In Virginia, a battle over history standards ends in compromise
Jenna Saykhamphone, a senior at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, helped start an equity team at her high school to fight stereotypes both inside and outside her school in suburban Washington, D.C.
Saykhamphone, who has Laotian and Nigerian ancestry, said there are not many other Black or Hispanic students in her accelerated International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, even though 85 percent of the student body is Black, Hispanic or Asian.
And in one IB history class, she said a teacher had students pick cotton seeds off cotton plants to demonstrate the efficiency of the cotton gin, in an attempt to include multiple perspectives in his class. Saykhamphone and other Black students at the school found this lesson offensive, but their teacher did not understand why until students talked to Fairfax County’s culturally responsive pedagogy specialists to intervene.
So, when she learned that Virginia was planning to revise its history standards — sparking fears of an attempt to downplay the importance of minority communities in the state — she joined dozens of other opponents at a public hearing in Mount Vernon, Virginia, near the home of George Washington.
“I felt like it was my social responsibility to go out and speak,” she said. At the meeting, reading a prepared speech from her cell phone, Saykhamphone shared the cotton gin story and told board members that “for me to truly appreciate American history and my Black and Asian history, standards should not be watered down.”
And, she added, “I also have to miss studying for my physics test to be here.”
Virginia’s rewrite of its history curriculum started off with heat and discord. But the process eventually ended with a set of standards approved unanimously by a bipartisan state board, which included members appointed by current Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a conservative Republican.
That conclusion is a marked contrast to Florida’s recently approved and controversial African-American history standards. Critics say that document minimizes slavery through such standards as requiring students to learn how “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Andy Rotherham, who was appointed to the state board of education in 2022 by Youngkin, said the outcome of the social studies debate shows that people can get past politics to a good result. Rotherham, a Democrat, also served a four-year term on the board from 2005 to 2009, when he was appointed by then-governor Mark Warner, a Democrat.
“We did good work, and we listened to each other,” Rotherham said. But the final outcome is getting lost in the continuing political tensions, he said. “Youngkin appointed good people, but he’s getting zero credit for that.”
But the “good work” that led to unanimous approval was honed through compromise, another difference from Florida’s process.
“In Virginia, Youngkin can’t begin to do what Ron DeSantis can do in Florida on questions of ‘wokeness,’ because there is a Democratic Senate majority that is blocking much of Youngkin’s preferred agenda,” said Stephen Farnsworth, the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. However, every seat in the General Assembly is on the ballot in November, and that election will determine if that legislative balance will remain for the rest of Youngkin’s term.
The Virginia Board of Education reviews the state’s “standards of learning” — which guide curricula and are tied to end-of-grade tests — every seven years. Redrafting of the history standards started in 2021 under the administration of Ralph Northam, the former Democratic governor.
But in August 2022, the new proposed standards, which included recommendations from the state’s African American History Education Commission, were put on hold to allow Youngkin appointees a chance to review them.
That review set off a roller-coaster process that led to three versions making it to public view before the state board approved the standards in April.
The new standards say that teachers must facilitate “open and balanced” discussions about topics such as discrimination and racism, but the standards also note that teachers should engage their classes in “fact-based, non-ideological, and age-appropriate ways that do not imply students today are culpable for past events.”
The standards refer to the “indelible stain” of slavery and require that in fourth grade students be taught that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, along with secondary factors. The standards also require students to learn more about the Reconstruction era, an era many educators consider undertaught in schools, but pivotal in American history.
At one point in this revision process, the Youngkin administration presented a new draft to the board that generated immediate controversy: It referred to Native Americans as “immigrants” and removed mentions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Juneteenth from the elementary standards, among other changes. The board unanimously agreed to send the draft back for further revision.
The third draft of the standards was sent out for public comment in March. More than 300 people spoke at meetings around the state, and more than 1,000 people submitted comments online. After the hearings the board went through the draft line by line, making further changes before its vote.
