Rebel Families

The Problem with
National History Day

NHD: A Warning to Parents and Participants

Our daughter participated in NHD in Virginia in 2011, 2012 and 2013, making it to the National competition in 2012.

We’ve always been supporters of the program. We volunteered our time, helped with donations and even spoke publicly at school board meetings attempting to seek more participation in NHD.

Sadly, due to inconsistencieslack of oversight, and absence of standards, we can no longer support the program. At least not in Virginia.

First – a little “history”…

In 2012, our daughter and her partner won first place in Regionals and States in 2012 with a rather simplistic and hastily assembled group exhibit on Louis Pasteur, a topic they picked from a list in history class and was required for a grade.  This allowed them to attend the NHD National competition in College Park, Maryland. We were surprised given the scope of their work (or, should I say… lack thereof), but figured – Hey, these NHD folks must know what they are doing.

Once we arrived in College Park, we saw the competition and the serious nature of the judging at the National level, we quickly realized that Louis Pasteur was way out of his league here. Lesson learned: if you want to compete at Nationals you’d better show up with your A-Game because these kids are in it to win it. So, our daughter, high on a combination of inspiration and determination, decided to try again with a better project. A project so epic that Louis Pasteur himself would be impressed.

A few months later she began researching Eastern State Hospital, also known as the Public Hospital, in her hometown of Williamsburg, and where her grandmother is employed. Eastern State was the very first public mental hospital in the U.S. and one of its early doctors, Dr. John M. Galt, is considered an early adapter of moral treatment of the mentally ill. What a great “turning point”: Dr. Galt and America’s first public hospital devoted solely to the mentally ill!  This topic would give her access to some seriously awesome primary resources, something the judges at Nationals said was lacking in her 2012 entry. The Public Hospital museum is located here in Colonial Williamsburg. The artifacts are here. The experts are here. The current Eastern State Hospital is still in operation here. This was something that would allow her to really get her hands dirty with research. No Wikipedia needed.

Her research for the exhibit took her to the William & Mary SWEM library Special Collections Department for viewing 200 year old diaries. She rummaged through files of old documents and photographs at the Colonial Williamsburg operated Rockefeller library. She deciphered scribbled letters from the early 1800′s in the Eastern State Hospital private archives. She held pieces of patient pipes and medical tools in the employee-access-only rooms of the archeology department. Museum experts and historians were interviewed. Visual and reference librarians were contacted. Eastern State staff, doctors and executives were consulted. The executive director of Eastern State assigned a specialist to give her private tours and talk about outcomes. She visited Shomer Zwelling at his home, author of Quest for a Cure: The Public Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1773-1885, one of the only books published about the history of Eastern State and Dr. Galt. For a modern-day perspective, the CEO of Diamond Healthcare Corporation was interviewed, and to tie it all together, our daughter interviewed the director of one of the largest mental health care organizations in the world, NAMI. That’s right… our 13 year old daughter managed to get an interview with the head honcho of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who had recently appeared on CBS News and Face The Nation.

She left school early to work on the project. She stayed up late to work on the project. She spent weekends at home working on the project. She talked and talked and talked about Dr. Galt to the point that the rest of the family felt like we knew him personally. We joked about setting a place for him at the dinner table.

Her research was amazing. Her exhibit was spectacular too.

She designed an interactive model of the hospital made from cardboard. The left side represented the “Age of Restraint” with bars on the windows, pictures of shackled or tortured patients and corresponding research inside the flaps. The right side, representing the “Age of Morality”, had curtains in the windows and positive images to depict the changes in care and outcome of Dr. Galt’s reforms. A video display was included in the “door” of the exhibit and showed related images including original hospital excavation photos loaned by the archaeologists.  She even put flickering, battery operated candles in the windows. So very “Williamsburg” of her.

The exhibit listed clear proof of the thesis and an impact statement linking Dr. Galt’s reforms to outcomes in modern care.

She even managed to get a quote from the director of NAMI about the importance of Dr. Galt and the turning point of moral management. Score!

The thesis statement alone took months of work. The supporting documents were incredible. The research was impeccable; broad and balanced. The layout was intriguing. The annotated bibliography was over 40 pages. Yup. You read that correctly…. a 13 year old put together a 40 page bibliography of mostly “wow” primary resources.

