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Youngkin’s revised history standards draw from broader conservative movement

Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets supporters
Crixell Matthews
Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigns in 2021. Youngkin campaigned heavily on ridding the state's schools of "divisive concepts" and critical race theory. (File photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Last month, the state board of education unanimously rejected taking up history standards presented by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education team.

The board ordered a rewrite of the standards after hearing an avalanche of criticism over a document that described Native Americans as “America's first ‘immigrants’” and hailed former President Ronald Reagan as one of a handful of “innovators and heroes” — without any mentions of former President Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president.

The Virginia Department of Education is set to publish updated standards this week. But it’s still not clear how the previous document — assembled largely by an outside education consultant — came together. VPM News reached out to each of the nine individuals and groups listed by the department as contributors in the rejected draft to ask for clarification on their role in the document. The Civics Alliance, a coalition of conservative leaders aiming to “preserve civics education that teaches students to take pride in what they share as Americans,” was the most forthcoming.

Its involvement dates back to September. David Randall, the group’s executive director, co-signed a letter to the board of education about suggested changes to the previous  draft standards presented in August and crafted largely under former Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Randall said the proposed draft would nudge students toward “radical ideology” of “group-identity politics.”

The letter called out “progressive vocabulary” sprinkled throughout the August standards, including “diversity,” “community,” “perspectives” and “Indigenous people” — a phrase that “is used to delegitimize Americans,” Randall said in an interview.

The letter argued the 402-page document, which also included a broader curriculum framework, was dense, bureaucratic and would “minimize the experiences and contributions of white men during the Revolutionary War.”

Randall said the role of his group and its umbrella organization, the National Association of Scholars, in the standards review was limited to the letter. But he said staff at the Virginia Department of Education appeared to take the groups’ advice to heart, with most of the flagged content being changed.

“We are delighted with what they produced,” Randall said, though the group has offered a second letter with more suggestions.

Critics of the standards see the marks of conservative groups like the Civics Alliance everywhere in the document.

The groups differ in their exact goals and tactics. But many, including Civics Alliance, take particular offense to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which reframed U.S. history to focus on slavery and connects historical racism to contemporary inequities. Some conservatives, including former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett (who also contributed to the latest Virginia history standards), argue that perspective has become pervasive in U.S. classrooms and is fundamentally “an anti-America ideology.”

Civics Alliance has also resisted “ action civics” — a learning style where students learn about government by engaging firsthand with topics in their community. Civics Alliance, however, sees the pedagogy as an insidious effort to “turn the traditional subject of civics into a recruitment tool of the progressive left.” They argue that this turn comes at the expense of teaching “traditional civics” centered on the country’s great leaders, its founding documents and guiding principles.

Critics of that approach said it tells an incomplete story of American exceptionalism centered on white men.

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd, an instructor of higher education at the University of New Orleans and the author of the forthcoming book “Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars,” said the latest effort grew out of nostalgia for a Cold War-era version of U.S. history that was “extremely whitewashed.” But she said the movement had even older roots, including a push to discredit teaching evolution in the 1920s and the Daughters of the Confederacy’s role in perpetuating the "Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War.

“What they would like to see instead is a return to the versions of history that they probably learned, or at least a patriotic version of history, that is celebratory, that sees America as a great nation,” she said. “And if we have any faults at all, they were minor. … But that's simply not the case.”

Behind the scenes

The movement fits squarely into Youngkin’s rhetoric of ridding the state of “divisive concepts” and ridding it of critical race theory. While the graduate-level framework doesn’t appear in Virginia’s K-12 curriculum, Youngkin used it as a rallying cry during his campaign, claiming students were being “ indoctrinated.” He has barely mentioned the phrase publicly since he was elected.

Still, contributors to Virginia’s latest history standards draft have embraced that rhetoric, including Hillsdale College in Michigan. The Christian school led former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, whose work was widely criticized by historians.

In the 1776 Curriculum, which was partially inspired by this effort , Hillsdale argued students should learn that the U.S., while imperfect, is “an exceptionally good country.”

Kathleen O'Toole, Hillsdale College's assistant provost for K-12 education, confirmed in a statement that VDOE asked the school “to review a working draft of its social studies standards” — something she said Hillsdale regularly does for other states. But O’Toole and a spokesperson for the school did not directly respond to a series of questions posed by VPM News.

A spokesperson for American University, which VDOE also listed as a contributor, said they had not participated in the process. VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle later clarified that AU government professor Alan Levine provided “general, high-level comments” for improving the previous standards to VDOE’s consultant. Levine didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Other names on VDOE’s list — including University of Virginia professor James Ceaser, the Louisiana Department of Education, education consultant Sheila Byrd Carmichael and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — either declined to comment or did not respond to VPM News’ inquiries.

Emails from Youngkin’s top education officials, obtained via public records requests, shed a little more light on the process.

In August, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow asked the board to delay a vote on taking up the Northam-era standards, citing mistakes and omissions in the document. She asked for a second pause in October.

That same month, Secretary of Education Amy Guidera reached out to the Jack Miller Center, a nonprofit “dedicated to reinvigorating education in America’s founding principles and history.”

Guidera asked Tom Kelly, the center’s vice president of civics initiatives, for a list of American history professors who could review the administration’s updated standards.

“We actually need to get some names asap of folks who would be willing to work pretty quickly,” Guidera wrote on Oct. 18.

