The Same, but Different

New Mexico's new school science standards might leave out climate change, evolution

A hand-picked group of math and science experts said not to do it.

A focus group of 85 teachers, professors and school administrators, convened by former Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, said not to do it.

Christopher Ruszkowski wants to do it.

More than four years after a succession of professional groups began urging the state's Public Education Department to implement unmodified Next Generation Science Standards in New Mexico schools, Ruszkowski—the governor's pick to replace Skandera—is recommending new standards that change curriculum on human-caused climate change and evolution.

The state's guidelines for the science taught in classrooms haven't been updated since 2003, and those standards were based on recommendations from 1996. This spring, SFR highlighted the stalled push to change them, and the growing concern among the scientific and educational community that political differences were behind the holdup.

The proposed revisions are woven throughout the standards, and make changes such as switching the words "process of evolution" to "biological diversity" or turning "climate change" into "climate fluctuation."

Neither the governor nor Skandera would comment then and Ruszkowski wouldn't answer questions from SFR this week.

"The PED has and will continue to listen and respond to input from all of New Mexico's stakeholders across the state when putting together new content standards," said Deputy Secretary of School Transformation Debbie Montoya in a comment emailed from a PED spokeswoman.

Now, the state is in a 30-day window for the public to submit comments about the proposed plans, and many are wondering just whom the department has been listening to if it hasn't taken the advice of its own advisory groups.

"I think overwhelmingly both the educational and scientific community are disheartened by the proposed changes," says Gwen Perea Warniment, the K-12 program director for the LANL Foundation. She's part of a group that teaches inquiry-based science in New Mexico classrooms. That curriculum is based on the Next Generation standards, but meets current science requirements.

Warniment is also a member of the PED's Math and Science Advisory Council. The council last met in April and she hasn't heard anything since then that led her to believe Ruszkowski's decision was coming.

She spent Tuesday morning speaking with the LANL Foundation's board about the proposed standards that were announced last week, and tells SFR that the board is concerned about "the hazy process through which these amendments have come into existence."

Charles Goodmacher, a spokesman for the New Mexico branch of the National Education Association teachers union, says the proposed standards swap out established scientific principles for "non-scientific notions."

He says the term "climate fluctuation" is an example of the corrosive effect of putting political, unscientific terminology into science standards. "While that may sound like balanced language, given that average annual temperatures do indeed rise and fall over time, in reality global temperatures continue their upward trend," he says.

There's no scientific debate over evolution or climate change, Goodmacher says. The differences are purely political.

State Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, says the new standards amount to "pandering to the extreme right in the Republican Party."

Romero tells SFR the rhetoric he's heard from the education secretary has indicated the changes are supposed to reflect diverse perspectives and local values, but he says the state has already heard from science teachers around the state.

"When the PED originally put together the group, that was supposed to be a lot of the buy-in from the local level. So I really don't understand where he's coming from in terms of local control," he says.

He worries that politicizing science standards now will penalize the state's high school graduates when they go on to college or enter the job market.

"Nobody at Sandia or LANL is going to hire somebody who doesn't have a solid science education," Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club's Rio Grande chapter says. "NASA data shows that 2016 was the hottest year on record, breaking consecutive previous highs in 2014 and 2015. The 10 hottest years on record have all come since 1998. That's data. That's not belief. That's just what the science shows."

Feibelman says her group will mobilize to oppose the altered standards.

Warniment says her foundation is working on a statement voicing its own concerns and plans to release it this week. While she's disheartened by the department's proposal, she adds: "I respect a lot of people at PED and feel like they're thoughtful. I hope that they listen to their stakeholders."

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.