Demonstrators stand outside the Ramkota Hotel in Pierre ahead of the South Dakota Board of Education Standards meeting on April 17, 2023. (Courtesy of South Dakota Education Association)
After almost two years of controversy, nearly 1,300 public comments submitted and hours of public testimony spread across four public hearings, the South Dakota Board of Education Standards has approved changes to the state’s K-12 social studies standards.
The public had its fourth and final opportunity to speak to the board about the changes on Monday at the Ramkota Hotel in Pierre. Educators and children lined the sidewalks outside the hotel on Monday morning in protest of the current draft of the standards.
A majority of speakers criticized the current draft Monday and encouraged the board to vote against it, citing concerns about age appropriateness as well as out-of-state and political influence.
The proposed standards passed 5-2, with Board President Terry Nebelsick and member Steve Willard casting the “no” votes.
The standards are scheduled to be implemented by 2025. In the meantime, educators across the state are left wondering how they’ll implement them, said Sandra Waltman, communications director for the South Dakota Education Association, in an interview with South Dakota Searchlight after the decision.
“We’re going to look at all options — whether that’s legal, legislative or finding different ways — to challenge the implementation of these standards,” Waltman said.
How did we get here?
The standards originally drew criticism in 2021 after the state removed more than a dozen references to the Oceti Sakowin (the collective term for Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speaking Native Americans) in the first draft.
Gov. Kristi Noem then ordered the standards revision process to be delayed and restarted in 2022 with a new workgroup, timeline and standards.
Originally, the social studies standards were crafted by a more than 40-person work group. The restart involved a second, 15-person work group, which included a retired educator from Hillsdale College in Michigan serving as facilitator.
The state Department of Education released its revised standards in August 2022, but quickly drew criticism again after the SDEA said the standards discourage inquiry-based learning and emphasize rote memorization, adding that Native American history and South Dakota history are “afterthoughts or lumped in with other standards.”
More revisions have been made since then, including the addition of world geography standards in high school, several grammatical and formatting changes, and the translation of names of Indigenous historical figures to their Lakota translations or to translations in their Native languages. The new standards do not include a section devoted to South Dakota history for the fourth grade, which is part of the current standards.
Over the past seven months, hundreds of people debated the benefits and consequences of the standards at public hearings in Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Pierre. Of the nearly 1,300 public comments submitted to the Department of Education, roughly 80% opposed the changes.
“These hearings should not be a debate with points and counter-points where one side tries to win … there is no win-win in this process,” Nebelsick said ahead of the vote. “The longer this has gone on it’s become obvious it’s become a lose-lose effort.”
Why was there such opposition?
Comments from 121 proponents submitted in the last seven months focus on appreciation for the comprehensive content; efforts to grow the knowledge base of state, country and world history among students; and a desire to develop “proud patriotic citizens lacking in South Dakota schools,” according to a department summary of the comments.
Judy Rapp, a retired social studies teacher from Pierre, was one of the roughly 20 proponents to speak in-person and over Zoom on Monday. She was originally opposed to the standards and what happened to the 2021 draft until she read the most recent version.
“Finally, somebody got it right,” she said.
She said the state lacks consistency in teaching history for middle schoolers.
“Teaching U.S. history is like building a house,” Rapp said. “First, you prepare the ground, which is fourth through sixth grade. Then you lay the foundation in seventh and eighth grade. Your foundation has to be rock solid. They have to learn the facts before they question, debate and inquire.”
Gov. Kristi Noem and state Department of Education Secretary Joseph Graves sent a news release shortly after Monday’s meeting praising the boards’ decision, saying students “will be taught the best social studies education in the country” and be equipped “with the solid grounding in history and civics they need to exercise their role as citizens.”
But the associations of South Dakota school boards, educators, school administrators, superintendents, PTA and elementary principals, along with local governments, all nine tribal nations in South Dakota and at least 27 school groups vocally opposed the standards.
Such standards hammer students over the head with memorization in a “one size fits all approach,” Waltman said. She added that such tactics will frustrate students, especially young children, and discourage them from learning — impacting their education and careers.
Educators Waltman has spoken to have said most textbook companies don’t have material fit for these standards, though proponents said other states, such as Louisiana and Florida, have implemented similar standards. The implementation and purchase of new materials will be costly as well — the Sioux Falls School District estimates costs for their district alone above $3 million.
“These standards are so different from what the rest of the country is teaching, there are limited options for schools to pick from,” Waltman said.
Other consequences opponents cited include less time dedicated to electives to prepare students for higher education or the workforce, and a worsening of the teacher shortage in the state.
Educators will feel ignored and disrespected, since they “truly believe these standards will fail our students,” testified Loren Paul, president of the SDEA.
“For many educators, your decision today will impact whether they stay in the classroom,” Paul said. “With the current teacher shortage, is that a risk you’re willing to take?”
What will these changes mean?
Before the standards are implemented, the state Department of Education, Historical Society and Office of Indian Education will start a two-year implementation period to “help current teachers learn how to put the standards into practice.”
That includes a Civics and History Summit this summer in Sioux Falls, which will feature content-specific learning sessions, coffee with an elder, education on learning kits, and learning about historical figures. Another 240 teachers can attend a state history “road trip,” and the department will launch a South Dakota history website with instructional materials for educators.
“The department stands ready to support that implementation with professional development and standards-aligned resources,” Graves said in a news release.
Because of the controversy surrounding the standards, Waltman said SDEA plans to challenge the makeup of the state Board of Education legislatively. Only three of the seven board members are certified educators, she said.
“Ensuring that this board has the representation of people who have experience in practical applications of these standards is paramount,” Waltman said.
Stephanie Amiotte, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota and an Oglala Lakota tribal member, suggested the standards would violate First Amendment rights for Native Americans in the state during her testimony Monday.
The state Department of Education “offered no legitimate reason” for rejecting the first proposed standards in 2021 on Native American topics, according to Amiotte, who added that the relaunch was a “clear restriction of students’ rights protected by the First Amendment.” Native Americans make up the second largest racial demographic group in the state.
“The Department of Education does not have a substantial and reasonable government interest to justify interfering with students’ rights,” Amiotte said. “A large number of topics removed appear to be racially motivated without furthering a legitimate pedagogical purpose. Courts have rejected prior attempts by school systems to restrict access to certain movies and books, so the current attempts to restrict access to Native American topics is likewise legally concerning.”
More coverage of the social studies standards
- Commentary: Social studies standards would benefit from compromise and more work
- Opponents urge board to ‘go back to the drawing board’ for social studies standards
- Commentary: Social studies debate shows concerning shift from standards to curriculum
- Board of Education hears more comments on proposed social studies standard
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