Survey finds that nearly two-thirds of South Dakota educators incorporate Indigenous standards

A recent survey reveals that approximately two-thirds of educators in South Dakota’s public school system are engaged in teaching the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, although the number of participants decreased compared to the previous survey.

These understandings consist of approved standards established in 2018 to educate students on Native American culture and history. The term “Oceti Sakowin” collectively refers to Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Native Americans, many of whom reside in South Dakota. The state is home to nine tribal nations.

Results from a survey conducted by the state Department of Education in 2023 indicate that approximately 62% of teachers are utilizing these standards, reflecting a significant jump from 45% in 2021, according to Fred Osborn, the director of the Office of Indian Education, a division supervised by the state Department of Tribal Relations. Osborn presented these findings to the Indian Education Advisory Council earlier this month.

While the implementation of these standards is voluntary, the survey serves the purpose of assessing their usage and aiding state officials in promoting their adoption across the state.

“The noteworthy aspect is the improvement,” stated Osborn. “Though not yet perfect, there has been substantial progress from 45% to the current level. We aim for continuous growth annually.”

Osborn also mentioned that the Office of Indian Education distributed 10,000 copies of books covering the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings through a grant from the Bush Foundation post the initial survey. Additionally, education packets were dispatched for all grade levels last fall.

Reduction in Survey Participation

The number of educators partaking in the 2023 survey stood at about 385, a decline from 554 in 2021.

Unlike the 2021 survey that detailed responses from 125 out of the state’s 149 school districts, the 2023 survey omits the statistics on represented public school districts. Nancy Van Der Weide, a spokesperson for the department, attributed this to a modification in the school district identification question between 2021 and 2023, allowing participants greater anonymity.

Van Der Weide noted that the voluntary survey was open for one month, with a notification sent in a statewide teacher newsletter, emphasizing that the received responses were thoughtful and beneficial for incorporating the standards into classrooms.

Sherry Johnson, a member of the advisory council and tribal education director for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, who contributed to shaping the standards, expressed skepticism about the survey accurately representing the status of standard utilization statewide.

Megan Deal, a second-grade teacher from Pierre and council member, shared that while her school engaged in a pilot initiative for developing grade-specific lesson plans related to the standards, not all educators integrated the teachings into their curriculum.

Expressing concern, council member Brian Wagner, tribal education director with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, underscored the necessity for a more concrete mandate in incorporating the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings into the education system to combat ignorance and racism against tribal members.

Anticipating Influence from Social Studies Standards

Joseph Graves, Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Education, highlighted that the upcoming social studies standards effective by 2025 will integrate references to the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings. This inclusion is expected to encourage a higher adoption rate among teachers.

Graves expressed optimism, noting, “We anticipate an increased focus on Native American history and culture in schools, marking a positive step forward. The apprehensions surrounding social studies standards are largely unfounded, and this integration will enhance our educational approach.”

Referring back to the social studies standards controversy initiated in 2021, Graves acknowledged the department’s modifications and outlined plans to support teachers in applying these standards effectively.

As per the 2023 survey results, approximately 84% of educators were aware of the standards, with 77% emphasizing the importance of integrating them in all classrooms. While 55% felt adequately knowledgeable to teach these concepts, there was an 18 point increase from 2021.

The administrator survey conducted in 2023 had nearly 40 participants, a notable drop from the 164 administrators in the 2021 survey. Despite the majority affirming the importance of standard implementation, around two-thirds lacked confidence in executing these standards effectively in their institutions.

The survey did not delve into the impact of these standards on Native American student achievement, although Osborn hinted at the potential value of exploring such data correlations.

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