The title: “Restoring Reason: Dr. Galt’s Humanitarian Reform at America’s First Public Mental Hospital” (“Restoring Reason” was taken from a quote by Francis Fauquier, an  early Governor of the Colonies – “…Every civilized Country has an Hospital for these People, where they are confined, maintained and attended by able Physicians, to endeavor to restore to them their lost reason.” The letters that made up the words “Restoring Reason” were crafted from copied pages of Dr. Galt’s original diaries. You could see his handwriting and patient names and treatments if you looked closely.

Oh, yea! Bring on Regionals! This girl is in it to win it.

March 2013 – Virginia Regional District 6 Competition, Norfolk VA

Jaws dropped as she set up the exhibit in the viewing room. People mumbled and pointed. Teachers brought groups of students to the exhibit and told them “Now THIS is a National History Day project! This is what I want you to do.” Visitors posed next to the exhibit for photos. People thumbed through the bib and process paper. They shook our daughters hand and hugged her. “Incredible” they said.

Guess what the judges gave the project?

Third place.

Third place behind two other projects that were a C-game at best. Even the teacher who represented the 1st place winner gasped in disgust. “What the hell happened?” she said to me afterwards. Good question.

Last year our daughter went all the way to Nationals with a poorly researched and conceptualized exhibit. This time, with an entry worthy of a Masters level college student, she didn’t even make it through Regionals, losing out to projects that were far inferior in both research, conceptualization and scholarly analysis.

We actually have a rather funny video from the Regional competition where you can hear the collective hush of shock and then gasp of disbelief that fell over the audience as the winners were announced. Well, it is funny NOW. At the time is was devastating to our daughter.

Virginia History Day Officials Investigate

After the competition, swarms of people gathered around to share their disappointment in the judging. People wrote us letters. They called us. They texted. People Tweeted and Facebook’d. They were angry too. Some said they would never participate in the NHD program in Virginia again.

We knew the judging was clearly flawed, but also realized it was final. We prepared the “sometimes life just isn’t fair” speech.

Then we were given the bibs and process papers for the first and second place Regional winners. Bibs that contained a handful of citations to an online magazine and nothing else. No interviews. No primary sources. No annotations. No real research.

It was later determined by NHD officials that there were numerous judging inconsistencies and problems with the Region 6 competition including:

  • Judges were inexperienced with NHD and not qualified to judge (one was a 19 year old college student)
  • Judges did not ask any questions about the topic, turning point, thesis or research
  • Judges asked only questions about the size and construction of the board
  • Judges interviewed contestants while parents and other students were in the room
  • Judges did not view the bibs or process papers
  • Interview lasted approximately 6 minutes (when 15 minutes was allotted)
  • NHD representative signed judges up “at the last minute”
  • NHD representative said the Region 6 competition “should haven been canceled” because they failed to get judges
  • One judge actually said he selected the first place winner because he was alive at the time it happened and therefore “liked” the topic because he remembered it
  • Out of 120 students who participated in Region 6, 90 came from ONE SCHOOL (Region 6 includes all of Hampton Roads including Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton, Yorktown and Williamsburg)

Other judging issues were noted by the NHD coordinator for Virginia, although she would not elaborate on her findings. Whatever it was, it was enough to admit wrongdoing on their part and invite our daughter and her partner to compete as a “wildcard” at the Virginia State competition.

Preparing for States, aka – How to Overcome The Accusation of Being “Over curated” by Colonial Williamsburg”?

In preparation for States, the Virginia History Day representative told our daughter that the Regional judges thought the exhibit looked “over curated” and had too many references to Colonial Williamsburg. I guess the judges failed to read the 550 words of original analysis on the exhibit, none of which made one mention of CW. (You guys who are familiar with the rules for NHD exhibits know that there is a 500 word limit. Oops). The judges also seemed to think the exhibit was “too nice” for a 13 year old, even going so far as to ask if she received helped from her parents or the Colonial Williamsburg art gallery during the interview!

Clearly, these judges have never seen the projects at Nationals…

Virginia History Day Delegation wearing “TJ STYLE” shirts

Ironic too, given that our daughters drawing “T.J. Style” was chosen to represent the 2013 State of Virginia NHD logo.

Winning T-shirt Design

It appeared on the buttons and tshirts and all other State of Virginia History Day programs, events, literature and materials. Clearly she has SOME artistic and creative abilities, right?

Too much Colonial Williamsburg?

