The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia history standards debate wraps up, with board vote near

Virginia is updating its social studies education standards. (Julie Bennett for The Washington Post)
8 min

At Mount Vernon, the historic estate where tourists flock to learn about George Washington, dozens of parents, teachers and education leaders tucked into a conference room to weigh one of Virginia’s hottest topics: how to teach history in public school.

The comments stretched late into the night as more than 90 speakers took their two-minute opportunity last week to offer an opinion on the revised standards of learning, which set the framework for what students in the commonwealth will learn in social studies classes from kindergarten through 12th grade.

There’s usually little attention on the bureaucratic revision process that happens every seven years as required by state law. But this year’s review became contentious, drawing national scrutiny as versions of the proposed standards were criticized for their framing and omissions.

With the third set of proposed standards being considered before an expected vote by the state Board of Education next month, supporters praise them as being a fairer representation of history that better matches the state’s law banning “inherently divisive” topics in the classroom. Critics are concerned about limited representation of marginalized communities, unrealistic expectations for students and the rushed process to develop the standards.

This dispute over social studies has become part of the education culture wars as lawmakers increasingly introduce legislation limiting what schools can teach about race, gender and inequality. Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the national debate has shifted from arguing about what gets included in standards to mandating topics that are excluded.

“This notion of, we’re going to tell you what you can’t teach,” Paska said. “That is a very different tone.”

In Virginia, a state with a complex past, those debates about how to present its history extend beyond the classroom. They include tearing down Confederate statues in Richmond and updating tours of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, to include additional details about the enslaved people who lived there, including the story of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on the estate with whom Jefferson had children.

Some of Virginia’s storied locations were sites for the public forums hosted by state education officials that ended this week, where people could weigh in on the proposed social studies standards. At the Mount Vernon forum, 17-year-old Yahney-Marie Sangare approached the microphone in the small conference hall.

“The truth is that no history exists without opinion or context, the way we teach and learn is deliberate,” she said. “To unravel the trends of history, we must fundamentally embrace varying schools of critical thought. We may not make educational standards weapons of ideology.”

The crowd had thinned by the time the Alexandria City High School junior — the 61st speaker of the night — had her turn.

“See,” one woman in the crowd whispered to another. “This is why I want to stay.”

Long road for revision process

The standards debate in Virginia began in August when appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on the Board of Education rejected a 400-plus-page version of the standards started under Youngkin predecessor Ralph Northam (D).

The Department of Education proposed an alternative 53-page version of the standards in November that quickly drew criticism from left-leaning politicians and education advocates for generally placing less emphasis on marginalized groups. There were errors, including a characterization of Indigenous people as “immigrants,” and omitted references to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth holidays.

Jillian Balow, who led the Education Department, was sent back to fix the mistakes and integrate content from the August version. Balow, who resigned as superintendent this month, came back with was a third version of the standards in January, and that is the draft that is up for consideration.

The newest standards include language that notes U.S. history is complicated and must be taught with nuance. There are also grade-level changes that place greater emphasis on Native Americans. The new guidelines, unlike the previous version, mandate discussions of racism, and students would learn, for the first time in Virginia, that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War, not just one cause.

But critics question how state education officials got to this version, particularly whether the standards are politically motivated. During review forums, they have raised concerns about a state list of top contributors to the proposal that includes organizations such as the conservative-leaning Civics Alliance, Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Hillsdale College.

Amber Northern, vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said some of the criticism leveled at the proposed revisions was misguided, after several speakers at a Charlottesville forum — held a few miles from Monticello — condemned things that have been part of the standards since 2015, including the years when Northam was in office.

“I actually think that a lot of the comments tonight have not been accurate in terms of the partisanship,” she said in an interview. “It’s sort of been alluded that there’s … right-leaning partisanship because we have a Republican governor.”

In a statement, the Civics Alliance and the National Association of Scholars called the latest version of the standards a more concise and appropriate approach than the August proposal, which had become “lengthy, repetitive and extremely difficult to understand,” the groups said.

Youngkin said in a statement that the January standards reflect input from an array of subject-matter experts, residents and organizations.

“The current draft honors a robust set of diverse voices, figures and moments in history and prepares our students to be informed stewards of our future,” the governor said. “Our goal is to make Virginia’s standards the best in the nation.”

Debates over content

On a corner near the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, about 30 demonstrators lined the sidewalk with signs, protesting the January standards. Organized by the Hamkae Center, which describes itself as organizing “Asian Americans to achieve social, economic, and racial justice in Virginia,” the protesters called for more representation of diverse communities — specifically more Asian American and LGBTQ history.

Zowee Aquino, policy and communications lead at the Hamkae Center, said the January standards only discussed Asian American history twice.

“With the amount of feedback from Virginians, I’m really hoping that the board will take it as a wake-up call that, no, the public does not like these standards,” Aquino said.

Inside the library, Jaya Nachnani, a 19-year-old freshman at William & Mary, criticized the standards for excluding mentions of the Stonewall riots and the Defense of Marriage Act, and referring to the October holiday as Columbus Day rather than Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“With this curriculum, we are erasing a lot of history,” Nachnani said. “While some of it may be bad, how are we as Americans supposed to move forward if we do not acknowledge and learn about all of our pasts?”

Labor organizers argue that the January standards remove most teachings on the impact of the industrial revolution on working families and lessons about the rise of organized labor.

Eric Pacheco, a father of three students in Stafford County and member of IBEW Local 26, a union of electrical workers, pleaded with the board that lessons on unions and labor are important to students and understanding American history.

“We don’t need less labor history,” Pacheco said. “We need a whole lot more of it.”

Too much to learn?

Education leaders also raised concerns about the expectations for young students to learn complex material that isn’t “developmentally appropriate” for the assigned grade levels. A collection of state and national education groups issued a response to the January proposal, calling it “unrealistic.”

The standards also contain “a vast quantity of rote memorization that is neither useful nor likely for content knowledge retention,” the organizations wrote. They urged the board to instead adopt proposed “Collaborative Standards” that some of the groups wrote as an alternative in December.

The groups point to a standard that requires second-graders to learn about issues such as the War of 1812.

“With 24 people listed in one standard alone … the time it would take to teach this one standard is unrealistic, it would take weeks,” said Jennifer Brown, an educational specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools who shared similar concerns from other elementary teachers.\

Neeley Minton, lead coach for social studies instruction in Albemarle County Public Schools, cited the more than 100 new topics added to the proposed standards. Covering so much new material would not allow enough time for sixth-graders to think deeply about topics such as urban renewal and Vinegar Hill, a majority-Black neighborhood in Charlottesville that was razed in the 1960s.

“Inquiry is what makes the facts stick,” Minton said during the forum in Charlottesville. “Learning facts in isolation does not lead to learning at all.”

Chris Suarez contributed to this report.