South Dakota educators raise concerns with proposed social studies standards process

Even just a month ago, there were around 300 teaching positions open in South Dakota. That’s...
Over a month since the latest proposed social studies standards were released, and with the first public meeting coming up, many educators are raising their concerns about the process which the proposed standards came from.(Dakota News Now)
Published: Sep. 18, 2022 at 9:09 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Educators all across South Dakota have been anticipating new social studies standards ever since the ones proposed in 2021 were withdrawn due to public backlash.

As soon as the new standards were sent out in August, they spent no time waiting to pour over them and examine them with microscopes and fine-tooth combs. Now over a month since they were released, and with the first public meeting coming up, many are raising their concerns about the process which the proposed standards came from.

“When we were first given a look at the new proposed standards, as educators and professionals in all of our schools, we put teams together and were collectively looking at to standards to make sure we understand them.” South Dakota School Superintendents Association President Summer Schultz said.

Before many educators had the chance to begin to go through the standards, some were already worried about changes to the review process. Schultz said in the past, the revision commissions were made up of dozens of educators and experts from across the state, each bringing their experiences in the classroom and expertise to the table to draft new standards.

MORE: Department Of Education releases draft Social Studies Standards

The commission in 2021 was made up of 46 members, with a facilitator present to help guide discussions while those members contributed to writing the standards. However, the latest process to write new standards departs drastically from that formula. In 2022, only 15 members were invited to help write the latest round of proposals. Only three members of the commission are currently certified to teach in South Dakota, compared to the 29 from 2021. That change in group makeup was alarming to many, and Schultz said it immediately raised a red flag on what the standards could contain.

“I think we were very excited when we found out there was going to be some revisions made, after some hesitations initially. And then I think we did become a little nervous as schools with the new process,” Schultz said. “In the past, the teams that would make the proposals and the standards would be 40 or more individuals that understand the process that we’ve used. They understand the curriculum, and they understand kids and South Dakota kids for that matter.”

Schultz said it’s a slap in the face to the state’s teachers and administrators, and the diminished role of educators in the latest workgroup was jarring.

“At our school, we would have teachers that would volunteer to be a part of the process. We’d have administrators, curriculum directors. That’s what has always happened in the past,” Schultz said. “I think we felt when this revision was going to happen, it would be similar to what we have done and what works. Instead what happened was the group got very small. It became a small number of individuals from South Dakota.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Michelle Vande Weerd, President of the South Dakota Association of Supervision of Curriculum Directors. Vande Weerd said she’s been a member of work groups in the past, and it’s always a learning experience for them as well to hear from others and outside groups to craft the best set of standards possible.

“As an educator, I’ve been a part of that, as a teacher and as an administrator. One of the best parts about the process has been historically, and I think maybe where we have a little departure in this process, is just that really great dialogue that educators and stakeholders in South Dakota have as we go through this process. We really make standards our own.” Vande Weerd said.

“I don’t feel there was representation on those who are going to be teaching and implementing these standards. And then there were appointments from out of state that have large impacts on these standards,” Schultz said. “We know that if we were going to be creating proposed standards for social studies, or math or English, we would bring in the individuals who know something about that on a high level for our kids. And that’s our teachers. It’s disheartening to know that those professionals weren’t treated in a way that made them part of the process. We now have the standards, and we’re saying to them, ‘What do you think of these?’ That’s not how it should work.”

Standards could cost districts more to change curriculum

As with any change in curriculum, it will cost school districts to change their content to meet the latest standards. Vande Weerd said usually when those standards change, there’s enough overlap that school districts can to continue to use their current content while the proper curriculum can be bought. But the drastic change in what the new standards propose will be costly for districts to implement.

“I think that this is unique in that the standards are such a stark departure from what we’ve had previously., that districts would probably need to do a wholesale adoption to be able to teach and utilize the standards as presented,” Vande Weerd said. “That is concerning to us. Oftentimes, if a standards review happens off-cycle, typically we can make it work for a couple of years and maybe switch around with the resources that we have. But there are no resources right now that are going to teach the content at the grade levels. So that would indeed make us need to purchase and go through the review process.”

