After a long, contentious process, the Virginia Board of Education on Thursday approved wide-ranging changes to the Standards of Learning for history and social science in the commonwealth’s public schools.
Virginia law calls for the SOLs to be revised every seven years. These changes will go into effect for the 2025-2026 school year.
“The standards raise the commonwealth’s aspirations for history and social science instruction, while also restoring excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons said in a statement.
“I am confident these standards will meet the needs of Virginia’s children,” Board of Education President Dan Gecker said in the statement. “Are they perfect? Probably not. But they represent a balance between content knowledge and inquiry as well as the consensus of the board regarding what students should know about our history and institutions.”
A contentious process
This is the third draft of the standards. The process began in 2021, and the election of Gov. Glenn Youngkin led to changes.
The first draft, done in consultation with historians and educators, was released in August of last year, but the process was halted by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and another draft prepared.
The second draft, released last November after consultation with conservative groups, was criticized for changes such as calling Indigenous people “the first immigrants” and a lack of emphasis on Black history. There was also criticism over the takeover of the process.
The latest revision, which dates back to January, appears to address some of these concerns. It calls for “open and balanced discussions” on social ills including racism (a word which didn’t appear in the previous draft), acknowledges the name Indigenous Peoples Day alongside Columbus Day and includes a segment on the Readjuster Party, a white-Black coalition that swept Virginia elections shortly after the Civil War.
“Students should be exposed to the facts of our past, even when those facts are uncomfortable,” the revision said. In a nod to conservative revisions to teaching standards nationwide, it also explicitly calls for teachers not to “imply students today are culpable for past events.”
‘An unpleasant memory’
“The hard part actually starts now,” board member Andy Rotherham, an appointee of Youngkin, told the The Virginia Mercury. “This is a big shift, and we’re going to really have to support our teachers — the amount of content knowledge here, the number of things we have put in that, frankly, people didn’t necessarily encounter in school themselves and they’re going to have to learn.”
“This will remain an unpleasant memory for all of us, but we’re all resilient and we will get through,” James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, told the Mercury.
There was also contention at Thursday’s meeting over the use of the phrase “restoring excellence” for its implied criticism of previous standards. The phrase remains.
Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera said in the statement that the new SOL standards embody Youngkin’s “commitment to teach all history — both the good and the bad.”
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