Local teachers react to Noem’s call for civics education reform

Rep. Scott Odenbach held up We the People, such as the 2019 Spearfish High School team shown here, as an example of education schools should take for updating its civics programs. Pioneer file photo

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NORTHERN HILLS — Gov. Kristi Noem’s recent call for more civic education and better curriculum in the schools has drawn limited support from some local educators who disagree with her assessment that recent violent acts are the result of a lack of knowledge.

During her State of the State Address to the Legislature Jan. 12, Noem announced that she has directed her administration to write new and more comprehensive curriculum for American and state history, in an effort to reform civics education in the state. She followed her speech up with a prepared statement to the media about her reasons behind boosting civics education in the state, pointing toward last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as a key reason.

“Today we have an opportunity to address the root cause of this problem: we must reform young Americans’ civic education,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “Students should be taught our nation’s history and all that makes America unique. They should see first hand the importance of civic engagement. They should have robust discussions in the classroom so they can develop critical thinking skills. Our young people need more experience engaging with elected officails and practicing the art of debate. It is also our responsibility to show them how government works.”

Matt Campbell, who teaches history at Lead-Deadwood High School, said while he agrees civics education is extremely important, he does not attribute the violent acts of recent years to a lack of education. Rather, teaching our students how to effectively communicate and disagree on issues is also vitally important, he said.

“Perhaps we could do a better job promoting civil discourse and identifying propaganda,” he said. “I do not believe that lack of knowledge alone is driving the violence and divisiveness of recent years. We also need to be able to have civil conversations with those we disagree with. We need to understand that good and honest people can disagree about important events and issues, and that compromise does not mean giving up your values. It’s about finding some common ground that we can all live with.”

Campbell said in his American history class he makes it a point to regularly engage his students in discussing current events, put those events in historical context, and encourage students to think critically about issues. Campbell said he uses the national “We the People” curriculum, which teaches students about the history and principles of America’s constitutional democratic republic. The program also encourages students to study constitutional issues for local, state and national competitions. Campbell also creates his own assignments and curriculum, in an effort to deliver engaging lessons for his students. He said he would look forward to examining any materials Noem’s administration delivers, as possible resources for his class.

“I will look at what the state comes out with, but I put a lot of emphasis on the Constitution,” Campbell said. “I like to design my own lessons, but would be willing to look at anything that might help our students better understand our government.”

Pat Gainey, who has been teaching history and civics at Spearfish High School for 29 years, and whose We the People team has represented South Dakota in national competition for 20 straight years, said he believes the schools do a good job. However, he is happy to see a new emphasis on civics education.

“The emphasis has been on STEM classes for awhile, but students need to know how our country got to where it is and how to be a participatory citizen in our democracy,” he said.

In his classes, Gainey said he tries hard to focus more on why historical events occurred, rather than on basic facts about those events.

“It isn’t so important to me that students know that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, as it is why they thought it was a good idea,” he said. “Names and dates are still important to a certain extent, but almost everyone is walking around with a computer (smart phone) in their pocket today and has instant access to that kind of information. The overall social, political, and economic movements are more important.

He also works with students to draw connections to historical and current events.

“Relevance is extremely important to students to show why they should care about these issues,” Gainey said. “If they can see that these issues will have a direct impact on their lives, they are much more likely to be engaged and want to understand.”

Gainey expressed concern that Noem’s initiative could cost precious time and money that school districts already struggle with.

“If she wants to increase our budget and provide more staff to accomplish mandates or changes in the curriculum, I think that is great,” he said. “Unless we are going to extend the school year (plenty of people opposed to that) and the budget by raising taxes (never a popular choice), we have to spend the same amount of time and money on these extra mandates. If we are going to require students to take extra classes in these areas (fine by me), they may have to forego taking other classes they want to.”

District 31 Rep. Scott Odenbach, R, Spearfish, who has been very vocal about his support for civics education reform in the schools, held up the We the People program and Spearfish students’ success with it as an example Noem’s administration should follow when developing more curriculum options for the rest of the state. Odenbach, who served on the Spearfish School Board, also said he does believe more classes could benefit our students — particularly classes in comparative political systems.

“Students, before they graduate, should get a chance to see the differences between socialist/communist systems and our American system of freedom/capitalism and free enterprise,” he said. “I really think when you look at the facts of that, the facts are very clear about which system works better, protects your rights better, and allows more people to succeed. I think in some sense, our citizens have maybe forgotten a little bit about the struggles against communism that went on in the last century and we need to make sure we remember that and don’t find our own country sliding that way.”

Odenbach said he fully supports the governor’s initiative.

“I think the overall goal is maybe to just come up with some supplemental or new material that really does a great job of emphasizing the greatness of America and doing some thing that help students engage more and realize they can be part of the process and that there is hope — American is the land of hope,” he said.

As for how to pay for the new initiative, Noem’s office has proposed $900,000 in one-time funding as seed money to get this reform off the ground. Other possible funding models, Odenbach said, could include public-private partnerships. The bottom line, he said, is putting priorities in the right place.

“I don’t see funding as a problem at all,” Odenbach said. “All funding is about priorities. If we decide in the legislature that we want to prioritize this type of education more, then that is where the funding should go.”

Overall, Gainey said he is happy to see the state’s interest in civics education reform. But when making decisions, state leaders should remember the teachers.

“It’s nice that people are starting to see the importance of civic education,” he said. “But many of us have been in the trenches for years, doing our best to turn out responsible, informed citizens.”

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