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South Dakota Is Debating What Could Be The Best K-12 History Curriculum In The Country

South Dakota’s constitution rightly observes, ‘The stability of a republican form of government depend[s] on the morality and intelligence of the people.’

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The following is invited public testimony to South Dakota’s Board of Education Standards on September 19, 2022, as written in advance of the hearing. Monday’s was the first of multiple hearings that will occur around the state as part of a curriculum process that began after massive public outcry against a 2021 history curriculum plan that pushed far-left politics. 

Gov. Kristi Noem’s chief of staff, Mark Miller, chaired a new commission that started with curriculum guidelines proposed by Hillsdale College and refined them with in-state teachers, tribal leaders, and historians. The state board of education is scheduled to decide on the proposal in March 2023 after opportunities for changes, political pressure, and public debate.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I am an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute. In 2014 I received a Robert Novak journalism fellowship to investigate and write a book about Common Core. As a result of that work, I have testified to at least 15 state legislatures about their K-12 standards.

I have taught world history and literature to high school students based on a Great Books curriculum I created. I am also the founding board member of a classical Christian school, whose elementary American history curriculum I constructed.

Currently, I am researching a list of recommended American history books for children, for which I have read hundreds of history books. I am also the mother of six children and the executive editor of The Federalist, where I cover education.

One of the most beautiful experiences in my life has been to watch my 6-year-old son’s class recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, as the curriculum standards under discussion would require of South Dakota first graders. Hearing “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the voices of those precious children is written on my heart forever.

These historic words define the American spirit and elevate its character. South Dakota’s proposed standards would require children to memorize such great words, revisit them over time, and build upon them with deep historical knowledge from source documents. As these words shaped the great Abraham Lincoln’s leadership of our country in time of great peril, so these standards’ sustained meditation on our country’s greatest documents would help young fellow citizens grow in knowledge, purpose, and service for the rest of their lives.

I know that all children can learn what these standards require, because our school and hundreds if not thousands of others teach curricula that reflect these standards to children of all ethnic backgrounds, immigrant children who speak English as a second language, and children with special needs.

These standards are among the highest quality I have ever reviewed. Every American would benefit simply from reading them. I thank the Social Studies Content Standards Commission members who created this draft for their act of patriotism. These standards are a gift to the nation that I ask you to make sure South Dakotan children are first to receive.

I have read many K-12 standards, and the first standout in these was their clarity. Most curriculum mandates are laden with jargon. Clear language allows everyone to understand what children are expected to learn. This creates unity and accountability for parents, children, teachers, taxpayers, school boards, and state lawmakers.

These requirements are rich in key information and beautifully represent what every American citizen should know (excluding the South Dakota-specific standards, of course). They reflect what research and experience find ensures a high-quality education for all children: core knowledge, carefully arranged and frequently reinforced.

Excellent instruction in the story of humankind helps us all understand human nature, benefit from others’ experiences, and understand our rights and duties. Distributing such core human knowledge broadly, as University of Virginia researchers E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, and other academics, have shown, reduces social inequality.

Their work also shows what’s wrong with the “critical thinking” canard that pretends filling one’s brain with knowledge is somehow at odds with thinking soundly. It is not, and anyone who says so is poorly informed about cognitive science. Indeed, as Ethics and Public Policy researcher Stanley Kurtz has written of South Dakota’s struggle to update its social studies curricula, “critical thinking” jargon is usually used as a cover for political indoctrination.

In fact, instruction rich in factual knowledge, such as these proposed standards require, is exactly what’s required for critical thinking — because knowledge is the basis of all critical thinking. And it’s clear from almost any data you look at that American children are not being given such core knowledge in most publicly funded schools.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, from 2018, show just 15 percent of eighth graders are “proficient” in U.S. history. Just one-quarter of eighth graders rated “proficient” or “advanced” in their civics knowledge on that test.

A 2019 poll by YouGov found that, of Americans age 39 or younger, more than 80 percent could not say what rights the First Amendment protects, and three-quarters couldn’t name any authors of The Federalist Papers. Appalling results like these reflect the education establishment’s effective systematic disenfranchisement of American citizens through failed teaching methods.

South Dakota’s constitution rightly observes, “The stability of a republican form of government depend[s] on the morality and intelligence of the people.” Therefore, the lack of strong history and civics instruction is an existential crisis.

The people and institutions who have for decades failed to educate their fellow citizens to assume the rights and duties of American citizenship have disqualified themselves from having any say in what children should learn. It’s time to replace their failures with instruction that has a track record of success and ends the use of public education as a political weapon against constitutional self-government.

Thank you.


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