The Uncertain Future of Social Studies in Virginia
The AHA Collaborates on State Standards Process
A remarkable scene unfolded at the February 2, 2023, meeting of the Virginia Board of Education in Richmond, Virginia. Over the course of four hours, more than 70 historians, geographers, teachers, parents, and students offered public testimony in support of the History and Social Science Standards of Learning developed collaboratively by the AHA, the Virginia Social Studies Leadership Consortium (VSSLC), and the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (VASCD).
But how and why, you may be asking, did the AHA get involved in drafting state standards of learning?
The AHA’s intervention in Virginia responds to a growing sense of alarm among historians in both academia and K–12 education, including many AHA members, about the board’s departure from its established procedures. The social studies standards revision process for Virginia’s public schools began in January 2021, and Virginia Department of Education staff released an initial draft in August 2022. This document incorporated suggestions from hundreds of educators and subject matter experts, and the AHA sent a letter in October endorsing it. Soon after, Jillian Balow, the superintendent of public instruction appointed in January 2022, rejected this document and arranged, with little transparency, for a radically reconceptualized version, which she released in November. Among other obvious flaws, Balow’s draft referred to the Indigenous peoples of North America as “first immigrants,” replaced world history with a teleological narrative of Western civilization, and significantly curtailed coverage of Black history.
After swift and vociferous public criticism, the board promised to integrate portions of the two versions from August and November to produce some sort of compromise. At the request of VASCD and VASSLC, the AHA joined a collaborative effort to produce such a document. These groups submitted their proposal to the board and released it to the public in December 2022. After several delays, Superintendent Balow announced her own preferred version in January 2023. There is little evidence that she solicited input from K–12 teachers, academic historians, independent curriculum professionals, or others who had played roles in creating the initial August 2022 version or the collaborative December effort in which the AHA had participated.
Parents and grandparents urged board members to empower educators to teach history fully and honestly.
At its February 2 meeting, the board considered both sets of draft standards. Many of the Virginians who came to the microphone offered informed and inspiring remarks, and these public comments were nearly unanimous in expressing preference for the December collaborative draft. Parents and grandparents urged board members to empower educators to teach history fully and honestly. Teachers from nearly every grade level warned that the superintendent’s January draft offered so much new content to be covered in limited class time that it would be almost impossible to teach without both significant expense and a marked sacrifice in quality of instruction. Historians, including several AHA members, criticized the document as riddled with errors and so narrowly focused on memorization that it left little room for inquiry and analysis. As the AHA’s representative, a Virginia resident, and a parent, I offered my own brief comments on the January draft, only a few of whose shortcomings I had time to address.
Despite overwhelming consensus among those who testified against it, the board eventually voted, along partisan lines, to advance the flawed January draft for first review, during which the board will solicit public feedback over the next two months before meeting in April to discuss any potential revisions.
Many are disappointed with this outcome, and rightfully so. Yet there are reasons to remain hopeful, and the AHA encourages our members, collaborators, and supporters to persist in their efforts. The passionate and informed defense of history and social studies teaching clearly has shifted this process in the right direction. The board discussed, and even voted on adopting, the December collaborative draft. In a working session on February 1, board president Daniel Gecker suggested that Department of Education staffers had consulted the collaborative draft in crafting and revising the January version. Board member Grace Turner Creasey, too, took time on February 2 to praise “the consortium [including the AHA, VSSLC, and VASCD]” for “the very deep and very thoughtful and exhaustive work” that went into the December collaborative draft, adding, “I want to ensure that my vote is associated with further collaboration and improvement.” Superintendent Balow added, “It would be negligence on our partnot to take that [feedback] into consideration.”
President Gecker noted that in approving the January version, the board signified only that “it was acceptable enough to be seen in public places.”
Board members noted, too, that the concerns the AHA and its collaborators expressed about the January draft were justified. The board appears to have agreed in principle, for instance, to allow local school districts flexibility over how they structure the sequence of courses. President Gecker noted that in approving the January version, the board signified only that “it was acceptable enough to be seen in public places” as the process of public review unfolds. In another encouraging development, Superintendent Balow promised that the board would be using the curriculum frameworks stripped out of the original August draft as “the basis” for the equivalent portion to complement the January standards.
In the next stage, the Virginia Department of Education will convene sessions across the state to gather public comment. The board will continue to make revisions to the standards based on feedback from the public and various stakeholders, such as school districts, teachers, parents, and professional organizations. Several board members indicated that they expect changes and improvements before the final version is approved.
Important work remains to be done, and the AHA will participate in this continuing revision process in whatever ways we can. I urge my fellow Virginians to join the AHA in advocating for the best possible standards of learning for the more than 1.2 million students in our state’s public schools. For those residing elsewhere, please do not hesitate to ask for the AHA’s support in your state.
Brendan Gillis is manager of teaching and learning at the AHA. He tweets @Gillis_BJ.
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