Science

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

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 18, 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.

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

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