Teachers, school officials, historians and advocacy groups are venting their anger this week after a new draft of Virginia’s social studies standards appears to have largely scrapped a version of the draft that experts have been working on for months.
“I don’t see this as a rewrite, I see this as a new draft,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander of Norfolk State University, history professor and co-chair of the Virginia Commission on African American History Education. Newby-Alexander helped develop the original 2022 standards, which were released this summer.
“There are many things that I find very problematic and concerning in this new iteration,” said Newby-Alexander. “Primarily because it is not a revised draft, but a new draft, it should go through the same process as the other one put to the board.
The standards were due for review this year under Virginia law, which requires standards for each subject to be reviewed at least once every seven years. The process began almost two years ago, and the first draft – just over 400 pages – was ready for review this summer.
But the board held back from reviewing the draft in August at the request of Public Education Superintendent Jillian Balow, who wanted to address some “omissions and typos,” according to an Education Department spokesman. Then, in October, Balow told the board she was still awaiting input from various groups, including representatives from American University, Hillsdale College and the University of Virginia.
A new 53-page draft of the standards was released last Friday, ahead of this week’s meeting of the State Board of Education.
Sookyung Oh is director of the Hamkae Center, a group focused on organizing Asian Americans to achieve racial, economic, and social justice. Oh said the delays in reviewing the standards were seen as an opportunity to correct omissions and typos and give new members time – Gov. Glenn Youngkin appointed five new faces to the nine-member board in September – to review the draft. But she said the draft shows Balow is convening her own experts to “completely rewrite the proposed standards.”
“She gave up thousands of hours of work from hundreds of qualified professionals here in Virginia so she could work with groups outside of Virginia, like Michigan-based Hillsdale College,” Oh said.
James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, said the draft was “the worst kind of politically motivated interference in the academic curriculum.”
Fedderman said the draft appears to have been borrowed largely from Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum, which was criticized by historians for inaccuracies and bias when it was adopted in other states.
“The Standards are riddled with overt political bias, antiquated language used to describe enslaved people and Native Americans, highly subjective framing of American moralism and conservative ideals (and) coded racist overtures throughout…” Fedderman said.
He also expressed concern that the standards restrict “teacher-created curricula” that are allowed in other disciplines.
Ian Prior, founder of advocacy group Fight for Schools said: “History is a function of human nature, of conflict and progress. It can be inspirational, it can be dark, and it can be challenging to teach and learn. These proposed changes in history and social studies instruction address these challenges by providing students with an objective knowledge of historical facts and an understanding of human nature that fuels both conflict and progress.
“When used correctly by educators in the classroom, it will unlock important critical thinking skills that students can use to make their own analysis and decisions as they mature into young leaders.”
Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence said while acknowledging that some improvements were introduced in the new draft, he was concerned about the lack of transparency of the process.
“In Virginia, we are accustomed to a transparent process of policy making and governance, and to working collaboratively with the public and the Commonwealth’s professional educators,” Spence said. “And this state superintendent seems intent on making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Spence also questions some of the sequencing and omissions in the new draft.
He said some of the sequence changes could have a significant impact on school departments related to teacher education and curriculum support services.
Spence’s substantive concerns include the removal of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Juneteenth, and Veterans Day from the first grade curriculum. Nor does he understand the “historical framework” of Native Americans as the nation’s “first immigrants.”
Many other groups, including the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, have expressed similar concerns about substantive changes. Other changes they noted include an emphasis on Western civilizations, the removal of contributions from the Sikh and Asian-American Pacific Islander communities, and the removal of many changes from the African-American History Education Commission.
Education Department officials say the new draft eliminates redundancies and includes only standards. Curriculum Frameworks—which provide suggested instructional resources, student activities, assessment materials, and pacing—are released separately after the Board approves the standards.
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In a presentation about the new draft, officials describe some of the changes from the summer version:
- A more thorough treatment of slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement at all grade levels
- A more thorough introduction to the Constitution and the branches of government in the first grades
- The presentation of content in unbiased and factual language
- Revising “vague competency-based standards that are subject to multiple interpretations by teachers”
- The creation of a “staircase” of standards that strengthen students’ understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship
The presentation also states that recommended changes to the sequencing “encourage consistency in the content taught at each grade level across the Commonwealth”.
According to a timeline presented by the Department of Education, the standards will undergo an initial review at Thursday’s meeting, followed by public meetings in November and December. The department did not specify who would attend the meetings or how people would be selected. A spokesman said further details of the meetings would be announced at a later date.
The Hamkae Center, along with other groups, are planning a Thursday morning rally. The “Rally for Our Voices, Our Education” will take place outside the James Monroe Building in Richmond at 11:30 am – participants will call on the Education Committee to reject the draft standards.
Public hearings are scheduled for early January, and final review and adoption is expected in February.
Nour Habib, firstname.lastname@example.org