The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia is changing the way it teaches history, social studies. Here’s how.

Students at Forestdale Elementary School in Springfield, Va., in August. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
18 min

Over the weekend, the Virginia Department of Education released new standards of learning that, if approved next year, will radically reshape what and how students in the state learn in history and social studies lessons.

The revision of the standards of learning, known as SOLs, is typically a little-noticed procedure that must take place every seven years by law. But this year’s iteration has become controversial, drawing an unusual political limelight, after the intervention this summer of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) appointees on the Board of Education.

Youngkin’s five appointees assumed a majority on the nine-member board this year. Under their guidance, one of the board’s first major actions was to reject a draft version of the SOLs that had been in the works for months: a more than 400-page document produced in consultation with museums, historians, professors, political scientists, economists, geographers, teachers, parents and students.

Read the old, 400-page version of the Virginia history, social studies standards

In August, the timeline for voting on the new standards was delayed from late 2022 to early 2023. The five said they wanted more time to review the standards, while also raising concerns about typos and the content of the standards. In response, the Education Department agreed to send the board an updated version of the history and social sciences standards in mid-November.

That version, published online late Friday by Education Department officials, totals 52 pages. It offers a stark contrast in size to the original draft guidelines, which numbered 402 pages — and it differs seriously in some of its suggestions for topics and lesson plans.

The new version is shorter partly because it no longer offers “curriculum frameworks,” suggestions for instructional resources, student activities and lines of classroom inquiry that were included in the old version of the guidelines. An Education Department spokesman said the agency will release a separate “curriculum frameworks” document in late summer 2023, and it will undergo a separate board approval process. The framework document may include some of the content present in the old guidelines but deleted from the new version.

The release of the new standards drew blistering criticism from Democratic legislators and some educators, who called the revisions politically motivated and said the new standards minimize the contributions of minorities in American history. Supporters, though, argue the new version of the SOLs is clearer than the previous iteration and promotes critical thinking.

Read the new, 50-page version of the Virginia history, social studies standards

In a fact sheet circulated among legislators by the education department over the weekend, staffers wrote that the old guidelines were clunky, “inaccessible” and “difficult for educators to understand and implement” — while the new version will “restore excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history.”

The Washington Post analyzed the old version of the guidelines against the new version issued in November, comparing lesson plans by grade level.


Similarities: Both sets of standards propose teaching children history, geography, civics and economics, as well as how to use charts, graphs, diagrams and maps. Both also say kindergartners should be introduced to historical artifacts and taught how to use primary and secondary sources and how to draw observations and ask questions.

Differences: The old guidelines call for lessons teaching that “Indigenous People were the first inhabitants of the land that we now call Virginia and the United States” and that “multiple tribes have always and continue to live in Virginia and the United States today.” The new guidelines do not mention Indigenous peoples, instead stating that students should learn to “describe life of Virginia’s earliest settlements” including “America’s first ‘immigrants’ from Asia at the end of the last Ice Age” and how early Americans transitioned to hunter-gatherer societies and began using tools.

The old guidelines suggest students learn about a wide variety of holidays and traditions including Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. The new guidelines only mention learning about Presidents’ Day.

Finally, the new guidelines delete a suggestion from the previous version that kindergartners be taught “respect for diversity” by learning how to work collaboratively with “people of diverse backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences.”

Grade One

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say students should become comfortable identifying cause-and-effect relationships in history and learn that economic thinking requires making choices. Both suggest lessons on the Native American village Werowocomoco, which served as headquarters for Chief Powhatan. Both also suggest lessons on a variety of historical state figures including Thomas Jefferson, L. Douglas Wilder, the first Black governor of Virginia, and Richmond-born Maggie L. Walker, the first Black woman to charter a bank and serve as bank president.

Differences: The old guidelines say that students should learn about climate, weather and seasons and understand how those factors “affect the needs and wants” of people, as well as terrain. The new guidelines only suggest learning “how the landforms of Virginia affect its climate.”

Again, the documents differ on the number and type of holidays first-graders should be learning about, with the old guidelines listing the same array of celebrations proposed for kindergartners. The new guidelines, by contrast, list just two holidays: Thanksgiving and “Columbus Day” (which the old guidelines referred to as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”).

Grade Two

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say students should learn to locate the countries of North America, its bordering oceans, the equator, the prime meridian and the four hemispheres, as well as major rivers, mountain ranges and lakes in the United States. Both suggest students should learn about natural resources — including water, soil, wood and coal — and that scarcity of resources requires people to make choices about the distributions of goods and services.

Differences: The new guidelines say students should learn about people in ancient Egypt and America who “contributed to their civilizations,” a list including Moses, Cleopatra and Tutankhamen (for Egypt) and seven Founding Fathers, such as James Madison, John Adams and Patrick Henry (for America). The old guidelines do not mention ancient Egypt but propose learning about a wider array of American historical figures and entities such as the Lakota and Pueblo nations, Helen Keller, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez.

