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Second South Dakota social studies hearing sees a double-down on arguments

The second of four planned public hearings on a controversial set of updates to the South Dakota social studies curriculum, held in the Sioux Falls Convention Center, saw three hours of commentary from supporters and opponents of the standards. The proposed curriculum features a larger volume of concepts than the current state curriculum and was developed with less educator involvement than in past processes.

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The Board of Education Standards, which handles the statutory process of updating and revising the state's curriculum across dozens of subjects, converses before the beginning of their meeting in the Sioux Falls Convention Center on Nov. 21, 2022.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Supporters and opponents of the hot-button proposed update to the state’s social studies curriculum flocked to the Sioux Falls Convention Center for the second round of public comment hosted by the South Dakota Board of Education Standards on Nov. 21.

Curriculum revision is a normal occurrence that happens across subjects on a staggered basis every handful of years, though the updates usually draw little fanfare. The unorthodox, somewhat political process behind the current iteration of the proposed social studies curriculum, however, has made this year’s review an exception, already resulting in delays in the projected adoption date for these standards.

During the nearly five-hour event, the two sides struck similar chords to the first public hearing in Aberdeen on Sept. 19.

Proponents of the standards argue that the proposed curriculum sets a high bar that students will rise to meet and marks an important departure from a historical education progression that has failed to prioritize patriotic, civic knowledge.

In a testimonial on the homepage for the nonprofit organization 1776 Action, which purports to be focused on “stopping the anti-American indoctrination” of students around the country, Gov. Kristi Noem writes in part, “we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to clean house around the country.”

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Noem defended the standards at several town halls leading up to her re-election.

At a town hall in Madison just days prior to her defeat of Democrat Jamie Smith, Noem said students would “blow us away with what they’re able to accomplish” if the standards are adopted.

Those speaking in opposition to the changes continued to harp on the developmentally inappropriate layout of the standards and took issue with the manner in which the curriculum was devised.

In a departure from previous curriculum reviews that utilized large panels made up nearly entirely of educators, the panel of 15 that devised the curriculum was led by William Morrissey and featured only five current or former educators.

Morrissey, a professor emeritus of political science at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, signed a contract with the state worth $200,000 to “facilitate” the creation of these standards, with the final $50,000 of that sum to be paid upon the potential approval of the final standards.

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Gov. Noem speaks to an audience at a restaurant in Mitchell on Oct. 28, 2022. In addition to discussing other pillars of her campaign, she defended her decision to go out of state for the facilitation of developing new standards.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

At a town hall in Mitchell on Oct. 28, Noem defended her decision to go out of state for the curriculum review process.

“In this country, there’s less than a handful of companies that have written a curriculum,” Noem said. “And that’s where schools are getting their curriculums, and they’ve all been left-leaning.”

Prior to the meeting, the board published more than 900 written public comments submitted between the first and second public hearings. According to the South Dakota Department of Education, the breakdown of comments submitted before 2 p.m. on Nov. 18 was 103 in favor, 828 opposed and 37 neutral.

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Opponents, many of them educators, focus on lack of educator involvement, low feasibility of implementation

A strong contingent of opponents appeared at the Sioux Falls meeting, with 33 speakers appearing in person, more than half of them current or former educators in South Dakota

One major theme of these opponents included the increase in difficulty inherent to these standards, especially among primary grades, and the related daily time investment likely required to meet the goals outlined in the curriculum.

“I'm concerned about the time it takes away from other content, most notably reading and math,” said Jeff Danielsen, the superintendent of Watertown School District who clarified he was speaking in an individual capacity. “The time investment in the school day will shift more toward social studies. And the accountability that we have for those other subjects will still exist.”

For several educators and parents concerned with the curriculum’s difficulty, the wide usage of memorization in the standards represents a departure from the reasoning-based standards that dominate upper grades in the current standards and a large increase in learning volume in lower grades.

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Speaking in a personal capacity at the standards meeting on Nov. 21, 2022, Jeff Danielsen, the superintendent of the Watertown School District, reiterated points ranging from the high amount of instructional time necessary to complete these standards and the relative difficulty of the standards as written.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Opponents also took issue with the notion that the standards do a proficient job of teaching Native history in South Dakota.

Brian Wagner, the tribal education director for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an education consultant with the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, strongly criticized the depth of these standards and reminded those in attendance that all nine of South Dakota’s tribes currently oppose the standards.

