State board of education to consider new history standards starting next week

The first meeting of the state board of education with several new members — all appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin — will be held Aug. 17. One of the main items on the agenda is the review of new draft history standards.

Even if the state board approves the current draft next week, the standards will go through a series of public comments before returning to the board for final approval. The draft story standards are expected to be approved in November.

The standards are updated at least every seven years, in accordance with state law. Revisions to the 2015 History and Social Studies standards began under Governor Ralph Northam’s administration; representatives from approximately 30 different groups, including experts in Indigenous, African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic history, among other cultures and ethnicities, proposed technical changes.

Atif Qarni, former secretary of state for education under Northam, told VPM News that one of the main aims of the reviews was to get students to better understand the “why” of historical events and to become better critical thinkers – not just memorizing facts.

One example that Qarni pointed out is that currently the first thing students learn in kindergarten and first grade is the preamble to the Constitution.

“The [current] the standards require memorizing the preamble and then being able to regurgitate it as an assessment,” he said. “Kids have no idea, ‘Why is this relevant?’ We don’t connect the dots.

Another problem Qarni said he wanted the new standards to address: little or no examples given from the histories of different marginalized groups.

For example, he said, “The Chinese Exclusion Act is mentioned once in our standards, but it makes no connection to other things that were happening in the country, and why the law on the exclusion of the Chinese really take place?”

Current standards also only mention that Chinese Americans played a role in building the railroads, Qarni said.

“When students drop out of a full K-12 program and Asian Americans’ greatest contribution has been in the railroad industry…it does a disservice,” Qarni said. “It doesn’t provide a holistic perspective of the Asian American Diaspora and experiences throughout American history, nor does it for other groups.”

To address these issues, the standards have been organized more by topic than chronology; themes include freedom and citizenship, colonization, immigration and forced migration.

“You can’t put [immigration and forced migration] together and think it’s OK and acceptable. It’s not,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University. “It removes the inhumanity that was part of slavery.”

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, professor of history at Norfolk State University, co-chaired the African American History Teaching Commission. (Photo: Courtesy of Cassandra Newby-Alexander)

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

“In Virginia they passed a law in 1669 that authorized the occasional murder of blacks. If they resisted their master in any way and the master felt threatened, that person could kill them, and that was not considered murder,” she said. “And then they extended that to white people who weren’t even slavers three years later… If a white person felt threatened by a black person, they could kill him with impunity.”

Newby-Alexander recommended that details about the history of black lynchings be added to the standards, among other topics that she said had been completely left out. She was pleased to see that the current draft standards incorporate these recommendations.

“There’s a mythology that Virginia didn’t have too many lynchings, that somehow it was an inferior southern thing, which of course wasn’t true at all. But that was the mythology embedded in Virginia history,” she said.

She said she hopes reorganizing some of the standards by topic — instead of being exclusively chronological — will help students better understand the contributions of different groups, as well as their struggles.

While writing the new standards, Newby-Alexander and others spoke to students across the state who all seemed to be saying 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 what we focused on,” Newby-Alexander said. “When studies and polls were done – especially with secondary school students – they complained about this. They said the focus was mostly on the wars and not really on the story.

“I think a long time ago there were these thoughts that if we talked about these wars it would build patriotism. And in fact it creates a lot of complacency about history,” a- she declared.

Instead, she said students should learn why things are the way they are today.

“That’s how you develop a young person’s critical thinking, showing connections and getting them to inquire about the why of something,” Newby-Alexander said.

In doing so, she hopes the new standards – if approved – will allow students to discover the heroes in their own communities and the wide range of personalities who have done extraordinary things.

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

She expressed concern about the potential contribution of new members of the state board of education, but also hopes that ultimately the policy will not impact the content of the new standards. In a July memo, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow asked council members for more time to review draft revisions before taking a first vote.

In his first executive order as governor, denouncing critical race theory, Youngkin said, “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of slavery and segregation in the United States and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s greatest generation against the Nazi Empire, to the heroic efforts of Americans in the civil rights movement and To the defeat of the Soviet Union and the evils of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.

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