After months of debate, Virginia Board of Education adopts history standards

By: - April 20, 2023 7:33 pm

Board members gather during a break at the Virginia Board of Education meeting on April 20, 2023 . Pictured from left are members Andy Rotherham, Grace Creasey and Bill Hansen (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

After a years-long process, the Virginia Board of Education on Thursday adopted its latest version of history and social science standards that will go into effect during the 2025-26 school year.

The next steps for the board include approving textbooks and creating curriculum frameworks, which detail the specific knowledge and skills necessary for students to meet the state’s educational standards in various subjects.

“The hard part actually starts now,” said board member Andy Rotherham, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin. “This is a big shift, and we’re going to really have to support our teachers — the amount of content knowledge here, the number of things we have put in that, frankly, people didn’t necessarily encounter in school themselves and they’re going to have to learn.” 

The adoption of the standards, which set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social science, as assessed through the Standards of Learning tests, conclude two years of recommendations and debate over what the standards should contain and what they should or should not omit.

The newest version includes changes from a November draft that will require sixth graders to describe the major features of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Juniors will be required to evaluate and explain the Progressive Movement and how the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 caused harm to immigrants. The amount of content covered in second grade is also reduced.

“This will remain an unpleasant memory for all of us, but we’re all resilient and we will get through,” said James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, before urging the department to complete the revision process “so that educators can properly prepare to teach and that our students can properly prepare to learn.”

Complaints and praise

Since the last draft of the standards was published, the board has made a number of changes, including addressing the lack of labor history content. Labor unions and supporters expressed displeasure with the lack of content during the March listening sessions and a rally in Richmond on Wednesday while also delivering the board a cart of more than 5,000 petitions in support of keeping labor history in the standards.

Four boxes of petitions representing 300,000 union members were presented to the Virginia Board of Education on April 20, 2023 (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

On Thursday, those groups also urged the board to include more about the country’s labor history, including the New Deal, the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

“We can’t forget those things. They’re very important to the structure of America,” said Shane Riddle, government relations director for the Virginia Education Association, in an interview on Monday. 

“When you start limiting and removing labor history and civil rights, you’re doing everybody an injustice because there’s so much stuff, there’s so many subtleties and nuances there that need to be shared for people to really understand where they’re coming from,” said Brian Peyton, president of Teamsters Local 322, in the same interview with the Mercury.

Other speakers Thursday expressed support for the revised standards. 

“I’ve seen a tremendous degradation in the Standards of Learning,” said Nancy Lucy, a member of Rally Virginia, a conservative group of women. “Rally Virginia endorses the standards. Growing up in Colonial Williamsburg, I supported historical fundamentals. I support patriotism, and I support Gov. Youngkin’s agenda to teach the full history — the good and the bad.”

Michael Murphy, a student at George Mason University, said he’s confident Virginia students “are capable of meeting these new rigorous standards.” 

“The students of Virginia are smart and capable, and the new standards will foster greater education encouragement,” he said.

However, other speakers voiced frustration at the process the state used to revise the standards.

Standards for every subject, including history and social science, must be reviewed every seven years, according to state law.

Under Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, the Department of Education began its review in October 2020. The first draft, which included input from thousands of Virginians, educators and organizations, was published last August.

In August, the review process took a significant turn when former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow asked the Board of Education to delay its review of the draft to correct what VDOE called “serious errors and omissions.” 

Balow introduced a new draft in November that was met with a downpour of negative reviews due to the exclusion of influential figures and events and the decision by the board to separate the standards document from the curriculum framework. 

During the past six months, critics condemned what they described as a lack of transparency regarding who authored the changes. The Department of Education has said nine outside individuals and groups contributed to the drafting of the standards, including the conservative-leaning Civics Alliance, Fordham Institute and Hillsdale College.

“One of the things I think was horrible throughout this process is the lack of transparency,” said speaker Terrell Fleming Thursday. 

Following a tense meeting this November, the Board of Education again delayed its review and asked the Department of Education to draft a third version. That version was the one put out for public review and comment and adopted Thursday.

‘Restore’ or ‘ensure’ or ‘inspire’

A point of particular disagreement among the Board of Education this week were the standards’ “guiding principles,” and whether

they should include the phrase “restoring excellence.”

While the board voted to accept the standards unanimously, members took a separate vote on the guiding principles, on which they split.

Democratic appointees pushed for the replacement of the word “restore” in the principles with “inspire” or “ensure.”

“It feels in this context disrespectful to our counterparts in the [Gov. Bob] McDonnell administration and beyond who spent a lot of time on the 2015 standards,” said board member Anne Holton, an appointee of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. 

She said the 2015 standards received a “B+” rating from the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, and were viewed as among the best standards in the country. 

“Now we’re going to make them even better,” she said. “But I don’t see a need in the first sentence to cast disrespect on the people who did the last version.”

However, board members Grace Creasey and Bill Hansen, both Youngkin appointees, opposed the idea of replacing the word.

“I really don’t think that the use of the word ‘restoring’ as it refers to excellence is derogatory, which I think perhaps people are interpreting it as being derogatory,” Creasey said. “I see it as renovating a view of excellence and taking a different look at that opportunity to excel in a new way.”

Hansen said he had a hard time understanding the concern over the word “restore” in light of the “precipitous” drop in test scores and “unprecedented” learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.

“I do think there’s some restoration of a lot of what we’re trying to accomplish here with the standards, so I don’t know why this is a ‘third rail’ type of word for people,” Hansen said. “We’re in deep crisis right now, as a country, as a commonwealth — kind of socially, culturally, but also educationally — and so, in my mind, the word ‘restore’ is actually important and defining of what this work is all about.”

Vice President Tammy Mann, a Northam appointee, said she agreed with Hansen that work must be done to improve student outcomes but urged the board “to focus more on what we hope the standards will result in, how learning is engaged.”

“I think that’s why I prefer a word like ‘inspire’ over ‘restoration,’” Mann said.

President Daniel Gecker, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said the phrase “restoring excellence” suggests to Virginia’s teachers and department employees that they are not currently excellent. “What I don’t understand honestly is why it’s so important to use the ‘restore’ word, when there are so many other words that will carry this like the ‘inspire’ word,” Gecker said. 

“Every time somebody does something new, these are new standards. What they really want to say is, ‘These are a lot better than the old ones,’” he said. “Really what we’re doing is building here. We are not looking to create the implication that the last ones were bad — they were perfectly appropriate for the commonwealth at the time, and I really wish you guys would reconsider making this the die-in-the-ditch issue for you.”

The proposal to replace the term failed on a 5-4 vote.


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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.