Sanitized Science

Why Are New Mexico schools teaching outdated science while new standards sit on the shelf?

A few weeks ago, in a cherry-wood-paneled committee room on the third floor of the Roundhouse, Lesley Galyas stood up and said what a lot of people seemed to be thinking.

New Mexico knows what it needs to do to give kids a better chance when it comes to science achievement, but there's something in the way.

Galyas joined the cabinet agency that oversees education in the state in 2012 and started updating a roadmap for science instruction that had not changed here since 2003. The former head of the New Mexico Public Education Department's Math and Science Bureau was floored by how it it ended.

"Toward the end of my tenure at the Public Education Department, I was tasked to edit and change some of the language in the standards to make them politically sanitized," Galyas announced as she rose to support a bill to enshrine the Next Generation Science Standards in state law.

By the time she spoke to the House Education Committee at the beginning of February, Galyas had left the job. New Mexico still hasn't updated the standards.

For four years, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera has had on her desk a unanimous recommendation from a hand-picked panel of math and science experts. They want the state to join a growing list of others that have adopted the nationally vetted Next Generation Science Standards. It's been two years since Skandera convened a focus group of 85 teachers, professors and school administrators to review new standards. That group also recommended NGSS adoption.

Still, nothing.

In questioning during three legislative committee hearings—at the behest of Democrats and Republicans alike—and after numerous phone calls and emails from SFR to both the Public Education Department and the governor's office, no one in Gov. Susana Martinez' administration will explain why.

The bedrock principles of NGSS are uncontroversial: teaching kids not just the latest science, but doing it using the latest research about how kids learn best.

The sensitive parts of the standards are a tiny but politically charged sliver: human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution. Those have been the sticking points for NGSS adoption in other states that, like New Mexico, lean heavily on revenues from extractive industries. And they were the only academic topics raised by senators and representatives who questioned the new standards this spring in the Capitol.

Martinez and Skandera refused to answer SFR's questions about their views on what's causing the earth's climate to change or whether humans evolved. Neither would say whether they ordered that the new standards be altered, delayed or scrapped.

Some districts and schools in New Mexico are so anxious to boost student performance that they are already incorporating Next Gen principles. The state's science proficiency numbers are beyond dismal. Just 39 percent of New Mexico high school juniors tested proficient in science last year. Girls lag behind boys; Hispanics and Native Americans trail Anglos. Experts and proponents of the new standards worry the world is well on its way to passing them by.

Reluctant Witness

If you go back and watch the archived video of the Feb. 8 committee hearing, hardly anyone in the room has a visible reaction to Galyas when she starts to speak. After a moment, though, Rep. Andrés Romero, D- Albuquerque, turns toward her. He is the lead sponsor of House Bill 211, which would force the standards into law. The bill passed the Legislature and Gov. Martinez has until April 7 to act on it. If she doesn't, it's as good as a veto.

"Anytime somebody says that they were told by their higher-ups to alter anything is pretty eyebrow-raising," Romero tells SFR, with regard to Gaylas' announcement that she was told to "politically sanitize" the standards. "I was surprised that she would mention that in an open committee meeting."

Galyas may have surprised herself; she did not testify in either of the next two committee hearings for the bill. SFR contacted her directly and through intermediaries. She declined to discuss the four years she spent trying to implement NGSS.

Public records show Galyas experienced a fair amount of disappointment. She expected easy approval of the new standards. Just before the 2013-2014 school year, she told a meeting of the Math and Science Advisory Council that she'd started the process for a rule change. She expected the clock to start on a 30-day public comment period that fall, for the standards to begin a rollout the next school year and full implementation through grade 12 by the 2018-2019 academic year. In November 2013, the advisory council unanimously endorsed the NGSS and the waiting began.

Throughout 2014, the council tracked the slow progress of the standards. In January and February 2015, the PED hosted a two-session focus group for teachers. Working with one of the lead writers of the proposed new standards, the group produced a 500-page comparison of the old standards and NGSS. That June, the focus group endorsed the NGSS "as written in its entirety" and laid out a timeline. In August 2015, the advisory council wrote a letter to Skandera reminding her that it had unanimously endorsed the NGSS two years earlier and urging adoption "as written without any modification" (emphasis by the council).

Since that letter, the process of adopting new science standards has stalled.

A Legislative Push

Rep. Romero took up the legislation this year to force the state to adopt the NGSS after Las Cruces Democrat Bill McCamley carried it for two sessions. One of the younger state representatives, Romero is a New Mexico native, a UNM master's graduate and a social studies teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in Albuquerque. He also shares a point of view with those who opposed his bill: He'd much rather see new standards created administratively by the PED, not by the Legislature creating a law. But he's not willing to wait any longer.

