Despite public pushback, Board of Ed accepts draft history standards for first review
Public hearings scheduled for March 13-21
A speaker holds up a sign supporting a draft of the history standards different from the version completed by the staff at the Virginia Department of Education. (Nathaniel Cline / Virginia Mercury)
The Virginia Board of Education voted to accept for first review the newest draft of Virginia’s hotly debated history and social science standards Thursday on a 5-3 vote.
President Daniel Gecker, Vice President Tammy Mann and board member Anne Holton, all appointees of former Govs. Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe, opposed moving forward with the proposal over concerns that the introductory pages are too “political.”
“I did take my time and read through the January revision,” said Mann during a Wednesday work session, referring to the latest draft. “It is improved, but it is difficult to constantly have to navigate through these coded ways of dealing with elements of our history.”
Despite the concerns, board member Andy Rotherham, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, on Thursday made a motion to move forward with the new standards.
“This process is not over,” he said, calling the proposal “good at this point in the process.”
The vote, which followed four hours of public comment, came after months of pushback by Virginians who criticized a lack of transparency in the authorship of changes that appeared in a November draft and the absence from it of influential figures and events. The final draft will set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social science in K-12 schools, as assessed through the Standards of Learning tests.
Complicating the process was the decision to separate the standards from an accompanying curriculum framework. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow has said the combination led to “vague” and “confusing information,” although one board member said the separation “created the conditions for confusion.”
The controversy over the standards, which under state law must be revised at least every seven years, has bled over into the General Assembly. Last week, legislation that would have required the Board of Education to publish a list of any consultants used in revising the standards and how much they were paid at least 30 days prior to a public hearing on a revision failed in a House subcommittee.
“This process is too important to our kids to leave it to conversations behind closed doors without transparency about who is deciding what will be taught in our schools,” said the bill’s patron, Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun.
On Thursday, Balow urged speakers to assess the standards themselves and not base their opinion on “a specific set of talking points.”
“It’s not a long document and it’s meant to be public-facing,” Balow said. “So I really hope that people take a look at the standards and find themselves, find their cultures, find their interests reflected in the standards because they are representative voices and work over the last two years. This is not a standalone document that was stood up over the last couple of weeks.”
January draft vs. alternative version
The board heard from dozens of speakers Thursday criticizing the newest draft, which they accused of “whitewashing” parts of history, requiring a high rate of memorization and excluding various issues such as geographical themes and the American labor movement.
“I’m concerned that this new revised standard is going to set education back in this commonwealth,” said Milton Hathaway, a parent of public school graduates. “There is no question about your commitment to education in the commonwealth, but to pass this January standard is going to set our commonwealth back, and your name will be on the documentation.”
Martin Brown, Virginia’s chief diversity officer and director of the state’s Office of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion, was one of the rare supporters to speak on Thursday.
“We believe the good, the bad and the ugly have actually been communicated in the standards,” Brown said.
He added that the standards are “more robust” and have “more expanded content” about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement of Indigenous people in America.
Additional remarks by Brown that the standards honored recommendations issued by the African American History Education Commission, however, stoked pushback from former commission members in attendance.
One member, Makya Little, told the Mercury no one on the commission knew Brown.
“We literally had no idea who he was,” said Little, who served as the commission’s parent advocate and is running for the House District 19 seat as a Democrat.
“What the Youngkin administration is doing is what the DeSantis administration is doing,” she added, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has publicly criticized what he calls “woke” ideas and “indoctrination” in schools. “They are just being more underhanded about it.”
The January draft included content from earlier drafts produced in August and November.
An alternative version was published by the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and American Historical Association in December.
Many speakers and groups urged the board to accept that alternative version, which its crafters said aimed to “ensure that content was accurate, age-appropriate, inclusive, and vertically articulated in a manner that supports a natural progression of content, depth, and skill acquisition.”
However, a motion to substitute the alternative draft for the administration’s latest version failed 3-5, with Mann, Holton and Gecker in favor.
On Wednesday, the board spent significant time debating the opening pages of the January draft, which include discussion of the standards’ guiding principles, background and context.
Mann urged the board to remove the section, which she said “has a tone that is [more] partisan than is needed in this kind of document.” She particularly objected to a statement that the new draft would “restore excellence” to Virginia education.
“The standards are not our problem, in my humble opinion,” Mann said. “This is a revision of 2015 [standards]. If we have issues with how students are performing on assessments, that deserves to be understood because that may not be due to our standards lacking, but it actually may also be associated with the fact that they may not have access to instruction that is qualified to teach the high standards.”
Holton also expressed opposition to the phrase, which she said could be interpreted as a reflection on current and future educators.
“How are we going to retain qualified teachers when we tell all the teachers across the commonwealth and all the curriculum educators that we need to restore excellence because they’ve decimated it?” Holton asked. “I think it’s the wrong way to start out this document.”
Youngkin appointees Suparna Dutta and Bill Hansen disagreed, with Dutta calling the draft “fantastic” and Hansen saying he viewed the introductory pages as “a call to action” after the recent drop in assessment scores statewide.
“I’m viewing this as more of a call to action, a call to help change things, because if we keep going on the trajectory we’re going, it’s not a good one,” Hansen said.
Public hearings are scheduled to begin on March 13 and run to March 21 at five locations in Virginia, according to Virginia Department of Education staff. Final approval is expected April 20.
Gecker said he expects line edits to be conducted after public comments.
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