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State education board to consider new history standards

Students take notes
Students at Hopewell High School take notes during the first day of school in 2021. Virginia's Board of Education is considering an update to the state's history standards, which are slated for final approval in November. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The first state board of education meeting featuring several new members — all appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin — will be held Aug. 17. One key item on the agenda is the consideration of new draft history standards.

Even if the state board signs off on the current draft next week, the standards will undergo a round of public comment before going back to the board for final approval. The draft history standards are slated for final approval this November.
 
Standards are updated at least every seven years, per state law. Revisions to the 2015 history and social studies standards began during Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration; representatives from around 30 different groups, including experts on indigenous, African American, Asian American and Hispanic history, among other cultures and ethnicities, proposed technical edits.

Atif Qarni, former state secretary of education under Northam, told VPM News that one of the main goals of the revisions was to get students to more fully understand the “why” of historical events and become better critical thinkers — not just memorize facts.
 
One example Qarni pointed to is that currently, the first thing students learn in kindergarten and first grade is the preamble to the Constitution.  

“The [current] standards call for memorizing the preamble, and then being able to regurgitate that as an assessment,” he said. “Children have no idea, 'Why is this relevant?' We’re not connecting the dots.”
 
Another problem Qarni said he wanted the new standards to address: little to no examples given of different marginalized groups’ history.
 
For example, he said, “the Chinese Exclusion Act is mentioned once in our standards, but it doesn’t draw connections to other things that were happening in the country, and why did the Chinese Exclusion Act really occur?”

The current standards also only mention that Chinese Americans played a role in making the railroads, Qarni said.

“When students walk away from an entire K-12 curriculum and the biggest contribution that Asian Americans had was in the railroad industry … that does a disservice,” Qarni said. “It doesn’t give a holistic perspective of the Asian American diaspora and experiences throughout American history, and it doesn’t do it for other groups as well.”
 
To address these problems, the standards were organized more by themes than chronology; themes include freedom and citizenship, colonization, immigration and forced migration.
 
“You cannot put [immigration and forced migration] together and think that it is OK and acceptable. It is not,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University. “It removes the inhumanity that was a part of slavery.”

Person poses for portrait photo
Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University, co-chaired the African American History Education Commission. (Photo: Courtesy Cassandra Newby-Alexander)

Newby-Alexander co-chaired the African American History Education Commission, which helped draft about 200 proposed changes to the state history standards.

“In Virginia, they pass a law in 1669 that allowed for the casual killing of Black people. If they in any way resisted their master and their master felt threatened, that person could kill them, and it was not seen as murder,” she said. “And then they extended that to white people who weren't even slaveholders three years later … If a white person felt threatened by a Black person, they could kill them with impunity.”
 
Newby-Alexander recommended details about the history of lynchings of Black people be added to the standards, among other topics she said had been completely left out. She said she’s glad to see the current draft standards incorporate those recommendations.
 
“There's a mythology that Virginia didn't have too many lynchings, that somehow that was a lower South thing, which of course was not at all true. But that was the mythology built into the history of Virginia,” she said.
 
She said she hopes that reorganizing some standards by theme — instead of exclusively by chronology — will help students to more fully understand the contributions of different groups, as well as their struggles.  
 
While drafting the new standards, Newby-Alexander and others engaged with students from across the state who all seemed to say the same thing: They wanted to hear more stories in history class and less about wars and dates.
 
“When you add up all the wars, it's a fraction of the timeline. And yet, that's been what we’ve focused on,” Newby-Alexander said. “When there were studies and surveys done — especially of high school students — they complained about that. They said that most of the focus was on the wars and really not on the history.
 
“I think that long ago, there were these thoughts that if we talked about these wars, it would build patriotism. And actually, what it does is it builds a lot of complacency about history,” she said.
 
Instead, she said students should learn about why things are the way they are today.
 
“That’s how you build up a young person’s critical thinking, by showing connections and by getting them to inquire about the why of something,” Newby-Alexander said.

In doing that, she hopes the new standards — if approved — will allow students to learn about heroes in their own communities and the wide range of figures who’ve done extraordinary things.

“You can talk about statewide figures, you can talk about national figures, but what about in your community? Because this is what inspires young people to believe that they can make a difference in their communities,” Newby-Alexander said.

She expressed concern about potential input from new state board of education members but also hopes that ultimately, politics won’t impact the content of the new standards. In a July memo, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow requested more time for board members to review the draft revisions before taking an initial vote.

In his first executive order as governor, denouncing critical race theory, Youngkin stated that: “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s Greatest Generation against the Nazi Empire, the heroic efforts of Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.”