South Dakota Gives School Districts Choices for Teaching US History


The South Dakota Board of Education has approved allowing a comprehensive unit in the junior year of high school that will tackle the entirety of US History in one year.

Despite disagreement from state historians, the state’s public educators will have an option on how to teach US history to 11th graders. Many of the school districts in the state have split US History into two sections. In eighth grade students are taught history from colonial times to the Civil War. Then in the 11th grade, they study the post-Civil War era to present day.

Emily Niebrugge of the Rapid City Journal writes that districts have had the option of teaching either the combined US history course or the split version, but now there will be standards districts will need to follow if they choose to teach the comprehensive course covering colonial time to the present. This followed four public comment periods held over a year so that all sides of the subject could be heard. Yet even at the meeting which approved both options, the Board urged that only the comprehensive unit be adopted.

Ben Jones, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of history at Dakota State University in Madison, asserted that the comprehensive unit would better prepare students for college level courses and would assist them in becoming better informed citizens. Board member Stacy Phelps of Rapid City said that if a school district decides to accept the comprehensive track, that will constitute a “missed opportunity” for Native American studies. But team leader of the division of learning and instruction for the South Dakota Department of Education Sam Shaw explained that districts can decide how much South Dakota history is taught in the district’s schools.

College professors are not happy about the lack of a requirement for teaching early American history at the high school level, which would include the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the US Constitution. The rewritten standards would, however, give teachers a choice, reports Patrick Anderson for the Argus Leader.

A letter written to the board expressing disagreement with the revisions was signed by instructors from DSU, University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, Northern State University, Augustana College, Presentation College, the University of Sioux Falls and Black Hills State University. These  educators say incoming freshmen are unprepared, along with the fact that their citizenship is being disabled. When Common Core protesters said the social studies standards could lead to teachers bringing harmful or offensive material into the classroom, Don Kirkegaard, board president, said:

“We can’t control what’s in the textbooks. We’re not adopting the curriculum. We’re just looking at the standards.”

Kurt Hackmer, chair of the history department at the University of South Dakota, says the reason for studying history is to help citizens and future leaders of the US be as prepared as possible to understand how government works, reports Emily Niebrugge for the Rapid City Journal.

“The best suggestion I’ve heard that is practical and workable is to have the entirety of American history taught at the high school level,” Hackemer said. “It’s good to be exposed to (early American history) in middle school, but if you think about how cognitive learning works, there’s a lot they can’t understand in middle school — it’s a developmental issue.”