In a surprise turnaround, the state secretary of public education announced Tuesday night (Oct. 17) that his department will revise its controversial proposal for new science teaching standards, adding concepts that had been omitted, such as evolution, global warming and Earth’s age.
The move came just a day after hundreds of scientists, educators and faith leaders attended a hearing on the standards and dozens voiced opposition to them, saying the teaching guidelines would weaken science education and could open the classroom door to politics, big business and religion.
“We wish they wouldn’t rewrite anything and accept the Next Generation Science Standards that the national science teachers endorse and most of the nation is following,” said Julianna Matz, a Taos High School science teacher, after she heard the news. “We are thrilled they didn’t follow through [with the proposed changes], but are curious as to what they will do.”
Monday’s (Oct. 16) hearing followed weeks of criticism, both in the state and at the national level – not only for the content of the standards, but also because of a lack of transparency regarding who influenced the process of creating them. The Public Education Department has refused to release the names of those who pushed for certain scientific principles to be struck from the teaching guidelines.
Taos Municipal Schools was among several districts that sent a letter to the state opposing the changes to the science standards.
Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski released a statement Tuesday night (Oct. 17) indicating the public comments and protests paid off. “We have listened to the thoughtful input received and will incorporate many of the suggestions into the New Mexico Standards,” he said.
The goal of Monday’s hearing was “to ensure all those who wanted to discuss these proposed standards would be heard,” Ruszkowski added.
Since first posting the proposed standards on its website last month, the Public Education Department has come under fire from educators, scientists and others for eliminating any reference to humans’ impact on global temperatures and the environment, the age of the planet and many of the principles of evolution, among other concepts.
The overhauled standards, largely based on a set of science benchmarks crafted by two national nonprofits composed of scientists and science educators – but altered to remove several key concepts – were set to go into effect in July 2018 if they were adopted.
Tuesday’s news that the guidelines won’t be adopted in their current form was met with approval by several vocal critics, including Santa Fe school board member Steven Carrillo, who had organized a “teach-in” of science lessons at the education department’s headquarters Friday (Oct. 13) as a demonstration against the standards.
“This is a very positive development,” Carrillo said. “It definitely shows that they are putting kids and science education first. I hope that this begins a trend in trusting science and teaching professionals to guide education.”
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, echoed that thought, saying, “It definitely seems like a step in the right direction and shows that the secretary listened to the overwhelming public input.”
Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom, who has been an outspoken critic of the standards, also praised the education department’s decision.
“It is heartening to see the PED respond so positively to the enormous public outcry against their first draft of the new standards,” he said, “and hopefully this is a sign of the possible constructive dialogue moving forward. PED should be proud of this first step in improving science education in New Mexico.”
Still, Amswych said, problems remain. For instance, teachers will be expected to learn and teach 35 new standards, which could lessen their impact, he said. Because the education department has refused to say who was involved in creating the standards, he added, he believes that “hidden meetings with unnamed individuals” played a role. Amswych made similar comments during Monday’s hearing.
Several people who weighed in on Ruszkowski’s announcement Tuesday night – including state Sen. Bill Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat and a former educator; Eileen Everett, executive director of the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico; and Meredith Machen, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico – said they hope the department will go further and adopt in full the Next Generation Science Standards.
Those standards, created by scientists and educators from both the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association, have been adopted by nearly 20 states and are seen as a comprehensive and interactive way to teach science in public schools.
Ruszkowski did not say whether the department will adopt Next Generation Science Standards.
According to his statement, however, the education department will reinstate some of the missing language that had galvanized critics.
For example, the new language says middle schoolers will be asked to use “evidence from rock strata for how the geological timescale is used to organize Earth’s 4.6 billion-year-old history.” High schoolers will use evidence to explore the process of evolution and also analyze data to “make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.”
Soules, who attempted to attend Monday’s hearing but was told he could not get in because the room was full, filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office, asking it to investigate whether the education department violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to have an overflow room prepared.
He said the education department “should have anticipated the overflow crowd.”