RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Despite hours of harsh feedback on Thursday, the state Board of Education decided to move forward with a second rewrite of K-12 history standards from Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
The board voted 5-3 to accept the draft as the base document for a series of six public feedback hearings, which will be held across the state throughout the month of March, before a final document is approved. The standards, which are edited every seven years under state law, will set the bar for what should be taught in schools at each grade level as early as the 2024-2025 school year.
Board members conceded that the draft still needs work but they were eager to move forward with the process, which has been stalled for nearly six months. State Superintendent Jillian Balow requested a delay in August after being presented with an alternate set of standards, which were developed with extensive input over more than two years under former Governor Ralph Northam’s administration.
There was a sense of deja vu during more than four hours of public comment on Thursday, as dozens of speakers condemned the draft released last month and echoed many of the same concerns raised with a previous version that the Youngkin administration unveiled in November of last year.
“The January draft standards are an insult to educators and they’re not viable for students,” said Samantha Futrell, president of the Virginia Council for Social Studies.
Critics urged the board to adopt an alternate draft collaboratively authored by six organizations, including the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium (VSSLC), the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (VASCD), the American Historical Association (AHA), the Virginia Council for the Social Studies (VCSS), the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and the Virginia Geographic Alliance (VGA). That request was rejected by the board, also on a vote of 5-3.
Several speakers said the process under the Youngkin administration was politicized by input from right-wing groups and lacked transparency. They said the latest draft was developed without adequate input from historians and educators.
Daniel Gecker, the board’s president, said the controversy has negatively impacted public perception.
“We are a board that is supposed to be independent of the executives and I would hope that, as this board moves on, that independent role becomes more pronounced than it is today. I do think we have had too much process interference in what was supposed to be the board’s work and I think that has hurt us,” Gecker said.
Critics say the January draft is excessively complex and includes topics that are not developmentally appropriate for certain grade levels. They say the draft adds too much new content that teachers cannot realistically cover in the instructional time allotted and it emphasizes memorization over critical thinking.
“There will be no deeper learning in our classrooms and the quality of instruction our children deserve will decline,” said Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Executive Director Chris Jones.
Speakers said the new draft also contains various errors and omissions.
For example, the coalition of social studies groups said several courses begin with the Age of European Exploration, rather than the long history of Indigenous peoples, and the standards removed a reference to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which was previously included alongside Columbus Day.
Historians said standards dealing with labor unions were scrapped and the term “fascism” was removed from the section on World War II. They said the standards incorrectly placed the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the section on the Cold War.
Critics continue to believe that the standards downplay the role of various marginalized groups in history.
“We deserve better. I’m asking you, in Black History Month, to do the right thing,” said Michelle Thomas, president of the NAACP Loudoun Branch.
More than 80 people signed up to testify during the board’s public comment period on Thursday and the vast majority spoke about the history standards. Only one person, Youngkin’s Chief Diversity Officer Martin Brown, spoke in support.
Superintendent Balow accused some speakers of misrepresenting the standards.
“It was clear people hadn’t read or thoroughly read the standards,” Balow said. “For example, we have expanded the history of Indigenous people, especially east of the Mississippi. We have expanded African American history, African American studies. We have expanded opportunities for students to learn about Asian American and Pacific Islander events.”
Asked if she plans to more actively engage the groups that authored the alternative draft, Balow said, “They’ve been engaged from the beginning to today and they will continue to be engaged. The January draft is representative of much of the work that has taken place over the last two years and it’s a synthesis, it’s an evolution of the standards.”