Again, the guidelines differ on the appropriate list of holidays for student lessons, with the old guidelines listing an array of celebrations, while the new guidelines mention only Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and “learning patriotic songs such as ‘America the Beautiful.’ ”

Grade Three

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say students should learn about ancient Greece and Rome and compare the current American system of government to democratic governance pursued in Greece. Both sets also say students should learn about the three branches of American government, as well as the organization of local, state and national governments in the United States.

Differences: The old guidelines say students should learn about ancient societies in China and Mali as well as those in Egypt, Greece and Rome; the new guidelines do not mention China or Mali.

The old guidelines say students should learn about the geography of all seven continents, while the new guidelines say only that students should become familiar with the continent of Europe, able to “[identify] Europe’s countries (especially Greece and Italy).” The new guidelines include a section on the U.S. Constitution, stating that students should learn “the reasons for writing it, ‘to form a more perfect union,’ ” as well as learn James Madison’s role in crafting the Constitution. The old guidelines do not mention the Constitution as a topic for third-graders.

Grade Four

Similarities: In a near-identical thesis statement, both sets of guidelines say students should spend fourth grade learning about the history of Virginia from the time it was inhabited by “Indigenous Peoples” to the present, with an emphasis on the effects of “English colonization, the arrival of Africans, and the development of a colonial society.” The new guidelines specifically add that students should learn about slavery; the old guidelines did not mention “slavery” in this sentence. Both sets also say students should learn about Virginia’s state government, the state’s role in the Civil War and how Virginia developed and grew, with a focus on the era of Reconstruction.

Differences: The old guidelines say students should learn about the history of “the Algonquin, the Siouan and the Iroquoian” as well as “the lives of Indigenous People … living in Virginia today.” The new guidelines do not mention lessons about the present lives of Indigenous people.

The new guidelines suggest lessons on Bacon’s Rebellion, while the old guidelines do not. The old guidelines suggest teaching students how the culture of colonial Virginia “reflected the origins of Indigenous Peoples, European … immigrants, and Africans.” The new guidelines do not mention this concept, suggesting students focus on the “main events leading up to the American Revolution,” the Declaration of Independence and “the important contributions of Virginians,” including “previously enslaved Black soldiers,” to the Revolutionary War.

Grade Five

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say fifth-graders should study the history of the United States from pre-colonial times to 1865, with an emphasis on “the diverse perspectives” of various peoples. Both state that students should learn how to identify and avoid plagiarism. Both propose lessons on the geography of North America and on how archaeologists have recovered artifacts of early North American cultures. Both say students should learn about the reasons the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English explored and colonized North America. Both outline lessons on slavery, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation (and their weaknesses), the drive for westward expansion, abolitionism, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Civil War.

Differences: The old guidelines suggest that teachers emphasize the differences between the “Indigenous People and European concept of land,” while the new guidelines do not mention this issue. The new guidelines mention learning about the reasons for Dutch exploration and colonization of North America, while the old guidelines do not mention the Dutch.

The old guidelines also state that an overarching theme of all fifth-grade lessons on this period of U.S. history should be “racism,” defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” The new guidelines do not mention teaching students about racism.

Grade Six

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say sixth-graders should learn American history from the end of the Civil War through World Wars I and II and into contemporary society. Both sets say this should include lessons about westward expansion and its effect on Indigenous peoples; as well as about Reconstruction-era policies, sharecropping, racial segregation, the rise of “Jim Crow” laws and the legacies of historical figures including Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Both sets further offer lesson plans on industrialization, the Spanish-American War, the Monroe Doctrine, the New Deal, America’s role in World War II, the Cold War and more recent incidents such as 9/11, among other topics.

Differences: The old guidelines again list and define “racism” as an important theme, while the new guidelines do not mention racism. The old guidelines state that students should ponder how discrimination and segregation continued in the United States after Reconstruction, for example with the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the immigration of Chinese laborers for a decade. The new guidelines do not mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, nor do they propose students ponder the lingering effects of racism.

The two guidelines also offer divergent framings of America’s entrance onto the international stage post-World War I: The old guidelines call the United States “an imperialist world power,” while the new guidelines say the U.S. “gained international power.”

The old guidelines call for examining America’s response to the Holocaust, while the new guidelines suggest exploring the “consequences of the Holocaust.” The old guidelines say lessons on “Contemporary America” should include discussion of “the civil rights movement, the Americans With Disabilities Act … and the Women’s Rights Movement.” The new guidelines do not mention the latter two events.

Grade Seven

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say seventh-grade lessons should focus on civics and economics, including learning about the constitutions of Virginia and the U.S. and judicial review and comparing America’s economic setup to that of other countries. Both also propose lessons on citizenship and civic life, including explaining how individuals can become citizens of the United States and outlining the duties of a good citizen — such as voting, respecting the law and paying taxes. Both suggest students should learn about the functions of political parties, the electoral college and the role of the press in American politics.

Differences: In a section detailing what students should know about the “political process,” the new guidelines suggest teaching seventh-graders about “poll watchers,” individuals who observe steps in the election process on behalf of candidates or parties involved in the race. The old guidelines do not mention poll watchers.

