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EDITORIAL: Now who is trying to rewrite history

The most recent draft of Virginia’s history standards are a thinly veiled attempt to undo the progress our state has slowly been making

The Virginia Board of Education recently voted to advance the latest draft of its history and social science standards for K-12 education. What began as an effort to merge standards drafted under Gov. Youngkin’s administration with standards drafted under the previous administration has morphed into a politically motivated takeover of our history curriculum that ignores the needs of Virginia’s students. The standards advanced this February not only stifle students’ learning through censorship, but also undermines efforts to use the curriculum to develop critical thinking skills useful well beyond our K-12 classrooms. The Board of Education should reconsider its decision to advance these standards before they are finally approved at their meeting in April. 

The circumstances surrounding the creation of the recently approved history standards are concerning to say the least. The Board traditionally approves updated standards of learning in August with the advice from professional educators, social studies experts and Virginia families. Youngkin's administration, however, delayed this process to submit its own draft of updated standards. With competing perspectives now in play, the Board asked the Virginia Department of Education to combine parts of the proposed standards drafted under former Gov. Northam’s administration with the newer standards put forth under the Youngkin administration. This attempted fusion resulted in the most recent draft which was advanced at this month's meeting. The Board voted 5-3 to move forward with the merged draft despite the proposed standards criticism from industry experts — the draft also avoided important history in favor of pushing a political agenda. 

A major issue with this new draft is that it allegedly includes input from over 200 reviewers over the course of two years, but a VDOE representative has confirmed that this number is a combined figure consisting of all those who advised on any of the relevant drafts to date — even if they worked exclusively on the August or November versions. Since the VDOE has yet to release the list of people who advised strictly on the January draft, we have no idea who, if anyone, was actually consulted. It is not even clear who was involved in actually writing the January draft, despite a request to release this information. If the Board is going to approve revisions to the state’ standards of learning for the first time in nearly a decade, Virginians deserve to know exactly who and where these standards are coming from. 

Aside from the cloud of secrecy surrounding it, the draft itself also threatens the progress that Virginia has made in cultivating an accurate social studies curriculum. Amy Tillerson-Brown, Education Chairperson of the Virginia NAACP, points out the most recent draft starts the chronology of American history only when Europeans begin to arrive on the continent 

and also notes the standard’s “ahistorical” treatment of European brutality towards the native people they encountered. Instead of workshopping earlier drafts to more accurately account for the subjugation of indigenous people, the Board felt it necessary to spend extra time correcting George Washington's title to "The Father of Our Country." Additionally, guidelines for the 4th grade identify only white male leaders during the Revolutionary War — the draft removes James Armistead Lafayette, an African American spy for the Colonial Army who was featured by name in both the 2015 standards and the collaborative standards put forth in December by six different Virginia education organizations. 

These intentional attempts to whitewash history follows a trend not only seen in instances like Florida’s rejection of AP African American studies, but also in Youngkin’s own gubernatorial campaign, when he used the fear of Critical Race Theory to garner support. Politicians are weaponizing the public education apparatus to serve their own political agendas as opposed to supporting curriculums designed to help students develop as thinkers. Properly taught, social studies equips young people with the tools to change the world — understandably, these older white male politicians appear comfortable maintaining the status quo.  

The new draft also includes 100 additional standards, mentioning 187 different historical figures by name, without adding any additional instruction time. Experts say this will force Virginia's educators to require rote memorization of facts without time to help students actually apply the knowledge they have gained. This will prevent Virginia’s educators from using social studies skills to help develop our young people into critical thinkers. As college students, we know that what is required for success beyond the secondary classrooms is not the ability to regurgitate any particular set of historical facts, but rather the ability to think critically about how information impacts the world around us. The Youngkin administration's attempt to rewrite our history standards promotes their personal agenda while failing to adequately prepare our students for future success. 

We, the Editorial Board, have already done our time in the K-12 education system — so you might ask, why should we care? Students who are exposed to these new standards will be tomorrow’s college students and later, our country’s leaders. It is imperative that students are given a more holistic grasp of Virginia, U.S., and world history while also being given the tools to think critically about how this history impacts the present and can inform our future. Educators have made huge strides towards educational equity even since we were children — one example of this is the increased contextualization surrounding Christopher Columbus’ so-called discovery of the Americas. We cannot allow the most recent draft to return us to a narrow-minded, exclusionary approach to social studies — we cannot lose the little progress we have already made.  

This Editorial Board is — as our hate emails often mention — just a group of college kids. There is a lot we do not now know about educating young people, and we certainly are not experts. However, we know that there are people who have spent years learning how to teach students, and these people seem to have been excluded from writing the draft standards that were just advanced. We also know that recognizing past injustices and expanding historical knowledge beyond Western thought is not divisive, but necessary. If nothing else, we know that going backwards is not going to help us push the state we call home forward. If the Board has students' best interests in mind, they must listen to the experts and reverse course. 

The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors, their Senior Associates and an Opinion Columnist. The board can be reached at eb@cavalierdaily.com.

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