SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Over the course of the past nine months, the subject of social studies education content standards has been a controversial one.
The issues began in the summer of 2021 when the Department of Education (DOE) released a draft of South Dakota Social Studies standards, which differed greatly from the draft submitted by a workgroup made up of several members of South Dakota’s education and tribal communities. The DOE removed several mentions of Native American history and culture from the standards.
This move, never fully explained by the DOE, resulted in backlash from the original workgroup and from South Dakota’s tribal communities, as well as calls for the resignation of Governor Kristi Noem, DOE Secretary Tiffany Sanderson, Secretary of Tribal Relations David Flute and Director of Indian Education Fred Osborn (a member of the original work group and of the newly announced commission).
On Sept. 20, 2021, Noem asked the DOE to not consider revisions to the state’s social studies standards at that time, instead directing them to delay the process one year. Shortly thereafter, she reversed course, announcing that she would instead be relaunching the entire project with a new workgroup.
While a firm answer was never given for the changes made to the initial draft, Noem has been vocal on the subject of education, railing against critical race theory and ‘divisive’ concepts.
In her January 2022 State of the State address, Noem invited Dr. Ben Carson to attend and mentioned his 1776 Action Pledge that Gov. Noem was the first candidate for public office to sign in May of 2021, saying at the time that schools need to stop teaching children to hate their country.
The original workgroup from 2021 was comprised of 44 members, as well as a facilitator and lead. Of those 44 members, 31 of them were educators certified by the DOE. Only eight of the members had never been certified, and six had expired certifications.
The newly announced group however, has a different make up.
The members of the new group are:
- Mark Miller, Chair of Commission (Noem’s Chief of Staff and former General Counsel)
- Joe Circle Bear (a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe)
- Janet Finzen (A Nebraska teacher)
- Stephanie Hiatt (A USF alum with a doctorate in education)
- Benjamin F. Jones, Ph.D. – State Historian
- Dylan Kessler (Director of Operations at Primrose Retirement Communities and graduate of the private conservative liberal arts Hillsdale College, which teaches a curriculum based on “western heritage.”)
- Aaron Levisay (FM Supervisor at US Military)
- Christopher Motz (Executive Director of South Dakota Catholic Conference)
- Shaun Nielsen (S.D. educator)
- Fred Osborn – State Director of Indian Education
- Jon Schaff (Northern State University Professor of Government/Director of the Center for Public History and Civic Engagement)
- Mary Shuey (South Dakota educator with an expired certification)
- State Representative Tamara St. John (Republican State Rep. from Sisseton)
- Samantha Walder (South Dakota educator)
- State Senator John Wiik (Republican State Sen. from Big Stone City)
Of the 15 members of the new group, only 5 — Finzen, Hiatt, Nielsen, Shuey and Walder — appear to be or have been public school teachers.
Of those five, only Hiatt, Nielsen and Walder are currently certified by the South Dakota DOE. Shuey’s certification expired in 2020, while Finzen has never been certified in South Dakota and teaches in Nebraska.
This means that of the 15 members of the new workgroup, only three, or 20%, are DOE-certified educators in South Dakota. That’s compared to 70% of the members of the original workgroup.
Meanwhile, 11 of the members of the new group have never been certified as educators by the DOE. This accounts for 73% of the group. Comparatively, only 18% of the original group had never been certified.
The members themselves have also drawn interest.
As already noted, few public school teachers have been included this time around. Additionally, only three members of the new workgroup are believed to be members of tribal communities. These are Tamara St. John, a Republican State Representative and member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe; Joe Circle Bear, listed as a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe; and Stephanie Hiatt, an alumni of the University of Sioux Falls and a member of the Seminole Tribe in Florida.
It is currently unknown to KELOLAND News if any other members are part of tribal communities.
Other additions to the group include Mark Miller, Gov. Noem’s Chief of Staff, who will serve as group chair; Dylan Kessler, who serves as director of a retirement community; Aaron Levisay, a former facility manager for the military; Republican State Sen. John Wiik; and Christopher Motz, Executive Director of the South Dakota Catholic Conference.
The South Dakota Catholic Conference is the official voice of the bishops of South Dakota on issues of public policy. Catholic schools in South Dakota are not subject to the rules of the DOE.
While St. John and Wiik are state legislators, neither serve on education committees.
Of the 15, only two, Nielsen and Indian Education Director Osborn, were members of the original group, though other former members told KELOLAND News they applied and were rejected.
One such member is Stephen Jackson, a Ph.D. in History, and a member of the 2021 workgroup who helped form the standards for world history. “We got an email shortly after the press release last Friday saying, ‘Thanks for applying, but here’s what the group will ultimately look like,'” he said. “So I was not selected.”
Jackson, who has a doctorate in history and is completing a book on the history of education in the United States, says he does not know who was in charge of choosing group members.
KELOLAND News has reached out to the DOE, asking about the selection process, but we have not received a response at this time.
Jackson says he is hopeful for the new group, but the lack of certified South Dakota K-12 educators does give him some level of apprehension.
“It does raise an eyebrow,” he said. “It makes me a little nervous because I think the perspective of practicing K-12 teachers or even retired K-12 teachers in invaluable.”
That “relative” lack of educational experience is something Jackson says is a big difference between this group and the original one.
“I do think it says something that there are as many politicians in this group as there are educators that actually work in education, and if our goal is to have a set of standards that are widely agreed upon and non-ideological, I do think that raises some important questions,” he said.
When he was working on the standards, Jackson says his priority was putting the “very best of our knowledge” in front of students. “What is the very best information we have available to us, and what is going to be optimal for our students.”
Jackson, and the rest of the group, saw a large part of that knowledge and information removed.
“In world history, we had a few references to indigenous peoples,” Jackson recalled. “They were all removed — there was no mention of indigenous peoples in the revised version of the standards.”