Colonial Williamsburg was the state sponsor of the Virginia National History Day program. Colonial Williamsburg where the Eastern State Hospital (Public Hospital) museum is located. Where the Galt family burial plot is.  Where the artifacts from the hospital excavation are. Where the Rockefeller Library is located. Where the experts are employed. Where about 80% of the NHD judges and the NHD state coordinators are employed. Colonial Williamsburg, publisher of Quest for the Cure, the book authored by Shomer Zwelling who was interviewed for the project…

Despite being nearly impossible to escape the Colonial Williamsburg connection, the girls did manage to include a number of excellent primary sources including Nami, Diamond Healthcare, William & Mary, the state of Virginia operated Easter State Hospital, the Library of Congress, the Chronicling America website, the Galt Family Diaries, the book Disordered Minds by Norman Dain, Fauquier County Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society – and the countless other journals, newspapers, archives and resources that were used or cited that had no affiliation with CW whatsoever…

Me-thinks someone forgot to look at that 40 page bibliography!

Then … a previous NHD judge told us that “projects based on Colonial Williamsburg topics are never selected because it looks like favoritism by the State sponsor.”

Another told us that in the last 3 years (at least) Virginia has had a very poor showing at Nationals. No winners from one of the most historically rich states in the Country? Shame.

Things are starting to make sense now.

Virginia History Day is not based on 60% research quality. It is based 100% of whether or not the judge is employed by Colonial Williamsburg. It also helps if the judge was “alive at the time” of the event you are studying.

So, our daughter prepared for States by removing as many references to Colonial Williamsburg as she could, including ones that had significant historical meaning to the project, such as the image of the Colonial Williamsburg Public Hospital “cell” showing patient care in the 1700’s, the only representation of its kind.

FYI… There was ONE quote from Colonial Williamsburg on the exhibit. That’s right… ONE. Just to be safe, she removed that too.

Virginia State Competition: SSDD 

On April 20, 2013, the Virginia History Day event was held and the competition was noticeably light. There were far fewer entries than the 2012 competition. With a quick glance it was easy who came to compete at the National level and who did not. Bibliographies that were only one page and contained typos, references to Wikipedia and “Google Image Search”, and exhibits that kept falling over.

So, guess how our daughter’s project did this time?

It didn’t place at all. 

This time, instead of tears of devastation from my daughter, she looked at me and snorted. I must admit, I chuckled. The audience scratched their heads and shrugged.

Below is only a PARTIAL list of the sources that appeared on the 2013 Eastern State Hospital / Dr. Galt project bibliography:

  • Eastern State Hospital Archives, Hospital Tour and Interview with current doctor who is also a historian and expert on the topic & contributor to book about the history of the hospital
  • CW Digital Library and CW Rockefeller library
  • Interview with archeologists and tour of department housing original artifacts
  • The Director of NAMI, the largest mental health organization in the WORLD
  • Galt Papers and Galt Diaries (these are the ACTUAL journals. They are over 200 years old and require special access at the library)
  • Letters from Patients about Dr Galt and care at the mental hospital
  • Original Letters from Dr Galt authorizing purchase of therapeutic tools for patients
  • Dr Galt’s Essays on Asylums
  • Original journal of the Association of Medical Superintendents of America (known today as the American Psychiatric Association)
  • Penn Medicine and the National Institute of Mental Health
  • Report of the General Assembly from 1770 and 1766
  • National Library of medicine and the Foundling Museum London
  • Journals of the House of Burgesses of VA 1766
  • US House of Delegates 1846
  • Secondary bib includes ChroniclingAmerica,, & a variety of books of newspapers

How did the Virginia Regional and State judges rate this amazing, broad and college level research?

Virginia National History Day Judging Sheet
  • Shows Wide Research- “Good”       Excuse Me?
  • Uses available primary sources- “Good”     HUH?
  • Research is balanced- “Good”        WHAT?

Yes, one up from “needs improvement” !

Pardon the pun, but have they gone crazy? Because we know of a great public mental hospital that might be able to help them.

“Research is balanced” score – “Good” … Oy vey.  

What other resource could have been included to make the research more “broad” or “balanced”? How can a judge write “primary source focused” and list all the “wow” sources in the comment section and then check only “good” on the evaluation?

“Primary source focused” as a “Strength” in notes, but just “good” on evaluation
Judge lists some primary sources then gives low marks for research!

Two Thumbs Up For The Lincoln Movie

A few days after the State competition we were given the bibs, process papers and copies of the evaluation sheets from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finalists so we could see cold, hard evidence of how the judges scored the exhibits. While it is tempting to post them, it just wouldn’t be right, so instead I will just say … ridiculous inconsistencies are apparent in the Virginia History Day competition. We kept the copies, which show primary resources that included an Internet “blog”, and Wikipedia. One group only listed 8 references – all Time Magazine. All of them. Well-rounded research, hey?

