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Standards Opinion

How One State Found Common Ground to Produce New History Standards

Democrats and Republicans came together in Virginia to rectify past deficiencies
By Rick Hess — July 20, 2023 10 min read
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This spring, the Virginia board of education (comprised of five members appointed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and four by his Democratic predecessor) adopted new K-12 history and social studies standards. These will guide the state’s textbook approval, curricular frameworks, and assessments. Given how visible Youngkin has been in the fights around parent involvement and critical race theory, especially after his upset 2021 election, it seemed worth taking a closer look at what the standards say and how they finally got written. To make sense of all this, I reached out to Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, influential pundit and author, and a Youngkin appointee to the Virginia board of education (it’s his second stint, having previously been appointed by Democrat Mark Warner). Here’s what Rotherham had to say.

—Rick

Rick: The Virginia board of education just passed new History and Social Science Standards of Learning. This seems like a challenge in the current political climate: What’s the story?

Andy: The big lesson is simply that it can be done. It’s not always easy, but we should not give up on trying to get things done for students just because we are operating in a really polarized and contentious time. Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, said he wanted two things from the new history and social science standards. He wanted them to be best in class and he wanted them to tell the whole story of America: achievements, progress, and where we’ve fallen short. Partisans went bananas, but to most parents—and most Americans—those are two pretty reasonable goals. These standards meet those goals.

Rick: Before we get into it, can you talk a bit about the existing standards and what you all hoped to change?

Andy: The previous standards were not awful; I think Fordham gave them a B, but they had a number of issues. It was time to update. For instance, Virginia—like some other states—still taught that there were multiple causes of the Civil War rather than slavery being the underlying cause of the breach between the states. There was more to do to make sure we taught the full story of the good and bad and the incredible complexity of American and Virginian history. We also sought to more fully engage with some contemporary history including things like the movement for gay rights and the conservative movement.

Rick: You seem pleased with how the standards turned out. Why is that?

Andy: Look, they’re not perfect, no standards are, and any informed person would do certain things differently but—and this is key—those things would all be different. That’s the nature of this. I’m disappointed to see the War of 1812 deemphasized to some extent because that conflict speaks to the complexity of our history. Others disagree: some because they think it’s too much content for kids, others because that war complicates some narratives about America. But the standards are quite good overall. They are a fuller treatment of a range of issues than Virginia students have experienced in the past and stack up well against other states’ standards. Perhaps most importantly, as you know, there is a raging and long-running debate in education about content versus skills and how much knowledge matters. These standards are unapologetically content standards, and they emphasize content and knowledge. I’d encourage people to read them and consider that if you leave high school knowing these things, you have a pretty deep foundation about our history and world history. I say foundation intentionally, because these are not a terminus. The board rejected an approach that was more focused on themes and skills. The standards recognize that if you want students to think critically, they have to have something to think critically about.

Rick: What are a couple of things in the standards that might surprise people?

Andy: I assume based on the rhetoric and too much of the coverage, most people would be surprised to know Virginia is now one of only a few states to have Obergefell—the U.S. Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage—in our standards and a standard on the gay rights movement. Or a standard on the racial wealth gap as one of the effects of historical policies and actions, which most states do not. And a fuller treatment of Jim Crow and racial terror and a deeper dive on Virginia history post-Civil War than students have experienced in the past. And we were able to do that without getting into the more politicized versions of history. The standards also make clear that the American story is not just a litany of sins and shortcomings that is currently fashionable. We talk about the exceptionalism and achievements of the American project and the ideals that undergird this country. We talk about the people who risked lives, fortune, and honor to give us what we have today. The standards open the door to address the real complexity in American history. The treatment of Native Americans has been horrible, and we teach that; we also include the role of some tribes in the Civil War, which is less frequently discussed. The standards also talk about some of the key policy advances of the Progressive Era but also that this movement mainstreamed eugenics as a policy approach. History is messy, and too often, various narratives and binary good or bad labels overtake that messiness. Viewpoint diversity is explicitly named as a core principle in the standards, and they are very clear that there is no place for political indoctrination or ideology in schools—whether from the right, left, or some other source.

Rick: Can you talk about the process of approving the standards?

Andy: The process wasn’t ideal. The board rejected two previous sets of proposed standards last August and did not even put either version out for public comment. In my view, that was the right decision in both cases. Ultimately, we got some good and useful feedback from the public and experts, and then the board just did its job—tuning out the craziness and working through a draft of the actual standards line by line in a long meeting. I’d like to say there is some secret formula, but there isn’t. It’s about listening, checking facts and claims, working through contested issues like adults, and sometimes agreeing to disagree. The final vote on the actual standards was 9-0, which is pretty good in 2023 on a board with both Republicans and Democrats and people appointed by two different governors at a contentious time.

