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Criticism, confusion swirl around changes to history standards

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Mallory Noe-Payne
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RadioIQ
Zowee Aquino, alongside members of the Hamkae Center, spoke at Thursday's Board of Education meeting.

It was a packed conference room and lobby at the Board of Education meeting Thursday as dozens turned out to criticize a move by the Youngkin administration to, as they put it, whitewash history.

The comments came as Virginia’s Board and Department of Education continue to struggle through a divisive and confusing process of re-writing the state’s history and social studies SOL standards.

One speaker Thursday was Megan Ferenczy, director of education at the Virginia Holocaust Museum and mother of two.

“As a parent I want my child to be learning about history. All of it. The good, the bad, the uncomfortable,” she said. “We can be proud of certain aspects of our history and at the same time examine our past and be critical about it. How are we supposed to learn and grow as citizens of this country and of this world without it?”

It wasn’t until after the crowds cleared that Superintendent of Public Education Jillian Balow addressed what seemed to be confusion about the changes.

She said the drastic reduction in content that many complained about didn’t mean those things wouldn’t be taught, but rather that the details would be fleshed out in a separate document down the road.

“We want to make sure that today and going forward and everything that’s led up to today remains very transparent and very open and very inclusive of everyone,” Balow told reporters. “We want everyone to see themselves and feel themselves in our standards document and our curricular framework.”

Given the way things have gone so far in the social-science curriculum rewrite many in the public, and even some members of the Board, expressed doubt of the Youngkin administration’s sincere effort towards that goal.

For almost two years the Department of Education, led by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s administration, solicited public and expert input in the rewrite process. They worked with historians, museum leaders, and community members under the stated goal of creating more historically honest and inclusive social studies standards.

Then Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected. His newly-appointed Superintendent of Education Balow asked for a delay as her department made revisions to the 400 page document that had been produced under the previous administration.

Last week they released the revised social studies draft standards document. Their update was only 53 pages long. The new document was immediately and loudly criticized by educators, historians and parents.

Dozens spoke to the board Thursday, including experts who had been involved in the initial two-year rewrite process. Over almost four hours of public comment only two individuals spoke in favor of the rewrite.

A diverse group, including leaders from Virginia’s Indigenous communities, the NAACP, the Sikh community, the Jewish community and the Asian American community, all spoke against the slimmed down version. Many called it a white-washing of the state’s history standards.

“The third grade curriculum slashes ancient China, ancient Egypt, and the African civilization Mali instead expanding the units on ancient Greece and Rome,” pointed out Daniel Walrod, a parent and teacher. “Our third graders will no longer learn about any place other than Europe.”

Many others focused their criticism on the apparent 180-degree shift in process, which they say resulted in a last-minute document that doesn’t pass muster.

“This document is fraught with problems. It is disorganized, it is filled with factual omissions and misrepresentations, typos and formatting errors,” said Cheryl Binkley, a community college professor. “I’ve seen these papers before… it was the kid who kept saying ‘I’m working on it…’ and then the night before it was due they would go to the internet and cut and paste a bunch of stuff together… That's what our current superintendent has done.”

Since releasing the document last week the Department of Education has already changed and apologized for several mistakes, including the omission of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth from the K-12 curriculum. And Thursday at the meeting Superintendent Balow apologized personally for what she said was the inadvertent error of referring to Virginia’s native tribes as immigrants rather than Indigenous communities.

It wasn’t until after the long hours of public comment though that Balow spoke to clarify that the new document only represents half of the work still ahead. She says the Department decided to change course in the process, separating out standards and curriculum in two separate documents.

“Nothing from (the August) document is lost, it’s gone into curriculum frameworks to be built upon,” said Balow, referencing all the material that appeared to have been cut. “They went into a parking lot, they’re not lost.”

Board members expressed confusion about the entire process. Member Anne Holton said that she understands why the public may have doubts, calling the new document a “disaster” and the process “disrespectful.”

Referencing omissions that were pointed out during public comment she said “it's hard to see how you don't call that white-washing." She and others on the board also questioned what individuals or groups had been involved in the changes made in recent months.

“I’m not sure where we’re going from here,” said Board Chair Dan Gecker, adding he feels like they were “meandering in the wilderness.”

The Board ultimately did not vote to move either document to the next stage of review yet, instead they asked the Department of Education to produce a new draft that combined elements of each.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.