SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) — A few days before middle school teacher Shaun Nielsen joined a task force to develop South Dakota’s standards for social studies, he received a bulky package in the mail.
Sent from Hillsdale, Michigan, home of a conservative private university that had outsized influence among leading Republicans, it contained materials that would ultimately form what students in the state’s public schools were to learn about American history and civics.
“Whoa – those are already written,” Nielsen recalled when he opened the document this spring.
Hillsdale College, which in recent years has attempted to “revive the American tradition of K-12 education” by sponsoring a statewide network of schools, took on new prominence when then-President Donald Trump opened up the school to serve at to help develop a “patriotic education project” . In a sign of Hillsdale’s growing influence on public education, South Dakota has now proposed statewide standards that clearly echo Hillsdale’s material.
While Republican governors like Tennessee’s Bill Lee and Florida’s Ron DeSantis have embraced Hillsdale education for K-12 students, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been perhaps the most enthusiastic. Larry Arn, the school’s president, even said in a speech last year that Noem “offered to build us an entire campus in South Dakota.”
That doesn’t seem to be in the works. But it was Noem, widely regarded as the White House hope for 2024, who turned to former Hillsdale politics professor William Morrisey to develop the state’s social studies standards. The state paid him $200,000 and he tapped into Hillsdale’s material, according to Standards Commission members.
The college played a key role in Trump’s “1776 Report,” a conservative response to works like the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reexamined the founding of the United States with the institution of slavery at its core. Hillsdale followed with the production of The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, which features nearly 2,400 pages of American history lesson plans.
South Dakota’s proposed standards, released in mid-August, are consistent with the 1776 curriculum. Both emphasize the ideals of the country’s founders as an argument for America’s state of emergency – a notion popular in conservative circles that the US is uniquely deserving of universal praise.
Both documents define patriotism similarly, preserving the country’s “good” while correcting its mistakes. They teach that progressivism is at odds with the nation’s founding ideals, and claim that most founders – including slave owners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – wanted to end slavery.
Morrisey declined an interview, and Hillsdale declined a request for an interview with a member of the K-12 Education Bureau.
Noem’s administration referred questions to Ben Jones, who oversaw the South Dakota Historical Society and served on the standards development commission. Jones defended the Hillsdale scholarship as prestigious in higher education, saying Morrisey brought the commission a “generic” version of US history found in most textbooks.
“Honestly, it’s a logical fallacy to say that something is bad because it’s associated with this group that I disagree with on this other thing,” he said of the Hillsdale criticism.
Jones pointed out that Morrisey’s draft included descriptions of how the first Africans were enslaved and brought to the colonies and how the US broke 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 over several sessions and by the end “I felt like we all embraced that.”
When the Noem administration formed the 15-member commission, it selected three individuals, including Nielsen, who are currently certified to teach in South Dakota public schools. The group decided which grade levels should learn the standards and added South Dakota and Native American components to the proposal, Nielsen said.
When the proposal was released last month, Nielsen said he felt conflicted. He said he is a conservative but is careful to separate his political opinions from his classroom teaching. He said he agrees with Noem’s desire to make South Dakota a national leader in social studies education, and even with much of the content therein.
Ultimately, he said, he decided to speak out against the standards because they didn’t come from South Dakota educators.
“The ‘1776 curriculum’ — it’s pretty close,” he said.
“When you get a set of standards for approval, it’s not a collaborative process at all,” he added. He feared that the standards were not written with the practical needs of a classroom in mind.
Prominent voices among South Dakota educators agree. The standards – which will face public hearings this fall before the governor-appointed Board of Education Standards decides whether to adopt them – have been coldly welcomed by organizations representing teachers, school boards and school administrators.
“It’s coming from a private college out of state,” said Tim Graf, the superintendent of the Harrisburg School District outside of Sioux Falls. “I just don’t want it to be political in any way.”
Jennifer Lowery, the Tea Area School District’s superintendent, feared that teachers for younger grades would have to devote more time to social studies at the expense of essential skills like basic math and reading.
“We don’t stamp our feet because our feelings have been hurt or our profession has been disrespected,” she said. “You hear the outcry because this isn’t 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 ask questions and analyze. Jones, the state historian, countered that memorization at younger grade levels will pave the way for later analysis.
Stephen Jackson, a history professor at the University of Sioux Falls, said this contradicts the American Historical Society’s criteria for state standards, which says the investigation engages students and helps them connect historical events to modern contexts.
Jackson was part of a group that created social studies standards last year, only to have the governor scrap their work. As conservatives began to resist historical analysis that argued racism and US history were inseparable, Noem called for teaching that the “US was the most extraordinary nation in the history of the world.”
Noem said the new standards are the best in the nation, calling them “a true, honest, and balanced approach to American history that is not influenced by political agendas.” Hillsdale College used similar language when introducing its curriculum.
Jonathan Zimmerman, an educational historian at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that high school students could benefit from analyzing the “1619 Project” along with the Trump administration’s “1776 Report” and learning how to evaluate and discussed. That’s unlikely in South Dakota, since Noem has moved to block teaching like the “1619 Project” from public schools.
“People like Kristi Noem are right when they say America’s fundamental narrative is being challenged like never before,” Zimmerman said. “I just think it’s a good challenge.”