"There's a little bit of suspicion because there hasn't been a reason given as to why these standards haven't been adopted," Romero says. "It's been shrouded in mystery as to why they'd put this council together and then PED would never follow through. Even in their objection [to the bill], they mentioned that the standards need to be vetted through the department. Here we have standards that have been vetted over the past four or five years. They've been adopted by various school districts across the state. Is there something in the standards that they don't like—like human-caused climate change or evolution? I don't know of any other standards that they haven't adopted that have been as vetted."

The education department's start-and-stop approach to the NGSS confounds many of the people who are most intimately involved in the push to adopt new standards. Next Gen was developed with the help of Achieve, Inc., a private firm that helped create the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC standardized tests. Education Secretary Hanna Skandera is chair of the national PARCC board.

"My sense is that Hanna is in favor of it," Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard says. "I know that she directed her department to do a lot of great work." A Democrat who represents a Los Alamos-centered district full of Republicans and scientists, and a former teacher herself, Garcia Richard wouldn't say whether she believed Martinez or Skandera had been tinkering with the standards for political reasons.

“I know that PED has done great work in terms of anticipating implementation. They just have yet to push the button,” she says. Garcia Richard supported the bill in the House Education Committee she chairs as well as in a largely partisan House floor vote in which Democrats picked up just two Republican votes: Rep. Jason Harper, a scientist from Rio Rancho, and Rep. Jim Smith, a Sandia Park high school science teacher. After the vote, Rep. Jim Townsend, an Artesia oil man, posted on Facebook that the bill “would require PED to teach man made climate change, natural selection and evolution. Bad bill.”

In the Senate, retired pastor Craig Brandt, a Rio Rancho Republican, mounted a defense against the bill during the floor debate mainly because it would have placed standards in statute, in effect going over Skandera's head. In committee, though, Brandt questioned Romero about NGSS content: "They are treating climate change as settled science, is that correct? … I think you and I would disagree on that." The senator expressed similar doubts about evolution.

But even Republicans who voted against the bill raised questions about the department's progress toward science standards that can better help New Mexico students into a job market that increasingly favors science and engineering skills in top positions.

During the Feb. 8 committee meeting, Albuquerque attorney and Republican Rep. Jim Dines settled into a grilling of the PED staffer who had been dispatched to the committee. Why, Dines wanted to know, had it been four years of vetting without a decision from the department? The staffer had no answer. "It concerns me that we're here today and we don't have a timeline as to when the next step is going to be from PED," Dines said.

Like many of his colleagues, regardless of how he feels about human-caused climate change and evolution, Dines wasn't comfortable with ensconcing a specific set of education standards in state law.

Garcia Richard understands, but has a different view. "That's not what this is about," she says. "This is about the Legislature making a statement about how important we feel these standards are to the future of students."

Next Gen in the Classroom

In teacher Willow Gersh's fourth grade classroom at El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe, about 25 kids split into groups to discuss what physical weathering looks like. They're talking about erosion. They've already plopped four different kinds of rock into trays of white vinegar and are waiting to see the effects of chemical weathering.

After a few turns of kicking ideas around in smaller groups, the students sit down in a circle and an instructor asks questions. Hands are raised—with at least as many girls as boys jumping into the discussion—and then the kids start questioning each other. This is a key part of the Next Generation standards, which tout the "soft skills" of critical thinking and effective communication as a benefit.

The hallmark of NGSS is what developers call a dimensional approach. Students focus on physical and life science, earth and space science and engineering principles. Other concepts like recognizing patterns and cause-and-effect relationships cut across those disciplines. Finally, the standards ask students to actually build experiments and models to test what's being taught.

Gwen Perea Warniment, program director for the LANL Foundation’s Inquiry Science Education Consortium, sits in the circle encouraging discussion as Gersh looks on. Warniment works with eight school districts that have already incorporated parts of the NGSS into the current science curriculum. The foundation foots the bill for science kits that guide the way. There’s reading, but there’s also far more action than you’d normally see in a fourth grade science class.

The new standards are based not just on the latest scientific consensus, but on the latest principles of how students learn best. Since 1996, when New Mexico's current science standards were first promulgated, scientists have confirmed the age of the universe, probed dark matter, discovered subatomic particles, mapped the human genome—the list goes on. But educators also know volumes more about the learning process.

In addition to sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floors of various classrooms around New Mexico, Warniment also sits on the Math and Science Advisory Council. She very much favors adopting the standards she teaches—in full.

Is she worried that political and religious conflict over human-caused climate change and evolution are an obstacle?

"That's a heavy question," she sighs. "I have heard rumors to that effect. But I feel like it's important to trust in the goodwill and the professionalism of people in the Public Education Department. They know the richness of research that is behind these standards."

Still, she's been waiting years for action on the council's recommendation. For a scientist, she has a lot of faith in the people she advises in the agency.

"I would hope that they, just like the PED, want to pursue a process in which there is an open view to what's inside of the process and not necessarily quietly pass them through in a sanitized version," she says.

