Recent AHA Contributions to the Fight for Honest History Education
In the late summer of 2022, the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) rejected its own procedures, established under state law, for developing History and Social Science Standards of Learning. On August 17, the board tabled a draft, which had been developed over two years with input from hundreds of Virginians, so that the standards could “undergo further development and public engagement.” Instead, the VBOE worked hastily and behind closed doors to completely overhaul the framework for history education in the state’s public schools.
The VBOE published a radically reconceptualized new draft on November 11, 2022, the eve of a holiday weekend and less than a week before the document would be considered for approval at a public meeting in Richmond. In place of portable skills, habits of mind, and hands-on analysis, the November standards substituted rote memorization and a triumphalist narrative of American exceptionalism that could have been lifted directly from the discredited works of historians like Frederick Jackson Turner and William Archibald Dunning. Among its many misguided revisions, the draft deleted references to Juneteenth, rejected almost all suggestions made by a committee on African American history, watered down discussions of the Holocaust, and referred to Indigenous peoples of North America as “first ‘immigrants.’”
Since 2021, a new front has opened in the history wars as lobbyists and politicians target state educational guidelines as a vehicle for defining—and often limiting—what teachers can address in their classrooms. There is considerable irony in this outcome. From its inception, the campaign to rewrite state education policy has embraced rhetoric about preventing political indoctrination in the classroom. The draft and model standards that have come out of this movement, however, themselves treat history education as a form of indoctrination. They target potentially controversial topics and ideas for elimination and reproduce a stilted caricature of history teaching and learning that harks back to a mid-20th century that never was. States like Virginia have explicitly cut references to disciplinary and transferable thinking skills, inquiry, analysis, and civic engagement, while dramatically increasing the number of names, dates, and facts that students must memorize. Carried out with little or no transparency, these efforts endanger students’ education and undermine the very notion of informed civic participation.
In the last two years, efforts to preserve the quality and integrity of state standards have emerged as a key focus of the American Historical Association. In Virginia, the AHA lent its voice to a chorus of individuals and organizations challenging the VBOE’s bald attempt to hijack and politicize history education at the state level. Within days of releasing the draft standards, the Virginia Department of Education—whose career staff answers to the politically appointed members of the VBOE and is led by a superintendent appointed by the governor—quietly walked back some of the most egregious changes, notably restoring references to Martin Luther King Jr., who had been cut entirely from elementary courses. Bowing to public pressure, the VBOE opted to set aside the November draft and allow for a substantial rewrite. The story of the Virginia standards was far from over. But prompt intervention from concerned historians, including higher education and secondary school educators, averted a campaign to overhaul history education for political ends.
Carried out with little or no transparency, these efforts endanger students’ education and undermine the very notion of informed civic participation.
What’s in a Standard
With a few exceptions prior to 2020, standards of learning and curricular materials have remained insulated from the most extreme political pressures. Many states follow clearly defined procedures by which committees of academics, educators, administrators, and parents deliberate publicly for many months to establish a basic outline of learning outcomes and agreed-on content. This approach, which is consistent with the AHA’s Criteria for Standards in History/Social Studies/Social Sciences, can be inefficient, but it prioritizes both democratic participation and compromise.
Beginning in 2020, conservative activists identified history education as a cultural flash point that could be exploited to mobilize political energy. Most obviously, President Donald Trump anchored his reelection campaign in hyperbolic assertions that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country.” This message inspired, among other outcomes, the 1776 Commission for “patriotic education,” “divisive concepts” legislation, and political strategies employed in gubernatorial elections in Florida and Virginia.
The early results of these efforts are alarming. A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that social studies teachers and school administrators across the country are now confused about what they can and cannot legally teach. A report from the Civil Engagement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside, reinforced this conclusion, observing that many schools have retreated from topics related to civic participation, LGBTQ+ issues, and histories of race in the face of public anger that spills over into outright aggression.
State standards of learning offer another vehicle to radically reorient the goals and content of public education across the United States through national lobbying campaigns and direct local intervention. A handful of politically motivated organizations, including Hillsdale College, Civics Alliance, the National Association of Scholars, and 1776 Unites, have each published their own model frameworks that adopt an approach grounded in rote memorization. In place of historical inquiry, these materials rest on the foundation of a singular message about how students should think and feel about the past.
This interference is rapidly reshaping state education policy across the United States. In 2022, political appointees in Virginia, South Dakota, and Colorado worked to subvert or reject the established democratic procedures for standards creation, while in Texas the standards revision process ground to a halt after conservative outrage. The Colorado State BOE, for instance, voted narrowly along partisan lines to reject an effort to adopt the radical American Birthright standards in place of the state’s own framework.
Organizations who have supported breaking the established norms and procedures to capture social studies standards for their own agendas have publicized their strategy. Civics Alliance promises to lobby nationwide for “good ol’ fashioned civic standards”; its list of targets includes 10 states in which standards revisions are currently in progress, with 20 more scheduled for review in the next three years alone. If you live in the United States, your state’s history standards are a target too.
