YANKTON, S.D. — Days ahead of an expected release of new proposed, K-12 social studies standards in South Dakota, members of a statewide working group are defending their process — a process that will almost surely attract scrutiny.
On Friday, Aug. 6, the Department of Education will release proposed recommended standards — ranging from civics to economics to world and U.S. history — as part of a routine, once-every-seven-years review process.
Those standards will face public comment at four meetings and, ultimately, be voted up or down next spring by the South Dakota Board of Education Standards, a seven-member committee, more than half appointed by Gov. Kristi Noem.
Earlier this summer, two conservatives on the committee left their name off the final draft. In Pierre, some Republican members of the appropriations committee have mounted an attempt to mute on the local and state level national trends toward greater discussions of race and ethnicity in classrooms.
However, the working group of teachers, lawmakers, business leaders and museum experts that met for intensive, morning and afternoon sessions at an event center in Fort Pierre over eight days in June largely evaded hot-button political talk, says longtime, retired Yankton social studies teacher Paul Harens.
Harens called the process "excellent" and "consensus-driven."
"I want the process to come out," Harens told Forum News Service last week. He taught at Yankton High School before retiring in 2011. "It was very fair. It was democratic. And we had in-depth discussions."
His comments were echoed by Stephen Jackson, an associate professor of history at the University of Sioux Falls, in an interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting. Jackson said that while the process could grow "arcane," he found the use of red, yellow and green cards to signal varying levels of support for proposals a useful system for individual members to express displeasure.
"If you had any yellow or red at your table, our facilitators would say, 'You need to keep talking,'" said Jackson.
The recommended standards identify what competencies are to be expected of students but are not, themselves, curriculum. State law imposes some requirements of social studies already, such as instruction in "character development" and that "representatives of patriotic societies" be able to visit class.
In high school, the state also requires a semester of U.S. government and a full year of U.S. history, as well as a semester in economics or finance.
A review of session notes posted to DOE's website suggests the group reviewed textbooks and other states' standards. World history classes in Utah, for example, ask students to "identify patterns in the stratification of social and gender structures across classical civilizations." In New Jersey, students in geography classes should use tools to learn about the formation of the U.S. colonies.
While much furious attention has been paid to critical race theory, and Noem has complained about inadequate civics education, group members described to FNS a sober, measured, and academically informed process in all which participants could air views.
Harens said avoiding topics of race or religion or gender would be tantamount to failing to fully teach his subject area.
"You start with Lucy, and then you go back through the beginnings of all the religions, which is a necessary thing to do, and not just the Christian religion," said Harens, noting his classrooms would also engage with historical roots and import of Judaism, Islam and Shinto.
While the standards have yet to be released, some early insights suggest the standards will shed more light on women and Native American history in ways current state-required learning does not.
Sherry Johnson, Director of Education for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, said she saw positive steps in the group's work.
"In our textbooks, when you go and look at U.S. history, and even our local regional history, back when Columbus discovered that there were ndigenous people here, they mention it for about a page and a half and after that there's very little mentioned about indigenous people, their lives, and how they were affected by westward expansion and Manifest Destiny," said Johnson.
The new standards, she added, will give a "better portrait of indigenous history" in the state and nation.
The standards, of course, will have an uphill battle to be accepted, especially in a political climate where many leaders in the GOP have made war upon what has been called "wokeism." Even on the floor of Congress this week, U.S. Sen. John Thune railed against the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project as pushing a "totally fabricated claim" about the impetus of slavery in early American government.
Nevertheless, Harens, who says his participation in the work group was, in part, urged by his wife following his recovery from a battle with COVID-19, says he has hope the group's work is taken seriously. He also calls upon educators to stand up for the process by attending meetings that commence next month.
"When we began this whole thing, they told us, 'Do not worry what is in the press. Worry about what to do for the children of South Dakota," said Harens. "And that's exactly what we did."