South Dakota social studies hearings pit teachers against Noem

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota teachers and school administrators overwhelmingly voiced opposition on Monday to Gov. Kristi Noem’s proposed standards for social studies in public schools, saying the proposal saddles them with expanding and unwieldy criteria to cover in classrooms but fails to teach students to think analytically about history.

Educators, who say they were left out of the process of developing the standards, voiced their opposition as the state’s Board of Education Standards kicked off a series of public hearings Monday before deciding whether to adopt them.

Their objections present a determined challenge to the Republican governor’s proposed standards, which could remake the state’s standards for history and civics by relying heavily on material from Hillsdale College, a private, conservative institution in Michigan.

Conservatives and some parents who spoke at the Board of Education Standards hearing in Aberdeen on Monday defended the proposal as a robust effort to address a lack of knowledge of American civics and revive an appreciation for the nation’s founding ideals. Noem, a potential 2024 White House contender, has billed the proposed standards as “free from political agendas” and the “very best” in the nation.

But two educators who were on the 15-member standards commission have spoken out against the standards they ostensibly helped create.

“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,” Samantha Walder, an elementary school principal who was a part of the standards commission, told the Board of Education Standards.

“When our small group of educator opponents tried to make significant changes, we were dismissed by the chair.”

Roughly 87% of people who have submitted hundreds of written comments to the Department of Education voiced opposition. Teachers and historians, including the American Historical Association, have excoriated the proposal as failing to teach students to inquire into history and think critically about it.

Members of several American Indian tribes in the state have also said the state failed to consult with the tribes in developing the standards.

At Monday’s hearing, conservatives supportive of the standards countered that the proposal increases the references to Native American history and leaders. They also argued for an idea popular in conservative circles: that education needs to be cleansed of pedagogical terms and owned by people besides professional educators.

“The complaint that students aren’t required to do higher-ordered thinking because the standards don’t use guild-approved buzzwords rings hollow,” said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University who presented the commission’s rebuttal on Monday.

He added: “This is the kind of education our children need if they are to be informed, educated citizens ready to take on the arduous task of self-government.”

At Monday’s hearing, teachers and school administrators, with few exceptions, urged the board to reject the standards and suggested it consider ones developed by a commission of 44 South Dakota educators last year.

Last year’s commission, which was facilitated by the National Council for the Social Studies, began its work with the state’s established standards and built on them, notably to increase references to Native American history and culture.

The standards faced objections from conservatives who accused the National Council for Social Studies of advancing certain controversial teachings on race, such as the academic framework known as critical race theory. The organization has said it does not advance the teaching of critical race theory, but it does not shy away from discussing the facts of racism in the United States.

Two conservatives resigned from last year’s group in protest, and a conservative commentator, Stanley Kurtz, took to the pages of the National Review to call for Noem to throw out the proposed standards. In October last year, she did just that.

The governor restarted the process with a smaller workgroup dominated by conservatives and hired a former politics professor at Hillsdale College, William Morrisey, to lead the group’s work. It produced a 128-page proposal that contained distinct echoes of “The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum,” which glorifies the nation’s founders and criticizes the expansion of U.S. government programs.

Meanwhile, Hillsdale has also been involved in helping private and charter schools across the country implement classical education models that emphasize learning around traditional, Western writing and ideas. Rachel Oglesby, Noem’s chief of policy, told the Board of Education Standards that she hoped the standards would bring the classical model to all the state’s public schools.

The board will hold three more public hearings before deciding whether to adopt the standards next year.