PIERRE, S.D. — This summer, teachers met from around the state to rework South Dakota schoolchildren's learning standards for fine arts classes such as pottery and music and dance.
It was cordial. The group work was fastidious. And the group produced standards that'll eventually go before the Board of Education Standards.
In a lot of ways, the social studies standards revision looked just like the fine arts revision, group members say. Until it didn't.
The telling of South Dakota's history is maybe as old as the state itself: How to balance the story of westward expansion and home-making by agrarian settlers with the illegal taking of the Black Hills and breaking of treaties with Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota tribes.
But the nearly once-a-decade rewriting of standards covering world history to geography to U.S. and state history has gotten downright volatile over the last two months.
A vow to revamp civics literacy
At the beginning of 2021, Gov. Kristi Noem vowed to rework the state's civics curriculum, which she characterized as part of a national crisis in civics literacy that led to the riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by supporters of President Trump.
But midway through the legislative season, Noem's office softened talk of a politically driven override of state civics classes, with her own Department of Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson stumping for a $1 million request for financing grant opportunities and a state history project. Any changes to civics standards, officials said, would come through a routine, even mundane work group that was to be convened — on a seven-year schedule — that summer.
In June, that group of teachers, professors, legislators, and community members met for two weeks in Pierre. The work was grueling and technical, but collaborative with ample opportunity for consensus. While two politically conservative members left their names off the final report, members said the group — at the behest of administration officials — understood to avoid embedding highly charged concepts around race or class into their final proposal, such as Critical Race Theory.
Nor did they need to be told to do so.
"It is not taught," said retired Yankton High School history teacher Paul Harens. "I went home that night and made calls — Watertown, Sioux Falls, Huron — they all got back to me and said, 'Nobody teaches it.'"
In late July, the work group submitted their final product. It largely resembled the past standards, with renewed emphasis on the role of women and Native Americans in the state's historical fabric.
A changed report
But in early August, when Noem's Department of Education gave the first public look at the proposed standards for world history, geography, state history, and U.S. government, they veered — in word and emphasis — from the report prepared by the working group.
Gone were recommendations for elementary students to learn the names of the nine tribal nations comprising reservations on the state's boundaries. Gone, as well, were dozens of new references to Indigenous history and culture, including attention to tribal financial and political systems. Even a recommendation to analyze the Electoral College had been axed. More structurally, an entire category based on "inquiry" had been removed from each grade level. The final draft left members of the working group stunned.
Some members of the working group requested their names be removed. Some went public, while others fumed in private. Since then, members of the public, as well, have filed 82 pages of comments, almost universally opposed to the removal of the Indigenous learning goals for the standards by DOE.
"I hope you will consider adopting the standards as the committee wrote them," wrote K-12 educator Laura Cooper. "Many years of expertise and hours of work are represented in their proposal, and the state standards should represent the workgroup's efforts."
"I want the Indigenous section put back in the curriculum," wrote Denise Red Horse, a parent.
In an interview earlier this month, Stephen Jackson, a Ph.D. in history who teaches at the University of Sioux Falls and participated in the world history panel, said it's not only the removal of any one standard but the violation of a process that particularly bothered work group members.
"Especially in a time when social studies are in the national eye, the integrity of the revisions process Is very important," Jackson said in an interview on Tuesday, Sept. 14. "But in this case substantive revisions were made outside of the normal parameters for revisions."
Reaction to revised standards
There was a small effort by political friends of the administration to support DOE's revised standards. In public comments for social studies standards, Rep. Carl Perry, R-Aberdeen, wrote, "As long as we stay away from CRT ... I'm okay. Social Studies, Geography, Math & English are all important to growth."
In a column posted on a conservative blog, Tony Venhuizen, a former chief of staff to Noem and newly appointed member of the Board of Regents, criticized the drafted standards, calling the attention to Native American topics "far out of proportion to other topics."
"I will admit that merely counting references to a certain topic is a crude and imprecise way to evaluate the standards," acknowledged Venhuizen, but he still maintained that "the summer draft makes Native Americans and tribal topics the single most prevalent topic in the entirety of K-12 social studies."
But many say such focus was long overdue. On Monday, Sept. 13, a group of indigenous protesters, led by NDN Collective out of Rapid City, marched on Pierre, calling for resignations of Sanderson and reinstatement of the work group's proposed standards.
By that evening, Noem posted a two-minute video on Twitter in which she argued the new standards — even those edited down by DOE — increased references to Native culture from six to 28, over the current standards.
But a week later, Noem reversed, announcing a full pause, acknowledging that DOE had "significantly" altered the work group's proposal.
"Following public feedback from several constituencies," said Noem, in a statement, "it is clear there is more work to be done to get this right."
Who made the changes?
As of Thursday, Sept. 23, group members do not know who made the changes. Spokespersons for DOE have not disclosed the person or persons behind the edits, merely saying the education agency approved the changes. The governor's office also has stayed mute on who directed the changes.
There's also indication that by "several constituencies," Noem may have been talking about out-of-state commentators, not just in-state tribal communities.
Hours after announcing the pause on Monday, Noem tweeted from her political account that "radical education activists" were "scheming" to use critical lenses to talk about race and racism in America. That language was borrowed from a column published earlier in the day by Stanley Kurtz in The National Review, in which he lambasted the involvement of American Institute of Research, a nonpartisan education consulting firm hired by South Dakota to assist with the revisions.
Dana Tofig, spokesman for AIR, which has worked with states from Illinois to Texas, defended the group in an email on Thursday, Sept. 23.
"Our role in this effort has been to facilitate the revision process under the direction and guidance of the South Dakota DOE," said Tofig, noting the company had long consulted standards reviews and rewrites "in nearly every state in the U.S. — including blue and red states."
A more expansive telling
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, the nation Oceti Sakowin particularly schools — wrestled with how to tell a more expansive view of American history. In the 2021 legislative session, Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said he hoped for a more robust discussion of Oceti Sakowin principles in the state's classrooms while pushing Senate Bill 68, which would've set up Native charter schools.
"This has been 40 years in the making, if not more than 100 years in the making," Heinert said.
When that bill was defeated, Heinert reemphasized his call for schools to more directly address Native American drop-out rates.
What happens next is anyone's guess. Noem's office has not yet laid the blueprint for how the social studies standards will be revisited. And so the story of how to tell South Dakota's story will continue onward.
On Tuesday, Sept. 14, Board of Education Standards Chair Jacqueline Sly — a former Republican legislator from Rapid City and longtime special education teacher — said that she'd watched the process, particularly interference from the administration, with curiosity.
"I've not seen this number of changes before," said Sly, appointed by former Gov. Dennis Daugaard in 2017. But she'd promised the board would fully listen to the public as they approved the standards or revised them.
"I'm a collaborator and work to build consensus and work to find that compromise that people are comfortable with," said Sly, who spent over 30 years in the classroom. "And I think that anyone that has an investment in social studies standards should be coming forward and speaking."