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Another Bad Idea: SD Considers Ending Speech Requirement for HS Graduation

I am not John Birch. I do not oppose the Common Core State Standards out of fear of data-mining and liberal indoctrination.

I do, however, oppose the Common Core State Standards as a tremendous waste of educators' time and effort. Common Core codifies for bureaucratic and capitalistic (read: sell new textbooks) purposes objectives that every good teacher already knows and practices in the classroom.

Common Core may also kill the requirement that South Dakota kids take speech in high school.

A couple months ago, I heard rumblings that the state Board of Education (here they are: write to them, give them heck) may eliminate the speech requirement from South Dakota's high school graduation standards. I asked the Department of Education whether the state is "considering removing the 1/2-credit speech requirement from our high school graduation requirements." I received this reply:

I would like to thank you for your concern for South Dakota students. Secondly, I would like to reassure you that the discussions we have been having would not eliminate the requirement to teach the standards addressed in a speech class.

The informal discussions taking place have stemmed from districts questioning the English Language Arts graduation requirements, since South Dakota has adopted the Common Core State Standards and will be assessing them beginning in spring of 2015. The Common Core English Language Arts standards in high school outline standards in two-year grade bands, 9-10 and 11-12, allowing for flexibility in high school course design. The standards delineate specific expectations in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language, but do not need to be a separate focus for instruction and assessment. Standards from each strand can be taught and assessed by a single rich task. Students advancing through the grades are expected to meet each year's grade specific standards.

The current graduation requirements state that students must have 4 units of Language Arts which include: 1. 5 units of literature in which .5 units must be American Literature; 1.5 units of writing; .5 units of speech or debate; and .5 units of Language Arts elective. Whereas the current graduation requirements specify set units for each area within English Language Arts, the proposal being discussed would allow districts the flexibility to determine if speech is embedded into each English Language Arts class or if the speaking and listening standards are pulled out into a separate course.

The Department of Education will be gathering information from districts to determine if a proposal should be taken before the South Dakota Board of Education. To date, this has simply been an informal discussion. I encourage you to watch the Department of Education's website at The Board of Education meetings are posted here. Look for the Board of Education link which will give you more information [Becky Nelson, Team Leader, Office of Learning and Instruction, e-mail, 2013.02.27].

In other words, yes, we are eliminating the requirement that every South Dakota student pass a semester course dedicated to learning how to make a speech.

The Department is cloaking this bad decision in talk of local control (sound familiar?) and Common Core. They say that Common Core is so good that if your school follows the standards, kids will automatically learn speech in their regular English classes and multidisciplinary activities. We won't need to have speech communication experts focusing on public speaking skills in a separate class.

This argument is mostly rubbish. Common Core says a lot, but it does not say that every child has to stand up in front of an audience and make a speech. The Common Core standards for English and literacy say that students will "Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners." Those words could mean almost anything... which means, like most text related to education reform, it means almost nothing.

Under current practice, our high school speech requirement means students spend a solid semester practicing speech communication. In my Montrose classroom, that meant students did five big speech activities: an informative speech, a visual aid speech, a persuasive speech, parliamentary speaking (five small speeches plus motions!), and a job interview. Like other speech teachers, I evaluated what kids said, but I also evaluated how they said it. I trained them in the physical, intellectual, and emotional aspects of effective speaking. That solid semester of attention to those issues gives students potent practice in communication skills that they will not receive if we dissolve the speech requirement into Common Core's vague commitment to "a range of conversations and collaborations" in the soup of other content standards.

A national survey released this month finds 74% of employers recommend that students get a liberal arts education. Employers want students who can "think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems." Our speech requirement gives students a leg up on satisfying that job-world demand for good communication skills. Replacing that speech requirement with Common Core's fluff will take that advantage away from our kids.

The next meeting of the state Board of Education is May 20 from 8 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City. If you want South Dakota to keep pushing kids to be better speakers, you should contact those board members and tell them not to let Common Core weaken South Dakota's commitment to solid speech education.


  1. Michael Black 2013.04.26

    What we are doing now is not enough.

    In the real world we don't get days to prepare.

    We need to worry more about the practical side and put emphasis on the interview and take away the fear of public speaking.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.26

    What we are doing now is more than what Common Core asks us to do. The speech requirement better guarantees that we continue to do what you are asking, Michael.

  3. Ben Cerwinkse 2013.04.26

    I took debate to meet my speech requirement and credit it as one of the most important classes I ever took. If it could be spelled out that students would be given public speaking instruction in the course of their other classes, then that would be fine. However, like you said Cory, it's probably not going to happen. I don't see a semester of speech (a highly useful class) as being a major imposition.

  4. Steve O'Brien 2013.04.26

    Cory, first I partially disagree that Common Core has the capitalistic goal of selling more textbooks: the industry most to gain will be testing. See how much coin Pearson/Benchmark puts in their pocket with all these new tests in all these new states. Texas already owned the textbook revenue, testing is new ground to till. (How is it that everyone EXCEPT teachers have found a way to make huge money in education?)

    Speech, even if incorporated into other English classes, will be largely set aside as the pressure to get to the "tested" material will dominate the teacher's focus. As speech (and don't get me wrong, I highly value speech and debate) is not tested, it is not as important in the accountability (test) model of education.

  5. Douglas Wiken 2013.04.26

    SD GOP does not want intelligent residents with the ability to communicate.

  6. joeboo 2013.04.26

    Speech needs to be in high school, though I wish they moved it to higher high school rather then Freshman (at least that is how it is in most schools).

    I'm not against the idea of common core though, but I'm a social studies teacher and the state standards were pretty poor for that. I like the idea of CC, but I do agree that the states should still make some individual adjustments to them

  7. Joan 2013.04.26

    I wish more speech had been offered when I was in high school in the fifties. Then when I took up teaching at General Beadle State Teacher's College(now Dakota State) we only had to take one quarter. I was horribly shy as a kid, and occasionally it still comes out, and I think more speech class would have helped.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.04.27

    I taught a couple sections of speech at General Beadle—er, DSU. I was surprised to learn that the Iowa kids in my class hadn't had to to take speech in high school. I was surprised to have to review for these adults the basics that Doc Miller had covered with me at MHS.

    Teachers should have extra speech communication training. The ability to organize and deliver an effective speech is essential to good teaching, whether a teacher is lecturing, leading a group discussion with Socratic questions, giving instructions, or anything else that requires keeping one's wits in the presence of a large audience of observant and critical students.

  9. Angie 2013.04.27

    I loved all of my English classes in high school and appreciate the context that basic literary understanding gives you for life; that said, the year of debate I took has given me the skills I use most frequently as an adult, and not just in the legislature. I've seen lots of employers who want their employees to be able to not only write effectively, but to speak effectively as well; I haven't seen a lot who are excited about a thorough, critical understanding of literature (though I wish they were). I just don't think their idea of working it in to other classes helps create that foundation the way a dedicated class does. Plus, if it's an optional elective, what high school kid who spends most of their energy trying to fit in and not stand out is going to willingly take the class? Not many who don't already have the skills.

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