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Virginia BOE approves changes to K-12 history standards, including lessons on racism

Virginia Gov Youngkin delivers his State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the Virginia legislature in the House chamber in Richmond, Va., Wednesday Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)
Virginia Gov Youngkin delivers his State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the Virginia legislature in the House chamber in Richmond, Va., Wednesday Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)
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The Virginia Board of Education approved sweeping changes to K-12 history and social science standards of learning late last week that will impact how students are taught history across the Commonwealth for the next seven years.

The development of the new standards has been the topic of a heated ten-month-long debate.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin's approved standards say that history and social science “will be taught in an objective, factual and age-appropriate way” and that “parents should have access to all instructional materials utilized in any Virginia public school.”

RELATED | Youngkin proposes new history standards, including teaching patriotism in Va. schools

Youngkin's history standards also say “teachers must facilitate open and balanced discussions on difficult topics, including discrimination and racism, and present learning opportunities without personal or political bias” and “teachers should engage students in fact-based, non-ideological, and age-appropriate ways that do not imply students today are culpable for past events. Teachers should not intentionally expose students to embarrassment or disparagement or unreasonably restrict student access to varying points of view.”

“I think these standards set the aspiration for the future and they start the process of restoring excellence in our standards across the state,” Dr. Lisa Coons told 7News in an interview on Monday.

Dr. Coons is Youngkin’s new State Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Virginia Department of Education.

“They increase the content that we want to see in our classrooms. The team and the state board really took the time to deliver the best possible standards for the Commonwealth," she added.

So what’s next in the process?

“Now they will be digging in and thinking about what educators across the state need, what our school leaders and our division need to have an effective implementation,” said Coons. “I want to give the opportunity to get feedback from the field and make sure we're being responsive to what our educators need and think about curriculum frameworks, implementation, sample modules of resources. But that package really has to be driven and delivered by what our educators are telling us they need to be successful.”

The Virginia Education Association says they’re slightly disappointed with the newly approved history standards.

“We're still slightly disappointed,” said VEA President James Fedderman. “However, the revision is in a better posture than it was before [with Youngkin’s first history standard proposal]. But we also feel like this does not truly reflect the history that we know to be true. And our students deserve to be taught the truth. And they also deserve to be taught critical thinking skills so that they can make informed decisions for themselves.”

READ MORE | Gov. Youngkin responds to proposed Virginia school history standards backlash

Last summer, Youngkin scraped his predecessor’s history proposal that would have no longer taught George Washington as the father of our country and James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution. Youngkin put that back in the approved history standards.

Former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s standards included teachings on social justice, LGBTQ rights, Latinx Americans, equity, climate defense, the Stonewall uprising, the gay pride movement and more.

Youngkin’s history standards do not mention equity, but it mentions the gay rights movement once in 11th-grade history standards. That also includes teachings on the rise of the conservative movement and the election of Ronald Reagan, the women’s movement, the pro-life movement, antisemitism, hate crimes and more.

SEE ALSO | Youngkin opposes effort to eliminate George Washington as 'Father' of U.S. on SOL

But although the new standards are approved, the debate on how to teach history isn’t over.

“I think it’s important and essential for our teachers to give an objective view of history and social science standards and allow our students to understand the facts,” said Dr. Coons. “It's an important opportunity for our students when they focus on content, to focus on that content, focus on the concepts and the understandings of that time period. And I think our state school board spent six hours on Wednesday going through the standards line by line by line to ensure that that factual and objective component is balanced and comprehensive, and I'm really proud of how the state school board really emphasized that approach and that perception as they were looking through those final standards and making the final review.”

But the President of the VEA argues the approved history standards are “biased.”

“The standards are absolutely biased,” said Fedderman. “When you talk about removing people or experiences for the sake of how it may make one feel, that is a bias. The resulting standards are racist. They're factually incorrect, and they're not age-appropriate, and it also reflects explicit political bias."

