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Education Association: Proposed standards too difficult for early learners, too easy for upper-grade students

Leaders in the South Dakota's education association feel early learners will be challenged only to memorize information while older students won't be challenged.

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Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves welcomes students back to Mitchell Middle School on their first day of the 2022-23 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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PIERRE — A premier group of educators is expressing concern surrounding newly released educational standards for social studies classes in South Dakota’s public schools, saying the proposal is too difficult for some grade levels while simultaneously too easy for others.

The proposed standards, which were released by the South Dakota Department of Education on Monday, would dictate what students learn in social studies classes from kindergarten through graduation in the state’s nearly 150 school districts.

Though the South Dakota Education Association (SDEA) is admittedly still in the process of reviewing the 128–page proposal, their executive director, Ryan Rolfs, said the first impression has left the association with concerns.

“From its initial review, SDEA is concerned about the age appropriateness of the standards as presented,” Rolfs said in a statement issued Tuesday. “The lower-grade standards call for a level of memorization that is not cognitively appropriate for our state’s early learners, and the upper-grade standards fail to challenge students’ critical thinking skills through standards that encourage analysis and evaluation of the world around them.”

A comparison between 2015 standards — including a 2020 supplement — and the newest proposal uncovers significant variations in what students would be expected to know.

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Kindergartners would be required to explain American symbols, historical figures

In 2022’s proposal, kindergarten students are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance from memory, while previous standards and supplements do not include any reference to the pledge.

The pledge is one of nearly 32 “symbols of America” which students would be required to identify and explain “the meaning of.” Other topics include the motto “in God we trust,” the Alamo, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the 21 Gun Salute and the Betsy Ross flag.

The proposal also requires that kindergartners “tell stories about figures from American history through 2008, including stories from their childhoods, lives as adults, and examples of their character.” The proposal says figures may include Barack Obama, Black Elk, Cesar Chavez, Clarence Thomas, John Muir, Red Cloud and more.

Geographically, while kindergartners would previously begin learning how to describe their immediate environment, such as locations within their classroom or on a playground, the newly proposed standards call for kindergartners to identify specific locations across North America, including Alaska and Hawaii. They’d also be expected to locate their school on a map.

Complex geography taught sooner, simple geography taught later

Under 2015’s standards, elementary schoolers would first come to understand the difference between maps and globes before working to create maps of their classrooms and schools in grades K-2.

In grades 3-4, students would begin to learn the grid system and identify the differences between landmasses and water bodies, receiving an introduction into the world’s oceans and continents, before beginning to learn latitude and longitude in fifth grade. It wasn’t until seventh grade that students would begin an “in-depth study” of geography.

Under the current standards, high schoolers would use geography to analyze geospatial information and its impact on social, political and economic issues.

Under the new proposal, students in grades K-2 would name the continents and oceans, become familiar with lines of latitude and longitude and explain geographical features — including plateaus, isthmuses and ocean and wind currents. They’d also be required to explain differences in culture, economics and lifestyle between various regions, including northern and southern states.

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Students in grades 3-4 would begin identifying and naming specific South Dakotan and American geographical features and regions, ranging from Black Elk Peak and Spearfish Canyon to the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest to the Ohio and Hudson Rivers. Fifth graders would begin learning European geography, naming straits, rivers, seas, mountain ranges and European regions, like Scandinavia.

After learning over 150 specific cities, countries and geographical features around the world in sixth grade, students begin learning capitals of the 50 states and other major American cities in seventh grade.

In high school, in addition to writing essays based on class notes, students are expected to name and/or locate hundreds of cities, countries and geographic features, many of which are the same taught in previous grades. Specifically, they’ll be again tasked with naming state capitals and other major American cities.

Some learning standards for high schoolers, under U.S. History, are written identically to standards covered as early as second grade.

One standard — “The student explains the differences between various geographic regions, especially the growing divide in culture, lifestyle, and economics between the northern states and the southern states,” — appears four times in a student’s K-12 career.

Under new proposal, specificity is key

The most notable difference between the current and proposed standards is the specificity of content teachers are required to ensure their students know.

The 2015 standards include 30 pages of actual standards, and 14 additional pages of information regarding the development process of the standards. The new proposal contains 118 pages of actual standards and 10 additional pages of information.

Many of the proposed standards utilize a full page or more, as specific items students are expected to learn are laid out individually.

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In high school civics or government, for example, current standards describe one learning objective in roughly 80 words, using broad terms that describe the goal of the teachings. The same standard in the new proposal takes nearly 250 words and lists over 20 specific government officials — at a local, tribal, state and federal level — that students must be able to name and identify “with relative ease.”

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The South Dakota Education Association, located in Pierre, is a professional organization working for educators, so they can continue to work for kids in the state.
Map data courtesy of 2022 Google

SDEA will submit additional comments, leaders say

Rolfs said that review of the proposal remains ongoing by members of the SDEA, but that the association already plans to submit additional comments to the Department of Education, seeking further changes.

“SDEA will be submitting comments to the Board of Education Standards in the coming days,” Rolfs said, “and we encourage educators and parents to review the proposed standards and let their voices be heard as well.”

The standards, according to Rolfs, should challenge students to meet their “fullest potential” while having “the freedom to learn in an environment that allows them to ask the questions that lead to higher-level thinking.”

“Educators are committed to teaching students a full history, including the good and bad while helping them develop the critical thinking skills that enable them to be productive citizens who are committed to the great promise of our Country; that all men are created equal,” Rolfs said.

Additional public hearings regarding the proposal will be held across the state in 2022 and 2023. According to the Department of Education, the standards will undergo a transition year during the 2023-24 school year, before being fully implemented in 2024-25.

Public comment can be submitted on the Department of Education’s page for educational standards.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021. After over a year in Mitchell, he moved to Milwaukee, where he now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on regional news that impacts the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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