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Some SD historians not satisfied with K-12 social studies standards
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Some SD historians not satisfied with K-12 social studies standards

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In many South Dakota public schools, there is a three-year gap in U.S. history.

No, the textbooks don't have pages torn out, and yes, students eventually get instruction in everything about the United States from colonial days to date.

But in many school districts, including Rapid City's, eighth-graders study from the nation's beginnings through the Civil War, then not until they reach 11th grade do they pick up postbellum Reconstruction to the current day.

That gap hinders students' understanding of history, say some educators, including Ben Jones, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of history at Dakota State University in Madison. 

In January at a public comment period in front of the South Dakota Board of Education, Jones presented his solution: a course covering colonial days to the present taught to 11th-graders. 

"That would go a long way in helping South Dakotans' understanding," Jones said in an interview with the Journal. 

The Board of Education, which governs K-12 education in South Dakota, meets today at 9 a.m. at the South Dakota Department of Transportation office in Rapid City, 2300 Eglin St. On the agenda is a vote on proposed social studies standards.

Board members will hear a recommendation from a social-studies work group that districts in the state have flexibility in scheduling U.S. history. That would allow districts to decide whether to keep the eighth-grade-11th-grade split or adopt Jones' comprehensive course.

The flexibility is unsatisfactory, Jones and some of his allies insist.

To graduate from a South Dakota public high school, a student must complete one course in U.S. history. The state's content standards do not require a specific curriculum.

The reason for studying history, said Kurt Hackemer, chair of the history department at the University of South Dakota, is to arm citizens and future leaders of the United States, making them as prepared as possible to understand how government works and why it is the way it is. 

Hackemer, who has children who have gone through the public school system, isn't convinced that splitting the study of U.S. history between middle school and high school achieves that goal. More importantly, he said, the split doesn't take into account the developmental level of younger students' learning ability.

"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."

In a Board of Education survey sent to all 130 school districts, about 20 percent favored Jones' proposed comprehensive course in 11th grade, while 59 percent wanted to allow flexibility for each school district to determine how to teach U.S. history. 

Board members then decided to compromise for the "greatest good for greatest number of people,"  said Sam Shaw, team leader of the division of learning and instruction for the South Dakota Department of Education. The compromise, Shaw said, allows school districts to choose whether to start teaching from 1776 or 1876 in 11th grade. 

"We try to give as much local control as we can. This truly is (the work group's) recommendation," said Donald Kirkegaard, president of the Board of Education.

The content standards already do not limit advanced work beyond the standards.

For U.S. history, school districts have three options: a comprehensive credit, an early credit and a modern credit. Here are descriptions of each:

• A comprehensive course provides students with an overview of the history of the United States, examining time periods from discovery or colonialism through World War II or after. Course content may include a history of the North American peoples before European settlement.

• An early course examines the history of the United States from the colonial period to the Civil War or Reconstruction era. Some courses include American history before European settlement, while others may begin at the formation of the new nation.

• A modern course covers the United States from the Civil War or Reconstruction era through the present.

The Department of Education does not have the number of districts that use each course.

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If the board passes the proposed compromise, there would be standards for the courses, which is not now the case. 

"If districts wanted to teach the comprehensive course, there are no set guidelines or frameworks or standards," said Becky Nelson with the Department of Education's division of curriculum. "Districts like Brookings and Rapid City could both be teaching comprehensive, but they could be looking at two different sets of skills."

But Jones said the fact the state allows districts the option to choose between dividing history courses in two and requiring a single comprehensive course means there is not a standard for teaching history. 

"Math is not an option, foreign language is not an option, and in science there are no options," he said. 

There are concerns, however, that if a comprehensive unit were made the standard, the curriculum would be rushed and modern history would not be studied adequately. 

Michelle Nelin-Maruani has taught social studies in grades 6-12 for the last 10 years, spent a year in Minnesota, and then was the social studies coordinator in Rapid City for two years. This year she is back in the classroom as the transition specialist at Rapid City Stevens High School.  

Nelin-Maruani, who has taught both eighth and 11th grade history, also worked on the work group for the social studies standards. She heard those concerns about a comprehensive unit, as well as the desire from teachers not to be required one more standard, but to have the ability to flexibly plan how they'll teach.

"I don't see an issue at all with the standard now," Nelin-Maruani said. "It gives us the time to look at some things very deeply to get kids to understand what's happening in history and the reasons for history. We're keeping up with the research and best practices."

The Brookings school district teaches the comprehensive U.S. history course. In the first semester of their junior years, students study from colonial times to the Civil War. The second semester then moves from the Civil War to the present. 

Michelle Vande Weerd, curriculum director with the Brookings school district, said: "We can take it to a higher level in their junior year to review and take it deeper than eighth-graders are ready for. So much that happens modernly is dependent on what happened before, so the study of history is important."

Jones stressed that everyone is a citizen of the United States, and that the purpose of education is to teach people what their rights are as U.S. citizens. 

Education is important in understanding issues that arise, Jones said, such as the controversy surrounding whether the Confederate flag should be flown. 

"That all looks pretty strange in South Dakota if you don't understand the history, but in South Carolina this is a big deal," Jones said. "You have to put it in context and frame it out to see what's right and wrong." 

Because conversations about controversies sprout so quickly on social media, Jones added, people not equipped with basic knowledge can't participate, although they should. 

Hackemer said that citizens are bombarded, especially during election seasons, with claims and counterclaims about what it is to be an American, which feeds into the things they are asked to support or not support.

"Different groups on the left and the right put their spin on those things, and sometimes, as a historian, you see some bizarre interpretations of American history that are used and that affect all of us and that we all vote on," he said.

He added: "Think about how many issues are built around freedom of speech, the role of religion, the Second Amendment and the rights to privacy and the National Security Agency. That is all grounded in an understanding of these core American values. To expect citizens to make well-informed decisions when they go to the polls, I think we owe it to people to make sure they're as educated as they can be."

"When they get to high school, and they're only exposed to later American history, I worry they don't have a solid grasp of the underpinnings — those core concepts that they need to understand how the nation ticks," Hackemer said.

He added that there is a natural tendency to focus on subjects students take standardized tests on, such as math and reading, sometimes at the expense of those that are not, such as social studies and history.

Shaw, of the division of learning and instruction, disagreed, saying standards for social studies are just as important to the board and Department of Education as those for other subjects. 

But Hackemer said, "Music and art education have absolutely suffered. I feel pretty good about history compared to those. If you have mandated testing, that's where attention is going to go."

The board may vote on the proposed standards as a whole, but the option is available to pull out specific aspects and concerns to vote on them separately. Any issues and comments that come in after public comment is closed on the Board of Education's website are open for discussion at the board meeting, Shaw said. 

"I'm eagerly awaiting their decision," Jones said. "Hopefully they'll do what's best for the kids."

Contact Emily Niebrugge at 394-8419 or

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