Counterpoint: South Dakota social studies standards will hurt students
By James Grossman, American Historical Association executive director
The American Historical Association (AHA) registers strong concern regarding the social standards revisions process undertaken by the Board of Education in 2022. The proposed standards and the process by which they have been developed fail to meet the AHA’s Criteria for Standards in History/Social Studies/Social Sciences. To adopt and implement the document that the state BOE has proposed would be a disservice both to students and to the state itself.
The problems the AHA has identified with the proposed standards can be traced to the process by which they were developed. According to the AHA’s criteria, standards should “include input from practicing historians, social studies methods professors, and history teachers, who can help attune standards to current research findings and best teaching practices in the field.” In 2021, the South Dakota Department of Education appropriately convened a group composed of a wide range of historians and educators to revise the social studies standards. But Gov. Kristi Noem cast aside the work of this group before any public hearings were held. The lack of input by experienced educators is evident in the proposed 2022 standards.
The new standards fail to meet the AHA’s criteria in many ways. They are excessively long and detailed in their prescriptions, yet totally inadequate in their vision of what history learning entails. By design, the proposed standards omit any and all forms of historical inquiry in favor of rote memorization. There are no references to the practice of historical interpretation, understanding historical context, or critical thinking. The AHA’s criteria emphasize that good history education helps students learn to explore issues from various angles; the proposed standards fall far short of incorporating multiple historical perspectives.
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These flaws and shortcomings are the results of an extended, political process that has already undermined the ability of teachers in South Dakota to teach accurate history with professional integrity. In February 2022, the AHA sent letters to South Dakota’s Legislature strongly opposing proposed legislation restricting history education, noting that the legislation “would create a climate of fear for students in which trusted teachers could be subject to legal reprisals or highly valued community schools could suffer damaging penalties for teaching a full and accurate account of the past.” When the legislation failed to pass, Gov. Noem issued an executive order prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” and “critical race theory.” This executive order and the summary rejection of the 2021 standards draft created a climate of intimidation in which professional historians and educators in South Dakota can have no confidence that the proposed social studies standards draft reflects good disciplinary practices, much less high standards of historical scholarship.
This bears emphasis: The standards you are considering would do significant harm to students in your state. The substantial gaps in the knowledge, critical thinking skills, and habits of mind taught to South Dakota high school students would limit their preparedness for college as well as their access to early college credit. If adopted, these standards would result in ignorance of fundamental understandings about American history, as well as undermine students’ ability to perform effectively on the U.S. History Advanced Placement test or successfully complete college-level dual enrollment courses in U.S. history.
These proposed standards will also harm students’ employment prospects. As the AHA has documented through our extensive work on career preparedness in history classrooms, the aspect of history education employers value most is students’ ability to communicate with and understand people from different backgrounds. The narrow history education elaborated in this draft would limit students’ exposure to complex and contested voices from the past, making them less competitive job candidates and imperiling their future career prospects.
The AHA urges you to revisit the 2021 proposed standards, which were part of a process that engaged historians and experienced educators more meaningfully. The 2022 process has been tainted by serious procedural problems and cannot be redeemed to meet the standards of our discipline.
James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.