Virginia history standards criticized by local teacher unions sent back to drawing board

The Virginia Board of Education held a public hearing last week on new draft standards for history and social studies (via VDOE/YouTube)

Fairfax County’s teacher unions expressed relief after new state-proposed history standards were rejected by a governor-appointed board late last week.

On Thursday evening (Nov. 17), Virginia’s Board of Education voted unanimously to again delay approving new history standards drafted by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

The proposed standards had numerous admitted mistakes, errors and typos, and was radically changed from a 400-page working draft first publicly released over the summer.

The new document was also significantly shorter. A longer “framework” document which will include information on how to teach the material will be released next summer, per the Washington Post.

“We are pleased to see that the Board of Education has heard the voices of teachers, students, parents, and community activists,” Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) President David Walrod said. “The draft of standards presented [Thursday] was hastily assembled, with multiple new versions being released in a matter of days.”

Among the most discussed changes in the draft standards were omissions of both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth as holidays. They also described Virginia’s indigenous peoples as America’s “first immigrants,”

The draft also eliminated racism in America as a central theme to be taught in many grades, while removing instances of teaching students about culture and government outside Europe and the U.S.

The board’s rejection came after a four-hour public hearing where a number of speakers, including Walrod, called the new standards a “whitewashing” of history.

The VDOE first released this draft less than a week before the board was scheduled to vote on it, leading members to complain about the short timeframe for reviewing such large changes.

The approval had already been postponed from August after a previous draft was similarly riddled with mistakes and errors. That draft was also about 400 pages long, compared to the 57-page document this time around.

Composed of appointees from the last three governor administrations, creating a bipartisan group, the board directed VDOE last week to rework its draft to fix mistakes and incorporate more of the August draft. When approved, the standards will be implemented for the 2024-2025 school year.

State Superintendent Jillian Balow apologized for some of the errors and a few had been corrected before last week’s meeting, but citing the significant changes and short timeframe, Board President Daniel Gecker said approving the draft now would be “disrespectful” and not result in “the Board’s best product.”

Board member Anne Holton called the new draft a “disaster.”

“I have defended the administration’s handling of this matter, both publicly and privately,” she said. “I have told people who thought that this was an attempt to whitewash…to calm down. We are really just trying to get it right. I no longer have that confidence and can no longer say that to those folks.”

Prior to the hearing, FCFT and the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), a union representing 4,000 county public school employees, said the new draft standards are “loaded with political bias” and “only teach one view of history,” potentially setting “the state of Virginia back decades” if approved.

The Fairfax County branch of the NAACP called them “racist” and “factually incorrect.”

As a former third-grade teacher, Walrod was distressed to see the social studies standards for that grade, which are “typically an introduction to world history including Mali, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome, had been reduced to a Eurocentric curriculum focusing only on Greece and Rome.”

“We hope the next draft of the standards will look closer to the version presented in August, which has been assembled with input from historians, educators, educational leaders, pedagogical experts, families, and community leaders,” he said after the vote to delay. “We hope the next draft will not be created by people and groups that Superintendent Balow refused to even name.”

The FEA said it was “happy” the state education board “listened to the citizens of Virginia and delayed action on the new draft document.”

The new draft was riddled with inaccuracies, but most importantly it omitted parts of history that did not align with Governor Youngkin’s political and controlled narrative. If our students are at the center of what is being done; if we are truly looking out for their best interest then we owe it to them to teach the truth (the good, the bad, and the ugly) about American History and Virginia History.

A Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson said the district won’t be commenting. School Board Chair Rachna Sizemore Heizer didn’t respond to FFXnow’s inquiry by publication time.

When asked to respond to the board’s postponement and criticism of the draft from the local unions, among others, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office referred FFXnow to public comments he made on Friday (Nov. 18).

Expressing disappointment in the draft’s “omissions and mistakes,” Youngkin suggested some of the pushback stems from confusion over the absence of a framework or curriculum in the new document. He asked folks “to be patient.”

A revised draft is expected to come back to the board in early 2023.

Virginia reviews its standard history curriculum for students every seven years, making this the first review since 2015. This year’s process has been particularly fraught after Youngkin issued an executive order banning “critical race theory” in schools.

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