“Native Americans are missing for great spans of time in these standards, as if Native Americans didn't and don't exist,” Wagner said. “Smallpox is repeatedly mentioned as one of the only notable occurrences in Native history, and Native Americans are primarily portrayed as warlike.”

The final major point of the opponents was that educators were not adequately consulted in the writing of these standards and, instead, have been directly or indirectly demeaned as agents of indoctrination by proponents of the standards.

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“We are not teaching Cultural Marxism,” Paul Harens, a now-retired high school teacher in the Yankton School District, said, drawing applause from a large contingent of the some 250 people in attendance at the meeting. “It is an insult to educators to say we are.”

In 2021, a workgroup of 46 members, the vast majority of them educators, undertook the task of updating the social studies curriculum. Those standards were at first revised and eventually entirely thrown out by Gov. Kristi Noem.

Several educators and advocates questioned the Board of Education Standards on whether they would actually take the verbal and written public comments — the vast majority of them negative — into consideration when finalizing the standards.

“You’ve heard overwhelmingly from educators that these standards are not the right fit for their students, whether they're a kindergartener, a seventh grader or a senior in high school,” Ryan Rolfs, the executive director of the South Dakota Education Association, said. “My question to this board this morning is will you listen to our state's professional educators?”

Rolfs further asked that the Board of Education Standards move one of the final two public hearings to a weekend in order to better allow educators and parents to attend and make their voices heard.

Several speakers also took issue with the structure of the meeting itself, which allowed untimed monologues from supporters of the standards to bookend the social studies curriculum’s public hearing portion.

Supporters stress patriotism, downplay age-appropriateness concerns

Prior to the public comment portion of the meeting, Shannon Malone, the director of learning and instruction with the South Dakota Department of Education, pre-empted some of the implementation concerns from educators, saying the state had earmarked $805,000 from the governor’s $900,000 civics and history initiative to help with the transition.

She also asked the Board of Education Standards for an extra year to implement the standards, and explained various initiatives the state would be taking during that year to aid in the curriculum implementation, from a trip across the state visiting historical sites to a public website with teaching materials developed by “historians, tribal experts and educators.”

The main threads among some two-dozen proponents included a desire to instill a better understanding of civics and history in South Dakota’s students, and a belief that these students would rise to the breadth of these standards.

“In my experience, a strong foundation in social studies is necessary to prepare our children to be productive citizens for the future,” said Janet Finzen, an elementary teacher in Winnebago, Nebraska who resides in Dakota Dunes, and member of the social studies review commission that birthed the standards. “The proposed standards are both meaningful and challenging and are grounded in solid democratic principles. They are guidelines for addressing what students should know, and they do not dictate the curriculum or how a teacher teaches them.”

Another speaker, S.P. Lambert, who is the executive director of Treasure Valley Classical Academy, a public charter school in Idaho, said the school employs civics standards similar to those now under scrutiny in South Dakota and claimed the school produced positive educational outcomes in math and English.

According to 2021 state records, the school exceeds Idaho’s state averages in math, it slightly trails those averages in language arts.

Lambert was one of a handful of out-of-state educators from private or charter schools who joined the meeting remotely, speaking in favor of adopting these standards.

Several speakers in favor of the curriculum also liked that the standards were a departure from “critical race theory” and similar ideologies they say dominate the current development of education standards across the country.

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Jon Nash, a recent graduate of South Dakota State University, applauded the standards for their focus on teaching American ideals and fairly weighing the country's strengths and weaknesses. Nash and other supporters at the Nov. 21, 2022 public hearing thought the standards are an important departure from recent trends in teaching focusing primarily on the blemishes of American history.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Jon Nash, a recent graduate of South Dakota State University, said that he was “forced to take a class that teaches CRT” in order to receive his bachelor’s degree.

“Through this pessimistic lens, we were taught that there are many things wrong with America,” Nash said. “I believe that if our higher education is going to be this way, our K-12 education should teach students what is right with America. And we should look at our triumphs as well as our faults and everything that has happened throughout our history that makes America special.”

Another argument, raised by Sioux Falls native Chad Bishop, pointed out that Noem — a strong proponent of the standards — had earned a “strong mandate” from voters with her large win on Election Day in 2022.

The Sioux Falls hearing was the second of four meetings dealing with the social studies standards and several other contemporaneous curriculum reviews, although those have not drawn nearly as much attention. The third and fourth meetings will take place in 2023 in Pierre and Rapid City.

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Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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