Controversial social studies guidelines approved by South Dakota standards board

The next hurdle for the state to implement the changes will be winning over several of the state's largest education groups.

Board of Education Standards Terry Nebelsick, who served four decades in South Dakota's public schools, speaks during the standards hearing in Pierre on April 17, 2023. He was one of two votes against implementing the proposed social studies standards.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota’s Board of Education Standards is moving forward with the implementation of the new social studies curriculum, a controversial change to the state’s civics instruction that drew intense educator opposition during four public hearings around the state over the past several months.

The board, tasked with periodically reviewing standards across the state’s public schools, colleges and universities, voted 5-2 to implement the updated version of the standards at their April 17 meeting in Pierre.

“Today is a wonderful day for the students in South Dakota. They are our future,” Gov. Kristi Noem wrote in a press release following the decision. “Now, they will be taught the best social studies education in the country, one that is a true accounting of our history. We want our children to have honest and factual classroom teaching so they can be engaged participants in our civil society for the rest of their lives.”

But the passage did not come without strong dissent from within the board.

Terry Nebelsick, the president of the standards committee with a lengthy career in public education around the state, criticized the process behind the standards. He said out-of-state voices were over represented and the product was potentially inappropriate for some students, especially in younger grades.


“I do believe there will be unintended consequences enforcing this document on teachers who are a product of South Dakota,” he said. “If approved, there will be people who leave the profession rather than become pawns. There will be fewer people who go into the profession and particularly into teaching social studies.”

He added his belief that Noem was not receiving “sound South Dakota advice” in her backing of the proposed standards.

Nebelsick’s comments garnered a round of applause from a seemingly surprised audience.

“It does seem like this might be a foregone conclusion, but we still want to encourage the board of Education Standards to take a pause,” a South Dakota Education Association spokeswoman said.

Throughout the hearing, opponents expressed a general feeling that the standards board had its mind made up. Several of them used their time to urge the board to make the potentially more difficult choice of rebuking the wishes of Noem and others in the state’s education bureaucracy.

Despite Nebelsick’s concerns, opponents fears about the board's vote were correct.

One major proponent was Secretary of Education Joe Graves, who used his rebuttal time to criticize a decades-long waning of time dedicated to social studies curriculum in the state and around the country.

“[Civics instruction] matters in a republic, in which democratically elected representatives govern a free people,” Graves said during his testimony. “And that requires an informed citizenry. When they aren't so informed, executive overreach and legislative overstep go unchecked.”

The standards, whose construction was led by William Morrisey, a former professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, now enter a two-year implementation period of professional development and material dissemination led by the South Dakota Department of Education.


Last year, the standards board lengthened the usual one-year implementation period in hopes of better training educators for the significant changes.

However, the ultimate adoption of the standards remains up to individual school boards in the state, which handle the specific task of approving materials and curriculum.

Fourth standards hearing delivers deja vu

The hearing in Pierre largely mirrored prior events in Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Rapid City. The crowd, and the intermittent applause for several speakers against the standards, heavily favored opponents. The arguments on each side reproduced prior iterations.

Public comments received since the previous meeting in Rapid City again heavily favored the opponents. As of April 14, the 1,137 comments opposing the process behind the standards dwarfed the 121 comments in favor.

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Proponents focused on the importance of expanding civics education in the state while opponents, many of them educators, countered with the impracticality of the standards for the requisite grade levels and the need to bring in more opinions from in-state educators.

The defense from proponents against the charge that the proposed standards are “age-inappropriate” largely focused on the importance of “spiraling content,” which means teaching more basic facts to younger grades and, in later grades, deepening an understanding of these facts, leading to critical thinking.

Secretary of Education Joe Graves speaks in favor of the proposed social studies standards during the fourth public hearing on April 17, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

During his testimony, Ben Jones, the state historian and a former secretary of education, used this line of argument to specifically respond to criticism of the standards tasking first graders with memorizing portions of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“It's really not hard to, over the course of an education, teach the students what the words in these founding documents mean,” he said. “No one learns to think without having things to think about, and no one can actually think critically and intelligently without knowing the relevant facts.”


The other major thrust from opponents included the curriculum’s lack of Native American history.

Several spectators and speakers wore shirts opposing the “erasure” of indigenous history in the proposed standards. Prior to the hearing, members of several of South Dakota’s tribes held a demonstration against the adoption of the standards.

“This land belongs to indigenous people. Our history deserves to be taught within schools that sit upon our land,” Honz Fuller, a junior and student body vice president at Lakota Tech High School, said. “When I think of my people, I think about how beautiful and powerful we truly are. This attempt at erasure has caused us to lose sight of our way of life."

Proponents of the standards, though spending little time focusing specifically on the curriculum’s Native American content, have argued that the proposal includes several lessons on the nine tribes that currently inhabit the state and other tribes that have called the state home in the past.

Implementation ahead will likely see further educator opposition

The challenge ahead of the state’s educational bureaucracy will center around implementing the substantive changes, a task that will require winning over several of South Dakota’s largest educator groups and individual school boards.

But that will not be easy.

“I do have concerns that the specificity and the bulk of standards that are included here are going to undermine some of that local control of our school boards,” Samantha Walder, an elementary principal in the Tea Area School District, said after the decision.

Several testifiers argued that the fleshed-out implementation plans indicated the board had already made up its mind. Others explicitly made the case that school boards and teachers would not easily go along with the implementation of the standards.


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“Are you prepared for the fallout if you vote to support these standards? People feel like the board’s decision has already been made here, but are you prepared to let that happen? Because this won't be settled,” Charlene Lund, a retired longtime educator in Pierre, said. “We have to ask, why are these very controversial standards being considered? You can calm the storm today by voting to oppose these and going back to the drawing board.”

Tim Rave, the head of the South Dakota Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s colleges and universities, pointed to the array of implementation plans already developed — including workshops and planned trips around the state’s historical sites — as proof that the standards board and others in charge of education in the state are taking their partnership with teachers seriously.

“It is our job to prepare teachers to educate students across South Dakota, and this area is no exception,” Rave said during his proponent testimony. “Our board is committed to ensuring that South Dakota teachers, both current and future, have the tools and the expertise necessary to excel in the classroom.”

Despite his opposition, Board of Education Standards President Terry Nebelsick said he had faith in teachers now tasked with putting the standards into practice.

“I'm going to, on behalf of kids, be optimistic that, as we always do in this state, we'll do the best with the decisions that are made,” he said.

“We have to think about what our priorities are, especially considering the threats we face around the world,” South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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