Interestingly, BOTH the 1st and 2nd place winners had exhibits on the same topic – Lincoln. Yes, out of 15-20 projects on a variety of subjects, the winners going to Nationals were both about Lincoln. It’s almost as if the judges had all recently seen the popular Lincoln movie just released on DVD the week before the contest.

The boys who won third place had an amazing project about the War of 1812. It was clear they were in it to win it too. In fact, most people thought they would get first place. We spoke with them briefly and was so impressed by their work. They deserved to go to Nationals. My guess is that the judges did not like the fact that the boys had long hair.

Needless to say, Virginia didn’t have any winners at Nationals again… which tells me this problem is prevalent throughout all categories – not just exhibits.

In 2012 my daughter made it to Nationals with Wikipedia… ?

A Closer Look at the 2012 First Place Winning Louis Pasteur Exhibit

Speaking of Wikipedia… Here’s some more evidence of problems with the Virginia History Day program – my own daughters work – her 2012 project “Louis Pasteur and the Germ Theory: A Revolution in Medicine” which, as I mentioned before, placed 1st in Region 6 and 1st at States and went all the way to Nationals.

This project received nearly all “SUPERIORS”. It contained a few cheesy pictures, a basic timeline, some general facts and a list of obvious outcomes that required only a quick glance at the Louis Pasteur Wikipedia page to create.Not one Regional or State judge noticed the worthless cite sources on the bib or even ASKED about the research during the interview. Heck, not even her history teacher noticed.

Take a look at just a few of the “primary” resources that our daughter and her partner included in the Germ Theory bibliography: 

  • (online quote aggregate – anyone can submit a quote!)
  • (Internet based humor magazine)
  • (I am sure you are aware of the issues with Wikipedia)
  • (internet based “human” guide site)
  • (free website that allows anyone to create a timeline)
  • (social media site for people to share what books they are reading)
  • Unreliable “blogs” (youdonthavetovisit.blogspot, blog.discoveroptions,, etc. Even an Internet novice should be able to judge the quality of these sources!)
  • Advertising and “spam” sites such as and that contained ZERO real content
  • Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Great Book of Tiny Germs (reading level 5-8 years old)
  • (an undocumented home improvement blog)
  • (a Spanish language site. Ironically, our daughter and her partner do not even speak/read Spanish!)

I am sure that I do not need to explain why these websites cannot be considered reliable and scholarly sources for a National History project. Besides books, there are NO SCHOLARLY SOURCES CITED for this first place winning project! None of Pasteur’s original works. No diary, journal or medical file.

Yet this was judged as “superior” and awarded first place over all other entries?

This was “the best” for the state of Virginia? Goodreads and Wikipedia?

This is what NHD considers “historical quality”?

Regional (white) and State (pink) judging sheets. Nearly all “superior”! LOL

Apparently  – it is.

Regional and State of Virginia judges gave this 2012 project almost ALL SUPERIORS despite these obvious and seriously flawed cite sources and incomplete research.

No wonder Virginia never has any National winners.

How can NHD call itself a HISTORY contest when, according to their own judging sheets, 60% of the criteria is based on “historical quality”, but then award “superior” and First Place to a project that used such blatantly unreliable cite sources in the research, as evident in our daughter’s 2012 project? Xtimeline? Wikipedia!! Seriously, NHD? Wow.

It pains me to think that there were children at the 2012 competition who lost unfairly because the judges just “liked the germ topic better”, or thought the girls had cute personalities, or liked the fact that they put hand sanitizer on the table in front of the exhibit. Or had just seen a movie about Louis Pasteur.

Judging Sheets from 2012 Nationals – Louis Pasteur Project.  More accurate, fair and qualified, don’t you think?

I guess the National judges understand that you can’t use Wikipedia and as a scholarly cite source on an academic history project. All National judges gave the Pasteur project low scores (rightly so!) in most categories and noted the lack of quality primary resources:National Judge justifiably calls them out on quality of their research.

A National judge asks them to “rethink” their primary resources. No kidding!

Ha. Come on. At this point you have to laugh too.

Clearly, Virginia History Day considers Wikipedia “superior” and the 1766 Journals of the House of Burgesses just “good”.

