Virginia Urges Slavery Lessons for Kindergarteners

Parents, educators take issue with new curriculum

An elementary-school classroom during the pandemic / Getty Images
July 19, 2020

Virginia kindergarten students will learn about institutional racism alongside the alphabet, according to new curriculum recommendations created for the upcoming school year.

Loudoun County is adding "social justice" to the mission of teaching elementary school students reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Washington, D.C., suburb—the richest county in the country—has teamed up with the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) education arm Teaching Tolerance to develop its new curriculum. The proposed lesson plan recommends restructuring history and social studies classes to emphasize slavery as fundamental to American society for students from kindergarten to the fifth grade.

"Sugarcoating or ignoring slavery until later grades makes students more upset by or even resistant to true stories about American history," the documents say. "Long before we teach algebra, we teach its component parts. We should structure history instruction the same way."

Following parent complaints, a district spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon on Monday that the changes are optional.*

"The Teaching Tolerance resources are optional," spokesman Rob Doolittle said. "Parents who have queried LCPS about those resources have been informed that they are optional.

Not every Loudoun County educator is on board with the administration's direction. A longtime elementary school teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that the school system had always taught students about the reality of slavery—lessons that typically begin in the fourth grade. She said the administrative focus to push racial politics on students who do not yet know how to read is motivated by politics, rather than education.

"I teach lower grades in elementary school.… [Never before] did I have to teach about slavery," the teacher said. "Our standards were always [to] teach about famous Americans, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., people like that. But, it was all very general and the bigger picture, we highlighted their accomplishments."

The new Teaching Tolerance kindergarten curriculum urges teachers to explain social justice theories to five-year-olds. The Loudoun County elementary school teacher believes this curriculum will prove divisive for children who lack the maturity to deal with the subject.

"What they're really trying to do is divide people as early as they can, starting now with kindergarteners. They're really going to be inciting hate," the teacher said. "They're pointing out that there's 'whiteness' and 'blackness' and that's crazy. We never taught about that in school.... We learn about how to get along with one another and be kind and respect others. But now, with this new curriculum that they're adding, it's going to do the total opposite."

The curriculum was first introduced by the Virginia Department of Education's superintendent. When asked how the SPLC guidelines were funded and whether the guidelines were mandatory across the state, the state's education department deflected.

"The state Board of Education approves content standards and curriculum frameworks for history and social studies," a state education department spokesman said. "Local school boards are responsible for developing or adopting curriculum aligned with the state standards and framework." Loudoun County's school board did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The guide encourages educators to create opportunities for kindergarten, first, and second grade students to learn about "activism and action civics."

"Students should study examples of role models from the past and present, and ask themselves, 'how can I make a difference?'" the guide says. "These conversations [about slavery] should lead into discussions about current injustices—particularly those that continue to disenfranchise and oppress the descendants of enslaved people—and possibilities for activism and reform."

Max Eden, an education policy expert at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, said the curriculum's focus on political activism and the horrors of slavery is not suitable for kindergarten students. He said the movement to inject politics into elementary school classrooms has gained momentum since the New York Times launched its controversial 1619 Project.

"Students aren't prepared when they're five years old to develop a nuanced sense of history and political processes, and pros and cons of different side effects, and unintended consequences," Eden said. "What the real goal of this is, by introducing [slavery] this young, is to try to get the left-wing, Nikole Hannah-Jones, [SPLC] meta-political narrative into kids' heads as soon as possible, which is basically trying to compel them to believe that because slavery happened, therefore, America is evil and you must follow the leftist idea of ... how we need to overturn power in society."

Parents are also upset that social justice would explicitly be taught in a public elementary school. A Loudoun County parent of two—who also spoke on the condition of anonymity—told the Free Beacon he was disappointed in the school district.

"SPLC is pushing Marxist ideology more or less. They're really pushing those concepts of 'revolution' and 'dismantling the system' that we have," the father said. "So rather than everyone coming together and building something great together, it's about destroying what's been built."

The school board is asking parents concerned about the "social justice" curriculum to fill out a survey requesting the board reconsider instructional materials.

SPLC did not respond to a request for comment.

*UPDATE: July 20, 2020 3:10 p.m.

This piece has been updated with new comments from the Loudon County School District