Published October 28, 2021
When it comes to education, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem alternately inspires and disappoints. In May, Noem became the first major office-holder to sign the “1776 Action” pledge, a promise to bar both action civics and critical race theory (CRT) from South Dakota’s schools. Noem’s move prompted Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin to sign the same pledge, which helped inject the K-12 curriculum issue into the Virginia race. Nicely done, Governor Noem.
Sadly, however, Noem’s follow-through on her South Dakota education pledge has been dreadful. I warned at the time that the leftists who dominated South Dakota’s Department of Education would defy the governor’s pledge and inject action civics and CRT into the new state history and civics standards. Noem’s secretary of education, Tiffany Sanderson, ignored those warnings and kept the same leftist claque of professors, bureaucrats, and consultants in place. Sure enough, when the new draft social-studies standards were delivered, they violated both the spirit and the letter of Noem’s “1776 Action” pledge. Shortly after I exposed the unsavory and manipulative process by which South Dakota’s Department of Education had undercut Noem’s publicly declared policies, Noem ditched the new draft standards and promised to design them again from scratch.
I wish I could say “problem solved,” but that is far from the case. Noem has decided to begin drafting new social-studies standards with Tiffany Sanderson still in charge of South Dakota’s Department of Education. Sanderson has been a fixture at the South Dakota DOE for nearly a decade. She is part and parcel of the regime of establishment Republicans who’ve allowed leftist bureaucrats, professors, and consultants to effectively take control the state’s education apparatus. Sanderson is hardly the person to fix the very same bureaucratic system she’s already broken.
After serving in South Dakota’s Education Department for eight years, Sanderson became Noem’s education policy adviser in 2019. Sanderson held that position when the state social-studies standards (which had been released in 2015) were “unpacked” in 2020. That “unpacking” of South Dakota social-studies standards generated a series of concrete examples showing teachers how to apply the standards in the classroom. In effect, “unpacking” converted broad and flexible state “standards” into something much closer to a detailed and directive classroom “curriculum.”
Technically, teachers aren’t obligated to follow the unpacked version of South Dakota’s social-studies standards. In practice, however, overworked teachers tend to grab onto any state guidance they can get when designing their lesson plans. Unfortunately, South Dakota’s 2020 unpacked standards were intensely biased. They incorporated plenty of exercises in action civics, where students were pushed to become leftist political activists on school time — exactly what Noem had pledged to prevent. The 2020 “unpacking” of the 2015 standards was billed as a foreshadowing of the forthcoming 2021 standards-revision process. That is why I warned Noem last May that, regardless of her pledge to fight CRT and action civics, her own Department of Education was on track to enshrine both practices in South Dakota’s revised standards.
Having been promoted to secretary of education in late 2020, Sanderson ignored these warnings and presided over the fiasco I wrote about last month. This means that Sanderson has now effectively managed two education fiascos, the leftist “unpacking” of 2020 and the politicized state standards mess that collapsed just last month. None of this is surprising, since Sanderson is a longtime colleague of the bureaucrats who’ve enabled the backdoor leftist takeover of South Dakota’s schools for years. In short, Tiffany Sanderson is the last person we can trust to get yet another social-studies standards drafting process right. After I exposed the latest standards debacle, I said that to fix it, Noem would need to “make a clean sweep of her Department of Education.” Keeping Tiffany Sanderson in charge is the very opposite of that.
Noem is adept at saying things conservatives want to hear. In practice, however, she surrounds herself with establishment Republicans who’d sooner bend to woke leftists than fight them. This is what happened when Noem botched the issue of transgender athletes in women’s sports. Sadly, the same pattern is evident in her treatment of education.
Perhaps under the pressure of public scrutiny, Sanderson will change her ways and get the social-studies standards right on her third try. That is at least possible — and if things go right, I’ll be the first to praise the results. After two curricular fiascos in two years, however, both Noem and Sanderson have lost the benefit of the doubt. It is only sensible to assume at this point that Noem’s handling of South Dakota’s social-studies standards has more to do with damage control than any real shift in the substance of governing.
Past failures are only part of the reason we should be skeptical of Noem’s decision to retain Sanderson. To grasp the depth of the problem in South Dakota — and in other red states as well — you’ve got to understand the tricks leftist educators, bureaucrats, and consultants deploy to hijack our schools.
The most striking thing about the recent South Dakota social-studies standards fiasco was the leading role of Beth Ratway, the consultant hired to “facilitate” the rewrite. Ratway specializes in using bland and ambiguous language to slip leftist politics into the curriculum. After I linked a video featuring Ratway coaching teachers on how to fight off parental objections to leftist indoctrination by using these language tricks, Ratway blocked public access to the video. Noem then ditched the standards Ratway had helped to create. Once the problem was exposed, Ratway’s blocking of access to her own video amounted to nothing more than a backhanded admission of guilt. Even so, the real lessons of this episode have not been learned.
