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Commission recommends changes to how African American history is taught in Virginia

Posted at 6:55 PM, Aug 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-31 19:24:05-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia’s instructional standards for history education are “tainted with a master narrative that marginalized or erased the presence of non-Europeans” and must be corrected, according the final report by the Commission on African American History Education.

The commission, comprised of Virginia historians, educators, parents and students, was formed one year ago by Governor Ralph Northam (D) to find ways to improve how Virginia schools teach African American history.

The report recommends several changes, including technical amendments to standards of learning, requiring cultural competency and African American history training for teachers, and requiring an African American studies course for graduation.

The report was submitted to the Governor’s Office, and now state education leaders and elected officials will decide which recommendations to adopt.

“Virginia is a place of contradiction and complexity,” Northam said during the commission’s final meeting Monday. “The work of this commission has the potential to change the narrative on race in Virginia.”

The report found hundreds of example where standards of learning included language that either lacked full historical context, were misleading, or excluded the impact of historic moments on Black and Native Virginians.

For example, the commission cites a current standard that reads: “Cultural, economic, and constitutional differences between the North and the South eventually resulted in the Civil War.” The report says it should instead say, “Cultural, economic, and constitutional differences between the North and the South, all of them based in slavery, eventually resulted in the Civil War.”

The change, the commission writes, makes the phrasing more “active, clear, and responsible.”

“We must understand what racism is. Racism is not a personal decision that people make. It is part of a system,” said Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander with Norfolk State University and leader on the project.

“Students know these aspects of history happened, and they can see the effects with their own eyes. If they don’t learn in school about the origins of those powerful forces, they will assume, correctly, that we are not teaching them an honest history,” said Ed Ayers, former president of the University of Richmond.

Many Virginia teachers do not feel confident or equipped to properly instruct their students on topics of race, the report says. It suggests a litany of changes to how African American history is incorporated into training for Virginia teachers, including requiring all Virginia educators take cultural competency training by 2022.

According to the report, while 52 percent of Virginia students are people of color, 82 percent of Virginia educators are White.

“Professional development is necessary; however, professional development alone will not be sufficient for teachers to completely comprehend the experiences of Black and Brown students,” said Myles Hunt, a high school senior from Portsmouth.

Sixteen Virginia School districts, including Chesterfield and Henrico, are offering an elective course in African American history this fall. The commission recommends making courses like a requirement for graduation in the years to come.

“Having the Commonwealth as a partner in ensuring that not just my children are taught the truth, but that their classmates, co-workers, and future managers are also taught that same truth is vital to the protection and prosperity of all our children,” said Makya Little, a mother of three students in Virginia public schools.

Atif Qarni, Secretary of Education in Virginia, said state education officials and policymakers will review the report, and he expects Virginia will implement some of the recommendations within the next year.

Read the full report here.