South Dakota's proposed social studies standards careen toward final, controversial vote

“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.

Aberdeen Ballroom
A nearly packed house at the Dakota Event Center in Aberdeen for the Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, meeting of the Board of Education Standards, the first of four public hearings on the proposed standards. In Pierre, on April 17, 2023, the controversial process could come to a close.
Carter Schmidt / KELO

PIERRE, S.D. — The winding, lengthy process to update South Dakota’s social studies curriculum could finally come to a close on Monday, April 17 in Pierre, as the Board of Education Standards holds its fourth of four required public hearings.

Following the back-and-forth of public input for and against, the board members will have the chance to vote on adopting the March 30 version of the standards, which feature some minor updates from the original, namely the inclusion of phonetic spelling of Native American figures, reforms to the geography curriculum and some grammatical changes.

However, they could also postpone a final decision, either to make more revisions or simply to wait until the May 22 meeting.

Were the state board to vote in favor of the proposed standards, actual adoption would still be up to individual school boards, which control the specific curriculum and instructional materials in each district.

Ben Jones, a former secretary of education and current head of the South Dakota State Historical Society who sat on the workgroup that helped write the proposed standards, said he expects the board to vote Monday.


But Sandra Waltman, the government relations and communications director for the South Dakota Education Association, hopes the board opts for a hybrid direction.

“Aside from voting, one of the options is to bring the two groups together and have a real conversation about the differences and see where you can find compromises,” Waltman said.

That could mean bringing together representatives from the current standards workgroup and the 2021 standards workgroup, a larger panel made up entirely of educators whose proposal was discarded by Gov. Kristi Noem, who at the time wrote she wanted to see standards that “accurately reflect the values of South Dakota.”

No matter what happens on Monday, either proponents or opponents will be bitter, a fitting end to a series of meetings and public comment periods that have shown butting heads and little movement.

Critics, many of them educators, criticize the standards as age-inappropriate, throwing waves of names and dates at children too young to digest them; those in favor argue nearly the exact opposite, that facts are the precursor to analysis, saying South Dakota’s children have the ability to meet a supposedly raised bar.

For Rep. Scott Odenbach, a former board member from Spearfish and proponent of the standards, this tension and lack of compromise are unsurprising, arguing that heated debates have become the norm rather than the exception.

“We don't have a common consensus as to what our values are in this country anymore. And so you have every issue politicized,” he said. “So here we go with the social studies standards. The folks on the left are never going to be happy with whatever it is that the folks on the right want to teach and vice versa.”

More education groups add to criticisms in final days

The week leading to the final hearing saw a renewed wave of public opposition from some of the state’s largest education groups, in addition to the hundreds of public comments against the standards written since the previous meeting in February.


In a letter released Tuesday, April 11, the South Dakota School Superintendent Association recast many arguments levied at the standards throughout this process, calling them “developmentally inappropriate” and noting graduation requirements may have to be reconfigured to implement the “increase in the volume, specificity and sequence of proposed standards.”

The organization also took issue with the references to the patriotism of the standards, which they feel is an implicit criticism of a current lack of patriotism.

“South Dakota elementary students are proud Americans who say the pledge of allegiance daily,” the statement from the organization’s executive board read. “Many school districts partner with local American Legions to teach patriotism throughout their K-12 school careers to embrace their community, state and country through our current social studies standards.”

The next day, the South Dakota Association of Elementary School Principals came out with a statement of its own, also in opposition to the standards, arguing in part that the quantity of standards “reduces the teaching time for all other content areas,” namely language arts and mathematics.

Other criticisms by educators have taken a more line-by-line approach to the standards. A proposed social studies standards review team for the Tea Area School District put out a spreadsheet categorizing each proposed standard as red, yellow or green, denoting the level of developmental appropriateness.

Especially in the elementary standards, the proposals are littered with red.

However, Jones says this litany of facts in early grades especially is a feature of the standards, pointing to a letter from the National Association of Scholars and the Civics Alliance in January calling the standards “among the best in the nation.”

Ben Jones.jpg
Dr. Ben Jones is an American historian, academic administrator, State Historian, and Director of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

“The preponderance of scholarship and research indicates that spiraled content and basing standards upon content and knowledge, facts, events, places names, dates, and so forth, is a prerequisite for critical thinking,” he said.


He also took issue with the criticisms — included in nearly every statement against the standards as well as statements by all nine tribes in the state — that the proposed curriculum lacks depth in Native American history and culture.

“The Native American content is rich. It includes the nine tribes that are currently in South Dakota as well as the Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, and others that were here before South Dakota was a state,” he said. “Those tribes were not mentioned by the 2021 group.”

Moving forward, proponents hope to see teacher buy-in

Between the first public hearing in Aberdeen and the second in Sioux Falls, the Board of Education Standards made a series of tweaks to the potential implementation of the standards: a two-year ramp-up rather than the normal period of one year, heightened professional development, road trips around the state’s historical sites and more.

For Waltman, those plans indicate that the board may have already made up its mind.

“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,” she said. “This is a dramatic shift in how we teach social studies. And it's going to take more than a three or four-day session or a trip around South Dakota for us to completely change the curriculum.”

Following the assumption that Monday’s meeting will see the proposed social studies standards become the adopted social studies standards, the incoming problem could be the vocal opposition of many of South Dakota’s educators and education groups, a fundamental issue in the task of curriculum implementation.

Jones hoped educators would come to the table no matter their personal opinion, noting that “in the end, the kids would be the ones to suffer.”

“If you're a teacher or an administrator who's been opposed to this, and they pass, I think it would be time to be open-minded, to listen to the research and use the scholarship,” he said. “And the department is going to be of great assistance in providing optional instructional materials and other options for curriculum.”


“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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