PIERRE, S.D. — A law short on detail but aiming to pump nearly $1 million toward bolstering social studies education in South Dakota is starting to take shape.
On Friday, March 26, Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson addressed the South Dakota Board of Education Standards at a meeting in Rapid City. There, she touted a "very good" legislative session that saw investments from low-income college loans to state teacher pay to an idea from Gov. Kristi Noem: To teach kids about "the most special nation in the history of the world."
"This is a really exciting effort that'll bring a tremendous number of people and experts together across the state," Sanderson said. "Some of that work is currently underway."
That measure initially drew skepticism from Democrats and Republicans alike as governmental overreach into local affairs. When debated on the House floor in late February with Rep. Jess Olson, R-Rapid City, objecting, "What we do not do is establish curriculum. We set standards."
While the measure tucked into a larger spending bill and approved by the Legislature will not rewrite the state's civics curriculum, many saw a link between Noem's civics reboot with efforts pushed by political allies. President Trump's 1776 Commission, for instance, which critics accused of responding to historians' increasing interest in the role slavery played in the U.S.'s early days.
But as the social studies measure moved along in the Legislature, it became increasingly apparent that Noem's request was less about writing textbooks and more about broad-based standards and training.
Friday, Sanderson fleshed out the goals, namely that much of the $900,000 will go toward professional development and pilot programs for schools. Only in one instance, with respect to South Dakota history, will the state assemble a group of academics to develop a reservoir of lesson plans teachers can pull from.
And in many ways, the plan has good timing.
This year, the Board of Education Standards is undertaking a routine updating of standards to its social studies content standards. Currently to graduate in South Dakota, students need 3 credit hours of social studies, met via a year of U.S. history, a semester of government, and three courses in electives.
Applicants interested in participating in a state-wide working group to help update the standards are encouraged to apply to the state Education Department through next week. That process will begin in earnest later this year.
Rapid City Central High School Social Studies teacher and department chair Rhoda Bryan told Forum News Service Friday that she hopes people don't get the impression that civics, history, or government coursework is somehow currently failing students.
"Parents don't know just how much their kids learn," Bryan said. "And I can tell you they get a good education at (Rapid City) Central."
Bryan says the school's students enroll in world history and geography as freshmen, then pick up three U.S. history courses, including a term on westward expansion that is also imbued with Oceti Sakowin understandings, and, finally, seniors take a semester of U.S. government.
"That's a really good time for students to learn government because they're getting ready to vote," Bryan said. "They're going to be that citizen."
A separate review of social studies from the state's largest school district, Sioux Falls, shows a similar course sequence and credit load.
"Each school is a little bit different," said Gayville-Volin Principal Justin Karstens, who participated in the working group in 2015. "But right now, we just follow the (state) standards when we teach history."
He noted one difference in Gayville-Volin is the absence of a physical textbook, as the students — who use personal computer devices — connect online to a number of documents, including primary texts.
"We really tap into the resources that we can find on the Internet, and we do a lot of other supplements," Karstens said.
According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the Nation's Report Card, the average U.S. history score for 8th graders declined between 2014 and 2018. However, the average civics score was higher in 2018 than two decades earlier.