Virginia Commission Reimagines African American History Education

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This guest post comes from Atif Qarni, Virginia secretary of education. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author

At no other time in my living memory has the United States experienced such an intense reckoning with its racial history. As the Virginia secretary of education, I live and work in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, and I am faced with the complex past of our state and nation every day.

I go to work every day against the backdrop of protests, recontextualization and removal of confederate monuments, and fierce debate on the impacts of our city’s racist past on its present systems. This historical moment has given state leaders a unique opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to breaking down the monumental inequities that persist in our society, and to tell a truer, better and more honest story of our states and nation.

The work to ensure our complex history is adequately represented in our classrooms started a little over a year ago when Gov. Ralph Northam signed executive order Thirty Nine establishing the Commission on African American History Education. The commission was tasked with thoroughly examining Virginia’s history standards and professional development practices to improve the way African American history is taught in Virginia schools. Commission members included civil rights leaders, historians, school superintendents, faith leaders and educators.

Sometimes bringing the right group of people to the table can turn the needle in more profound ways than we can imagine. This dynamic group worked hard for a year, spending countless hours poring over Virginia’s standards of learning, curriculum frameworks and professional development practices. On Aug. 31, 2020, the commission presented its final report to the governor for improving the way African American history is taught in Virginia schools. Below are the commission’s key recommendations that state leaders can consider:

      • Propose edits to enrich and correct learning standards and curriculum frameworks related to African American history.
      • Improve the organization of learning standards to ensure that African American history is a cohesive part of all history education.
      • Revise the history and social studies standards review process to include more diverse perspectives.
      • Encourage the addition of professional development and instructional supports to equip all educators to engage students in culturally responsive pedagogy and gain appropriate foundational knowledge in African American history.

If fully implemented by the board of education and general assembly, the commission’s recommendations will help all Virginia students and educators develop a comprehensive understanding of the African American voices that contribute to our nation’s story.

It is our hope other states may consider this effort as a framework for examining their own history standards and professional development practices, which could ultimately transform the way African American history is taught in schools around the country. When we teach the full and complex narrative of our past, students can see their place in history and are equipped to work toward a better society. Virginia stands ready to help any other state that wishes to engage in this work.

States who wish to learn more about Virginia’s efforts may reach out to Tori Noles, policy advisor to the secretary of education.

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