Rick: What criticisms have stuck out for you? And I’m curious which you find more or less compelling?

Andy: There is a lot of unhinged rhetoric about the standards. The usual suspects say they are whitewashed or whatever. And as the debate went on, it became clearer and clearer that a lot of the combatants were using history to try to score points about various current issues. At the public hearings, lots of politicians in primaries showed up to outdo each other about their outrage over this or that. We had different people upset Presidents Reagan or Obama were in the standards and others upset Cesar Chavez, Zora Neale Hurston, or Hayek and Friedman are. But when Anne Holton, a board member whose family has a storied history of fighting racism in Virginia, says the standards are good on teaching about race and racism in Virginia and America and votes for them—that should cause reporters and others to stop echoing baseless claims or at least pause to read the document and check various claims. When people say the document doesn’t mention racism—but that’s on the very first page—people should exercise a bit more skepticism about the wild claims. So, during public comment, there was a lot of noise, but we also got some useful feedback on how things were framed or places where things were implicit but should be made explicit because this is a public document. And although this is all framed as left versus right, there was thoughtful feedback and useful material from all sides. A fair criticism is certainly that there is too much content. I don’t agree with that, and, again, it’s a long-running debate in education. But if you are a skills or constructivist person, you won’t agree with this approach. And if you really do think this country is not unique or that its sins outweigh its role in the world as a beacon of liberty, then you’re not going to like what we did here.

Rick: How have you responded to the concern that there’s too much content?

Andy: Of course everyone will complain about what’s in or out, and if something is in our standards, it can be assessed for students. So we include a lot of additional material in curriculum frameworks. This keeps the assessments manageable. But it opens the door to the parlor game of saying things are not taught when they are in fact in the frameworks, just not the standards. These are K-12 standards: Ideally, we give students a lot of knowledge to help inform how they decide to look at the world, but you can’t include everything. The best we can do is set students up to be informed citizens able to spot BS on some of the myths out there and be prepared to become lifelong learners about our past and what it teaches us. In terms of the theater of the absurd, you had people complaining that the document was too long, but they previously had been urging us to adopt a 400-page one. A lot of this was politics and just throwing stuff to see what would stick.

Rick: There are many voices in education who’ve attacked Youngkin as a Republican extremist. What’s your take, and how did that play out when it came to the standards?

Andy: Yeah, of course a lot of this is just reflexive “stop Youngkin.” That’s politics: It is what it is, and I’ve been doing this long enough to see the roles reversed. In this case, it became clear that a lot of this standards debate was just reflexive stuff, muscle-memory partisanship. That was unfortunate because it drowned out thoughtful feedback and criticism at times. People aren’t going to agree on everything, that’s fine. And the process was confusing at times, so there was genuine confusion. But despite all that, the number of claims that were falsifiable was astounding. Has the Youngkin administration gotten everything right on education in my view? No. But the debate—and too often the coverage—is reactionary, partisan, and almost completely divorced from the complicated facts on the ground. That’s not helpful, and while politics will always be there, it seems like we can do better as far as the noise-to-signal ratio is concerned.

Rick: What are your biggest hopes or concerns as these standards translate into the classroom?

Andy: That’s the key question. Adoption of standards is really the beginning, not the end of the process. An interesting thing about many of these culture war flare ups in Virginia and elsewhere is that they are the result of teachers freestyling this stuff—finding lessons on their own—rather than organized curriculum. School districts have the responsibility here where they are not supporting teachers, but in general, they are not explicitly telling teachers to do Underground Railroad dodgeball, privilege bingo, or demographically bizarre test questions that assume various racial and ethnic groups all vote a particular way. Those are all real examples, by the way, and the inane stuff that understandably outrages parents. The new standards make a few things clear. One of those is that school divisions have a responsibility to support teachers with high-quality curriculum and materials—which was attacked as an effort to curtail teacher autonomy in the hothouse debates on the standards. It was a real palm to forehead moment to see self-described teacher advocates attacking efforts to make sure teachers are supported simply because they don’t like Glenn Youngkin. Another strength of the standards is a set of principles that make clear teachers need to teach about difficult issues in ways that are fact-based, respectful, and inclusive. This protects conservative students in progressive communities and progressive students in conservative communities and is the kind of teaching our best teachers do now. And this provides cover for those teachers who do their jobs well but makes clear coercion and politics don’t have a place in the history and social studies classroom. We didn’t get into this business of how things make people feel: Teachers can’t control that, and it’s an impossible standard. We did make clear there are high standards for what teachers actually do and their professionalism around teaching about contested issues in the public schools. But for any of this to happen well, we must do a better job supporting teachers in this work. The standards lay out the content, but teachers will need a lot of support to teach it well. Some of that is a state responsibility; some of that is on local school divisions; some is on the teachers themselves. That’s the challenge now.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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