State standards do not always determine what happens in the classroom. Nevertheless, these documents guide decisions about course content and structure. In the current political climate, reasonably good state standards can provide some measure of protection for teachers who recognize that students need to discuss difficult or controversial topics at school.
If you live in the United States, your state’s history standards are a target too.
The AHA’s Response
Few organizations have resources that can rival lobbyists and politically aligned special interest groups. Fewer still can marshal the historical expertise and educational experience necessary to craft, evaluate, and review history standards of learning and other state policy documents. As part of a broad commitment to Teaching History with Integrity, the AHA has penned letters to more than a dozen state legislatures, plus the state boards of education in Virginia and South Dakota.
The AHA is uniquely situated to respond to such challenges. Our members include historians with expertise in every corner of the globe across the entirety of recorded history. The AHA’s Mapping the Landscape of Secondary US History Education project is conducting research to develop an unprecedented understanding of the content and strategies teachers are applying in classrooms across the country. This will allow us to advise, support, and collaborate with state and local stakeholders to draft, revise, vet, and refine standards to bring them into accordance with the latest scholarship and established education practices.
As the scope of these efforts to remake history education has become clear, we’ve also branched out into the collaborative work of developing, vetting, and endorsing standards drafts in partnership with educators and other advocacy organizations in multiple states. In each case, the needs, process, and context are different, and the AHA prioritizes aligning its members’ contributions with local procedures for standards revision.
In Texas, an elected member of the state BOE approached the AHA requesting to have qualified historians engage with the public process at each stage, and to help monitor what would have been final edits and adoption of revised standards in the fall of 2022. The AHA issued an immediate call for all members in Texas to consider applying to be on the state’s revision work groups. Over the spring and summer, AHA staff member Julia Brookins recruited and coordinated with about two dozen historians with a range of field specializations and experience, almost all based in Texas. She reached out to several BOE members, talked with people experienced with the board, and attended BOE meetings when social studies was on the agenda. She held several online briefings for the historian volunteers about the process and the kind of written feedback that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) said would be most useful; she updated volunteers regularly by email; and she encouraged them to submit detailed feedback to the TEA on each version of draft standards.
In South Dakota, AHA member Stephen Jackson served alongside educators and other professionals on the 2021 work group that developed a draft set of revised standards through the usual procedures and under the oversight of the state’s education department. Concerned with what was happening in his state, Jackson asked the AHA to review what had happened to the South Dakota standards revision and write a letter of objection to the department and the members of the state board. He went on to write a Perspectives article, “Standards of Revision” (January 2023), that discussed his involvement.
The AHA’s engagement in the review and revision of Virginia’s standards features a dense collaboration with local teachers and educational organizations. In response to widespread criticism, the VBOE promised to merge the controversial November draft with the original August standards to create a compromise proposal. The Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium (VSSLC) and the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (VASCD) invited the AHA to participate in drafting a collaborative standards document in hopes that the VBOE would consider input from educators.
AHA staff members Lauren Brand and Brendan Gillis traveled to Richmond for a two-day summit, at which representatives and members of all three organizations went line by line through each of the standards, weaving together, revising, and polishing these curricular materials to produce a strong framework for learning that reflected best practices in history and social studies education. Our staff provided guidance, encouragement, and support as classroom educators rebuilt a set of educational standards that improved on an already strong foundation. Once the initial draft was complete, we also arranged for teachers and subject-matter experts to review and vet the changes.
Yet the status of history and social studies education in Virginia remained in flux. In early 2023, the VBOE produced a fourth draft, which it subsequently approved for public review and final revision. At each stage in the process, the AHA joined with other organizations, including the VSSLC, VASCD, the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, and the National Council for the Social Studies, to issue statements and coordinate public feedback. The AHA has also encouraged members in Virginia to participate in the period for public comment and attend the six public hearings.
The Future of History Education
The AHA has committed to protecting history and social studies standards wherever they are targeted for political interference, responding quickly and comprehensively to this threat. This kind of on-the-ground advocacy work requires a considerable investment of time and attention. But history and social studies education is far too valuable to cede its integrity and quality to those who wish to promote a partisan agenda.
Like the majority of parents and educators, the AHA prioritizes the interests of students over any other consideration. In light of mounting pressures that threaten K–12 education and educators, the AHA has significantly broadened its investment in state-level advocacy on behalf of its members and the communities in which we live.
Moving forward, the AHA will be able to serve as a resource and, with deference to state and local decision makers, build stronger foundations for history education designed to prepare students for a lifetime of civic engagement and success in their future endeavors.
Brendan Gillis is manager of teaching and learning at the AHA; he tweets @Gillis_BJ. Julia Brookins is special projects coordinator at the AHA.
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