Twenty years ago, a staple of late-night comedy was the man-on-the street interview in which the host asked random passersby basic questions about American history and civics. We all laughed as the interviewees struggled to recall or guess the correct answers.
While the clips were selected for maximum laughs, they were nonetheless disquieting in that they validated concerns about whether schools were preparing young Americans to become thoughtful citizens with an understanding of their history and institutions.
Since day one of his administration, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has called for best-in-class history standards that present all our history, the good and the bad, while teaching Virginia’s students how to think, not what to think.
Virginia was one of the first states to address concerns about declining knowledge of history and civics by adopting rigorous history and social science standards in the late 1990s and administering statewide assessments to ensure that students were taught the content of standards.
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But a lot has changed since those early days of the Standards of Learning reform, in Virginia and nationally.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 shifted the focus of K-12 instruction in many states almost exclusively to reading and math.
In Virginia, the 2014 General Assembly eliminated most of the elementary and middle school history SOLs. Three years later, the state Board of Education eliminated achievement in social studies as an accreditation factor.
By 2018, the National Assessment of Education Progress – also known as the Nation’s Report Card – reported that only 14% of eighth-graders nationwide were proficient in history, a 4-point decline from 2014.
When we look at student performance across the curriculum over the past 10 years, we see a correlation between the de-emphasis of history and civics in our schools and declines in reading. Many educators – count me among them – were not surprised to see reading performance decline as students read fewer and fewer challenging texts in their study of history and civics.
In Virginia, for example, the percentage of fourth-graders achieving proficiency on the national reading test dropped from 43% in 2017 to 38% in 2019.
One argument made during the current discussion about revising Virginia’s history standards in favor of reducing the amount of required content is that students today can look up an event or historical figure on a smartphone and plug in the answer to complete an assignment. This is not learning. American history and the tenets of our founding documents are not trivia to be Googled when needed and then quickly forgotten.
The revision of the History and Social Science Standards of Learning presents an opportunity for Virginia to reverse this trend by providing students with necessary background knowledge to properly apply critical thinking skills.
The standards I am presenting to the Board of Education this month strike a balance between content knowledge and critical thinking. They are founded on a set of guiding principles that connect learning across grades and courses and incorporate the views and suggestions of historians and curriculum experts gathered over a period of more than two years.
The draft standards respond to specific concerns raised by board members about the importance of factual knowledge as the basis for critical thinking about our history and institutions.
There is an increased emphasis on civics, beginning in the early elementary grades. As students advance, they learn about the vision of our Founding Fathers and its relevance today. George Washington is again “The Father of Our Country” and James Madison is again “The Father of the Constitution.”
The draft also rejects “presentism,” a historical lens that places historical figures in the dock for trial and condemnation according to contemporary standards but is unflinching in its examination of eras when America did not live up to its founding ideals, including the dispossession of native nations and tribes, slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the race-based exclusion of Asian immigrants.
Previously ignored periods in Virginia history are now included in the standards. For the first time, high school students will learn about the post-Civil War Readjuster Party. This biracial coalition of former Confederates and formerly enslaved African Americans expanded the commonwealth’s infant and meagerly funded public school system, abolished the poll tax, and expanded opportunities for Black Virginians during its brief period in power in the late 1870s and early 1880s.
I encourage all Virginians to read the draft standards. I believe that when they do, they will agree that the department has met the governor’s challenge to provide our students with history standards that present all our history — the good and the bad — and that include the contributions of the commonwealth’s diverse communities.
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Jillian Balow is Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction and executive
officer of the Virginia
Department of Education. Contact her at email@example.com.