Tony Venhuizen, Sioux Falls, holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from South Dakota State University, and a law degree from the University of South Dakota. Venhuizen is a member of the South Dakota Board of Regents, and previously served as chief of staff and education policy advisor in the administrations of Gov. Kristi Noem and Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
South Dakota’s proposed social studies content standards have been in the news recently. These standards cover history, civics and government, geography, and economics, and are set by the state so that students cover the same high-level topics as they progress through school. Curriculum – that is, what is taught each day and what textbooks and materials are used – is decided locally by school boards, administrators, and teachers.
The current standards were written in 2015. This summer, a committee of educators prepared a new draft. The Department of Education revised that draft and released a new proposal a few weeks ago. Much of the media coverage so far has focused on the changes the Department made to the summer draft, specifically relating to Native American history and culture.
I have reviewed all three versions of the standards and, although I appreciate the summer committee’s work, I can understand why the Department made changes.
The study of American history needs to include Native American history. In South Dakota, students need to learn this history, and they also need to learn how our tribal communities fit into the state today.
The current 2015 standards make specific mention of Native American topics 6 times, by my count. That doesn’t seem like enough, although my count doesn’t include standards that likely lead to discussion of Native American topics – for example, when 5th graders are asked to “describe the role of trading in early U.S. History,” it is very likely that the curriculum will include a discussion of trade with the tribal nations.
The Department’s 2021 proposal improves on the current standards by increasing the number of specific mentions of Native American or tribal topics from 6 to 28, again by my count.
The summer draft standards mention Native American or tribal topics 63 times. This is far out of proportion to other topics. For comparison, the summer draft mentions topics relating to the U.S. Constitution 24 times; the American Revolution 8 times; the Declaration of Independence 5 times; the Civil War 5 times; the abolition of slavery 1 time; and the Second World War 4 times.
I will admit that merely counting references to a certain topic is a crude and imprecise way to evaluate the standards. Having read all three versions of the standards, though, I can say that the summer draft makes Native American and tribal topics the single most prevalent topic in the entirety of K-12 social studies.
I would offer a more specific example to illustrate the same point. The summer draft includes only four specific standards for 1st Grade History: “Demonstrate chronological order using events from students’ own lives,” “Examine historical records and artifacts to learn about family and school life in the past,” “Connect people and events honored in commemorative celebrations and ceremonies,” and “Discuss the Oceti Sakowin Oyate creation story, including correct chronological order of the story.” The last standard is far more specific than the others, and it seems odd in any case to require that a history class cover the creation story of one particular religious tradition.
This heavy emphasis is hard to understand, given that South Dakota already makes available to every school the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards, a set of specific Native American K-12 standards that were written with tribal involvement and adopted in 2018.
The summer draft has other problems. It adds a requirement that 8th graders learn about “The Constitution as a living document,” a view of the Constitution that is rejected by many lawyers and judges and should not be taught as settled fact. The draft also removed specific reference in 3rd Grade history to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and instead just says that should “compare and contrast historical American figures.” The Department draft fixed both problems.
The Department’s proposed standards are an improvement. Compared to the current standards, they increase coverage of U.S. history and government and of South Dakota-specific topics. They emphasize the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the structure of our federal, state, local, and tribal governments, and key historical events like the Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Cold War. As I already described, they greatly increase coverage of Native American topics, including tribal history and government.
Yet, there is always room to improve. The Department will be soliciting feedback in the coming months, in writing and during four in-person hearings, starting this week in Aberdeen. I would encourage you to read each version of the standards for yourself and make your own judgments. We owe it to our young people to get this right.
Social studies standards, adopted 2015 (“current standards”): https://doe.sd.gov/contentstandards/documents/SDSocialS.pdf
Draft social studies standards prepared by summer 2021 committee (“summer draft”): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cZl1nVcMiAzvuoRQAbjaDFwC0WkMcpOr/edit
Department of Education proposed social studies standards (“Department’s proposed”): https://doe.sd.gov/contentstandards/documents/SS-StandardsProposed.pdf
Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards (adopted 2018): https://doe.sd.gov/contentstandards/documents/18-OSEUs.pdf