Kelly ultimately provided a list of 10 academics, including Levine from American University, Richard Gamble at Hillsdale College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor University, Allen Guelzo of Princeton University and Peter Myers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Many on the list have links to the broader conservative movement; Guelzo, for example, described the 1619 Project as a “conspiracy theory.” Both he and Myers have served as visiting fellows at the Heritage Foundation.

None of the six academics on Kelly’s list who responded to VPM News’ inquiries said they ended up reviewing the document. Several said they were too busy or hadn’t been given enough time.

Guelzo said in an interview he’d been given 48 hours to submit feedback to Carmichael.

“That’s not really taking curriculum material seriously,” he said.

Emails also show Balow wrestling with how the updated document would be seen by the public.

“Could we develop ONE curriculum framework fully in a shorter amount of time to show we are [sic] ‘whitewashing’ history but, rather, staying true to our commitment (and everyone's desire) to teach ALL of history?” Balow wrote in an Oct. 20 email to another VDOE staffer.

The consultant

VDOE outsourced significant work on the standards to Carmichael, who presented them to the board in November. Guidera reached out to Carmichael on Aug. 5 to ask for her help with the standards, according to emails obtained by VPM News. “I am thrilled to have your brain engaged in this Sheila,” Guidera wrote.

Carmichael had a long history in the field of curriculum development. In 2007, she’d helped establish the curriculum company now known as Great Minds and helped write and edit its curriculum on K-8 history, according to her bio.

On Oct. 26, the state’s procurement website noted a $15,000 purchase order to solicit help from outside experts to review the draft standards and present an updated version to the board. After VPM News reported on the contract, Carmichael said she’d worked at a reduced rate because she thought the work was important.

“I volunteered the vast majority of my time to Virginia because I love my state and my country,” Carmichael said in a November email to VPM News.

Carmichael said last month she hoped to discuss her role more, but said she needed permission from VDOE. She later declined an interview and didn’t respond to emailed questions.

She was more forthcoming in a letter to William and Mary professor Susan Wise Bauer in which Carmichael apologized for erroneously listing Bauer as a contributor in the November standards.

“Sadly and ironically, it was because of my admiration for you that I had hoped to get your thoughts on the draft, which was very hastily and irresponsibly prepared,” Carmichael wrote in the letter, which Bauer later posted to Twitter.

What’s next?

It’s not clear how the department plans to fuse the last two iterations of the draft standards, an approach the board of education called for in November.

Carmichael won’t have any role on the standards going forward, according to VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle. He did not confirm whether additional groups would be involved in that work.

“VDOE staff are carrying out the direction of the Board of Education to merge content from the August draft into the November draft while addressing errors and omissions,” Pyle said in an email.

Since the new standards proposal will be available this week, the state board of education could discuss it as early as January. If not, it’ll be taken up in the regularly-scheduled February meeting.

Critics of the Youngkin administration’s standards draft have so far not been appeased by reassurances from education officials that they aim to tell a complete history. Groups ranging from the Virginia ACLU to the American Historical Association strenuously objected to the last version of standards.

Zowee Aquino, policy and communications lead at the Hamkae Center, a community organizing group focused on Virginia's Asian American communities, has tracked the standards closely. Aquino said the drafts seemed to ignore the input that went into the Northam-era draft. Representatives from about 30 different groups, including experts on Indigenous, African American, Asian American and Hispanic history proposed technical edits on that document.

“I don’t really see how there’s a way to even fix the November standards,” Aquino said. Merging the two standards “is like mixing oil and water.”

A consortium of groups including the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium and American Historical Association have nonetheless attempted to do so, releasing their proposed combined standards on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some of the conservative-leaning civics groups are already gearing up to implement changed standards.

Tom Kelly with the Jack Miller Center said in an email to VPM News that he was looking to collaborate with two similarly-minded groups — the Bill of Rights Institute and the Ashbrook Center — to offer professional development to middle and high school teachers in Virginia. The goal, Kelly said, would be to “deepen their understanding of our nation’s founding principles in keeping with the history/social science standards once they’re approved.”

The three groups — operating under the name the American Civics and History Initiative — have a similar effort underway in Florida and aim to reach 6,800 teachers during the next two years. Their goals include countering a movement in civics education that it claims seeks “to minimize or denigrate America’s history and principles.”

Emails show Guidera was slated to meet with representatives from the three groups on the sidelines of the National Summit on Civic Education in November to discuss their plans in Virginia. The invitation-only summit was convened by the JMC at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate with a program focused on bringing together organizations, including Hillsdale College and the Ashbrook Center, that share the goal of “centering founding principles in K-12 civic education.”

In a keynote address at the conference, Robert Pondiscio, a fellow at the Fordham Institute and American Enterprise Institute, warned against “the pedagogy of the depressed” that teaches students “they have suffered the great misfortune to have been born into a country that is racist to its core.”

“Our schools are supposed to be in the business of attaching our children to their country, their community, and civil society,” Pondiscio said. “But it sometimes seems they’re more interested in attacking them.”

Shepherd, however, argues that the conservative voices involved in Virginia’s standards feel threatened by more accurate and inclusive histories — ones that don’t always reflect well on the white men who’ve been traditionally venerated in the classroom.

“They're not concerned with accuracy, because their driving force is ideology,” she said.

Megan Pauly contributed reporting to this story.

Clarification: Language has been updated to better reflect the relationship between Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum and former President Donald Trump’s commission with a similar name.


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