Vande Weerd said that by adopting the standards, school districts would be starting over on their social studies curriculum. The Department of Education has stated that $800,000 will be set aside to help acquire new content and help implement new material for school districts. But Vande Weerd said those teaching would need to re-learn how they teach social studies, something that would take time to accomplish.

“Speaking with staff and speaking with other leaders, that would be necessary to start over. Not only with resources, but with training for staff, and making sure they’re feeling comfortable with the proposed standards as they are written.” Vande Weerd said.

It’s a challenge that school administrators are very aware of, Schultz said.

“There will be a big financial impact on schools. Even if you look at these standards compared to our state graduation standards. They don’t align.” Schultz said.

The proposed standards also take up close to 120 pages of content, with very specific details and goals for students to meet. Schultz said in order for districts to have time to get through all of the content, they’ll need to reassess how much they spend on other subjects for students.

“There will be an impact to our English Language Arts and math because, in order to come even close for schools to be able to implement all of these standards, something’s going to have to go. So maybe that shift from ELA or math or CTE, we’re going to have to figure out as schools what gives in order to do that.” Schultz said.

Age-appropriateness of standards a concern

A question that’s come up with the proposed standards is whether the content is appropriate for students at each grade level. It’s something that both Schultz and Vande Weerd have heard from other educators, parents, and community members from where they live. Schultz said that while it’s a concern that can seem very subjective, it’s a real concern for educators that see what students are able to grasp in the classroom and know what could be a challenge.

MORE: South Dakota education social studies standards redo sparks controversy

“The individuals I have talked to, they’re very worried about the standards. They’re worried about what we say is age-appropriateness. But there are words and there are concepts that are going to be very difficult for specific age groups. We feel that the scope and sequence of it is inappropriate, at times it’s worrisome.” Schultz said.

Those conversations have spread statewide, Schultz said. It’s prompted Department of Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson to release an editorial before the first public meeting of the standards, outlining the Department’s reasoning for the standards and why they should be implemented.

“As South Dakotans, we want strong standards to guide our educators as they help our kids learn. Good standards frame out our expectations for what our young people learn and the skills they develop. They also serve as the foundation from which educators develop lesson plans and classroom experiences. With quality standards in hand, great teachers and instructional leaders translate these expectations for students into impactful classroom learning.”

South Dakota Department of Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson in a Sept. 14 editorial

The full editorial can be read below.

Schultz said school administrators have had meetings and talks with each other, combing through the standards and taking a look at what each grade level will need to know. Many gathered in Harrisburg on September 8 to discuss the standards. While she said they’re not outright against the standards, the proposal does need to be looked at through a lens of what can actually be achieved in the classroom.

“I joke a bit. But first-graders learning about the Punic War seems a little bit out of touch. Again, there could be individuals who think that some of them are good. That’s why we’re here to see if there are parts of these standards that we do like, and we do appreciate.” Schultz said.

The content is a very stark contrast to the current state standards, even from those proposed last year. Vande Weerd said the biggest difference however isn’t just what the standards state themselves and the topic each grade level has to know, but how it’s listed. Vande Weerd said that school districts have been working to push students to think about events from a critical viewpoint, and not necessarily be able to repeat facts from memory. She said that these standards revert back to that method of memorization.

“They’re very different than our previous standards. Our previous standards really allowed a lot of inquiry. We had depth of knowledge, a good understanding of what level our students need to reach as they incorporate those standards into the classroom. This is more of a list, in essence, of facts that students need to know,” Vande Weerd said. “When we read the language in the standards, we see not a lot of inquiry. We see more essentially rote memorization. So students can explain this historical event, or they can recite. They’re just very different from what we’ve had previously.”

The South Dakota Education Association published an article on September 13, comparing the current standards to the latest proposal. The SDEA has been vocal in its concern about the age-appropriateness of the standards, with Executive Director Ryan Rolfs stating on August 16 that the “lower-grade standards call for a level of memorization that is not cognitively appropriate for our state’s early learners.”

