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Noem Changes Civics Message to Focus on South Dakota Curriculum

When Governor Kristi Noem launched the Legislative Session with her Trumpist attack on teachers, she called for new civics education focused on American exceptionalism:

Students should be taught our nation’s history and all that makes America unique. They should see first-hand the importance of civic engagement. And they should have robust discussions in the classroom so they can develop critical thinking skills.

Our young people need more experience engaging with elected officials and practicing the art of debate. It is also our responsibility to show them how government works.

Here’s how:

I have tasked my administration with creating instructional materials and classroom resources on America’s founding, our nation’s history, and the state’s history. We must also do a better job educating teachers on these three subjects. Through all of this, our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world [Gov. Kristi Noem, State of the State speech, as prepared for delivery, 2021.01.12].


We saw a similar situation play out on Capitol Hill a few days ago. We were all appalled by it. Frankly, it was horrible to watch. Today, we have an opportunity to address the root cause of this problem: we must reform young Americans’ civic education.

Students should be taught our nation’s history and all that makes America unique. They should see first-hand the importance of civic engagement. And they should have robust discussions in the classroom so they can develop critical thinking skills.

Our young people need more experience engaging with elected officials and practicing the art of debate. It is also our responsibility to show them how government works.

Through all of this, our common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the United States of America is the most unique nation in the history of the world. With this knowledge as a foundational building block, every South Dakotan can then chart their own path in the future and pursue their own American Dream [Gov. Kristi Noem, weekly propaganda release, 2021.01.15].

Noem’s talk last week sounded a lot like an effort to co-opt Trump’s nowheresville American history indoctrination plan into a flag-waving ploy to redeem Noem’s comparable 2019 failure to fix civics education and, as with everything else happening on the Second Floor, market Noem to her national 2024 primary audience. But with educators across the state pointing out that they are already working hard under good existing standards to teach American history and civics, the Noem Administration is now backpedaling to the undercard, sending Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson to tell the State Board of Education Standards that the money the Governor wants to put where her mouth is is really meant to produce more South Dakota history lessons:

The state board’s president, Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City, is a retired teacher and a Republican former legislator. Sly described the $900,000 as “a lot of money” and asked how it would be spent, because each local school district in South Dakota chooses the local curriculum.

Sanderson said curriculum about South Dakota government, geography and history don’t exist.

“If anybody’s going to develop them, South Dakota needs to develop them on their own,” Sanderson said. Some of the funds would go toward creating that curriculum, Sanderson added. She said the governor’s group is still working on the framework.

“So,” Sly asked, “it’s really focused on the South Dakota geography, history, rather than the broader?”

“In terms of funding use, we’re developing resources, yes,” Sanderson replied. “But I think the conversation going on at the Legislature will be very broad in scope around all of civics” [Bob Mercer, “New S.D. Education Secretary Lays Out Governor’s K-12 Civics Plan to State Board,” KELO-TV, 2021.01.19].

Sensing the bad optics of a conservative Governor overriding local control and education experts to rewrite civics curriculum (not to mention the possibility of throwing more taxpayer dollars to out-of-state vendors for her propaganda), Secretary Sanderson is trying really hard to make it sound like the state respects and supports its professional educators and their regular practices:

Sly asked whether legislators would be determining the money while people involved in education would be deciding content.

“That’s a good summation,” Sanderson answered. She noted the state board’s seven-year schedule for revising social-studies standards begins this spring. “So timing for this conversation is fortuitous. It all comes together at a good time” [Mercer, 2021.01.19].

So we don’t even have a bill yet, and Noem’s recycled civics agenda is already foundering under criticism and confusion. Seeing that her wave-the-flag foray against those darned liberal teachers isn’t going over well with the home folks (whose majority re-approval in 2022 is kinda-sorta important to her White House ambitions), Noem evidently thinks she needs to tone down her attack and get back to South Dakota-specific issues. But even with her Education Secretary’s rewriting of last week’s words from the Governor, Noem isn’t saying anything that South Dakota’s K-12 social studies standards don’t already say and that South Dakota’s teachers don’t already do with materials they already have.


  1. Donald Pay 2021-01-20 06:52

    I think finding a way to incorporate more South Dakota/tribal/local history and government into the curriculum is a good idea. It’s something that gets shorted, if covered at all. Maybe some districts have individual teachers who do some of this on their own.

    South Dakota has a lot of progressive history that never seems to be understood by modern legislators. Of course there’s a lot of racism stuffed in there too.

  2. cibvet 2021-01-20 07:04

    I wonder if they will teach how America has the greatest healthcare system in the world along with the fact that we have the worst outcome for the covid-19 pandemic of any country. If we are going to be the most “unique nation” in the world, just maybe we should try to set a unique example of greatness.

