Social studies debate shows concerning shift from standards to curriculum

November 29, 2022 11:07 am

A proponent of the new social studies standards offers a statement of support to the state Board of Education on Nov. 21 in Sioux Falls. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight).

Educators and parents alike have provided concerning feedback for the Proposed K-12 Social Studies Content Standards. South Dakota is at the midpoint of a statutorily required public comment process with four input sessions being held throughout the state. I testified to the South Dakota Board of Educational Standards in September, and due to time constraints, I could not testify at the November meeting.  

As I shared with my Social Studies Standards Revision Commission colleagues this summer, I am concerned about a fundamental shift in recommending curriculum, not standards, for approval to the Board of Educational Standards. 

The public comment process is an integral part of the standards adoption feedback cycle. According to state law, our secretary of the Department of Education shall prepare, and submit for approval by the Board of Education, a standards revision cycle and content standards. All the public schools in the state shall provide instruction in substantial conformity to the accreditation benchmarks adopted. Schools need to be accredited for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, funding and ensuring students have valid diplomas upon graduation. 

Standards are not curriculum. Standards are not textbooks. Standards are not assignments. Standards are broadly written to guide school districts in their work and, in South Dakota, allow local districts to determine their own curriculum, instructional units of study, and method of instruction.

Furthermore, as outlined in state law directing the Department of Education to promulgate rules and requirements for accreditation, the legislative intent is clear on local control. “Nothing [in this section] authorizes the board to require the use of specifically designated curriculum or methods of instruction.” This language is directly from our Legislature and puts trust in the local educators. Through policy, teachers are held accountable by principals who are held accountable by superintendents and school boards to make the best decisions for their community.

Although there are many other concerns with the proposal, I turn your attention to the unprecedented overreach into our classrooms.

Assignments such as, “Students can write an informative essay of 500- 700 words on a historical figure” may be perfectly appropriate assignments chosen by teachers in a classroom after the school board adopts curriculum. Standards are not curriculum. Standards are not textbooks. Standards are not assignments. Standards are broadly written to guide school districts in their work and, in South Dakota, allow local districts to determine their own curriculum, instructional units of study, and method of instruction. 

This example assignment is one of many lines in the proposal that would require a specific assignment or method of instruction which is in direct opposition to legislative intent in codified law. At the Nov. 21 meeting, the out-of-state proponents agreed with my concern and called the document proposed curriculum multiple times. Of particular note, both David Steiner, the director of education policy at Johns Hopkins, and David Goodwin, the director of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, called the document a curriculum.

As there are different legislative directives in different states, Mr. Steiner and Mr. Goodwin may not be aware that the State Board of Education cannot adopt a curriculum for South Dakota.

The discussion at the South Dakota Board of Education Standards should NOT be about a classical education method of instruction or which foundational documents of democracy should be in a curriculum. Local teachers and administrators can already make these choices and are doing so within our current standards and accreditation accountability system.

Schools choose any model method of instruction and curriculum to meet the standards and are held accountable by accreditation from the Department of Education. For example, we have Lakota immersion, Spanish immersion, Mass Customized Learning or STEM-based pathways, online, self-contained or content-specialized elementary classrooms, and the list of the unique methods of instruction used in South Dakota is as diverse as our great state. 

If adopted, the proposed standards would be an unprecedented subversion of local control and outside the realm of the conservative principle our state prides itself on. Furthermore, we are setting precedence here for much more than our education system. As a mom of two South Dakota children, I want them to stay in South Dakota knowing that no matter which industry they choose, their expertise will be valued when decisions are made. 

In the spirit of the promise of compromise, I recommend the South Dakota Department of Education reconvene the summer of 2022 commission members alongside the summer of 2021 committee of teachers under the direction of the secretary of education to find consensus, taking into consideration the 968 public comments provided as well as testimony delivered at the two public hearings. 

Thank you to all the families, community members, and educators for being willing to work together to continue to make South Dakota great for many more generations. 

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Samantha Walder
Samantha Walder

Dr. Samantha Walder is a mother, wife, educator and lifelong South Dakotan. Walder is in her 15th year in education, eighth as an elementary principal, and served as the only principal on the Social Studies Standards Revision Commission. Walder graduated from Castlewood High School and holds undergraduate degrees in history and political science with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from SDSU. Walder earned her educational specialist in the principalship and doctorate in the superintendency from USD. Walder was named the 2023 South Dakota Elementary National Distinguished Principal.