The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. education board delays review of new history and social studies standards

4 min

The Virginia Board of Education is pushing back its review of new state standards for history and social studies, after overwhelming pushback from parents, teachers and community members who characterized the new standards as lacking context, being politically motivated and even being “whitewashed.”

The state’s standards of learning — known as SOLs — shape what students are tested on at the end of the school year, detailing topics that teachers should include in their lessons. State law says the SOLs for every subject must be redeveloped by the Virginia Department of Education and reapproved by the Board of Education every seven years, with the timing of reviews staggered across subjects.

The process is often quiet and plodding, but this year’s review garnered widespread attention this summer after the board — led by a five-member majority appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) — questioned the department’s first proposed version of the standards, prompting a complete revision.

The five members raised concerns about the length and content of the 400-plus-page initial version of the standards. In response this past Friday, the education department delivered a 53-page iteration of the standards for the board’s review, which was slated for Thursday. The new proposed version generally places less emphasis on the perspectives of marginalized peoples, removes suggested discussions of racism and its lingering effects, and promotes the workings of the free market, with limited government intervention, according to a Washington Post review.

In a fact sheet sent to state legislators, the education department said the changes were made because the “August 2022 draft standards were unnecessarily difficult for educators to understand and implement; they were also inaccessible for parents and families.” The new proposed standards, it said, would revise “repetitive and vague skills-based standards, which teachers could interpret in infinitely various ways, thus not resulting in ‘a shared knowledge as Virginians and as U.S. citizens.’ ”

The new standards have been lauded by some conservative supporters, including parents’ rights advocates who say the guidelines will help children develop critical thinking skills. But the new standards have earned criticism from left-leaning educators and legislators who argue that they offer a simpler version of history that pays less attention to the perspectives and lives of people of color, especially Indigenous and non-European communities.

A day before the meeting, state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) wrote a letter to the board similarly asking members to reject the proposed standards, stating that the revised version minimizes “diverse perspectives” and reflects right-wing political priorities. The Virginia NAACP requested the board reject the new standards as well, asserting that “the contributions of Black Americans to Virginia’s history have been significantly diminished, compromising the accuracy and completeness of the curriculum.”

Those criticisms and others were echoed during a nearly four-hour public comment session Thursday, with a majority of the speakers denouncing the new versions of the standards and asking the board to instead proceed with the earlier August version.

Some members of the state board also critiqued the new standards during a three-hour deliberation Thursday, noting that the initial draft included a characterization of Indigenous people as “immigrants” and omitted references to the holidays of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth.

“I can’t tell you it’s the right document for the Commonwealth to teach history, and that’s troublesome to me,” Daniel A. Gecker, the board of education president, said, pointing to the fact that board members were given the new standards six days ago.

Education department officials provided board members with a revised copy that included those holidays, and Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow apologized for the errors.

Anne B. Holton, a board member who was appointed by former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), said the November standards were “a disaster.” She pointed to the mistake Balow referenced ahead of the presentation, stating, “The nature of the accidents in the early grades ... are extreme.”

Instead of moving forward with the new version of the proposed standards, the board ultimately voted to direct Balow to revise the standards to include content from the August version of the standards and eliminate the errors and omissions, giving it an updated proposal to review. The education department was also instructed to provide the board with a document comparing the August, November and new combined proposals, along with changes from the 2015 standards that are in use.

Andy Rotherham, a Youngkin appointee on the board, made the motion to review the new standards later. He said he didn’t agree fully with some of Holton’s characterization but was surprised that the new standards appeared to be light on some topics, including the abolition movement. “The spirit of my motion is that we continue to move forward, but we don’t go out to the public yet,” Rotherham said.