"There are no significant improvements to the original version [Northam’s version], as claimed by the superintendent and some of these examples would be, referring to Native Americans as America's first immigrants - stripping away their history and heritage as indigenous people. And that downplays the brutal impact on Native Americans due to the westward expansion," he said. "That’s just one example. And the removal of content of LGBTQ+ information and little discussion about the human impact of enslavement in early colonial Virginia.”

Fedderman said he prefers Northam’s proposed history standards.

“The prior standards were inclusive,” said Fedderman. “Let's be honest about it. The group that did the vetting of those standards were greater than hundreds of educational practitioners from across the Commonwealth. And when the Younkin administration decided to do a review, they went to an entity that had nothing to do with Virginia. They went to a group or a firm that was already biased. So, the original version did reflect the Commonwealth that we can all appreciate and learn from. This administration seeks to divide and to put parents against teachers, teachers against students and that's not the Commonwealth of who we are. And these standards do not collectively mirror who we want to become.”

The Virginia Board of Education unanimously approved the history revisions last week.

“I am confident these standards will meet the needs of Virginia’s children,” Board of Education President Dan Gecker said in a statement. “Are they perfect? Probably not. But they represent a balance between content knowledge and inquiry as well as the consensus of the board regarding what students should know about our history and institutions.”

The principles of the approved history and social sciences learning standards include:

  • Individual liberty and representative government are cornerstones of the American way of life;
  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable documents that provide the freedoms and framework for our constitutional republic.
  • We aspire to live up to the ideals expressed but not fully realized by the Founders for a society that recognizes all individuals are created equal.
  • From thirteen diverse colonies to a unified nation, “E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of Many, One,” has always been our strength. Immigrants from around the world continue to come to the United States seeking freedom and opportunity to build a better life and have contributed to our communities and added to the rich history of the United States.
  • Free enterprise, property rights and the rule of law enable an economic system that allocates assets through free markets and competition and fosters innovation, opportunity and efficiency.
  • Centralized government planning in the form of socialism or communist political systems, as well as fascism, totalitarianism, and other forms of government that preference state power or control over individual liberty and consent of the governed, are incompatible with democracy.
  • America is both exceptional and imperfect.
  • The rights codified in the United States and Virginia constitutions and the Bill of Rights provide for individual freedoms that place a responsibility on current and future generations of Americans to engage in the political process with civility and fulfill their civic obligations.
  • Through the ages, civilizations have grown, prospered and vanished. Every student should understand our Great American Experiment is not guaranteed forever. As Benjamin Franklin warned citizens over 200 years ago, “you have a republic if you can keep it.”

“These standards embody Governor Glenn Youngkin’s commitment to teach all history — both the good and the bad,” said Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera in a statement. “They are more robust and tell more Virginians’ stories thanks to the leadership of the state board and the valuable input over the past two years from educators, parents, students, historians, museums, experts and Virginians from across the Commonwealth.”

As of Monday, Youngkin’s new State Superintendent has been on the job for six days.

Dr. Coons told 7News what her priorities are following the approval of Virginia’s new history standards of learning.

“One thing that I have heard loud and clear across the state, especially spending the day with school division superintendents, is that we need a high-quality licensed teacher in every classroom,” she said. “So that's my first priority. I think we also are starting to look at raising the floor or raising the bar and thinking about how we effectively do that in a post-pandemic society. How we think about accountability? How we support our families and knowing where their students are performing and what they need to be successful, but also where our school divisions are performing and what support they need to grow and be successful."

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"So that's one of our next steps is to really tour the state and talk to our school divisions, listen to where they are. I'm very excited that we're getting ready to release student summary reports to families that will tell families how their students are performing and give them good resources," Coons said. "This summer, we'll also be launching learning grants for our families, so that they can get tutoring support. We also have to focus on safe and healthy schools. We have to partner with businesses. We have to partner with our higher ed, with our community colleges and work together to think about how we remove barriers to prepare our students for the workforce of tomorrow.”

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