Proposed changes to New Mexico social studies standards have whipped up fears, but adjustments are nothing new to Santa Fe teachers

The viral videos of school board members facing a tirade from screaming parents seem distant in the mostly-progressive bubble of Santa Fe, but the reexamination of a controversial topic ended that peace last month.

That’s when New Mexico education officials began the public comment period for the state’s social studies standards.

A frothy anger—built largely around the oversimplified myth that historically accurate education would equate to discrimination in the classroom—has made headway in other parts of the country in the form of laws aimed at limiting teacher’s ability to discuss racial inequities and white privilege with students. So far five states—Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Tennessee—have signed bills to ban what’s commonly called “critical race theory,” a framework studied at the university level that explains how systemic racism enforces racial inequalities.

New Mexico has not been spared the CRT-induced rage.

Hundreds of written and verbal comments aimed at the draft of the social studies standards poured in during a public comment period that ended mid-November.

Of the standards’ 64 authors, 30 have agreed to work on revisions based on the public’s input and will provide final edits to the state Public Education Department this week. The department plans to submit the final standards for adoption by January, according to a spokeswoman.

The current standards, which last saw a complete overhaul in 2001, “leave New Mexico students with an incomplete understanding of the complex, multicultural world they live in,” according to a statement from the Public Education Department Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus.

Updates to the standards to address the lack of multicultural education aim to move the state toward compliance with the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court order, which requires officials to provide all students with an adequate education. By adding ethnic, cultural and identity studies to the standards, PED hopes to provide education that is relevant to English language learners and Indigenous students.

As one of the standards authors’, Wendy Leighton says, the chance to participate in the process was a “once in a career opportunity.”

Leighton’s eagerness stemmed from her desire to create a social studies curriculum that speaks to all New Mexicans, including voices that history has traditionally left out. This has been her goal while teaching social studies at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe for over two decades as one of the founding faculty.

Leighton knows other social studies educators who also approach the subject through a diverse, anti-oppression lens. But it’s difficult to know how many, given that their approach isn’t enshrined in the standards.

But with the updates, the “Public Education Department is saying that tribal sovereignty, social justice and sustainable futures are important,” says Leighton. “That’s a huge step forward for New Mexico.”

Leighton read and listened to practically every comment submitted, meticulously considering the feedback throughout the process—aside from the misformed statements associating the standards with CRT.

Much of the national outrage over CRT, and other pandemic-related frustrations, has been directed at local school boards. Kate Noble, Santa Fe’s school board president, says she and her colleagues on the board haven’t seen the same raw anger directed their way, in part, because the community has a clearer sense of who has final say over the social studies standards.

“In Santa Fe I think we have a savvy and a level of expertise around where these decisions are made, how they’re made, what the issues are,” Noble tells SFR. The board submitted written comments in favor of adopting the proposed standards.

Other school districts around New Mexico—Carlsbad and Alamogordo, to name two—requested additional time to review the standards given the immense workload facing educators and administrators during the pandemic.

While Santa Fe saw little controversy over the standards, less than 60 miles to the southwest, a recent school board election in Rio Rancho showed how close misinformation about CRT came to reaching New Mexico students.

A candidate for a board seat there, Patrick Brenner, lost the District 1 race to former Rio Rancho Principal, Gary Tripp, with 46% of the votes earlier in November. Brenner, a vice president with the self-styled libertarian think tank Rio Grande Foundation, wrote on his campaign’s blog that CRT “is very present” in the Rio Rancho schools. Brenner offered quotes from the district’s mandatory training on implicit bias as evidence of his claim.

For Adrian Sandoval, claims that CRT is embedded into the proposed framework are both false and distracting from the objective to revise the standards.

As a member of the advisory committee that provided recommendations to the standards’ authors, Sandoval wanted to ensure the overlooked aspects of history, the things lacking from textbooks that mirror gaps from his own experience teaching social studies, were discussed in New Mexico classrooms. Sandoval also directs the Center for the Education and Study of Diverse Populations at New Mexico Highlands University.

Sandoval says an emphasis on the “the notion of truth” should be the focus of social studies education statewide.

To do that, he explains, students need to hear a full range of perspectives—like the activism of the LGBTQ+ community during the AIDS epidemic or the role of women in World War I—because the whole spectrum of history isn’t contained in textbooks. Even teachers may not have learned these perspectives in their own education.

Esther Kovari, one of Leighton’s social studies colleagues at Monte del Sol Charter School, says she forgoes a textbook in her teaching of American history, which enables her to highlight the “muffled voices” that Sandoval worked to include in the new standards.

“I don’t think you can really understand what happened, subsequent to the Civil War, in this country, all the way up to today, without understanding how race was constructed as a concept,” Kovari tells SFR.

While the new standards won’t require Kovari to completely overhaul her curriculum in an effort to highlight perspectives of marginalized voices, she says the changes will provide an impetus for all teachers to give a more accurate representation of the country’s shared past.

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