Separation of Virginia history standards and curriculum causes questions
The history and social science standards are at the center of conversation for the education community in Virginia. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)
As communities and experts review Virginia’s K-12 history and social science standards, many anxiously await its companion guide, the curriculum framework.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow last month told the Board of Education that she decided to decouple the curriculum framework from the draft history and social science standards because the combination led to “vague” and “confusing information” for general public consumption.
“In the last few years, especially since school closures, the standards document has become much more front and center as a document that parents rely on and that community members rely on as a public and digestible and understandable document that says this is what’s being taught at which grade level and to what depth,” she said. “And a 400-plus page document plus framework does not accomplish that goal. It is not easily understandable for the public.”
But as the standards proposed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration went before the board in a contentious, nearly eight-hour-long meeting earlier this month, the absence of the curriculum framework sparked criticism and uncertainty because of the inability of the board and the public to review the two together.
“I think we’ve created the conditions for confusion,” said board member Alan Seibert, a Youngkin appointee, at the Nov. 17 business meeting.
Board Member Bill Hansen, another Youngkin appointee, agreed, stating, “I do think that what’s not here is what caused the anxiety out there and lacking communication, lacking context.”
The role of the curriculum framework
A curriculum framework details the specific knowledge and skills necessary for students to meet the state’s educational standards in various subjects.
Balow has said the curriculum framework, which will be based on the standards, is the “bridge between the materials that are used and the teaching that happens every day,” while the standards document is more “public-facing and states the broad learning goals.”
The August standards considered by the Board of Education included the curriculum framework in a 402-page document. In contrast, the November standards that excluded the framework clocked in at only 53 pages.
Balow said in October she had considered combining everything into a single package, but the result was not “feasible as a publicly consumable document.”
Additionally, decoupling the two allows staff to work on the curriculum framework while the draft standards are being revised, she said.
“It is really important to me that we reach out during the curriculum framework phase and engage teachers as one of our primary audiences and one of our primary communities that we seek input from because that’s who uses the curriculum framework,” said Balow.
Some board members, including President Daniel Gecker and member Anne Holton, both appointees of former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, expressed concerns with the decoupling at the Oct. 20 meeting.
“I think for policy and process reasons, it’s crucial that we keep them together,” Holton said.
Balow, however, has argued the current approach isn’t much different from the process taken during the last revision of the state’s expectations seven years ago.
“The standards document was adopted — I believe it was about a 60-page document — in 2015, and almost one year later the curriculum frameworks were before the board,” she said Oct. 20.
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle also said in an email that “the 2018 Science (Standards of Learning) were approved in 2018. The corresponding curriculum framework was approved the following June.”
A ‘both and’ approach
Some teachers and parents, however, have been critical of the decoupling.
Chad Stewart, a policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association, said instead of decoupling, “it really could be a ‘both and’ approach where there are additional materials put out for the public to understand this curriculum while you maintain some of the more important technical frameworks for teachers to really implement the highest quality instruction they possibly can for this content.”
Kathleen Smith, a former educator in Petersburg and administrator in the state education department, said separating review of the curriculum framework from the standards will leave teachers with insufficient time to prepare lessons. That may be particularly difficult for general elementary school teachers who teach every core subject.
“I can’t even fathom how one would think I could develop lesson plans without a curriculum framework,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have those because I can go in, grab my resources, and it just makes life easier, but if you decouple them, you’re taking away a primary resource for teachers. You’ll lose more people in the field than you have now.”
A recent report by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found 10,900 teachers left the workforce ahead of the current school year, exceeding the number of new teachers entering it. Teachers said their dissatisfaction was linked to higher workload due to vacancies and a lack of respect from parents and the public.
Stewart said the curriculum framework is perhaps even more important than the standards because “it helps guide teachers in the pedagogy and sequencing and development of their lesson.”
The framework also helps teachers think quickly through critical questions they need to ask their students, he added.
Assessments based on the new standards will not begin until the 2024-25 school year.
Special meeting expected in January
Virginia Department of Education staff are currently drafting the curriculum framework before it goes out for public comment, according to a Nov. 17 presentation to the Board of Education.
The board delayed its review of standards at the same meeting until January. The draft is expected to include public feedback and content from the August version.
Balow said the framework is also subject to input from the public and the board.
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