Standard Questions

New Mexico’s education secretary promises revisions to science standards

Christopher Ruszkowski wasn't at Monday's hearing, where hundreds of people showed up to talk about his proposed science standards for New Mexico schools. Not a single scientist, student, parent or teacher stood to support them. Several castigated the education secretary designate in absentia, saying if he planned to roll out changes, he should have at least had the gumption to show up and face criticism.

Ruszkowski says he heard them nevertheless.

In a press release late Tuesday evening, the department promised to change portions of the controversial edits it made that deleted some references in the Next Generation Science Standards to evolution, the age of the Earth and human-caused climate change.

The inclusions were broadly welcomed, but not widely praised.

"I think it's definitely a step in the right direction," Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia tells SFR. "But our recommendation is still to adopt the Next Gen standards in their entirety."

The Next Generation Science Standards, upon which the Public Education Department's proposed standards are based, were developed in 2013 by a group of 26 states and three national science organizations. The NGSS incorporates not just the latest scientific principles, but cutting-edge research about how students learn best. Proponents like to say they teach science by doing science.

So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards in their entirety. Several other states have based their standards on the Next Gen principles. Some, like Wyoming, have incorporated changes similar to the ones initially proposed by the PED's Ruszkowski.

Ellen Loehman, a 20-year veteran of science instruction in the Albuquerque Public Schools and a chemist by trade, says she is hopeful the changes so soon after a contentious hearing indicate a willingness by the state education department to listen to consensus, but she isn't convinced.

"What they did was they addressed the comments that were the most vehement and the most obvious," she says, "but there are lots of other issues that teachers care about as well."

A member of the New Mexico Science Teachers Association, Loehman says that even with the late-stage changes, the state's proposed standards leave out much of the framework that make the Next Gen standards so successful.

"Suppose someone has a book on how to build a beautiful Victorian house and they tear out the first two pages," she offers. "And they say, 'This is what it's supposed to look like. I want you to build this for me.' … Where's the list of materials, where are the instructions, where are the skills I need?"

A partial adoption of the Next Gen standards is a nice-looking, but ultimately hollow shell if it leaves out the underpinnings and concepts like cause and effect or systems analysis that cut across disciplines, Loehman says. It's a frustrating proposition to her, but she's heartened to see others react with the same disappointment that teachers have. "The fact that the community was out there for us being angry on our behalf was just so reaffirming," she says.

Both the Next Gen standards and the state proposal are lengthy. Despite the statement issued late Tuesday night, Ruszkowski has not released a formal version of what his department spokeswoman says is a new proposal on the way.

In middle school, spokeswoman Lida Alikhani wrote in an email, students will be expected to "construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth's 4.6-billion-year-old history." She also acknowledged that the state has been teaching the Earth's age as "more than 3.5 billion years" since old standards were adopted in 2003.

Middle schoolers will also have to "ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century" to achieve proficiency.

In high school, students must "make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems" and "construct an explanation based on evidence that the process of evolution primarily results from four factors."

Ruszkowski has declined to answer SFR's questions about how who he consulted before deciding on the proposed changes. A board convened by the state recommended that the department adopt unaltered standards as far back as 2013.

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