Education Professors Offer Insight Into Process of Developing Virginia's History, Social Science SOLs

April 6, 2010 — What do schoolchildren need to learn, how do they learn best, and who should decide?

This is a long-running debate, and it continues. A new movement, led by the National Governors Association, seeks to set rigorous national standards for learning math and English.

Against that backdrop, the story of how Virginia developed its history and social studies Standards of Learning over the last 15 years offers an informative lesson in the complicated process of setting standards at the state level – and how teachers and students have been affected by them, according to education professors Stephanie van Hover of the University of Virginia, David Hicks of Virginia Tech and Jeremy Stoddard of the College of William & Mary.

The trio examined Virginia's experience as a case study in the socially and politically constructed nature of curriculum standards and the difficult process of codifying historical knowledge. They  write about their findings in an article in the latest issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The state moved to the forefront of the accountability movement in the 1990s under Gov. George Allen, who initiated a revision of Virginia's SOLs accompanied by high-stakes testing. As part of this program, Virginia revised its social studies standards in a contentious, divisive and politically charged process.

The struggle to craft these standards involved a clash of ideological, historical and cultural perspectives that ultimately influenced what is being taught and learned in classrooms across Virginia, as the authors recount in their article. Their research shows that "the decision-making process about what knowledge is of most worth – what our children need to learn – is a value-laden, complex, political process that rarely pleases everybody."

As a result of the reforms implemented in Virginia, the authors argue that "success as a history and social science teacher is aligned with how well students do on multiple-choice tests. State accreditation of schools rests with how well students do on such tests and teachers know that the content of these tests is clearly laid out."

According to the authors, important questions and more debates about the direction of state and federal educational policies will again arise. At stake is "what it means to educate children, not just in history and social science, but across the curriculum."

"It will be interesting to see what happens next, in Virginia and the nation, as the conversation and debate over national standards heats up," they write.

— By Rebecca Arrington