February 22, 2024

Virginia Department of Education unveils proposed changes to history standards

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has proposed changes to overhaul Virginia’s history and social science learning standards.

The Virginia Department of Education released a draft Friday that revised proposed standards developed with input from educators, historians, parents, students and others put forward by the department under the administration of then-Gov. Ralph Northam.

The state Board of Education was set to vote on the proposed guidelines over the summer. But Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow recommended delays to give the five new members on the board appointed by Youngkin more time to review the roughly 400-page draft standards document.

Supporters praised the proposed guidelines, but critics called it “politically motivated meddling with academic curriculum.”

“Students will have an in-depth understanding of the good and the bad in the world, United States and Virginia history,” the Department of Education wrote in the new draft. “The standards will include an appreciation of the attributes and actions that have made America the world’s exemplar of freedom, opportunity and democratic ideals.”

This language aligns with how Youngkin spoke about history during his gubernatorial campaign when he made parental rights and oversight in education a focus, saying that students should be taught all sides of history.

Virginia public school students should be exposed to historical facts,” even when those facts are uncomfortable,” the draft adds. To do this, the draft says teachers should work with students “in age-appropriate ways that do not ascribe guilt to any population in the classroom.”

Republicans tried to pass measures earlier this year to ban “inherently divisive” teaching concepts in Virginia as part of Youngkin’s education agenda, with state lawmakers raising their concerns about what’s being taught in schools.

The first action Youngkin took after being sworn in as governor was to sign an executive order to end “the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, and to raise academic standards” in public education.

Rooting out critical race theory, an academic framework based on the idea that racism is systemic and is perpetuated in society, was made a campaign talking point by Youngkin and other Virginia Republicans.

Despite concerns from parents and Youngkin’s efforts to block it, the Virginia Department of Education said before the 2021 state elections that critical race theory is not part of the commonwealth’s K-12 curriculum.

The Virginia Education Association, a union representing more than 40,000 teachers and school support workers, said the education department’s new draft “represents the worst kind of politically motivated meddling with academic 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,” Dr. James J. Fedderman, VEA’s president, said in a statement.

Fedderman claimed that the draft appears to be taken largely from Hillsdale College’s “1776 Curriculum,” which is seen as a conservative response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project.”

The education department will provide curriculum frameworks “to further enrich and clarify the concepts set forth” in the learning standards. The draft laid a prescribed order of history and social science courses:

  • K-3: Organized into four core strands: history, geography, civics and economics. History will have an overview of ancient world history, early American history, the Greek and Roman ancient civilizations
  • 4th Grade: Virginia Studies, chronological story of the history of Virginia
  • 5th Grade: U.S. History I, America’s history from its earliest days to the Civil War
  • 6th Grade: U.S. History II, the story of the America from the Civil War – present
  • 7th Grade: Civics and Economics
  • 8th Grade: World Geography
  • 9th Grade: World History I, Prehistoric Era to 1500 CE
  • 10th Grade: World History II, 1500 CE to the Present
  • 11th Grade: Virginia and U.S. History
  • 12th Grade: Virginia and U.S. Government

The draft also lists the “foundational principles” for the proposed learning standards, including that the “Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the freedoms and framework for our constitutional republic” and “America is exceptional but not perfect.”

Supporters of the draft, including the group Fight for Schools, praised the proposed guidelines rolled out by the Youngkin administration.

“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, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “These proposed changes to history and social studies education address those challenges by providing students with an objective knowledge of historical facts and an understanding of human nature that drives both conflict and progress. Applied correctly by educators in the classroom, it will unlock key critical thinking skills that students can use to make their own analysis and decision as they mature into young leaders.”

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus expressed its strong opposition to what it called “the revisionist draft standards.”

The state Board of Education must review the state’s Department of Education’s standards of learning in all subject areas at least once every seven years and make revisions “as may be necessary,” according to Virginia law.

Local school districts are mostly responsible for determining curriculum, but the standards put forward by the department give schools guidance on the required subjects.

The Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the proposed revisions on Thursday. If the standards are approved by the board early next year, they will be implemented for the 2024-2025 school year.