'Back to Basics' Standards Proposal in Va. Under Attack
Dozens of states are drafting new academic standards for what students should know and be able to do. But few states are experiencing the public controversy now raging in Virginia.
Hundreds of parents and teachers crowded into school auditoriums last week for the final round of public hearings on the proposed standards. Many came to protest standards that they say advance a conservative political agenda and turn back the clock on educational advances the state has made.
At hearings before the state board of education, held last week throughout northern Virginia, school officials and parents' groups condemned the "back to basics" approach of the proposed standards, which they say relies too heavily on memorization and downplays critical thinking.
"I think when you have children just memorizing dates and facts and pictures, that's not rigorous enough to prepare our youngsters for the workforce of the 21st century," said Patricia Hulse, a P.T.A. president from Herndon, Va.
State Delegate James H. Dillard, the ranking Republican on the House education committee, agreed.
"The [proposed] standards are a disaster," said Mr. Dillard, a former high school government teacher. The existing standards for teaching classes in government use the word "analyze" seven times, while the proposed version mentions the word only once, he said.
"We want to get kids to use logic and analyze in order to be participatory citizens in the democratic process, and this just dumbs them down," he argued.
At the same time, Mr. Dillard said, many of the standards, which are organized by grade until grade 8, are too demanding for younger students.
But those who support the proposed standards contend that schools need rigorous, measurable benchmarks if students hope to achieve academic excellence.
"Without the facts and information first, what good are the analytical skills?" said Michelle Easton, a member of the state board who is spearheading the drive for the new standards.
"We must have higher expectations so we can serve our children better," she said.
The 179-page document, called the "Standards of Learning," is a blueprint for teaching English, social studies, mathematics, and science to the state's one million public school students. If approved by the legislature, they will replace standards adopted by state lawmakers in 1986.
Virginia is one of 31 states developing academic standards outlining what students should know and be able to do. (See Education Week, 4/12/95.)
Critics of the proposed standards in Virginia charge that they promote a narrow view of history and culture, which they claim is part of Republican Gov. George F. Allen's conservative educational agenda.
"I definitely see a conservative slant in there," said Ms. Hulse, who complained that there is too much discussion of state history in the standards. Second-grade civics students must be able to name local county supervisors before they are taught about non-Western countries, she said.
The standards also misrepresent the past, she said. For example, the history section identifies blacks only as settlers, instead of explaining the history of slavery, Ms. Hulse said.
Other parents have objected to what they say are outdated reading lists with little cultural diversity among the authors.
"I want my children to learn that not all exceptional authors are British, American, white, or male," one parent was quoted as saying last week at a hearing at a high school in northern Virginia. Critics of the proposed standards also charged that the elementary school reading lists, which include Bible stories, had an inappropriate religious focus.
Removing Existing Bias?
But many conservative groups have applauded the proposed changes, which they say remove a bias that exists in the current standards.
James Parmelee, the state chairman of the Young Republicans of Virginia, said at a recent hearing that he resented the current standards, pointing out, for example, that they "teach that Vietnam was an unjust war."
"The schools are already political," he told The Washington Post last week. "What Governor Allen is doing is trying to remove politics from the schools."
Many educators across the state, meanwhile, have criticized the standards process as unfair. They have said that the Governor's Champion Schools Commission, which revised drafts of the school districts' work, ignored local school's suggestions.
"The review committee made drastic changes, and the process wasn't fair," said Clyde Harrell, the assistant principal at Loudoun County High School.
But William C. Bosher, the state schools superintendent, defended the process in an interview last week, saying that more than 4,000 parents, teachers, and professional organizations have had input into drafting the standards.
The state board plans to make revisions this week and hopes to vote on the standards by the end of next month.