Supporters, opponents react to new SD social studies standards at first public comment event
The Board of Education Standards, charged with overseeing periodic changes to the state's curriculum, heard from residents at a Monday, Sept. 19, event in Aberdeen.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The first of four public hearings on the planned changes to South Dakota’s social studies curriculum laid bare the major points of contention between proponents and opponents, including whether the material would be too difficult for students, whether it stymies critical thinking and if there is a political distortion to the standards.
The highly publicized and controversial nature of the proposed standards , which were drafted in large part by William Morrisey, a professor emeritus of political science at Hillsdale College in Michigan, resulted in a large turnout at the Monday, Sept. 19, meeting at the Dakota Event Center in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
“There's a hearty public discussion that's begun on a process that typically draws very little interest outside of the education community,” Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson said in introducing the standards.
Prior to the meeting, the board published more than 700 written public comments. According to the South Dakota Department of Education, the breakdown of comments submitted before 2 p.m. Sept. 16 was 67 in favor, 615 opposed and 25 neutral.
Proponents seek to address concerns
During the introduction of the standards, Sanderson joined Dr. Ben Jones, the director of the state’s historical society, and Shannon Malone, who heads the state’s learning and instruction division, in defending the proposed curriculum.
The bulk of their argument focused on the freedom for educators to apply the material as they see fit and the ability of young children to rise to the challenge of these standards.
“Currently, relevant civic knowledge is particularly thin in elementary grades. It's a shame because these are the years when children are quickly picking up knowledge, vocabulary, and facts,” Jones said. “I've heard the pushback on this, that these kinds of details from things long ago and far away are not appropriate for 6-year-olds. Such a view is unsupported by the research.”
This point was shared by several parents in favor of the standards.
The second major thread of the proponent's arguments was the purported lack of political agenda in the standards, with several of those in favor referring to a deviation from “critical race theory” and “cultural Marxism” as a reason for supporting the implementation of these standards.
Sue Peterson is a Republican representative from Sioux Falls who said she resigned from the 2021 standards workgroup because it was “facilitated by a hard-left, activist consultant.” She gave credit to Gov. Kristi Noem for putting together “a new team of South Dakotans that would write standards according to what South Dakota parents want their children taught.”
Peterson and many others in favor supported the attempt by the standards to instill in students an understanding of the country’s founding documents.
“Every American would benefit as I have simply from reading the standards in their entirety. I thank the commission members who created this draft for their act of patriotism,” said Joy Pullman, a Hillsdale College graduate and education policy research fellow for the conservative Heartland Institute.
Opponents critique process
While the side favoring implementing the standards was composed mainly of parents and representatives from interest groups related to education, the 27 people who spoke in opposition to the standards were nearly entirely made up of current and former educators.
According to the South Dakota Education Association, “many more” educators signed up to publicly oppose the standards but were left out due to the 90-minute limit for each side.
Dr. Samantha Walder, an elementary principal in Tea, South Dakota, and a member of the workgroup that released the standards, said it was “not a true standards development process” and was instead almost entirely done by Morrisey prior to meeting.
“The process was hijacked and the process reduced the commission to essentially proofreading or randomly interjecting content to a bulleted list of exhaustive curriculum topics,” Walder said.
While many of the opponents stressed the inappropriateness of “rote memorization” for those in elementary school, several also felt that the standards do not scale into deeper thinking as they progress into middle and high school.
A handful of educators referenced Bloom’s Taxonomy , a classification system for lesson objectives ranging from simply remembering information to applying information in creative ways, saying the lesson plans lacked a balance between lower and higher order skills.
“We want our students to be productive members of society and ready for the workplace of the future. This means increasing them to use higher order skills and involving students in collaborative project based learning strategies to develop skills in cooperation,” said Deb DeBates, a former professor at South Dakota State University. “Many of these standards start with ‘tell’ or ‘identify,’ the lowest level of Bloom's Taxonomy for learning. It’s simple regurgitation, rather than exploring and examining these ideas.”
After the opponent’s arguments, Dr. Jon Schaff, a standards workgroup member and a professor of government at Northern State University, finished the meeting with a rebuttal in favor of the standards.
“Perhaps it's time to try something new. As a nation and as a state we should be ashamed at the lack of history and civics proficiency,” Schaff said. “I think these standards, well implemented, will play at least some part in making for a healthier democracy.”
In a tweet shortly after Schaff was finished, the South Dakota Education Association took issue with the setup of the public hearing, writing that proponents “clearly get more time” since the introduction at the beginning and the rebuttal by Schaff at the end, both of which were in favor of the standards, did not count toward the 90-minute allotment.
The next public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 21 in Sioux Falls. After that, the board will hold two more hearings next year in Pierre and Rapid City.
Interested parties can continue submitting written public comments here .