Virginia Board of Education to review updated history standards
Transparency questions linger over the proposals that were initially redrafted in mid-2022.
Staff at the Virginia Department of Education hope the third draft’s the charm. The latest proposed update to the state history and social science standards is set to be considered by the state Board of Education on Wednesday and Thursday.
The scheduled meeting has drawn renewed attention to an unusually turbulent process that’s produced three iterations of standards, with critics continuing to question the transparency of the work.
Republicans in Virginia’s House of Delegates tabled legislation last week that would have required the state to disclose which outside groups and consultants were involved in updates to state standardized tests. The Virginia Department of Education is over a month behind legal deadlines on some public records requests related to the previous November draft of the standards.
VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle said the department reached out to a range of groups in preparing its latest iteration, including the Virginia NAACP, the Sikh Foundation of Virginia, the Virginia Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, and the Hampton Roads Black Caucus. Pyle said VDOE did not use a consultant involved in the last draft or solicit feedback from the mostly right-leaning groups involved in the November draft.
A coalition of six other groups, including the American Historical Association and Virginia Council for Social Studies, have called for greater clarity on how the latest draft was developed.
Some groups that gave input in the history standards since last summer, including the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the National Association of Scholars, have praised the latest draft. In a Jan. 26 blog post, Amber Northern, Fordham’s senior vice president for research, noted the draft would make Virginia “one of only a few states that teaches fourth graders that the institution of slavery was the cause of the Civil War.” The NAS, a conservative education group, praised the draft in a Jan. 13 letter to the board for its simplicity, “patriotic focus” and removal of “radical polemic.”
But the six education groups, whose ranks also include Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and Virginia Geographic Alliance, said in a Jan. 17 press release that the latest draft was “neither historically rigorous nor reflective of the established process previously approved by [Virginia Board of Education],” and argued it focused too heavily on memorization. They’ve proposed a different draft they say addresses those issues.
The normally below-the-radar updates to state education standards happen every seven years under state law. But this update became fraught after state staff scrapped a proposed draft that had been in the works for more than 18 months. Those standards, developed in consultation with scholars, parents, and teachers and crafted largely under former Gov. Ralph Northam (D), aimed to move away from rote memorization and develop a more inclusive approach to history.
Critics noted a change in focus in tone and focus that they argued reflected a broader conservative backlash to some contemporary histories, like the New York Times’ 1619 Project, that have placed a central focus on slavery. The draft initially referred to indigenous people as “America’s first immigrants” and removed mention of Martin Luther King Jr. from the elementary school standards.
It also mentioned former President Ronald Reagan six times but made no mention of former President Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president.
Presenting the document to the board in November, Balow and the standards’ primary author, education consultant Sheila Byrd Carmichael, struggled to give board members a complete list of who had been consulted in the document. Pyle later released a list of mostly right-leaning groups that Carmichael consulted.
But emails obtained by VPM News leave open the possibility Carmichael, who was hired on a $15,000 state contract, may not have made public all of the individuals from whom she sought input.
“IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT THERE WERE OTHERS WHO DIDN’T THEIR NAMES CIRCULATED AND DIDN’T WANT TO FIELD PRESS CALLS,” Carmichael wrote in a Nov. 16 email to Pyle, who had requested Carmichael provide a list of groups she’d consulted in crafting the draft. “HOW TO HANDLE? GOOD AFFILIATIONS AND INPUT BUT I TOLD THEM I’D NOT RELEASE THEIR NAMES. THEY JUST DIDN’T WANT THE PRESS.”
The email also named some sources not previously identified publicly, including four staffers at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank; Angie Youngen, the governor’s director of scheduling; and Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D–Henrico), who confirmed in an interview he had not been asked to review the standards.
In an email, Pyle said he was not aware of other groups or individuals who’d actually provided input beyond those already publicly named by VDOE.
“I told the consultant that if a member of the public or media wanted to know who from a particular institution reviewed the draft, we would provide the requested information,” Pyle said.
Still, he left open the possibility that the ultimate list may not be fully comprehensive: “I am not able to provide an inclusive list as I was not party to the conversations the consultant had with the reviewers.”
Carmichael declined to comment.
Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D–Loudoun) said in an interview that his bill requiring VDOE to disclose “a list of each individual and organization that has been consulted” in updates to the Standards of Learning was in direct response to what he described as an opaque rewrite of the standards. Several other groups, including the Virginia Education Association and the Hamkae Center, spoke in favor of HB 1851 at its Jan. 25 hearing.
But in the committee hearing, Del. Mike Cherry (R–Colonial Heights) argued the legislation was unnecessary.
“I think this information is already readily available and people know what's going on because they do have the hearing so they know who's working with it and I find it redundant,” Cherry said.
Subramanyam disputed that claim.
“In the end, I think parents deserve to know who's being consulted, and who's providing input on the development of what our kids are learning,” he said. “That way, when we have disagreements later on, you'll at least be able to know the source of that information or who was consulted.”