Educators and historians want politics kept out of new history and civics curriculum

Many historians believe that knowledge of civics and history is critical to being a good citizen and for a prosperous society. One facet of the new civics and history initiative in South Dakota will be creation of a depository of historic artifacts teachers can easily access for use in classroom lessons.

Educators, historians and some elected officials are urging South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the state Department of Education to keep politics and personal bias out of the process to develop a new and enhanced civics and history education program for public kindergarten-through-12th schools across the state.

In her State of the State speech in January, the governor proposed one-time funding to enhance and expand teaching of civics and history in public schools, and the state Legislature approved her $900,000 request during the spring session.

In response, the state education department has embarked on development of the South Dakota Civics and History Initiative, a two-year, four-pronged plan to create new teaching content, provide new resources and training for teachers, and increase access to civic and historical lessons and experiences for students, especially at the elementary level. When the plan is finalized, use of the program will be optional for school districts.

Noem joined many other state and national leaders who in recent years have raised concerns that the two subjects have been deemphasized in the public school system, or that students have failed to learn basic facts about state history and how government works.

Noem, a conservative Republican, has supported efforts to improve civics education before, but her recent funding allocation and initiative come as she has taken an increasingly strong position on social issues and has sought to raise her profile in the national political arena.

In the months since Noem announced her civics and history proposal, the volatility of proposing a new statewide initiative was made clear as criticism arose on several fronts.

Some lawmakers argued that the state, which historically has left classroom teaching decisions to local school districts, was trying to influence the curriculum. While the state regularly sets education standards — the goals for what students should learn by what grade — decisions on what teaching materials and instructional methods are used in the classroom should be left to local school districts, they said.

Some educators have questioned whether the curriculum update is needed, arguing that South Dakota teachers are already doing a good job of teaching history and civics.

The governor has added political fuel to the debate by blaming a lack of civics education in part for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a column she wrote in January, Noem decried the violence but argued that a lack of civics education was “the root cause” of the insurrection, without mentioning the role of Trump and his supporters in the attack.

Noem has said that her goal for the civics and history initiative is to teach students that the United States is “the most unique nation in the history of the world” and to give all state residents the knowledge needed to “pursue their own American dream.”

At this point, still very early in the initiative process, it is unclear who or what group will have the final say in what the curriculum, content and new teaching materials will contain. No specific committee or panel has been created to make final calls on teaching materials or new historical resources.

Noem has supported efforts to improve civics education in the past. A bill she supported in 2019 to require that South Dakota students pass a civics exam in order to graduate was heavily debated before being killed by the state Senate.

Dave Munson, a former Republican lawmaker and former mayor of Sioux Falls, backed an effort in 2014 to enhance civics education and require that public school students pass an exam similar to what immigrants must pass before becoming U.S. citizens. Munson said he supports the new effort to enhance civics and history education, but said that great care must be taken to remove politics or inherent bias of government leaders or individual educators from decisions on teaching materials. The current polarized and highly politicized state of American government may make that more difficult than in the past, Munson said.

“If we’re going to teach it, we have to teach it in an unbiased way, because it’s hard to get the unvarnished version out there,” he said. “You have to be very careful so both sides are brought out, and you’re not trying to shove one version of history down somebody’s mind.”

Regardless of who suggests or proposes funding for a new curriculum, and in spite of the polarized state of American politics and government, caution is always needed to ensure that truth and a multitude of perspectives form the pillars of any new history-teaching plan, said Molly Rozum, a history professor at the University of South Dakota.

Rozum said those who develop a curriculum should create teaching content that highlights greater complexity rather than oversimplification of events in the past.

“It’s always an inherent risk, and you don’t want it to be ‘political’ or from a particular perspective, and I would be concerned about that whenever a process like this occurs,” Rozum said.

The public should understand that the new civics and history initiative is unlikely to create an entirely new curriculum for South Dakota schools, said Jaqueline Sly, a former Republican lawmaker from Rapid City who now chairs the state Board of Education Standards.

“It’s not like throwing out the baby with the bathwater; it’s taking what we have and working to strengthen it and make it better,” Sly said. “We’ll provide them with ways to make history come alive.”

Most educators and historians agree that it is critical that any new curriculum or teaching resources in South Dakota provide a fair, realistic approach.

Rhoda Bryan, a history teacher who is the head of the Social Studies Department at Central High School in Rapid City, said she feels that South Dakota students are receiving a good education in civics and history now.

“As a social studies teacher, if there is more funding or resources or more focus, I’m always going to be a supporter of that,” Bryan said. “I think that social studies are just as important as the three other core areas of English, math and science because these students are learning to become citizens.”

A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26% of Americans could name the three branches of government. That year, only 23% of eighth graders scored as proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Programs civics exam.

Ben Jones, state historian and director of the State Historical Society who served two years as state secretary of education, said the political climate in the country at any given time is mostly considered by educators to be “noise” that does not play into decisions on revising curricula.

“Nothing will be improved by waiting to do this,” Jones said. “If you look at the national scores for history and civics, they’re nothing to be proud of.”

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