Science

Climate Change, Evolution Cause Curriculum Dust-Up in N.M.

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 18, 2017 | Updated: October 19, 2017 5 min read
Roman Catholic Pastor Vincent Paul Chavez of the Saint Therese school and parish in Albuquerque, N.M., protests proposed state science standards on behalf of the Santa Fe Archdiocese outside a public hearing in Santa Fe on Oct. 16.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

New Mexico officials abruptly reversed course on new science expectations for K-12 students after howls of protest greeted its draft standards, which included language that seemed designed to appease skeptics of climate change and evolution.

Unveiled in September, the standards had virtually no defenders at their public airing, held last week in Santa Fe. Speaker after speaker urged the state to scratch the revision and instead to adopt in full the Next Generation Science Standards, which are shared expectations in use in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

New Mexico’s standards are loosely based on the NGSS’ performance expectations, but do not include other key features, such as engineering and science practices meant to be woven into each lessons. And some of its diversions from the NGSS text were eyebrow-raising.

But late on Oct. 17, the state education department said the final version would no longer, for example, omit the words “rise” or “change” from two standards related to global temperature and human activity, or excise a standard referencing the Earth’s age of 4.6 billion years.

The final version will also restore the word “evolution” in a standard dealing with that topic; the initial draft asked students to construct an explanation based on evidence that “biological diversity” is “influenced by” factors such as genetic variations in species.

Other controversial elements remain, however, including one that requires teachers to “describe the benefits associated with technologies related to energy production.”

The state plans to release the final set of standards by early November.

Districts in Opposition

The topics of climate change and evolution may be controversial among laypeople, but they are not scientifically: There is overwhelming agreement among scientists and geologists that the Earth is billions of years old, that evolution is the primary biological process explaining the diversity of life on the planet, and that the temperature of the Earth is rising partly due to human activity.

Before the sudden reversal, more than 60 scientists associated with the Los Alamos National Laboratory took out a full-page ad in the New Mexican newspaper to criticize the draft. Protesters staged demonstrations in front of the education department over the previous weekend and during the hearing. And at least five large school districts—in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Las Cruces, and Taos—had written letters or passed resolutions opposing the draft standards.

The newly announced revisions could tamp down the largest concerns, but are unlikely to address all of them. Ellen Loehman, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Science Teachers Association, said she feared even the revised standards would be “impotent” unless the state includes all of the NGSS’ other components.

“Without that, you can relegate science to being taught as a textbook class,” she said. “I’m going to hold my breath.”

Political Changes?

Several New Mexico newspapers have tried, via open-records laws, to investigate who pressed for the controversial text in the first place, and have come up empty-handed.

Education Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski said the original draft reflected feedback from constituents. “These are real New Mexicans—parents, school board members, science teachers. I’m serving as the broker and facilitator between those 89 school districts,” he said. “But again I’ve also said, as a former social studies teacher, that democracy does belong to those who show up, and I think you’re seeing we’re being incredibly responsive to those voices as well.”

At least one former education department employee offers another explanation: politics.

Lesley Galyas spent four years as the agency’s bureau chief for math and science, during which time she worked to overhaul an outdated set of standards from 2003. Knowledgeable about the NGSS, she hoped to secure New Mexico’s adoption of them, too.

But by 2016, she said, senior officials at the department—with the knowledge of former education secretary Hanna Skandera and Ruszkowski, then a deputy secretary—repeatedly asked for revisions to the standards on evolution and human contributions to climate change, among other things, that they felt were controversial. The changes were made on paper rather than electronic drafts, she said.

Galyas said she did not know whether businesses or religious groups were behind the requests. But she knew one thing.

“I did tell them this would backfire. I even told them, ‘You’re wasting your time, because the teachers are going to reject them; the science community is going to reject them,’” said Galyas, now a teacher in New Mexico.

Galyas eventually left the agency after she felt she could no longer fend off revisions.

Ruszkowski disputed parts of her account. “I would say no to that question,” he said, when asked whether the drafting process might have circumvented open-records laws.

Skandera did not reply to detailed questions via email from Education Week about Galyas’ account.

‘Responsible Treatment’

For advocates like Glenn Branch, the situation illustrates the latest tactic of creationists and climate-change skeptics: getting topics struck from standards, rather than promoting alternative theories like “intelligent design.” That’s why specificity in the standards is crucial for students, he said.

“Regardless of teachers’ personal opinions, they’re more likely to teach in accordance with scientific consensus if state and local communities recognize it,” said Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “The state sends a message by having a responsible treatment of those topics in science.”

A full adoption of the NGSS faces an uphill battle. In April, the state legislature passed a bill which would have required the state to adopt the NGSS, but Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed it.

The NGSS, crafted by a consortia of states and the nonprofit Achieve, put a heavier emphasis on having students learn the content by “doing” science.

West Virginia and Wyoming softened language in the NGSS on global climate change, while South Dakota also deleted the standards’ reference to the age of the Earth. (Those states are not included in the 18-state tally.)

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as After Backlash, N.M. Reverses Course on Science Standards

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
Future of the First Amendment:Exploring Trends in High School Students’ Views of Free Speech
Learn how educators are navigating student free speech issues and addressing controversial topics like gender and race in the classroom.
Content provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science 4 Teaching Ideas Students Will Benefit From Now and as Adults
Problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking are being integrated into STEM instruction in very creative and relevant ways.
2 min read
Students in the aviation program at Magruder High School take a look at the exposed engine of an airplane during a visit to the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Md., on April 6, 2022.
Students in the aviation program at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., examine the exposed engine of an airplane during a visit to the nearby Montgomery County Airpark in April.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Science These 3 Latina Teachers Are Pushing the Boundaries of Computer Science Class
From California to Massachusetts to Puerto Rico, Latina educators are helping expand notions of what counts as "real" computer science.
9 min read
Megan Bowen walks through the lesson plan for the day during class at Salem Academy Charter School in Salem, Mass., on April 25, 2022.
Megan Bowen walks through the lesson plan for the day during class at Salem Academy Charter School in Salem, Mass., on April 25, 2022.
Nathan Klima for Education Week
Science How to Make AP STEM Classes More Diverse and Inclusive
A new report found that cultivating students' sense of belonging helps encourage underrepresented students to enroll in AP STEM courses.
5 min read
Black girl wearing face mask and protective glasses using microscope in laboratory
iStock/Getty Images Plus
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Whitepaper
Science Learning Driven by Students’ Questions
In the white paper “The Driving Question Board: Putting Students at the Helm of Science Learning,” see how the DQB can propel learning fo...
Content provided by Carolina Biological