Missing context, political bias: Some of critics’ objections to Virginia’s new history standards
Virginia Board of Education expected to review history standards Nov. 17.
The Virginia Department of Education is located in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)
A number of groups are questioning new history and social science standards proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration ahead of a Board of Education meeting to begin reviewing them Thursday.
Critics from diverse communities and lawmakers, most recently in a Nov. 15 letter to the governor and school officials, argue the new standards are missing influential figures and events and voice concern about what they say is a lack of transparency regarding who authored the changes.
The standards will set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social science, which are assessed through the Standards of Learning tests. The Board of Education delayed its first review after Superintendent Jillian Balow requested additional time to correct errors, reorder guidance and allow additional experts to weigh in on the draft.
“Continued review and edits to the standards over the past several months have strengthened the content at each grade level,” wrote Balow in a Nov. 10 letter to the Board of Education. “The edits honor the work done previously by Virginians, and national and state experts.”
Balow also said in her letter that draft curriculum frameworks, which are guides for teachers, will be published later.
However, critics in the Nov. 15 letter said the curriculum frameworks missing from the standards make it “impossible for anybody to effectively evaluate the draft as a whole.”
Among the letter’s signatories are 10 Democratic lawmakers and groups including the Virginia Education Association, the nonprofit Hamkae Center, which describes itself as organizing “Asian Americans to achieve social, economic, and racial justice in Virginia,” the Fairfax County NAACP and the Sikh Coalition. The Virginia Education Association referred inquiries to the Hamkae Center.
They also questioned the number of “problematic content changes that fail to reflect the concerns of our diverse communities” and the involvement of groups such as the Michigan based-Hillsdale College in the review of the standards.
Balow said last month that representatives from other colleges expressed interest in commenting on the draft standards after VPM reported that she was working with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank, to develop the standards.
Here are a few objections to the proposed new standards that educational and other groups have raised.
Critics say parts of the new standards lack proper context.
For example, while the standards replace the term “Indian” with “Indigenous people” and require students to study aspects of the groups, they do not mention that Indigenous People’s Day replaced Columbus Day in 1992 because Indigenous people view Christopher Columbus as a colonizer rather than a discoverer.
Additionally, the standards recognize the development of slavery in colonial Virginia but lack an emphasis on the slave trade and tobacco plantations, critics say.
“Nazis” and “The Final Solution,” which are necessary to understand the Holocaust, are also missing from the standards.
“Content is crucial for understanding the Holocaust and other genocides,” said Gail Flax, a retired educator. “You have to know what happened before and what happened afterward to be able to analyze and contextualize history.”
With the removal of historical figures and events, critics have questioned the narrative of history the administration is conveying to students.
Zowee Aquino of the Hamkae Center said the revisions reflect “pretty explicit political bias.” She said the standards also have a Eurocentric theme that focuses on European or Anglo-American ideas and disregards the contributions of ethnic minorities in white countries.
For example, the name of Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist, was removed from the elementary school standards. King’s name first appears in the sixth grade standards.
Aquino said there’s no mention of Juneteenth, the Chinese Exclusion Act or Martin Luther King Jr. Day in any of the standards. China and the African civilization of Mali, which have been part of the standards for world culture studies, have also been removed from third grade standards.
The standards also do not include any mention of tribal sovereignty.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said in a letter to the Board of Education that the revised draft deletes “major components of our history and deliberately
omits the diverse perspectives that shape our commonwealth and our nation.”
For example, she wrote that the draft omits any discussion of the history or modern-day culture of the Latino community, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders or the LGBTQ community.
“These decisions would mean that hundreds of thousands of Virginia children would not have the opportunity to learn about their community’s contributions to the fabric and history of our nation,” McClellan wrote. “And, all Virginia students would lack a fuller understanding of our country’s history.”
The inclusion of King, the national holiday for the civil rights leader and Juneteenth marking the day when all enslaved Africans became free were several edits recommended by the Virginia Commission on African American History Education, but excluded or generalized in the redraft.
The list of edits excluded include the mention of John Mercer Langston, the first African American congressman from Virginia. The commission’s recommendation that the standards include the phrase that “not everyone was considered a citizen when our country began, and for a long time after that, even until today” was also excluded.
Mention of Indigenous people and their culture being affected by white European colonization was also excluded from the standards, as was the phrase “the Virginia Colony’s economy was greatly dependent upon temporary and permanent servitude.”
Historical errors and inaccuracies
Critics also say the proposed standards have historical errors and inaccuracies.
Specifically, students starting in the fourth grade are required to explain the reasons for the relocation of Virginia’s capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg as part of the Revolutionary War. However, an email from the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium Monday said “this makes absolutely no sense” given Virginia’s capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond to provide greater protection against British attack.
Additionally, the group says the standards erroneously convey that Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848, was the most recent president from Virginia instead of Woodrow Wilson, who was elected in 1912.
The standards do not explicitly say which president was most recent. The document only states that students starting in the fourth grade will be required to explain the growth of a new America with an emphasis on the role of Virginians by explaining Virginia’s prominence in national leadership, emphasizing its eight presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Zachary Taylor.
“The previous version of the proposed standards did not contain egregious historical errors such as this because they were developed by a team of educators, division leaders and historians,” the consortium wrote.
Aquino also questioned whether the revisions are age appropriate.
For example, first and third graders must learn about the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient law text, and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, under the proposed history standards. She said the history is “pretty dense and intense” and includes details about capital punishment.
However, Charles Pyle, a spokesman with the Virginia Department of Education, said under the standards, first graders will learn where the first civilizations began and third graders will learn about democracy. He said Aurelius is part of a list of suggested examples of mythical and historical figures students could encounter as they “hear, read, and retell stories.”
With the focus on the amount of work demanded of teachers due to the workforce shortage, critics question a sentence in the preface of the history standards that states teachers should provide all of their instructional materials to parents.
Under the Board of Education’s current regulations, parents have the right to inspect instructional materials used as part of the educational curriculum for students.
Aquino said many reports link teacher burnout with increased work demands and argued another mandate does not help support students.
“It’s a huge task that the new administration is asking them to take on that doesn’t improve instruction,” Aquino said.
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