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Board of Education splits vote on latest history standards draft

Jillian Balow and Daniel Gecker sit at their assigned VBOE meeting room seats and listen
Connor Scribner
VPM News
The Virginia Board of Education voted 5–-3 Thursday to advance its latest history standards draft.

The latest draft is drawing criticism from multiple social studies and history curriculum experts.

The Virginia Board of Education voted 5–3 Thursday to advance its latest history standards draft. The current version was presented to the board in January after the panel rejected earlier drafts in August and November. The board tasked the Virginia Department of Education last fall with combining the best of both prior drafts — one drafted under the Northam administration, and the other under the Youngkin administration — into a fresh document.

All five Youngkin appointees voted to advance the January draft. But this third draft is also drawing the criticism of multiple experts in social studies and history curriculum — many of whom shared concerns on Thursday.

“We would not go to even the best dermatologist in order to have a kidney transplant, or to receive consultation on brain surgery. We would not have a comic book artist — no matter how acclaimed or skilled — to draft engineering plans for the next state-of-the-art skyscraper. So why would the Virginia Department of Education leadership not call upon the experts in Virginia with regard to the drafting of the January standards?” questioned Ma’asehyahu Isra-Ul, president of the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium during Thursday’s public comments.

It is not clear who exactly was involved in the January rewrite; the press release announcing the new document notes that the third draft “incorporates input from more than 200 reviewers over the course of two years.”

Charles Pyle with VDOE confirmed for VPM News that this figure references a combined group of over 200 reviewers previously consulted for the August and November drafts, released to board members in early December.

Isra-Ul said that’s misleading, because he was involved in providing feedback on professional development and professional learning as part of the August draft only. On Thursday, he called on the VDOE to release the names of those involved in the January draft exclusively.

“So many of us on that sheet had nothing to do with November or January,” Isra-Ul told VPM News. “So there needs to be a separation of the names of people who helped strictly for January.”

Six organizations including VSSLC recently sent a joint letter to the board stating that the most recent standards are not historically rigorous. At the same time, the letter charges that the new draft is unrealistic because of the addition of over 100 new standards — but adds no instructional time.

“This imbalance will pressure educators to require rote memorization for the sake of content coverage without the ‘application of knowledge,’” the letter reads.

Other groups that co-authored the letter include the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, American Historical Association, Virginia Council for the Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies, and the Virginia Geographic Alliance.

Brendan Gillis, manager of teaching and learning at the American Historical Society, told VPM News that while the January draft is an improvement over November’s, “It still doesn't seem to take into consideration how people might actually teach the standards, how they might be implemented in classrooms.”

NCSS President-elect Wesley Hedgepeth told VPM News that normally organizations like NCSS don’t weigh in on content like this. But after state board of education member Suparna Dutta called the group “divisive and controversial” in an August meeting, Hedgepeth said the group realized they needed to get more involved in the history standards discussion.

Hedgepeth said that while he also noticed some improvements over the November draft, there are still many things that need to be addressed — including historical inaccuracies and standards that are not age-appropriate. For example, he pointed out the January draft calls for discussion of the Supreme Court case of Green v. New Kent County in the fourth grade. The case dealt with local plans aimed at circumventing desegregation in public schools.

“Students aren’t quite ready at 9 years old to understand that complex of a court case,” Hedgepeth said, urging the focus at this age to remain on the significance of the Brown v. Board of Education case and the subsequent Massive Resistance campaign.

The group also proposed alternative standards they’re calling the “collaborative draft,” which has garnered the support of groups like the Virginia NAACP.

“We are extremely disappointed by the number of mistakes and omissions presented in the current version of the VSPI’s history standards, namely, the ahistorical treatment of Indigenous people of North America, the chronology of American history that begins with European Exploration, the silencing of workers and African Americans in decisive events in American history like the American Revolution, and the incorrect periodization of the establishment of the NAACP, to name but a few,” wrote Amy Tillerson-Brown, Virginia NAACP education chairperson, in a statement.

'Restore.' That word was chosen carefully.
—VCSS President Samantha Futrell

Numerous teachers and experts urged the board to approve the collaborative draft on Thursday instead of the January draft. Board of Education member Anne Holton asked the board to advance that draft instead of the January draft, but her motion failed. Holton also made a separate motion to address specific language in the January draft — which also failed.

The intro to the January draft states that the standards “aim to restore excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history.” That’s just one example of language Holton and others like VCSS President Samantha Futrell took issue with.

“Restore. That word was chosen carefully. That word was chosen so that this draft would begin with an indictment of history instruction in the Commonwealth. As if educators in Virginia are not already fostering excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history, as if we need to be reprimanded. As if we have not taught, cared for and learned with our students through a pandemic, a phone tip line, threats to our safety and questions about our character,” Futrell said during public comment on Thursday.

The standards will now be subject to a round of public comment in March before the draft comes back to the board for final approval in late April — according to a VDOE timeline.

Disclosure: VPM News is pursuing litigation against the Virginia Department of Education over open records laws.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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