Education “experts” like Ratway have plenty of tricks for injecting their politics into state education standards. First, they slip vague language into the standards themselves that can later be used to justify politicization. It’s tough for public officials, bureaucrats, and parents even to recognize the real upshot of that language, much less stop it. That’s what Ratway’s scandalous video was all about. But injecting under-the-radar politics directly into state standards is only one type of trick.
A second type is to take state-approved content standards and unofficially supplement them with a set of goals designed to develop “skills” like “critical thinking,” the ability to take “multiple perspectives,” or the ability to “think like a historian.” While these “skills” can be written directly into official state standards, they can also be used as unofficial or optional additions to state requirements. Teachers who invoke these additions can point to prestigious publications by groups like the National Council for the Social Studies as justification. State bureaucracies can also list such publications as approved tools to guide the implementation of state standards.
Ratway is a pioneer of this strategy. This 2008 article of hers seems like boring bureaucratic gibberish at first. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that Ratway is showing teachers how to politicize U.S. history, civics, geography, and world-cultures classes with training in so-called “skills.” Pointing to the supposed skill of “civic literacy,” for example, Ratway shows how to “focus” the varied content of a geography and world-cultures course on a question like, “How can world governments cooperate to make ethical decisions related to our global environment?” In effect, Ratway gives teachers a technique for converting a content-based course on world cultures into a course on globalist politics and environmental activism. Political bias is smuggled in under the seemingly innocent heading of “skills.”
In my piece on the recent South Dakota social-studies standards fiasco, I showed how a leftist professor-bureaucrat used the same technique to convert a straightforward U.S. history standard about post-Civil War federal policy toward Native Americans into an exercise in political advocacy. Instead of exploring the history, students were pushed to agitate for the renaming U.S. cities with indigenous terms. To accomplish this, the “expert” in question simply interpreted the official state standard using the “skills-based” supplement published by the National Council for the Social Studies.
A third set of tricks for turning bland social-studies standards to political ends is one we’ve already discussed: unpacking. Recall that South Dakota’s current social-studies standards were devised and approved in 2015. Gaining official approval for state standards takes some political heavy lifting. Public hearings are held, the press scrutinizes, constituencies weigh in, and the major governing players sign on. When the South Dakota social-studies standards officially approved in 2015 were “unpacked” in 2020, however, virtually no one noticed. The process is nowhere near as burdensome as getting state standards themselves approved.
Yet, that under-the-radar “unpacking” of 2020 converted South Dakota’s 2015 standards into a political document filled with exercises in left-biased action civics. The process was supervised by Melinda Johnson, the same “social-studies specialist” who hired Ratway and made a mess of the recent standards rewrite. The 2020 unpacking process took its cue from Ratway’s group, the National Council for the Social Studies, which as I showed last May, is deeply committed to both action civics and critical race theory.
Here is the problem, then. Even if South Dakota’s official social-studies standards turn out better this time, there are a myriad of ways in which they can be pushed in the very direction that Noem has pledged to resist. Once the new standards are officially approved and public attention wanes, the leftist bureaucrats, professors, and consultants will move in, and (presto!) even good standards will quickly go bad. The leftist education establishment has created a veritable industry dedicated to the hijacking of state education standards after the fact — even, or especially, in red states. Ratway is a specialist in this, but she is by no means alone.
The only real defense is to have a state education bureaucracy run by a savvy opponent of the latest academic orthodoxies. That person needs to have the knowledge, connections, and authority to appoint like-minded managers. Most often, however, Republican state education secretaries take the path of least resistance and work with the existing left-dominated academic and bureaucratic establishment. Few have the will or the knowledge to fight back. The result is that the leftist education establishment runs circles around Republican appointees, and nothing changes. This is what has been going on in South Dakota for years. Given that track record, no matter what the new social-studies standards-writing process produces, we can expect it to be coopted by the Left once the spotlight dies away. Sanderson and her crew are simply not equipped to fight back, even if they wanted to — which the record shows they do not.
Kristi Noem advertises herself as the antidote to all this. She holds herself out as a tough-minded conservative reformer willing and able to stand up to America’s cultural elites. It makes for an inspiring speech. Unfortunately, when it comes to actually governing, the go-along-to-get-along GOP establishment continues to have Noem’s ear.
It’s not too late for Noem to make a clean sweep of her Education Department and truly begin anew. Unless and until she does, however, conservatives have little reason to credit her promise to carry their banner.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).