Conservative college curriculum takes hold in S. Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — Days before middle school teacher Shaun Nielsen was to join a task force to develop South Dakota’s social studies standards, he received a hefty package in the mail.

Sent from Hillsdale, Michigan, home to a conservative private college that enjoyed great influence among top Republicans, it contained material that would eventually become what the state’s public school students would be expected to learn about American history and American politics. .

“Wow — that’s already written,” Nielsen recalled thinking as she opened the document this spring.

Hillsdale College, which has sought in recent years to “revive the American tradition of K-12 education” by strengthening a national network of schools, gained new prominence when then-President Donald Trump tapped the school to help develop a program of “patriotic education ». . Now, in a sign of Hillsdale’s growing influence on public education, South Dakota has proposed statewide standards that contain distinct echoes of Hillsdale’s material.

While Republican governors like Bill Lee of Tennessee and Ron DeSantis of Florida have embraced Hillsdale education for K-12 students, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been perhaps the most enthusiastic. Larry Arnn, the school’s president, even said in a speech last year that Noem “offered to build an entire campus in South Dakota.”

This doesn’t seem to be in the works. But it was Noem, widely considered a 2024 White House contender, who turned to former Hillsdale politics teacher William Morrisey to develop the state’s social studies standards. The state paid him $200,000 and he used the Hillsdale material, according to standards committee members.

The college played an integral role in Trump’s “1776 Report,” a conservative response to work like the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reexamined the founding of the United States with the institution of slavery at its center. Hillsdale went on to produce “The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum,” which offers nearly 2,400 pages of American history lesson plans.

South Dakota’s proposed standards released in mid-August align with the “1776 Curriculum.” Both emphasize the ideals of the country’s founding fathers as an argument for American exceptionalism — a notion popular in conservative circles that the US is uniquely worthy of global praise.

Both documents define patriotism in a similar way, as preserving the “good” of the country and correcting its faults. They teach that progressivism conflicts with the nation’s founding ideals and argue that most of the founders—including slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—wanted to end slavery.

Morrisey declined an interview, and Hillsdale declined an interview request from a member of the Office of K-12 Education.

Noem’s administration referred questions to Ben Jones, who oversees the South Dakota Historical Society and served on the committee to develop the standards. Jones defended scholarship at Hillsdale as respected in higher education and said Morrisey brought to the committee a “generic” version of U.S. history that could be found in most textbooks.

“Honestly, it’s a logical fallacy to say something is bad because it’s associated with this group that I don’t agree with in relation to this other thing,” he said of Hillsdale’s criticism.

Jones pointed out that Morrisey’s draft included descriptions of how early Africans were enslaved and taken to the colonies and how the US violated treaties with Native American tribes.

“The good, the bad, the ugly was all there,” he said.

Jones added that the group discussed and debated the standards in several meetings, and in the end, “my feeling was that we all made it very much our own.”

When the Noem administration formed the 15-person committee, it selected three people, including Nielsen, who are currently certified to teach in South Dakota public schools. The group decided what grade levels the standards should learn and added South Dakota and Native American elements to the proposal, Nielsen said.

As the proposal became public last month, Nielsen said he felt conflicted. He said he is conservative, but is careful to separate his political views from his classroom teaching. He said he agreed with Noem’s desire to make South Dakota a national leader in social studies education and even with much of the content he covered.

Ultimately, he said, he decided to speak out against the standards because they did not come from South Dakota educators.

“The 1776 curriculum is very close to that,” he said.

“When you’re given a set of standards to approve, it’s not a collaborative process at all,” he added. The standards, he worried, were not written with the practical needs of a classroom in mind.

Prominent voices among South Dakota educators agree. The standards — which will undergo public hearings this fall before the governor-appointed Board of Education Standards decides whether to adopt them — have been greeted with cool by organizations representing teachers, school boards and school administrators.

“He comes from a private, out-of-state college,” said Tim Graf, the superintendent of the Harrisburg School District outside Sioux Falls. “I just don’t want it to be political in any way.”

Jennifer Lowery, the superintendent in the Tye School District, worried that younger grade teachers would have to spend more time on social studies at the expense of foundational skills like basic math and reading.

“We don’t stomp our feet because our feelings were hurt or our profession was disrespected,” he said. “You hear the outcry because this is not what’s best for our kids.”

Several educators said the standards rely too much on memorization and too little on inquiry-based learning that teaches students to question and analyze. Jones, the state historian, countered that memorizing at smaller grade levels would pave the way for analysis later.

Stephen Jackson, a history professor at the University of Sioux Falls, said that runs counter to criteria for state standards from the American Historical Society, which says research engages students and helps them connect historical events to modern environments.

Jackson was part of a team that created social studies standards last year, only to have his work scrapped by the governor. As conservatives began to push back against historical analyzes that argued that racism and US history were inextricably linked, Noem called for teaching how “the US is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

Noem said the new standards are the best in the country, calling them “a true, honest and balanced approach to American history that is not influenced by political agendas.” Hillsdale College used similar language when it launched its curriculum.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that high school students could benefit from analyzing the “1619 Project” alongside the Trump administration’s “1776 Report” and learning how to evaluate and discuss them. That’s unlikely in South Dakota, as Noem has moved to block teachings like the “1619 Project” from public schools.

“People like Kristi Noem are right when they say that America’s foundational narrative is being challenged like never before,” Zimmerman said. “I think it’s a good challenge.”

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