Virginia Board of Education delays public hearings for history standards review
Youngkin administration cites concerns with draft proposal
The Virginia Department of Education is located in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)
The Virginia Board of Education is delaying its public hearings on the state’s new history and social science standards by a month to address concerns with timing and a number of errors and content issues Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration said were in the proposal.
The board’s schedule called for the mandated public hearings to occur in August. The board agreed to give the staff time to make certain corrections in the document and begin the public hearing process starting in September, between the September and October meetings.
At a Wednesday board meeting in Richmond, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow recommended against the board moving the draft standards forward for review, instead urging members to allow the proposal to undergo further development by Virginians and national experts prior to its acceptance.
The standards outline Virginia’s expectations for student learning in K-12 history and social science education and are assessed through the Standards of Learning tests. Virginia code requires the board to review the standards every seven years to update content and reflect current academic research.
“We’re on our way to having the best standards in the nation, and I don’t want any of us to settle for anything less,” said Balow.
Among Balow’s criticisms of the draft standards was their use of the word “succession” instead of “secession.” She also referenced the removal of the “Father of our Country” title for George Washington and “Father of the Constitution” title for James Madison, which the Department of Education has said was done in error.
Suparna Dutta and William Hansen, two of the newest board members, said they would not feel comfortable moving forward with the current proposal.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to take a pause for the five new members here, to be able to get our sea legs under us a little bit, and to have a better understanding,” Hansen said.
However, Board President Daniel Gecker said the department has had the document for seven months and that content and correction issues are the responsibility not of the board, but of department staff. He also said the entire board received the draft proposal simultaneously.
Sarah Johnson, a Chesterfield resident who spoke during the Wednesday meeting, said delaying the review process for the new standards is “unfair” to students and costly for taxpayers. She noted that the process has included input from a number of students and industry experts in education and history, and over 5,000 comments have been submitted.
“This begs the question, Who was the superintendent attempting to please?” Johnson said.
Zowee Aquino, policy and communications team lead at the nonprofit Hamkae Center, was one of several people who urged the board to move the draft standards forward.
“The proposed SOLs should proceed,” Aquino said. “Experts have weighed in and so many residents are ready to engage.”
In a surprise visit to the board meeting, the first to be held since the governor’s appointees assumed a majority on the body, Youngkin stressed the importance of the Board of Education in developing policies and improving student achievement, including through the revision of the standards for history and social science.
“I want us to teach all of our history in Virginia, the good and the bad,” Youngkin said.
The revisions are “an opportunity for us to set a standard for what it means to educate our children in all of the lessons — again, I’ll repeat, the good and the bad — but also the amazing progress that we’ve made in this country and yet the times we failed,” he said. “This is the moment for us to take a really, really serious look at how we are teaching this most important topic.”
Youngkin campaigned heavily on education issues, including critical race theory, a graduate-level framework that focuses on racial inequity and has not been found in Virginia curricula. His first executive order, issued on Inauguration Day, prohibited the use of “inherently divisive concepts,” including CRT, in K-12 education and ordered the state to raise academic standards.
On Wednesday, Mary Ann Burke, who described herself as a mother to three public school graduates, took aim at the governor’s executive order and urged the board to continue its review as scheduled.
“We maintain that all evidence-based history is not ‘divisive’ if it is true,” Burke said. “It is essential that Virginia students learn the complete and honest history, including the history of our African American citizens.”
The Board of Education launched the review process of the history and social science standards nearly two years ago. The board, along with a committee of curriculum leaders and higher education faculty members, met repeatedly to discuss the revision of the standards between October 2020 and June 2021.
Public input was collected simultaneously in the spring of 2021, followed by a number of virtual meetings with VDOE staff to reconcile the standards in February 2022. Over 5,000 comments and input from 200 committee members were included in the draft that came before the board Wednesday.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, public hearings and the final approval were expected in September and on Nov. 17, respectively.
The department said the standards could go into effect as early as 2024.
Chad Stewart, a policy analyst with the Virginia Education Association, said the group is “generally” pleased with the revisions and sees a “significant improvement” compared to previous standards.
Edward Ayers, a historian and former president of the University of Richmond, said the revised standards could move Virginia students beyond memorizing names and dates “to lead the nation in a sort of inquiry-based learning in social studies that we’ve long used in science and in business education.”
“There is, in fact, no more useful subject than understanding your own country,” Ayers said. “We have an obligation to teach that history with what we know, and fortunately, you folks are on the right track.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the board delayed the public hearings for the standards, not their vote.
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