Retired YHS Teacher Talks About Social Studies Standards Controversy

Paul Harens, a former Yankton High School teacher and debate coach, currently finds himself acting as spokesman for the development workgroup at the center of the Social Studies Standards controversy.

Retired Yankton High School teacher and debate coach Paul Harens got more than he bargained for when he signed up to participate in the latest South Dakota Social Studies Standards revision.

The workgroup’s document written in accordance with South Dakota Department of Education (DOE) staff instructions, received substantial changes that reversed much of the DOE guidance the group had received.

Harens told the Press & Dakotan that the idea to participate in the Social Studies Standards revision came from his wife, while he was recovering from COVID-19.

“She said, ‘The way you’ve been, you need something to stimulate your mind.’ She was right,” he said. “So I filled out the application, sent it in and at the end of April, I got an email saying, ‘You have been accepted. In fact, you will be the table leader for the world history table.’”

The larger group would develop the social studies “anchor standards” that all students should know by the time they finish high school. The group would also break down into smaller “tables” to write specific standards for their given topic, Harens said.

There were about six preparatory meetings before table leaders went to Pierre for DOE training. Actual work on the social studies standards took place over eight days in June in Ft. Pierre, he said.

“They gave us the current standards from 2016,” Harens said. “Then, the Secretary of Education, Tiffany Sanderson, came in and talked to us and flat out said, ”We (the DOE) were condemned for not being inclusive last time. I would like you to be more inclusive with the Native Americans. I would like to see every group have at least one standard for the Native Americans.’ And we all did it.”

In May, Gov. Kristi Noem signed the “1776 Pledge to Save Our Schools,” which is based on recommendations from former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission report, which has been criticized by the American Historical Association as hasty, simplistic and reliant at times on “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” President Joe Biden had revoked the report on his first day in office in January.

Noem reportedly said it offered “real promise.”

Harens’ group met and determined, incorrectly, that this did not affect their task.

When the completed document was turned in on June 23, the groups were told by their DOE contacts there might be slight changes, Harens said. But on June 25, he received an email requesting all the sources used to develop the document.

“The indication was that Noem wanted the DOE to make sure they were South Dakota standards and not from some other place,” he said.

South Dakota statue 13-3-48.1 does restrict the DOE’s ability to adopt standards drafted by a multistate consortium intended for adoption in two or more states. However it allows the DOE to adopt standards drafted by South Dakota educators and professionals which reference uniform content standards, as long as prescribed public input is obtained.

A week before the document was set to be released for public review, the workgroup was called to a meeting by the DOE due to there having been “some changes” made to the document, Harens said.

“What came on was a woman from the Department of Ed; and she read a statement from the DOE that basically said, ‘Thank you for your service. We’re done. Goodbye.’ Our person from DOE just sat there and never said a word.”

The document presented to the public after that meeting by the DOE has been reportedly widely criticized as non-inclusive and watered down by students, teachers and workgroup members among the more than 600 comments received so far.

Last week, Noem decided to delay the Social Studies Standards process pending “more public input to bring greater balance and emphasis on our nation’s true and honest history.”

The Press & Dakotan has obtained a redacted copy of the changes made to the standards document handed in to the DOE with changes marked in red.

The entire preface was struck and rewritten with the exception of two sentences.

“They eliminate, I think it was, three-fourths of the Native American standards,” said Harens. “We were told to do one thing. We did it and they took it away. That’s why we were so shocked.”

The changes are consistent with the 1776 project, which, when she made the proclamation, Noem said would be optional, he said.

“It’s basically the 1776 project or comments that (Noem) has made,” Harens said. “Somebody had to tell the Department of Education to make those changes and it wasn’t somebody in the Department of Education. I don’t know who it was, but I can make a guess.”

His efforts to find out who wrote the changes have led nowhere, Harens said.

“If you read through the 1776 project, it basically whitewashes history — and I do mean white,” he said. “The 1776 project doesn’t want to talk about anything bad that’s happening — just the positives of history and the people involved. They kind of skip over slavery. They massively skip over the indigenous population in the United States.”

Especially now that more students are minorities, teachers can’t skip over things like that and maintain credibility, Harens said.

“This is going to hurt education,” he said. “We’ve made enough mistakes in education. Let’s not make another one.”

(4) comments


Thank you, Mr. Harens.


I also thank you, Mr. Harens.


100 % Agree with Mr. Harens! This needs to be included! Thank you, Mr. Harens!

RIP Common Sense

The real problem with today's conservative movement is that they decry agendas and indoctrination. Unless it's theirs. I taught US Govt, political science, world history for a number of years. And I simply taught facts. Both sides. But as we learned during 2017-2021, "alternative facts" are the only ones that matter to the GOP. Kristi Gnome and her ilk are THE biggest threat to our democracy. Get your daughter any kush jobs lately, Gov. Gnome? Just curious.

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