Board of Ed delays first review of new history, social science standards amid public outcry

Staff directed to incorporate public feedback for new draft expected in January

By: - November 17, 2022 8:31 pm

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow at the Nov. 17 Board of Education business meeting. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Board of Education delayed its review of new history and social science standards proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration to January after a nearly eight-hour-long meeting Thursday.

The board directed Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow to revise the newest standards, which were finalized Nov. 10, to include content from an earlier draft introduced in August. Staff were also directed to incorporate public feedback, prepare a “crosswalk” document comparing the drafts and correct all errors, omissions and inaccuracies.

“Where we sit today, we are so far away from an established process that I am concerned that we’ve lost our way — quite candidly as a board — in terms of directing what’s supposed to be going on,” said Board President Daniel Gecker, an appointee of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Dozens of speakers during hours of criticism urged the Board of Education to vote against the Youngkin administration’s new history standards. Some asked the board to instead adopt the draft introduced in August, which was based on two years of public input from educators, historians, museums, organizations, parents and staff from the Virginia Department of Education. 

Anne Holton, an appointee of former Gov. Ralph Northam, said the November draft is “a disaster.” 

She singled out the new draft’s preface stating that the standards “aim to restore excellence, curiosity and excitement.”  

“The work that I have seen go into this document by hundreds of historians, educators, DOE staff, et cetera over the last two years — I’m sure it’s absolutely, I hope and pray that it’s not intentional — but that’s disrespectful to them to say that ‘we need to restore excellence,’” Holton said. “We have excellence and we’re looking to make it better.”

Balow, who previously had requested the board delay its first review of the August draft to allow additional time to correct errors, reorder guidance and allow additional experts to weigh in, faced criticism for a range of issues, including a reference to Indigenous people as immigrants.

“I’m not an immigrant,” a speaker said during the public comment period. 

Balow apologized for the error in front of members of the media. 

Several other parts of the Nov. 10 draft that evoked broad criticism, such as its omission of Martin Luther King Jr. and Juneteenth from the elementary standards, were quietly corrected before Thursday’s meeting.

Balow sought to quiet some commenters’ fears about subjects and ideas left out of the standards by noting that numerous aspects had been shifted to the curriculum framework. 

“A standards document is a set of broad learning goals about what students should learn and be able to demonstrate,” Balow said. “And the curriculum, those are really the steps to get there. It’s the bridge between the resources in the classroom and how a [teacher] teaches.”

Balow said the framework, a new version of which has not yet been publicly released, had been separated from the standards because a combined document led to “vague and confusing information that was inaccessible for the general public consumption.”  

The superintendent said the November standards offer some improvements over the August draft, including in its treatment of slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, as well as its focus on the impact of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution on other countries.

Virginia Board of Education President Daniel Gecker, a former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointee, listening to a presentation by Jillian Balow, superintendent of public instruction, at the Nov. 17 Board of Education business meeting. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

However speakers and critics ahead of the meeting said the revisions did more harm than good by excluding influential figures, events and histories of other racial and ethnic groups.

“I want my children to have a complete and accurate understanding of history so that they (do) not only not repeat atrocities of the past, but help create something better,” said Emily Mathon, a parent from Albemarle County.

Edward Ayers, a historian and former president of the University of Richmond, said the “open inclusive process” that created the August document “embodies the democratic participation that the standards rightly celebrate.”

Speakers also questioned who authored the changes from the August draft. Balow said she would provide the names of experts involved in the revisions after requests by the board.

Sheila Byrd Carmichael, an education consultant hired to review the draft standards, recommended the Board of Education take “the best” from the last two standards documents to craft a final version. 

“Standards are the ‘what,’ and the curriculum is the ‘how,’ and I think what we had in the August document is a whole lot of ‘how,’ a lot of immeasurable and honorable, but immeasurable expectations for life goals for our students, and not necessarily specific content and skills that teachers can take action to convey to kids,” Byrd Carmichael said.

Balow indicated public input sessions on the new standards will be held in Northern Virginia, central Virginia and Southwest Virginia, as well as virtually, from Nov. 28 through Dec. 16.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.