  3. mike from iowa 2021-01-20 08:27

    noem nothing’s curriculum change should be titled “How Not To Govern A One Party Cluster-####”

  4. John 2021-01-20 12:22

    “Seven years”?! What the heck?! “We” “won” World War II in 4 years. We can’t write a simple curriculum in 18-months or less?1 What’s wrong with these “education people”?! Certainly there will be scheduled revisions and upkeep, but 7-years is an an invitation to oblivion given the nonsense of annual appropriations.

    The hard work amassing the bulk of the curriculum is done in the 2d edition of the History of South Dakota. It’s a good work, yet imperfect. The history and civics of the artificial boundaries of present South Dakota must include events that occurred outside those boundaries and even prior to territorial and statehood designations – that affected those historical and civic designations. See my note 2021-1-16 augmenting DFP post, “Noem Blames Your Teachers . . .”

  5. o 2021-01-20 14:34

    John, the “seven years” is not how long it takes to write curriculum, but instead how often each area (Math, English, science. . . ) is scheduled to do a revision. Just like the Olympics are every four years – but do not last four years.

  6. o 2021-01-20 17:30

    Jason, BRILLIANT job bringing the Oceti Sakowin essential understandings into this discussion. (I am frankly ashamed of myself; I had not thought of that.) It just serves as a reminder that there is incredible material available and that we too often allow Native voice, culture, and history to take the back seat to white/European focused history.

  7. John 2021-01-20 22:07

    Here’s another history /civics lesson plan, in1 5 minutes. We can’t wait 7-years. The republicans lack of attention in the budget cycle will kill it. We don’t have the luxury to sync everything any more than we had the luxury to sync everything in World War II – which was a far larger effort that we mastered in under 4-years. Stop the excuses. Action this day. Get it done. We’ll have time for revisions, and additions along the way as is the case with any curriculum.
    You professional educators are doing education and your profession a disservice. Move out. Get it done.

  8. John 2021-01-20 22:46

    The conventional “7-years” to complete a scheduled curriculum revision is ridiculous, Likely that’s an incompetent relic from the 19th Century. No wonder private education, Khan Academy, et. al, are leaving public education in the dust. Our 21st Century knowledge, education, business, and military expectations evolve far faster a plodding 7-year schedule. We cannot afford leaving our students half to a generation behind in their knowledge and expectations of the future. The military develops life-and-death ‘lesson plans’ in fractions of the time of 7-year revisions. Our dear public educators need to develop a sense of urgency and purpose to get a South Dakota history and civics curriculum done this year. It ain’t rocket science. Adopt Dr. King’s 58-plus years fierce urgency of NOW.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-01-21 05:33

    John, I’m not sure why you suffer such angst about the seven-year cycle. Like O said, it doesn’t take seven years to do it; we just don’t force educators to interrupt their actual work with kids to conduct days and days of committee meetings to revise the standards. It doesn’t take seven years to create standards, and good teachers aren’t sitting around doing nothing but reciting the same lessons during that mercifully long interim between bureaucratic flurries. Good teachers are always revising their materials and activities and content to address new events, new ideas, and new pedagogical approaches.

    Whatever it is Noem wants teachers to do, the teachers have probably already discussed it, tried it, revised it, and done it four more times.

  10. Kirsten Walrath-Noem 2021-01-21 12:19

    I think that everyone would / could agree that offering education to our students re: advocating / debating and government is a good idea. My HS daughters are appalled by the number of kids in their school who align with “Republican” because their parents are. C’mon parents – it’s our job to teach both sides to the story and let the kids make some decisions on their own! I can tell you that my Democrat daughters in our local HS are the very small minority, compared to the rest of the kids who are following their ultra-conservative parents. (Funny story – my 9th grader made a PowerPoint Presentation to deliver to her friends about “Why not to be a Republican”.)

    Where I don’t agree is, (what I feel is behind the Governors effort) is that she wants more conservative education in schools. Doing so we continue to drive out our young people who have a mind of their own and who may be liberal. Going to sound cheesy here – but we really should teach the kids how to be more accepting of others differences, how to stand up to bullies, how not to be anonymous a$$hats online.

    And small rant: And what’s with the current “Move to SD” campaign brining the Q’Anon crazies to our state in droves?

  11. Arlo Blundt 2021-02-02 23:20

    Well heads are spinning in the Department of Education. Believe me, no one wants to be on this “Civics” Task Force. The poor souls assigned to this task will be forced to hear from every wing nut in the state. There will be calls to bring back “The Young Citizens League” of the 40’s and 50’s which was probably pretty benign compared to the ideas that will crawl out from under rocks all over South Dakota. Now is certainly the time for bureaucratic inaction.

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