ABERDEEN, S.D. (KELO) — A state panel that decides grade by grade on the goals of what students should be taught in South Dakota K-12 schools spent more than three hours Monday listening to people’s views of the latest version of proposed social-studies standards.
Supporters and opponents received up to 90 minutes apiece, followed by an untimed rebuttal from a Northern State professor who served on the committee that proposed them, during the public hearing the state Board of Education Standards held at Dakota Event Center in Aberdeen.
State Senator Al Novstrup, an Aberdeen Republican who said he employs dozens of high school students, said that based on conversations they wouldn’t know a historical figure such as Karl Marx or Adam Smith and they weren’t able to talk about tribal treaties or the three branches of American government. “This is a challenging standards,” Novstrup said in support.
Natasha Phillips, a Yankton first-grade teacher, was the first Monday to speak against. She questioned why a first-grader would need to learn about wars from ancient history, as is proposed. She said first grade currently has 13 social-studies standards and the proposal has “about 113” listed. “I believe in high expectations, but these are not appropriate expectations,” Phillips told the board.
The governor-appointed board will hold three more public hearings. The next will come on November 21 in Sioux Falls at Carnegie Town Hall. Hearings in Rapid City and Pierre next year haven’t been set.
The state Department of Education so far has received 707 comments by email and U.S. mail on the proposal. They included 67 in support, 25 neutral and more than 600 in opposition. The department will continue to accept written comments through March 2023, when it’s possible the board could reach a decision.
Both the South Dakota Education Association, which represents teachers and other educators, and the School Administrators of South Dakota publicly opposed the proposal Monday. SDEA published a side-by-side comparison of the current proposed standards and those that have been in place since 2015.
Michael Kroll, a former social-studies teacher who’s now superintendent for the Warner district, told the state board Monday that the proposed standards give him concerns about whether they’re age-appropriate.
“What gets taken away as we replace it with social-studies standards?” Kroll asked. He called it “ironic” that the state board was also considering proposed standards for career and technical education at the same time.
The CTE proposal drew almost no public comments during its hearing Monday.
Centerville superintendent Eric Knight testified from the perspective of his district’s teachers regarding the proposed social-studies standards. The teachers consider many of those proposed for the elementary grades “developmentally inappropriate,” he said.
The middle- and high-school teachers have the same concerns, Knight said. The new standards would require more time, and that could have a domino effect in cutting CTE courses and internships, he said.
A woman in the audience wanted to speak after NSU’s Jon Schaff gave his rebuttal. The state board’s president, Aberdeen school superintendent Becky Guffin, told her she could sign up to testify at a future hearing. Guffin then adjourned the meeting.
State standards are reviewed on a regular schedule of every five to seven years. The state department convened a group that proposed a new version of social-studies standards last year. Department officials however then removed some Native American references and proposed that adjusted set for a public hearing.
As backlash mounted against the department, Governor Kristi Noem scrapped that group’s work in September 2021, appointed a 15-member replacement group this spring, and contracted with William Morrisey, a former Hillsdale (MI) College faculty member.
Morrisey then delivered to the new members a draft that seemed aligned with goals in the report of the 1776 Commission, a group Donald Trump appointed during his presidency. Noem, who benefited from a Trump fundraiser for her in Sioux Falls, during the 2018 campaign, was the first candidate to sign the group’s pledge. Noem is seeking re-election this November, along with all 105 members of the Legislature.
State Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican, told the state board Monday that she was on the original committee last year. Peterson said that committee’s facilitator was a woman she described as a “hard-left” consultant.
Peterson questioned the motivations of the parent organizations of SDEA and Associated School Boards of South Dakota and criticized the school administrators group. She said those organizations aren’t the state board’s constituents and the board should listen to parents who are.
Fred Osborn, director for the state Indian education office, served on the second committee and defended the attention he said its members paid to tribal matters. He said “without a doubt” the latest version of the proposed standards would advance understanding of Native American history and culture.
Osborn said every meeting of the committee included discussion of the Oceti Sakowin essential understandings that are a separate set of K-12 standards. He said he specifically called for history of Native American boarding schools to be included as part of presenting the good and the bad.
Samantha Walder, the principal at Tea Area Legacy Elementary, served on the second committee that produced the current proposal. But Walder spoke against it Monday. She said Morrisey sent the committee members a draft that was already prepared. The committee never took a final vote, she said.
“The process was hijacked and reduced the commission to essentially proofreading or randomly interjecting content to a bulleted list of exhaustive curriculum topics while the governor’s chief of staff, not the secretary of education, had to approve each change of the document,” Walder said, referring to Mark Miller.
Kathleen Cook, a high school history teacher from Harrisburg, said the proposed new standards contained content and process that are too specific. She said the standards-writing process lacked transparency, starting with how last year’s proposal was handled.
Sherry Johnson, who has been employed as tribal education director for the past nine years by the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said there has been a lack of tribal consultation. Several other tribal-education officials said the same thing. Johnson criticized the format, especially at the elementary levels. “It is an embarrassment to provide these standards up as any kind of model for South Dakota,” Johnson said.
Rob Monson, executive director for the school administrators group, asked opponents in the room to stand. Monson said he mistakenly assumed that the governor would follow the traditional process as used in the past. “I can’t imagine most people would agree with this,” Monson said.
Schaff, a professor of government, said in his rebuttal that students have thrived in schools in other places in the nation where similar standards have been adopted. He defended the new committee’s effort. “Every person on this commission made a valuable contribution,” he said.
Schaff said the proposed standards purposely weren’t written in jargon. “This is a strength, not a weakness,” he said about how they’re worded. The proposed standards would make social studies central to a student’s education, he said. “Engagement has to be informed,” he said.
An audio archive of the full meeting is at sd.net. The social-studies proposal begins at approximately the 41-minute mark.