Oy Vey again.


This is exactly why standards, consistency and oversight are desperately needed in Virginia. You cannot allow judges to simply pick their favorite topic or favorite kid, and then ignore the HISTORICAL QUALITY of the projects. You can’t give “superior” to Goodreads and Brainyquote for research quality.

The fact is,  the 2013 project did not “lack context, connections, analysis or impact” – it lacked qualified judges who take the time to read the bib, paper and exhibit, consider the subject and pick winners based on merit, not on recent movies they’ve watched on DVD. Or, that the topic had roots in Colonial Williamsburg (the state sponsor who provides about 80% of the judges), and they didn’t want to “make it seem like they were showing favoritism.”

For us, this experience put into question the validity of the entire NHD contest.

While Virginia NHD judges seem to have a difficult time recognizing scholarly research, other experts get it right away.

Just ask Colonial Williamsburg – who sent our daughter a letter of appreciation for finding a research discrepancy on their website!

After her research on Virginia Gov. of the colonies, Francis Fauquier, our daughter determined that Colonial Williamsburg was using the wrong image. She presented her findings and they agreed. CW corrected the image and sent her a personal thank you. (Not considered “superior” research?)

The incorrect photograph has been removed. But thanks to web archives, you can see a snapshot of what the page looked like before our daughter presented her research findings to them:

Colonial Williamsburg website showing wrong photo

She also discovered that the Fauquier County (named after Francis Fauquier) Virginia website, tourism department and courthouse were also using the wrong image. Y Here is what the page looked like before:

Who is this guy anyway? Not Francis Fauquier, that is for sure!

Eastern State Hospital Intervenes

The director of Eastern State Hospital, disappointed in the Virginia History Day process, asked our daughter and her partner to present their exhibit to a group of doctors, historians and other specialists as a way to educate their staff about the history of the hospital and the treatment of mental illness. The girls summarized their project and findings and then answered questions from the audience and, took part in a lengthly analysis and interpretation discussion. What Virginia NHD judged as “good”, the Eastern State folks thought was one of the best things they had ever seen on the history of mental illness in the United States.

Eastern State Hospital Grand Rounds – Only the first few rows of attendees pictured. It was standing room only! So fantastic the girls were finally recognized for their amazing research.

The girls donated the exhibit to Eastern State Hospital, where it remains today as part of the permanent collection. They are extremely proud of the HISTORICAL ACCURACY of the project and plan to use the exhibit at their various seminars, meetings and educational events. Our daughter was honored, and so glad to see that all of her hard work could be utilized to educate others.

She has also been invited to present the project at a state of Virginia mental health educational event which will be attended by state dignitaries, commissioners and other leaders.

Our daughter and her partner also received the Mary Bicouvaris Award in Virginia History, the first ever recipients of the honor. Our daughter donated her winnings from this prize and contributions she collected from friends to Eastern State and NAMI.

Pros and Cons of NHD: a Poorly Managed State Contest but Exceptional National Contest

As the above examples indicate, NHD led to opportunities that are not available to most 13 year olds, and these experiences were wonderful. Our daughter understands what a scholarly resource is and what it is not. She knows how to interview a professional and present a project to a group of experts. She learned how to question research – and that looking at something further often only brings more questions.  She learned the right way to annotate a bib and narrow down a thesis statement.

So, my advice – if you are considering NHD. Yes, it is well worth the experience. Most states seem to have a much better program as is evident by the contest winners and their amazing projects. Certain states do very well year after year, I am assuming thanks to well managed local contests.

If you are considering Virginia History Day, I would think a little more seriously about entering the contest. You will need to weigh the extreme amount of work it takes to win at the National level against the fact that a National level project will not be chosen by the Virginia judges. The best bet might be to enter at the Regional level with a hastily assembled project and then build on it for States. Make it good – but not too good.

Then ask yourself – what is the point?

I asked the school board to end the NHD participation requirement for our school system. And that is exactly what happened. As of this writing, middle-schoolers are not longer obligated to participate and there is not formal group organizing participation in our area. Colonial Williamsburg also ended their sponsorship with National History Day.

What good is a competition if the contestants cannot count on the published guidelines?

We often compare it to our neighborhood swim meets. Imagine the outrage if swimmers thought they were being judged based on their form and speed but were actually judged on their bathing suit and which street they lived on! I can tell you that the kids would go to the pool for fun but not to participate in the swim team competitions…  that is exactly how I would advise you to consider NHD.

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