Social studies commission members weigh in on concerns of proposed standards

Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 6:18 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The South Dakota Board of Education Standards will be making a decision in Pierre on Monday that could drastically change how education standards are created in the state. The fight over the proposed social studies standards has been going on for a year and a half, and soon it could be over.

The proposed social studies standards have been opposed by every parent organization of the School Administrators of South Dakota, the South Dakota Education Association, and all nine tribes in South Dakota. Over 900 formal public comments have been submitted opposing the standards.

MORE: Superintendents voice concerns of social studies standards

Throughout the latest revision process, educators have voiced their concern and opposition to the content and format of the document released by the Department of Education. Revision commission member Samantha Walder was a member of the committee that wrote the English Language Arts standards currently used in the state. Walder has worked in education for 15 years, currently serves as the president of the South Dakota Association of Elementary Principals, and is the most recent National Distinguished Principal Award winner for South Dakota. She said when she was asked to be a member of the 2022 commission to rewrite the state’s social studies standards after a 2021 draft was scrapped, she accepted looking to act a voice for elementary educators.

MORE: South Dakota educators raise concerns with proposed social studies standards process

“I absolutely accepted because I wanted to be able to be part of this process, and voice those concerns, and have the opportunity to share what my knowledge was and my background.” Walder said.

Walder though ended up being the only elementary educator on the 15 member commission, a committee that only included three individuals that were certified to teach in South Dakota. 2021′s committee in comparison was made up of 46 members, with a facilitator present to help guide discussions while those members contributed to writing standards. 29 individuals on that commission were certified to teach in South Dakota. Walder said the difference between the English Language Arts commission and the social studies standards commission was almost night and day, with much of what was written in the standards already provided to them with commission members instead providing feedback.

In a prepared statement for the Board of Education Standards during their September meeting, Walder stated that when members of the group tried to make changes to the draft standards, they were dismissed by the commission chair.

“The document itself was the first step that diverted the commission from conserving the processes where those who are closest to the work are trusted to do their job. The process was hijacked and reduced the commission to essentially proofreading or randomly interjecting content to a bulleted list of exhaustive curriculum topics while the Governor’s Chief of Staff not the Secretary of Education had to approve each change of the document.”

Prepared Statement by Samantha Walder for SD BOES for 9/19/2022

The smaller number of commission members was a benefit according to Ben Jones, a commission member and current State Historian. Jones said the format allowed those on the commission to go through the whole document, similar to how the standards would guide students through a spiraling view of history.

“Because it was small, we could talk about every line, every letter, and walk through the thing as a holistic body of work.” Jones said.

READ: Proposed South Dakota Social Studies Standards, revised 3/30/2023

While much has been said on the content of the standards, including the increased amount of material that students will expected to learn as well as concerns of age-appropriate content, is how the standards wildly vary from past social studies standards. Walder said the way the proposal is laid out reads much more like curriculum, rather than past standards. She said that’s an issue for school boards and administration, who have had the power to select which curriculum and textbooks to adopt to meet standards. She worries adopting these standards will take local control away from those school boards, administrators and teachers who have had the option to select which curriculum would best suit their schools and communities.

“Standards are not curriculum, curriculum are not assignments, and assignments are chosen by local teachers,” Walder said. “And our local school boards, our local superintendents and principals, we hold teachers accountable to whatever those curriculum goals are that we choose. Our local school boards do a good job of doing that.”

READ: South Dakota Social Studies Standards, adopted 8/24/2015

Jones disagrees with that stance, and stated that teachers will still have control with what is taught in their classrooms. While he does note that the proposed standards are a shift away from what’s been asked of South Dakota students in the past, he said it allows those teachers to have a more laid out path when teaching the subject.

“He or she still has all the authority to do as they have done before, depending on how their school district ran that. Whether it’s done with a curriculum director, or principal, or the teacher in the classroom,” Jones said. “If they have a mixed class of students who are doing really well, and some are struggling, they can modulate that as they need to. If they are all struggling with something brand new, they can determine a level of knowledge that’s appropriate for their students.”

Walder said educators also have concerns that the proposed standards violate South Dakota law, and is only getting around it by being called “standards.” Walder’s concern references SDCL § 13-1-12.1, the last line prohibiting the Board of Education Standards from using specifically designated curriculum.

“The South Dakota Board of Education Standards shall promulgate rules pursuant to chapter 1-26 to establish standards for the classification and accreditation of schools within this state, to establish standards for preparation of certified personnel, to set forth procedures for determining the eligibility of school districts to receive state aid to education funding, to adopt policies and rules necessary to establish standards and procedures for career and technical education, and to establish curriculum requirements for a recommended high school program for all public and nonpublic schools within the state. The recommended high school program shall include a rigorous high school curriculum in both academic and career and technical courses. The requirements of the recommended program shall be aligned to the academic content standards developed pursuant to § 13-3-48 and shall, at a minimum, include the content standards tested pursuant to § 13-3-55.

Nothing in this section authorizes the board to require the use of specifically designated curriculum or methods of instruction."

SDCL § 13-1-12.1

“The conversation at the Board of Education Standards should not be about a classical curriculum or a specific methodology of instruction. It’s actually specifically outlined in state law that they’re not allowed to do so.” Walder said.

Walder said ultimately, the comments from educators, parents, and South Dakota residents rest in the hands of the Board of Education Standards. Walder said conserving the process of creating education standards is her highest concern, and she’s afraid that if these standards are adopted, it would go against the local control that South Dakota has enshrined for over 125, and local control will be stripped from schools boards.

“I don’t want to change that by just pushing through social studies standards that, again, read so much like a curriculum.” Walder said.

Walder, the South Dakota Association of Elementary Principals, and nearly every other educator association in the state are asking the Board of Education Standards to vote down the proposed standards. Walder said she’s asking for either the board to revisit the proposed social studies standards from 2021 as written in July, or to allow the 2021 and 2022 commissions to come together and try to work out a compromise.

READ: Proposed South Dakota Social Studies Standards, proposed July of 2021