Letter to Virginia Board of Education Urging Adoption of Proposed History Standards
In October, the American Historical Association sent a letter to the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) commending the draft social studies standards that the VBOE considered at its August meeting and offering assistance with the continuing process of revision. The AHA strongly urged the board to proceed with adoption of those standards, which aligned well with the AHA’s Criteria for Standards in History/Social Studies/Social Sciences. The AHA has also encouraged Virginia residents to share comments at VBOE meetings and community engagement sessions about the state’s social studies standards process.
October 19, 2022
Dear Members of the Virginia Board of Education:
I wrote to you by email on October 11 to offer the American Historical Association’s assistance regarding the standards revisions process because of our concern about the direction that the process has taken. Since that time, concerned members of our Association have contacted us to request that the AHA publicly endorse the proposed standards and affirm that they align with the AHA’s criteria. The AHA’s offer to assist the board stands, and we hope that this second letter further underscores the AHA’s support of the proposed standards.
The American Historical Association (AHA) supports the process of revising the standards of learning for history and social science that you have undertaken in Virginia starting in 2021 and commends the draft standards that the Board of Education considered at its August meeting. The AHA strongly urges the board to proceed with adoption of these standards, which would offer Virginia students a strong foundation in historical study and prepare students to be informed citizens and lifelong learners across disciplines.
The draft standards align with the AHA’s Criteria for Standards in History/Social Studies/Social Sciences, which were developed and updated with detailed input from historians and K–12 educators. The Virginia standards process in 2021–22 drew upon extensive contributions and rounds of revision from an impressive range of teachers and educators, parents, students, and subject matter experts. The proposed standards suitably incorporate the practices of historical interpretation, understanding historical context, and critical thinking. The results are robust and should be a point of pride for the board and the secretary, as well as for the hundreds of other Virginians who contributed to them.
The AHA strongly urges the board to proceed with adoption of these standards.
As the AHA has documented through our extensive work on career preparedness in history classrooms, the aspect of history education employers value most is students’ ability to communicate with and understand people from different backgrounds. The history education elaborated in these standards would properly expose students to complex and contested voices from the past, making them competitive job candidates and enhancing their future career prospects.
We applaud the Virginia standards process for aligning with our criteria, which emphasize that good history education helps students learn to explore issues from various angles. We were dismayed to read the letter written by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recommending substantial revisions to the proposed Virginia standards. Its recommendations are fundamentally at odds with the AHA’s criteria and the best practices of history and social studies education. We were further dismayed that the NAS lauds the recent South Dakota proposed standards draft, which fails to meet even the minimal criteria for drawing on historical scholarship or incorporating substantive input from historians and history educators. After careful consideration and extensive review by professional historians, the AHA determined that the South Dakota effort “has been tainted by serious procedural problems and cannot be redeemed to meet the standards of our discipline.”
It is appropriate that the primary audience for the Virginia standards is the state’s own educators. The document is long because it admirably contains and integrates materials that provide easy reference for trained educators and districts; teachers can rely on it as a central and shared resource. If the board, secretary, and superintendent wish to draft another document whose purpose is to communicate to parents and others with limited background in education a more succinct version of the state’s goals for history learning at the primary and secondary level, they should do so. The standards of learning document itself need not be relied upon to serve that communication purpose.
Teaching historical thinking is essential to excellent historical education. No mere list of facts, however grandiose or classical they appear, can make students remember anything meaningful about the past, let alone understand it. History is complex; to reach high educational standards in our discipline, students need nuanced teaching and practice performing cognitive moves of increasing difficulty. Like mathematics, biology, and other disciplines, history has core concepts, such as context, contingency, and causation, among others. The draft standards of learning document offers Virginia’s teachers explicit guidance on how to lead their students to higher achievement in our discipline.
This bears emphasis: If you throw out the draft standards, or substantially revise them, you risk doing significant harm to students in your state. Emphasizing rote memorization in elementary education does not magically make it easier to teach students to think for themselves later on. On the contrary, adopting the recommendations of the NAS would create substantial gaps in the knowledge, critical thinking skills, and habits of mind taught to Virginia students and limit their preparedness for college as well as their access to early college credit. Adoption of the NAS recommendations would result in ignorance of fundamental understandings about American history, as well as undermine students’ ability to perform effectively on the US History Advanced Placement test or successfully complete college-level dual enrollment courses in US history.
The great experiment of American politics is a work in progess.
Standards should indeed define factual content that teachers should cover—as the proposed standards do—but mastery and retention of historical content requires that students actually think about what they are learning. Students need extensive, structured practice in considering multiple perspectives on questions of great historical significance. Carefully teaching all students to think historically is the best way to ensure the endurance of the nation’s founding principles. The draft harnesses the power of demonstrated expertise from across the state to secure the future of self-government in the Commonwealth.
The great experiment of American politics is a work in progress. It was so in 1776 and was meant to remain so thereafter. The “eternal vigilance” that Jefferson identified as “the price of liberty” requires a citizenry educated and encouraged to inquire, to ask questions, and to think critically about our history and institutions.
Moving forward with the proposed standards will show historians, teachers, parents, and students that their careful input is valued; to reject the standards now would be a sign of bad and broken faith with these communities.
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