The new guidelines state students should learn about “the effect that biased reporting can have on public opinion and public policy.” The old guidelines do not directly mention biased news coverage, noting only that students should gain the skills to “determine the bias, accuracy and validity of sources” during research sessions.

The new guidelines say lessons on economics should “evaluate the unique qualities of free enterprise and how democracy cannot survive without it.” The old guidelines say students should understand “how traditional, free market, command and mixed economies decide how to allocate their limited resources.”

Grade Eight

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines state eighth-graders should focus primarily on learning world geography, meaning “the world’s peoples, places and environments.” Both sets say students should learn to determine the accuracy and validity of primary and secondary sources when conducting research. Both call for lessons on the political, social, economic and environmental factors that influence human migration, as well as discussion of the effects of globalization.

Differences: The old guidelines include a section on “Resources and the Environment” that calls for lessons “examining the sustainable use and management of resources” as well as instruction on how human growth, development and technology has “driven changes in energy resource management.” The old guidelines also ask students to “analyze the consequences of prioritizing renewable energy sources over nonrenewable energy sources.” The new guidelines state only that students should understand “how humans influence the environment and are influenced by it.”

Grade Nine

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines say ninth-graders should learn world history and geography from ancient times through 1500 CE (A.D.). Both suggest studying ancient societies in the Fertile Crescent, the Israelites and the Phoenicians, as well as societies in ancient India, China, Persia, Greece and Rome. Both say students should learn about Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, among other religions. Both propose lessons on Africa during medieval times, as well as medieval Japan and the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations — and the Italian Renaissance.

Differences: The old guidelines include a section suggesting ninth-graders learn about the history of Russia, the Ottoman Empire and how “Russian society was influenced by Byzantine, Scandinavian and Asian cultures.” The new guidelines do not mention the Ottoman Empire or Russia as a topic for ninth-graders.

Grade 10

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines propose that 10th-graders should focus on world history and geography from 1500 CE to the present day. Both say students should learn about the world’s major religions, about global trade patterns and about the location of significant states and empires. Both additionally call for instruction on how the Renaissance and Reformation affected Western civilization and how European exploration and colonization affected Indigenous peoples around the globe. Both say students should learn about the French Revolution, the English Civil War and the Latin American revolutions, as well as World War I, World War II, the Cold War and independence movements in Ghana, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa.

Differences: The old guidelines call on teachers to dissect, compare and contrast the concepts of “colonialism,” “imperialism,” “nationalism” and “racism.” The new guidelines do not suggest this.

Grade 11

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines for 11th-graders zero in on Virginia and U.S. history, calling for students to learn about “concepts of civics, economics, and geography … with an emphasis on multiple and diverse perspectives.” Both call for instruction on the first 13 colonies and how social norms developed within and compared among the colonies, as well as lessons on “the development of African American culture … and the impact of the institution of slavery.” Both outline lessons on the causes of the American Revolution and suggest tracing the development of the American political system by examining founding documents. Both suggest lessons on the “role of slavery in the conflicts that led to the Civil War.” Other topics slated for discussion include eugenics and the Great Depression.

Differences: The old guidelines begin by calling for lessons on “the culture of the Indigenous people of North America,” while the new guidelines open with a proposal that students learn about “the entrepreneurial characteristics of early explorers (e.g. Christopher Columbus)” and do not directly suggest examining Indigenous culture on its own. Rather, the new guidelines propose exploring “cooperation and conflict” between European and Indigenous peoples, including by reviewing “the role of broken treaties and the factors that led to the defeat of Indigenous Peoples.”

The old guidelines state that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, asking teachers to give instruction on how “cultural, economic, and constitutional differences between the North and the South — all based in slavery, eventually resulted in the Civil War.” The new guidelines are less direct, listing slavery as one of the “cultural, economic, and political issues that divided the nation.”

Grade 12

Similarities: Both sets of guidelines state 12th-graders should spend time learning about the government of the United States and Virginia. Topics slated for discussion include the origins and development of the concept of democracy, the Federalist Papers, lessons on American state and local government and how they interact, and the role of the U.S. federal government in regulating the economy. Both sets also suggest lessons delineating the scope and limits of power allotted to the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the government.

Differences: The old guidelines state students should be taught that “the concepts of democracy are aspirational and evolving and remain elusive for some members in society.” The new guidelines do not mention this idea. The old guidelines assert that the writers of the Constitution “built a system designed to evolve overtime [sic],” while the new guidelines call the Constitution “the nation’s fundamental and enduring law.”

In a section focused on the Virginia and U.S. economies, the old guidelines say students should learn about “the provision of government goods and services that are not readily produced by the market” as well as how the government maintains rules and institutions “in which markets operate.” The new guidelines echo these points but make another point, too — students should understand “government’s limited but important role in free enterprise.”

More on local education

The latest: In Loudoun County, a conservative candidate and a left-leaning candidate were leading in the race for two seats on the school board. Meanwhile, a majority of incumbent school board members in Maryland’s metro area were leading in their reelection bids.

K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.