Some worry that South Dakota's social studies revision process being politicized

Earlier this month, the Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Education announced a two-week extension on applications for a new work group to revise social studies standards. The work of a first task force was scuttled by Gov. Kristi Noem after accusations of politicization from members of the workgroup, mostly teachers.

About 100 people, many of them Native Americans, held a protest in Pierre in September to push for improved teaching of Native American history and culture in South Dakota schools and to decry removal of Native references from proposed social studies standards. Photo courtesy of DRG Media Group

PIERRE, S.D. — The plight of South Dakota's social studies standards could invoke a number of historical allegories: a procedural Waterloo, Gov. Kristi Noem crossing the partisan Delaware, and maybe just the flight of the Hindenburg.

Earlier this fall, Noem sidelined the standards after her own Department of Education removed dozens of references to Oceti Sakowin culture across the K-12 grade levels. The changes wiped away a standard that kindergarteners hear "Iktomi stories," and removed language that fifth-graders learn about the impacts of other countries upon Indigenous populations in North America through "exploration, conflict, and colonization."

Some invocations of Lakota culture remained across the DOE-proposed civics, history, and geography standards , but far fewer than standards task force had asked for originally .

Now the process has restarted , but politics loom on the horizon.

"What she wants is the '1776 Project'. That's the bottom line," said Paul Harens, a retired social studies teacher from Yankton, South Dakota, referring to a curriculum framework backed by conservative politicians.


Harens, who participated in the previous task force, said he has resubmitted his application but remains unchanged in his view that the politicization started with the governor's office, not the teachers on the 50-member task force.

"If (Noem) truly wants to avoid politics, she should not draw an entirely new committee," said Harens.

Since Noem announced a pause on prepping new civics and history curricula frameworks on Sept. 20, it's been murky whether she objected to the cuts to Indigenous curricula — or maybe even such Oceti Sakowin inclusions at all.

Many teachers who participated in the summer work group, which included two long weeks in Pierre, also said they have applied again, hoping to see the process through.

But earlier this month, Department of Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson announced that even though 150 applicants for the second go-around of standards revisions had come in, the department extended the deadline until month's end, renewing fears of a politicized process.

"I think had they originally closed when they said they were closing (the application deadline), it would feel more hopeful," said Lisa Forcier, project manager with the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Education Department . Forcier participated in the summer workgroup and applied again.

Sherry Johnson, the director of education for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, agreed that worries abound about the integrity of DOE's process.

"It still feels like censorship," said Johnson. "They're going to meld (the standards) so you can't even tell (the) Native impact ... the guts are gone."


As is often repeated, the standards revision process in South Dakota is not the same as writing standards. Moreover, they're not required learning.

Just last week, in fact, Joe Moran, the Department of Education's assistant director for data and research, disclosed the results of a recent statewide survey showing that Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings — a curricular framework passed by the Legislature in 2008 and separate from the social studies review — is taught by only 45% of the state's teachers .

But elements of the education department's do-over are worrisome, say some teachers. They're pushing the process during the winter, rather than summer, when more teachers are available. Moreover, the old application asked little, whereas the new application calls for more background and subject matter experiences. Finally, the department also maintains editorial control over whatever the taskforce produces, seemingly setting up a similar prospect to this summer's rewrites.

Last week, Sanderson told the S outh Dakota Board of Education Standards that the workgroup's membership will be announced by year's end, with orientation beginning shortly thereafter.

As for the deadline, Sanderson told the board the extension merely "gives more time for individuals to apply to be part of that process."

If all goes according to plan, the proposed standards will be unveiled next August — only a year behind schedule and maybe, hopefully, the past dust-up will only be a historical footnote.

South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson talks about school district sizes across the state during a presentation in the Tiger Café inside the McGovern Library on Dakota Wesleyan University's campus on Tuesday. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

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