A Trip to the Theater

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During a recent Virginia state board meeting, one of our most engaged gadflies jumped on social media to announce his departure after the public comment portion in a “now the important stuff is over” spirit. As any board member reading this knows, the work begins when public comment ends. Not that commenting is unimportant: It can provide valuable input and is an essential First Amendment activity.

But that’s life on a present-day state board: A public narrative gets people spun up, and then the board undertakes actual work that affects students. It deliberates and it votes, and these actions have the greater consequence. Witness Virginia’s high-profile debate over its new history and social studies standards.

I am often asked how Virginia got to consensus—especially now. Most of the news coverage, and certainly the social media discourse, was based on vibes, not the standards’ actual content. When James Traub wrote in Politico that the standards were pretty good, it turned some heads, even though The Washington Post’s editorial board and others had said the same. To the dismay of some, we don’t flinch from teaching about the horror show of communist regimes, but we also don’t pull punches on where our country has fallen short. People are surprised to learn that Virginia has best-in-class coverage of the racial terror that followed Reconstruction, on causes of the racial wealth gap, and on the gay rights movement and relevant Supreme Court cases. The standards cover the conservative movement, abortion, and America’s leading role in the 20th century. Those looking for a story of America as an unblemished hero’s journey will come away disappointed but so will those who see America as little more than an aggregation of historical sins.

Those looking for a story of America as an unblemished hero’s journey will come away disappointed but so will those who see America as little more than an aggregation of historical sins.

Especially in today’s hothouse politics, achieving that balance was not easy. While committed people and good leadership made it possible, there are a few added lessons I can offer my state board peers.

First, ignore the craziness. Virginia’s process was not ideal. Before even getting to a working draft, the board had rejected two sets of proposed standards: one produced by the previous (Democratic) administration, the other by the current administration of Glenn Youngkin, a Republican. Each of those decisions disappointed stakeholders. When Governor Youngkin told the board he wanted a complete telling of history and standards that were best in class, the board was right to take him at his word. Yet when one set of activists wants to anchor standards in American exceptionalism and another in American errors, the board will face challenges. National politics and outside interests only magnified the challenge. Some of the pushback had nothing to do with the standards and everything to do with scuffing up the governor, which a credulous media was all too eager to do. The board had to tune that out. And because for every constructive suggestion there was an inaccurate claim, members had to parse the feedback.

Second, focus on quality. The media and many political actors wanted to frame the entire debate as left-right. But the core disagreement at the board level, as Traub highlights, was about content versus inquiry standards. Basically, are knowledge-rich standards a predicate to critical thinking about history and an essential part of our emphasis on literacy, or should students be exposed to broad themes, with specific content playing a secondary role? The inquiry approach is divorced from what evidence says about how people learn but is catnip for activists and activist scholars. The intuitive yet flawed idea that you can just Google facts maintains a strong hold on education. Compromise is essential in any process but not around basic issues of quality. As the education sector has learned the hard way on literacy, on core issues around instruction it is important to hold the line. Compromise is important, but not on core issues of quality.

Third, talk it out. The process ended in a long meeting in which board members went through the standards page by page, without the sustained attention of media or loud voices. It was slow going, but the board worked through contested issues. Our board president did an admirable job making sure everyone had input where they wanted. To the uninitiated, much of the discussion might sound trivial. For instance, why debate whether to teach patriotism or teach about patriotism in public schools? Because there are core First Amendment issues bound up in that question. Problems with communist economic systems are pretty straightforward; how to differentiate between countries with strong social democratic movements and actual socialism is not so easy in a standards document. We did not get to agreement on everything, but in the end, a politically diverse board approved the standards on a 9-0 vote.

Finally, build trust. Ideally, a board could do that outside the board room itself and the specifics of the work but that is not always possible. For me, one of the most interesting, and revealing, episodes in the entire process was a debate over whether the use of the word “stain” to describe slavery’s enduring legacy minimized the horror of slavery. The board debated some different wording before landing on a version of stain. What was clear, however, was that the debate was less about wording and more a misunderstanding of motives and shadowboxing. Everyone agreed on the evil of slavery and its enduring legacy. What the board lacked was the level of trust required to differentiate mismanaged agreement from actual disagreement.

After the history standards were done, we turned our attention to revisions of Virginia’s math standards. Math is arguably as complicated, and certainly as important, as history. Yet the engagement was a fraction of that on the history standards. We heard from experts, curriculum specialists, teachers, and some members of the public. There was no theater, no demonstrations, no overheated rhetoric. Because math did not offer the theater that history did. Encouraging, yes in a way, and also a reminder of how far the education community has to go before it is routinely focusing on what matters most for students. As you engage in standards making on your state board, expect no credit, but keep your head down and stay focused on substance—and not the exhausting political fray.

Andrew Rotherham is a member of the Virginia Board of Education and co-founder of Bellwether, a nonprofit education consulting firm.





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