Image: AP Photo/Mark Holm

On Monday, New Mexicans are gathering for a rally and public hearing about the future of the state’s educational science standards. The latest conflict over how to teach critical topics like climate change and evolution, it is part of a nationwide political and ideological saga as states slowly adopt Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—guidelines released in 2013 that cover kindergarten through 12th grade, and that are meant to make teaching science more engaging and relevant.

The New Mexico controversy fixates on proposed performance expectations associated with the standards. According to Santa Fe Public Schools board member Steven Carrillo, it’s one of the first times a state has tried to change some of the language of the performance expectations before adopting them. Carrillo called the proposed changes “a horrible step by the governor” that could set a “very dangerous precedent for other states” full of lawmakers eager to impress their religious views or political persuasions on their constituents’ educational systems.

“They want to change language around important issues like climate change, evolution, the age of the Earth, and things related to fossil fuels,” Carrillo told Earther. “In doing so, they are basically dumbing down the text and cheating kids out of learning real science.”

The NGSS have been adopted by 18 states and DC, and New Mexico was set to join that group earlier this year before Republican governor Susana Martinez vetoed a measure designed to force the adoption of new standards. At the time, Martinez said the rules were too strict and that the state’s education department was developing its own standards. In September, the New Mexico Public Education Department released a draft of those science standards. Additions and deletions to the original NGSS text have set off a series of harsh rebukes from residents and organizations across the state.

The proposed changes would remove the age of the Earth (4.6 billion years) and replace it simply with “geologic history.” They would also remove references to the rise in global temperatures over the last century (preferring “fluctuation”) and strike the term climate change from the text. The overhauled guidelines would take effect in July 2018 if they are adopted. In a state so closely associated with national laboratories and the history of modern science, the changes are drawing sharp criticism. Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists and the LANL Foundation, which focuses on advancing education in the state, have publicly challenged the standards, along with a number of school districts.

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According to the LANL scientists’ letter, the proposed “New Mexico STEM-Ready Science Standards...fall far short of what is needed to foster scientically literate students, compared to both the existing New Mexico science standards and the NGSS that are being adopted in many other states.”

“Understanding the human causes of climate change, biological common ancestry and natural selection, and Earth’s slow transformations are all essential to modern scientific literacy,” the letter states. “There is absolutely no scientific rationale for weakening the treatment of these subjects in New Mexico K–12 education.”

Carrillo said that Martinez has always been evasive on climate change (which would be in lockstep with the rest of the mainstream GOP) and that her motivations for pushing the revised standards may be more geared towards her political future than the state’s future prosperity. He said he hasn’t talked to one person involved in education in the state that supports the proposed standards, and that if they go through they might have to take the fight to the courts.

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He thinks Monday’s public hearing at the Capitol complex in Santa Fe is just an act of appeasement by the government after weeks of criticism, but that Martinez will do what she wants, as the government is under no obligation to respond to the hearing.

“This state is challenged in so many ways, being last in everything,” said Carrillo, referring to the state’s near-bottom ranking in nationwide educational reports. “Science is a foundational part of the state’s history and economy, for us to do this, well people are outraged.”

But Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski defended the new standards last week, saying they give teachers and families flexibility and local control over content.

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“These standards would allow for our students and teachers to focus on critical thinking and scientific inquiry,” Ruszkowski told local news outlet KOB. “And our districts will have the flexibility to decide how they want to go about teaching these standards. The PED is listening to very diverse perspectives from around the state, and will continue taking feedback and listening to the voices of all New Mexicans.”

When Martinez first vetoed the implementation of the NGSS standards in April, Rep. Andrés Romero (D-Albuquerque), co-sponsor of the bill that would have required their adoption, said “it’s unfortunate the governor would veto a bill aimed at making New Mexico students competitive in 21st century STEM education.”

“The Next Gen science standards are highly vetted standards that provide the best, most modern approaches and content to STEM education,” he said. “If our children are to be competitive in the modern world, they need to be held to the best standards available.”

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Only one state, West Virginia, has adopted only the performance expectations of the NGSS, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education—and there, he noted, the standards’ treatment of climate change was downgraded in a way similar to New Mexico.

Update, October 19th, 10:30am: In a very unexpected turnaround, on Tuesday night Ruszkowski released a statement saying the PED will revise the proposal and add concepts such as climate change and evolution. After weeks of protest against the controversial standards, culminating in a rally and public hearing on Monday, the decision appeared to be a bow to public pressure.

“We have listened to the thoughtful input received and will incorporate many of the suggestions into the New Mexico Standards,” said Ruszkowsk.