While the final vote suggests unity, some still don’t like the outcome. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of Virginia Black History and Culture at Norfolk State University, said some standards still don’t contextualize events properly, or emphasize the order of events and how they are related to each other.
Newby-Alexander, a co-chair for the commission on African American history, said she did not expect the standards to be changed by the Youngkin administration, because the process had almost been completed when he came into office. She believes the newly passed standards are trying to erase division and conflict in history.
As an example, she cites the introduction to the standards, which describe the abolitionist and reformer Frederick Douglass as having a “complicated love” for America.
“Douglass’s love of America was in no way complicated,” Newby-Alexander said. “He condemned America’s White society for its hypocrisy about equality and its support of slavery. But he also insisted that he is a citizen and as such, deserves fair treatment. That is not a complicated love unless the argument is that you cannot complain about and fight against unfair treatment if you love America.”
Edward Ayers, a historian who co-chaired the history commission with Newby-Alexander, said that the biggest difference between the standards that were passed and the previous August draft is that the new version strips out an engaged model of teaching, produced by experienced educators and focused on inquiry, and replaces it with long lists of names and events for students to memorize.
“We were almost there, in Virginia, to have what would have been one of the best history curriculums in the country, and now it’s just been taken away,” Ayers said. The new standards do include many of the changes recommended by the history commission, but “instead of students engaging with the hard questions about the American past, they will now be returned to old-fashioned pedagogy that is easy to measure on standardized tests,” he said.
After the history standards were approved, Youngkin appointed three new members to the state education board to replace three members whose terms had expired. The nine-member board is now made up of eight Youngkin appointees, who are expected to be more in favor of his priorities.
During his campaign, Youngkin tapped into concerns about pandemic school closures and promised to elevate parental rights to control their children’s exposure to certain topics, such as sexuality and gender identity.
He has already been successful in passing one part of that promise: Virginia districts must now notify parents of any instructional material that includes content deemed “sexually explicit.”
Some school leaders are taking further action beyond what the state requires. The school board representing the 1,700-student Madison County district voted to ban 21 books from its high school library. They include books by Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Anne Rice and Sherman Alexie, among others. The superintendent in Spotsylvania County, a district of some 24,000 students, removed 14 books from school shelves, citing the law.
This policy has added to an already-tense environment among teachers, said Jessica Berg, who teaches English and Women and Gender Studies at Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County. Loudoun County, a district of 82,000 students 45 miles west of Washington, D.C., has been the center of heated battles over issues such as parental rights, “critical race theory” and transgender rights.
In Loudoun County, parents must be notified 30 days in advance of material being taught in classrooms. Berg said this can be impossible when teachers don’t always know what is divisive and are balancing this with all the other struggles of being a teacher. She said teachers around her are deciding not to teach certain books because they don’t want to deal with backlash.
But she said the best moments in her classroom have come from texts that create discussion about conflict, authenticity and reality.
“If you came into our classroom and actually asked them, these conversations aren’t harming them in any way,” she said. “In fact, these are the conversations they want to have. They’re starting to form their opinions, they want to be validated, they want someone to listen.”
Akira Tanglao-Aguas, a senior at Jamestown High School in Williamsburg, is taking AP English Literature this year. This class usually involves a senior research paper about a book of students’ choice. Tanglao-Aguas was going to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
But because of this new state policy, his teacher submitted each book for parent and district approval. The process took so long, his teacher canceled the research paper because there wasn’t enough time left in the semester.
“Teachers are afraid of what they can show,” he said.
Though the controversy over the social studies standards has died down, Saykhamphone is among those who believe there is still work to be done to support equity in the state. Her team has helped create a dual enrollment African American history course at Northern Virginia Community College. This year, the team also organized school protests for LGBTQ+ students and held a Black History Month fundraiser to buy Black children’s books from a local Black-owned bookstore and distribute them to local elementary schools.
“We want to provide more resources and opportunities for students to flourish and blossom within classes and within clubs,” she said. “We want to be able to learn like the correct kind of information about our history.”
This story about Virginia social studies standards was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.