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Experts raise questions over latest draft history standards

Members of the Virginia Board of Education meet in August 2022.
The Virginia Board of Education, shown here during an August meeting, is set for its first hearing of draft history standards on Thursday. A rally calling for the rejection of the proposed standards is planned. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Some experts and historians are raising alarm following the recent release of newly drafted state history standards. They’re calling on the state Board of Education to reject them Thursday, when they’re up for first review.

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, endowed professor of Virginia Black history and culture at Norfolk State University, said she is “quite disturbed and troubled” by the new draft. She added that it has nothing in common with the prior version she helped conceive under the administration of former Gov. Ralph Northam. That version was presented to the board in August.  

“This is not an update … . This is an entirely different document,” Newby-Alexander said. “I have never seen such a messy, incoherent and inaccurate document that is age-inappropriate for the content that is being taught.”

The department awarded a noncompetitive contract to BlueByrd LLC to review and revise the standards, according to information VPM News obtained through a public records request. It agreed to pay company founder Sheila Byrd Carmichael $1,000 a day for up to 15 days to “provide expert analysis and conduct an academic review” of the prior draft history standards, “consult with Virginia and national historians and social scientists” for historical accuracy, and more.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education told VPM News that BlueByrd was chosen “based on its expertise,” and added that academic research and consulting services are exempt from competitive contracts up to $100,000.

Carmichael, who has written about ways to expand “classical schools” for the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute, will present the draft to the Virginia Board of Education on Thursday along with Kim Richey, deputy superintendent of school quality, instruction and performance.

It’s unclear if any other groups had a hand in rewriting the standards; neither Carmichael nor a VDOE spokesperson responded to VPM News’ questions about who was involved in the rewrite by deadline.

Historical inaccuracies, exclusions

Experts like Newby-Alexander have raised serious questions about historical inaccuracies, political bias, racism and more in this latest draft.

Newby-Alexander said it has “a real sort of conservative Christian biblical tone to it, that is not at all historically accurate.”

Newby-Alexander and others pointed out a handful of historical inaccuracies in the proposed standards to VPM News, which a spokesperson for VDOE said “have been flagged and will be addressed as the department continues to refine the draft.”

Among the errors, the draft states that Virginia’s capital relocated from Jamestown to Williamsburg during the American Revolution; the capital was relocated to Richmond during the Revolutionary War. 

It also states that Zachary Taylor was the last U.S. president from Virginia, not Woodrow Wilson. And it calls for describing the “origins, traditions, customs and, persecution and spread of Christianity,” as well as Islam, in 4,000 B.C.E., when the religions did not exist.

Sookyung Oh, director of the Hamkae Center, said the focus of the standards — as well as what’s been excluded — is also problematic.

“It greatly expands teaching Greek and Roman history and strips away the content of other non-Western civilizations that were traditionally included,” Oh said.

She pointed out that there are very few mentions of specific Asian American or Pacific Islander experiences. Prior mentions of the Chinese Exclusion Act have been left out of this version, along with the prior draft’s focus on the human impact of westward expansion on Native Americans.

Among other exclusions: prior mentions of LGBTQ+ history, Juneteenth, and Indigenous Peoples Day.  

Over the weekend, Macaulay Porter, press secretary for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, tweeted that LGBTQ+ history and Virginia holidays — including Juneteenth — would be included in the curriculum frameworks, which accompany state standards in material educators are expected to teach. 

However, it’s unclear if and when the department plans to release the revised curriculum framework material, and whether this material will also be subject to public review. A spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to VPM News’ questions. 

Oh said that while the new draft standards do mention slavery, they “emphasize the economic and legal lens of the slave trade and tobacco plantation as opposed to the actual human impact of enslavement. It’s racist.”

Newby-Alexander agreed, adding that “there are really no standards that deal with West African heritage. And yet, they're talking about common ancestors. There’s a lack of respect for the mainstream historical interpretation of our past.”

The new standards document begins with this: “The Civic standards for kindergarten describe what patriotism is, and how we honor America, with state and national symbols, as well as holidays that celebrate our common ancestry, and the lives of great Americans who have led the way for us.”

Newby-Alexander said “common ancestors” is coded, racist language. And she added that the new standards conflate civics instruction with patriotism and how communities express it.

“Patriotism is not citizenship,” Newby-Alexander said. “Civics is about learning about your responsibilities and your rights. You can't have rights without responsibilities. Patriotism has absolutely nothing to do with rights or responsibilities. It has to do with an emotional connection to your country.”

The Hamkae Center, the Sikh Coalition and other Virginia-based organizations are holding a rally outside Thursday’s Virginia Board of Education meeting to call for the rejection of the proposed standards.

VPM News politics reporter Ben Paviour contributed to this report.