By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
After a disastrous rollout of its update of the state’s K-12 History and Social Science Standards of Learning (SOL) standard last August, the State Board of Education is revising it.
Confronted with strong criticism of proposed standards, the board recently voted unanimously to begin revising its initial work and resubmit it in January.
The revision which is done every seven years was crafted by a board now controlled by appointees of Conservative Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin.
The new panel’s rejection and revision of standards devised by the board of former Democrat Governor Ralph Northam were heightened by the criticism.
Democratic party lawmakers, historians, the Virginia Education Association (VEA) leader, and civil rights advocates said the Governor’s Board effort omitted, misrepresented, or downplayed references to African-Americans and Native Americans.
For instance, Native Americans are labeled the “first immigrants” although they inhabited the North American continent before English or European explorers.
There was criticism of the absence of historic figures such as Jackie Robinson, Cesar Chavez, Thurgood Marshall, Pocahontas, and others from elementary-level education.
There was scant mention of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of its key leaders, and Juneteenth and its significance.
A 400-plus page draft document of History and Social Science Standards of Learning (SOL) drafted by the Northam administration was reduced by the Youngkin-led panel to a scant 52 pages.
Also, there were complaints that the 300-page short proposal adopted by the current board excluded a curriculum framework, a more detailed document that the Board of Education approves a year before its implementation.
Further, unlike the Northam administration, there was little input from historians, organizations like the state African-American History Commission, or civil rights activists.
The State Superintendent did acknowledge consulting the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank at Michigan’s Hillsdale College.
It played an instrumental role in the drafting of the “1776 Report” on U.S. history commissioned by then-President Donald Trump. That report sought to counter the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” a report on the major role of slavery in the founding of the United States.
The criticism was not a surprise. Youngkin, on his first day in office, joined six other Republican governors in issuing executive orders designed to curtail the teaching of what he identified as Critical Race Theory (CRT) or other “Divisive Concepts” in classrooms.
However, CRT is a postgraduate history course and is not taught in any Virginia K-12 classrooms. Further, Youngkin nor his staff has yet to explain what “divisive concepts” he was referring to in his order.
Progressive advocates say the use of the term CRT and its attack is an effort to deter teaching how America used its legal and economic institutions to oppress Blacks.
Conservatives say such information could make white students feel guilty or feel they are racist.
Virginia was one of the leading breeders, importer and exporter of Black slaves.
Virginia applied the most stringent Jim Crow laws and led the U.S. in promoting “massive resistance” against the Supreme Court’s ruling declaring segregated public schools illegal.
Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Norfolk State University, told 13News Now recently that when history is taught correctly, the lessons aren’t meant to elicit guilt.
“The emotions are going to be there when you read about genocide, it is going to elicit an emotional response, but it shouldn’t elicit an emotional response that’s guilty. The response should be one of empathy or sympathy,” she says.
Although the NSU educator was a contributor to the Northam administration’s drafted 400-page document, including both standards and curriculum framework, the current administration did not reach out to her.
She argues language, particularly the “guilt” statement found in the standards and principles, hinders a teacher’s ability in K-12 education to properly teach moments of history that may contain negative details.
“What that statement says is, teachers cannot teach real history. Not honestly, in a balanced way, for fear somebody in their class will say, ‘You’re making me feel guilty.’”
She said the standards are written in a way to make people feel better about their past and called the document and certain omissions and additions to it “troubling.”
The Northam administration’s draft standards attempted to include a full breadth of history that included eras in which racism and slavery were widely accepted and antisemitism and homophobia were rampant in American society.
Words like “Nazis” and “Final Solution” – essential to understanding the Holocaust – are omitted in the latest version. Inaccuracies include a statement saying that Virginia’s capital was relocated from Jamestown to Williamsburg during the Revolutionary War when it was relocated to Richmond.
The Youngkin Board’s standards replace the term “Indian” with “Indigenous people” and require students to study aspects of the groups. It does not mention Indigenous People’s Day which replaced Christopher Columbus Day in 1992, who is deemed by some historians as a murderous colonizer.
While slavery is mentioned, an emphasis is missing on the slave trade and tobacco plantations, critics say.
Also, the name of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most well-known civil rights activists, was removed from the elementary school standards. King’s name first appears in the sixth-grade standards.
In August, the Virginia Board of Education was originally scheduled to vote on the recommended guidelines, which would have been the standards put together by the Northam administration. The decision was delayed after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow urged the board to give Youngkin’s five newly appointed board members additional time to review the documents.
The original document under Northam was developed over nearly two years of consultation with a team of historians, professors, parents, students, and museums, according to media accounts.
“The Youngkin administration is proposing revised standards that are racist and factually incorrect,” James J. Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, told Yahoo News. “This attack on these standards continues to be a divisive approach to pit parents against teachers and to pit teachers against parents.”
Last week’s draft, which has since been slightly revised, removed mention of Martin Luther King Jr. Day from the K-5 standards and made no mention of Juneteenth. Both have since been restored to the draft.
Fedderman said the original version went through more than 400 experts, who devoted thousands of hours of their time to the standards, and he lamented that their work is now being “discredited” and “thrown out.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow apologized during a press gathering on November 17, for the omissions and other issues with the proposed SOL curriculum content, including the new draft social studies standards which referred to the ancestors of Virginia’s indigenous communities as “immigrants.”
In a statement recently, the NAACP said: “It is outrageous that the draft proposal has erased Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the K-5 standard. Governor Youngkin told the media last week he has “not been pleased” with where the standards process is, stating that it has not followed his initial directive.
The governor was asked if these changes were made and any oversight for the items that were claimed to be removed.
“Well … there was omissions and mistakes made. The specifics here, I don’t know. But what I do know is that this is a document that is going to get right. And as I said, I haven’t been pleased with where we are. It does not reflect my initial directive,” Gov. Youngkin said.
Asked if he was okay with the word racism being included in a document, he said yes, because racism exists. He expressed that he wants to tell the good and bad of American history.
Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the omissions were unintentional.
The new document also does not once mention the word “racism,” which James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, described as “a problem.”
“You can argue that the central concepts in American history are freedom or liberty or democracy, but you cannot teach American history without helping students to understand that racism has been a central theme,” Grossman told the Times-Dispatch. “You just can’t.”