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Youngkin education official recommends delaying history standards review due to 'glaring deficiencies'

Students are seated in a class as their teacher speaks.
Crixell Matthews
Hopewell High School students attend class on the first day of school in 2021. Virginia's Board of Education is consulting with a Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and internal staff to address what a department spokesperson called “serious errors and omissions” in proposed updates to the state's history standards. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

One of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s top education officials recommended the Virginia Board of Education delay discussing history and social science standards ahead of its Wednesday meeting.

Instead, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is working with a Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and internal staff to address what a department spokesperson called “serious errors and omissions” in the proposed updates.

Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education, said in an interview that Balow “believes there are glaring deficiencies that really need to be addressed before this document moves forward.”

Pyle cited a number of what he said were notable mistakes and exclusions in the 400-page draft document.

For example, he said there’s no mention in courses typically taken during high school of the Electoral College or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, though both appear in middle school courses. The Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized segregation in the South, appears in a content area related to the civil rights movement, but not the Jim Crow era. And a reference to George Washington as the “Father of our Country” and James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution” were mistakenly removed, according to Pyle, rather than relocated to a different section of the document.

Balow made her recommendation to hold off on the review in an agenda ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, which had been rescheduled from July. The meeting will be the first that Youngkin’s appointees outnumber those of his predecessor, former Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam.

“The State Superintendent recommends that the draft standards undergo further development and input from Virginians and national experts prior to acceptance for first review by the Board,” the agenda item said. “Our shared goal is to have best in class History and Social Sciences standards.”

Pyle said he wasn’t sure how long the review would last or what other Virginians and experts would weigh in aside from the Fordham institute.

The institute backs charter schools and is described by Influence Watch as a “conservative-leaning education policy think tank.” It publishes a review of state standards that Pyle said were well-known and respected among education policymakers.

After the standards undergo a first review by the board, the department plans to hold community information sessions to gather more feedback. 

History and social science standards are updated at least every seven years, per state law. The current draft standards are the result of two years of feedback and edits from a range of historians, educators, students, administrators and representatives from a range of underrepresented communities. That work began during the Northam administration.

Several prominent academics participated in drafting the standards, including University of Richmond historian Ed Ayers and Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor and dean at Norfolk State University. The department also received more than 1,400 public Google Forms submissions on the previous standards, according to an update it provided to the board in January.

In an interview and follow-up email, Atif Qarni, former state secretary of education under Northam, said the edits could be done without delaying the process. He said that the Youngkin administration was unreceptive to open discussions of racism and equity that the previous administration had worked to include in the document.

Youngkin ran in part on promises to ban critical race theory, a graduate-level framework that does not appear in Virginia’s curricula, but has become an umbrella term among some conservatives for criticizing equity programs. 

“This administration is intentionally cherry picking to delay the process because they don’t want to embrace teaching a more inclusive history,” Qarni wrote. “Fordham Institute is a right wing, very political in nature group. They do not have the historical expertise.”

Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the institute, noted in an email that the group had been reviewing state standards for 25 years and “are routinely asked by states to give feedback on their draft standards.”

In the case of Virginia’s current draft, “we see uneven coverage of the Bill of Rights, especially in the early grades, and missed opportunities to incorporate Supreme Court cases in several courses. And as is the case in many state U.S. history standards across the nation, events get rushed after the Cold War,” Northern wrote. “They've clearly got more work to do, but their old standards were already a ‘B-plus’ according to our experts last year.”

Youngkin’s office referred comments to Pyle, who said the changes “have to do with accuracy. They have to do with organization. And they have to do with thoroughness.”

The missing references to Washington as the “Father of our Country” and Madison as the “Father of the Constitution” have already sparked a backlash. After WJLA reported the change, Glen Sturtevant, a former GOP state senator who is once again running for a seat in the chamber, urged supporters to contact the board.

“We are going to make Virginia education patriotic again,” Sturtevant said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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