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Political drama over Virginia History Standards


Finally! On April 20, 2023 the revised Virginia History and Social Studies Standards of Learning (History SOL) was approved by the Virginia Board of Education (BOE). Of course, the approval process was delayed for nearly a year while a political drama over history played out, resulting in a possible two school year delay in implementation of the new History standards.

Thus, through delays and divisive revisions, the Youngkin administration succeeded in exceeding the seven-year limit required by law between standards revisions in Virginia. Virginia Code § 22.1-253.13:1 requires all Virginia SOLs to be revised at least every seven years. This History SOL was last revised in 2015, thus requiring new revisions due in 2022 with implementation for the 2023-24 school year.

The Northam administration finished timely revisions of the History SOL in December 2021 before providing documentation to the incoming Youngkin administration. Public feedback from Virginians was accepted during a public comment period that spring, but Virginia Board of Education (BOE) delayed addressing the document until August of 2022 when they deferred a decision on approval of the History SOLs until the September 2022 meeting.

Over the next eight months a protracted political tug of war took place while Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) revised the HIstory SOLs. In September, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jill Balow, asked to delay the vote on the HIstory SOL to a future November BOE meeting so to make “some small corrections” and to add “patriotic language” to the document.

When the new version of the History SOLs was posted online before the November BOE meeting, it became clear that the approved Northam version had been scrapped and the new version of the History SOLs had been completely rewritten. This second version reframed race relations to such an extent that the Youngkin administration was accused of “whitewashing history” and “political meddling.” After vigorous BOE questioning and FOIAs, it was found that the rewrites were heavily influenced by conservative leaning organizations, most of whom were located outside of Virginia, and that significant input from the Northam version was excluded.

So many members of the public signed up to speak at the November BOE meeting that overflow rooms were needed to accommodate the crowd. Many citizens objected to the VDOE scrapping the well-researched and publicly-approved August version when the stated intent had been to make small corrections to that version. Citizens from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Northern Virginia spoke against the November version of the History SOLs:

  • Gone was the two-year effort and scholarship performed by a collaboration of experts including educators, professors, historians, museums, parents, teachers, organizations, and VDOE staff.

  • Gone was the inquiry-based approach used in the previous version that would have promoted critical thinking. Memorization instead of inquiry was emphasized in the new version.

  • Gone were the voices of underrepresented groups whose accomplishments and challenges were erased from history.

  • Gone was the detailed curriculum framework that accompanied the August version.

Because the November version had omitted so much important information and contained serious errors, even Governor Youngkin admitted it should not be approved. The BOE voted unanimously to reject that version. The VDOE was instructed to produce a better revision by January 2023.

In January 2023, the BOE meeting was again at overflow capacity as many Virginians testified that they objected to that newer SOL version. Most speakers asked that the BOE return to considering the August 2022 version because serious problems remained in that third version. Nevertheless, the BOE voted to proceed to hold public hearings on the third version. Public hearings took place at six locations around the Commonwealth.

Most of the hearings were preceded by rallies against the third version, requesting a return to the Northam History SOLs from August 2022. Overflow crowds of speakers during the hearings spoke passionately against that third version. A minority of the crowd was in favor of the January version of the History SOLs; however, it was clear that some of those speaking in favor were mistakenly comparing the third version to the 2015 History SOLs currently used across Virginia.

Thankfully, the BOE took public testimony from the hearings seriously. They worked hard to produce a fourth version addressing many of the objections brought up in the previous weeks’ hearings and written public input. After marathon BOE sessions where points of contention were debated at length, the fourth version was considered for approval at a well-attended April 20, 2023 BOE meeting.

Following more than eight months of debate, thousands of written statements, hundreds of speeches by the public, and dozens of news articles, the April History SOL version was approved by the BOE with only minor revisions remaining.

Even though the standards are finalized, there is still much work to be done before the History SOLs can be implemented. Unlike the August 2022 version which included a curriculum framework, the History SOL contains only the core standards, so the curriculum framework has yet to be produced. A curriculum framework is a supportive structure that aligns to the standards to detail the student learning experience, including specific content that will be taught. Also, acceptable instructional materials for educators in each grade must be identified. Last fall implementation of the SOL was estimated to be one school year behind schedule, but additional delays have put the implementation at least two school years behind schedule.

We hope that production of the curriculum framework that details what will be taught goes smoothly now that the BOE understands the will of Virginians. Virginians will not stand for the removal of people, events, or history from the lessons taught to public school students. Unfortunately, the Virginia History SOL delays are a prime example of how students and teachers suffer when adults politicize education.

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