NGSS clearly accepts what the overwhelming majority of earth scientists believe: "Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate." The standards also speak about the fossil record and genetic evidence for evolution.

But here's one small irony: so do the current standards.

In middle school, New Mexican students learn how species evolve. They learn about the fossil record in seventh grade. In high school, they'll learn that the earth is more than 3.5 billion years old and that all life on Earth came from single-celled organisms. Teachers will tell them that human activity impacts the ozone and thus, global warming. There's no mention of creationism or intelligent design in the current standards. The closest the current standards come to broaching the debate that may be holding up the new standards is this: "Reasonable people may disagree about some issues that are of interest to both science and religion."

Other States

As of December, 18 states and Washington, DC had adopted Next Generation Science Standards. They cut across political preferences and include places as blue as California and Connecticut, as red as Kansas and Kentucky, as green as Oregon and Vermont.

In states like New Mexico, where extractive energy industries like coal, oil and natural gas exert a strong influence on state policy, addressing human-caused climate change has been particularly tricky.

Wyoming first reviewed its science standards in June 2012, but the effort to update them "failed miserably," Department of Education Communications Director Kari Eakins tells SFR.

The Next Gen standards were rolled out a year later, but the Wyoming Legislature meted out another failure when it banned all school districts from adopting NGSS. The standards became a campaign issue for state superintendent candidates that fall and, when the dust settled in June 2015, lawmakers repealed the year-old ban. Eakins says the Education Department spent more than $82,000 on a listening tour as it considered what to do next: "We did more public comment on this than on any one thing we'd ever done before."

The primary sticking point was climate change.

"There's no question that was the point of contention," Eakins says. "Wyoming is the nation's biggest coal producer and we invented fracking here. And as the argument goes, what are the two biggest things destroying our world? Coal and fracking."

The Education Department formed a review committee composed of parents, teachers, extractive industry representatives and school higher-ups that went through the NGSS line by line, Eakins says. It altered some of the standards, deleted others, and added new ones. On climate change, the group settled on "asking kids to be scientists."

"We leave it up to them to decide on the hot-topic issues," she says. "We are asking them to go through the scientific process and make up their own minds on, for example, whether climate change is human-caused."

She adds, "The sense is that people—parents, business folks, teachers—are pretty proud of the standards." The National Science Teachers Association, however, does not count Wyoming among the Next Gen adopters because it altered climate change language in the standards.

Kentucky was the second state, after Rhode Island, to adopt the NGSS in 2013.

When the Kentucky Board of Education held public meetings and recommended that the state adopt the standards, familiar points of contention arose, says Nancy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the state Education Department. After lawmakers balked, then-governor Steve Beshear overrode them and teachers began instructing on the NGSS two years ago.

Similar to New Mexico, Kentucky hadn’t reworked its science education standards since 2006. Rodriguez visited a classroom in early March and saw what proponents say is the right way to teach science. Rather than sitting in desks and listening to a lecture about electricity, students were assigned a project: Build an alarm using household items and a large battery.

Unlike Wyoming, Kentucky took the NGSS straight off the shelf without alteration. It's the same approach New Mexico's Math and Science Advisory Council recommends.

"People who were in opposition have remained in opposition," Rodriguez says, adding that there hasn't been any broad pushback from districts or teachers since Kentucky started down the NGSS path. "I think teachers have been really positive, excited and energized about it."

The state is in the process of developing an assessment test to measure progress.

The Search for a Fix

New Mexico has to do something. Students here lag behind their peers in other states and other countries, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Pew Research Center. In a state with two national laboratories, world-class telescopes, a handful of military bases, important archaeological sites and astounding geological variety, there's ample opportunity to get kids interested in science. Interested students learn more effectively and score better on assessments.

In Santa Fe, the proficiency rate of 39 percent would mean 173 graduates at Capital High won't measure up in science when they get a diploma this spring; at Santa Fe High, 161 seniors would fall short. There's little chance they'll ever catch up.

The LANL Foundation's flashy handouts feature a chart that measures lifetime earnings by college major. The top 10 are all in either engineering or computer science. They far outpace most disciplines, even biochemistry and economics. Supporters say that's exactly why the state needs to rethink how it teaches science and engineering right now. The best way for that to happen, they say, is to adopt the Next Gen standards as written.

"If we start saying we're going to start messing individually with this stuff for political purposes, we're getting away from the main point, which is to give kids the best knowledge possible to learn these principles and get those jobs that are available at the labs, at the spaceport, at the universities, at the other engineering firms," Rep. McCamley says.

Rep. Garcia Richard thinks that, at the very least, NGSS is worth a try. She's seen the proficiency scores that drop as interest wanes from fourth to 11th grade. She's also seen what happens when science and engineering mean something to students who might not otherwise even consider that they could be good at it.

"When I was a third grade teacher at Pojoaque," she recalls, "I had kids who just came alive when they encountered science in this way."

Jeff Proctor contributed reporting to this story.

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.