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Partisan Politics on a State Standards Revision

I applied to serve in the 2021 South Dakota social studies revision process with some trepidation. It was clear by then that a movement opposed to anything its members deemed “critical race theory” (CRT) had gained ground. “Divisive concepts” bills proliferated in state legislatures across the country while South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, made opposition to CRT a central part of her brand as a politician with national aspirations, despite producing little evidence that CRT was even being taught in K–12 classrooms. In fact, recent polls show that parents of school-aged children are not driving the anti-CRT movement and generally support the education their children currently receive—including education on difficult topics. A 2022 South Dakota Department of Education study found that almost all standards or educational practices being used in classrooms were already consistent with Governor Noem’s executive order banning divisive concepts.

But debates over standards are not just about facts and evidence. At heart, they are contests over rival visions of what the nation should be, and proponents of “divisive concepts” bills largely embrace the idea of American exceptionalism. In South Dakota, Governor Noem was one of the first significant politicians to sign the “1776 Pledge,” which begins by stating that “the United States is an exceptional nation whose people have always strived to form a more perfect union based upon our founding principles.” Locally and nationally, history education is at the center of US culture wars.

Despite the potential for controversy, I believed that I could positively contribute to the revision process as a historian and as a citizen. As a historian, I could share my subject matter expertise and insist on a nuanced set of standards that incorporates multiple perspectives. As a citizen, I wanted the process of standards revision to be transparent, thorough, and inclusive. So in the summer of 2021, I journeyed to the state capital of Pierre as a member of the Social Studies Work Group. Over eight workdays, I collaborated with educators, state representatives, businesspeople, and a representative from the South Dakota Department of Education (SDDOE). Together, we forged a new set of social studies standards for K–12 students that significantly improved on the previous version. 

Among the technical revisions and updated wording, the work group focused on two broad sets of changes. The first was to more fully include perspectives from South Dakota’s Indigenous peoples, the Oceti Sakowin Oyate. Here we relied on the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings (OSEU) for guidance. This document was officially approved and recommended, but not required, by the State Board of Education Standards (BOES) in 2018 (a 2021 poll found that OSEUs were taught in less than half of classrooms). Second, the work group integrated concepts from the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies Standards, which offers guidance on how best to include inquiry in the K–12 curriculum. Inquiry encourages the development of critical thinking, research, and writing skills that accompany content knowledge acquisition in a thorough social studies education. South Dakota’s 2015 standards incorporated some of these principles, but public input prior to the 2021 work group sessions indicated a desire for a more robust engagement with the C3 Framework. Both sets of changes were made in consultation with the SDDOE, which required every work group member to participate in training sessions on the C3 Framework.

Editor’s Note: The AHA sent a letter to the South Dakota Board of Education Standards on September 15, 2022, registering “strong concern” about the revisions process.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History