Education Partners, a research nonprofit rooted in improving learning outcomes for marginalized students; and H. Alan Seibert, the constituent services and government relations officer for Roanoke City Public Schools.
Three holdover members of the board participated via Zoom, while Gecker was in person.
The new appointees fill three vacancies and the spots of two members whose terms expired at the close of the most recent fiscal year.