Late last week, Gov. Kristi Noem hit the reset button on an effort to revise South Dakota’s social studies standards after the end product of the recent process drew criticism from several sides, even from those who were tasked with crafting those standards.
This most likely won’t end the controversies, but for now, starting over is the best course.
Since this effort began several months ago, one specter hovering over it was Noem’s intent to come up with something that closely mirrored the 1776 Project proposed by former President Donald Trump a year ago. The mission of that project was to, in effect, promote America’s greatness while mostly glossing over some of the more problematic terrain such as the role of racism in this country.
The group tasked with writing South Dakota’s new social studies standards began its work several months ago. According to former Yankton High School teacher Paul Harens, who was part of that group, they were told by a Department of Education (DOE) representative that the state was criticized the last time the standards were redrawn for not being inclusive enough in terms of Native American culture and history. The DOE rep advised them, “‘I would like to see every group have at least one standard for the Native Americans,’” Harens told the Press & Dakotan
The group did its work with that in mind, he said, including the crafting of a preamble to serve as a mission statement for its efforts and submitted the final document in late June.
But when those proposed standards were released several weeks later, they had been greatly revised. Harens said only two sentences of the preamble had been kept, with the rest rewritten. Also, “they eliminate(d), I think it was, three-fourths of the Native American standards,” he said. “We were told to do one thing. We did it, and they took it away. That’s why we were so shocked.”
Harens said efforts to find out who authorized those changes have made little headway. But he said the fact that the final document closely mirrors the 1776 Project recommendations — which he said “whitewashes” U.S. history and “massively skip(s) over the indigenous population in the United States” — likely offers some guidance.
“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.”
The uproar over this has been quite strong, and Noem, who had earlier put a delay on the process, pulled the plug last week and announced a do-over.
“Our focus remains the same: ensuring that South Dakota students learn a true and honest account of American and South Dakota history,” the governor said.
But how it will be done over remains to be seen. Many education officials were unhappy with the final proposal issued, while some conservative entities have been critical of what are viewed as liberal efforts in crafting the document. Also, Noem took to social media recently and said “radical education activists” were trying to impose a left-wing agenda. “Restoring honest & true American & South Dakota history in our schools won’t be easy but we must win,” she said in words that were echoed in last week’s statement.
So, you can see where this might be headed.
It seems that the best place to start, or re-start, this process is to follow the DOE’s original advice: Be inclusive. We can’t shunt the Native American aspect of the state’s history to a back burner. Indigenous views need to be well represented on whatever group is formed to write these standards.
“We’ve made enough mistakes in education,” Harens said. “Let’s not make another one.”
Revising the standards should be seen as an effort to cultivate some constructive honesty in the educational process, and that needs to be the mission going forward.