The National Association of Scholars (NAS) and the Civics Alliance congratulate the Virginia Department of Education on its approval of new social studies standards. The Department, after conducting six public hearings in March 2023, approved the new standards. The standards will become active at the beginning of the 2025 school year.
Virginia’s new social studies standards concludes a long process of revision, which the NAS and the Civics Alliance have supported throughout, by public comment. Virginia’s Department of Education initially produced a lamentably bureaucratic and politicized draft standard, and Governor Youngkin admirably took the initiative to commission new draft standards. The Department produced excellent standards, which have since gone through the public hearing process. A process that provides full democratic accountability. After a prolonged saga, Virginia finally has the social studies standards its students deserve.
The nation is fortunate that Virginia has competition from South Dakota’s new standards. Louisiana’s, Arkansas’s, Tennessee’s, and Indiana’s all also deserve praise. But Virginia’s standards set a high bar for other states to meet. As we wrote in January, Virginia’s new Standards is excellent. Its virtues include:
- Clear Introduction: The third draft added an Introduction (pp. 7-11) that explains lucidly for Virginia’s citizens the historical background and the Standards’ rationale.
- Clarity and Simplicity: The August 2022 Standards had become lengthy, repetitive, and extremely difficult to understand. The Standards have been reduced to a compact document that consists largely of content knowledge, has removed most of the repetitive, coercive “skills” and “inquiry” material, and has been written in much tighter prose.
- Democratic Appeal: The Standards have been written for all Virginians. The authors of the Standards have written with an eye to democratic accountability and succeeded in crafting social studies standards that pass on to Virginia’s students the history and ideals of every group that has contributed to Virginia’s past and present.
- Patriotic Focus: The Standards include substantial material to inspire and inform patriotic sentiment in Virginia’s students.
- Greece and Rome: The Standards include material on ancient Greece and Rome in the K-6 sequence. Virginia students will learn early about the central source of our ideals and institutions of liberty, democracy, and republican self-government.
- Radical Polemic Removed: The August 2022 Standards included much radical polemic disguised as pedagogy, which would have served to facilitate teaching Critical Race Theory and action civics. The new Standards largely have removed this material.
- Solid Content: The Standards generally provide solid, well-organized content for social studies instruction in history, civics, geography, and economics. This ought to be a minimum expectation for social studies standards—but, as the August 2022 Standards unfortunately demonstrated, it cannot be assumed that the regular processes of state education departments can produce these. The Standards accomplish what they ought to do: provide school districts, teachers, students, parents, and citizens a clear, well-organized, rigorous, content-based, and grade-appropriate expectation of what social studies content should be taught and learned in Virginia’s public K-12 schools.
Virginia’s standards replace the spirit of John Dewey with the spirit of E. D. Hirsch—and with the spirit of the entire tradition of Western and American education that marries content-rich rigor and democratic ambition, to create a new generation of students with the free and well-stocked minds that will fit them to preserve our republic and our liberties.
We suggested, and suggest, further improvements—strengthened writing expectations, discrete coverage of Western Civilization and of non-Western World History, and strengthened coverage of the common culture of America and the West. But these are friendly thoughts about how to improve standards that already are among the best in the nation, if not the best.
Virginia, along with South Dakota, Florida and Louisiana, now faces a new challenge. These states, which have pioneered reformed social studies standards, now must produce teacher training, professional development, textbooks, and model curricula to match their standards. They must do so not only for their own teachers and students but also to provide a model for education reformers in other states. Social studies standards are the essential first battle to restore American civics education—but the rest of the campaign must be won as well.
Congratulations to the Department of Education, to Education Secretary Aimee Guidera, to Governor Youngkin, and to every citizen of Virginia who has worked to bring about this victory. Virginia’s students will be your debtors for your excellent work, as will all Americans.