“The proposed social studies standards discourage inquiry-based learning and emphasize rote memorization. They wildly deviate from current social studies standards and will upend the curriculum for every teacher, every classroom and every school. The proposed standards are too time specific and only focus on events from 1492 to 2008 raising many questions about how teachers would approach teaching current events.”

Current Standards vs Proposed Standards, South Dakota Education Association on Sept. 13

The content standards are also drawing national attention. The American Historical Association sent a letter to members of the commission, asking the members to withdraw the latest proposed standards and instead revisit the ones from 2021.

“They are excessively long and detailed in their prescriptions, yet totally inadequate in their vision of what history learning entails. By design, the proposed standards omit any and all forms of historical inquiry in favor of rote memorization. There are no references to the practice of historical interpretation, understanding historical context, or critical thinking.” AHA Executive Director James Grossman stated.

The Department of Education has sent a letter to educators across the state, arguing its stance on the concerns many have for reverting back to heavy memorization. In it, the Department stated that the use of memorization is no different from how students learn basic math principles at an early age to use in future equations and problems.

“The proposed standards require some memorization of critical knowledge (e.g., recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution) that lays the foundation for more complex study later on. This is similar to how a student needs to memorize his or her multiplication tables in order to successfully engage with more complex mathematical concepts later in the student’s K-12 experience.”

Proposed Social Studies Standards 2022 Frequently Asked Questions, South Dakota Department of Education updated on Sept. 12

Schultz said however that this kind of instruction is a step backward in education, and said it’s something they’ve been working to eliminate in favor of more engaging instruction on what students think of each event.

“That’s not to say some of the areas aren’t important. But I’m not sure that they’re age-appropriate. In education, we talk a lot about educational understanding and processing. If you take a look at these standards and you understand education, it looks like we’re asking students to memorize and retell a lot of facts,” Schultz said. “In education, we’ve gotten away from that. We want kids to be able to think critically. We want them to understand the events that have happened. This goes back to a much lower level of education and understanding.”

That change in instruction won’t just be jarring for students, but educators as well. Vande Weerd said if the proposed standards were adopted, it would change the way that teachers in the classroom would need to structure their curriculum and how they approach each topic. It’s something that many may not be prepared for.

“When I think especially about an early elementary teacher, the topics that are listed are incredibly specific. I think it’s challenging for the students, but also challenging for the staff. We’re talking about things that are history major kind of topics, as opposed to something that a classroom teacher will maybe feel prepared to teach.” Vande Weerd said.

Families, parents, and community members should read the proposed standards

Both educators said though that public input will be key to deciding whether these proposed standards continue on as is, if major revisions or made, or if the process needs to be restarted. That is why each is asking that parents and families especially, as well as other community members, go through the standards.

“As parents, as community members, parent-teacher organizations. Unless you really dig in and read these standards, you might just minimize it or dismiss it as the Superintendents organization is questioning them,” Schultz said. “But I think if you have a child or a student that you know where they are at age-wise, and then compare it to what’s being asked for in the standards, you might really start to question some of it.”

Vande Weerd said it’s always a priority for her and many other educators across the state to be involved in the standards review process, whether it’s through a formal invitation to help create them or voicing their opinions during the time for public comment. She said that’s a belief she holds not just for this set of proposed standards, but anything that could change what’s being taught in South Dakota’s classrooms.

“I will forever be a proponent of being engaged with the process. Not just this round, but always. I think that both as a parent and an educator, it is our duty to be involved in the process.” Vande Weerd.

Like Schultz, Vande Weerd said those concerned about the proposed standards, or who want to learn more about them, should try and read through them just as they have as educators.

“I think most definitely, go to the Department of Education’s website and look at the standards. From whatever lens you view the standards, think is this what’s best for my children? Is this what’s best for the children of South Dakota? Is this appropriate?” Vande Weerd said.

The first of four public meetings for the proposed social studies standards take place on September 19 at 9 a.m., in the Dakota Event Center in Aberdeen. A meeting in Sioux Falls will also take place at 9 a.m. on November 21, with a location yet to be announced. No details are available yet for public meetings in Pierre and Rapid City in 2023.