Local school officials favor state neutrality in science curriculum
New Mexico Public Education Department to adopt standards without controversial proposals
FARMINGTON — New Mexico students will be learning the same science curriculum as many students across the United States after a controversial proposal was scrapped recently by the New Mexico Public Education Department.
In October, the state education department considered adopting science standards that strayed from the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia since they were published in 2013, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
The standards were written by a consortium of 26 states and several science education organizations, including the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to the standards’ website.
Though Next Generation’s writers advise states to adopt the standard in whole without alteration, the standards are a framework that individual states can elect to make changes or additions to. For example, PED’s proposed standards included New Mexico science and society requirements, including a requirement that high school students “identify important questions that science cannot answer… (and) identify ways that science plays a role in many different kinds of careers and activities.”
However, critics say that in the proposed standards the state also watered down language on controversial topics like climate change and evolution. Mother Jones reported that a mention of “the rise in global temperatures” was changed to “the fluctuation in global temperatures,” and some references to the scientifically accepted age of the earth — 4.6 billion years old — and evolution were removed.
However, after public outcry and protests outside the Public Education Department offices in Santa Fe on Oct. 16, the state walked back on the proposed changes, announcing it would adopt the New Generation Science Standards with no changes, except state-specific additions, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported on Oct. 25.
Eugene Schmidt, superintendent of Farmington Municipal School District, weighed in on the issue during public testimony with a letter to PED, asking the state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards without the proposed changes.
“I asked that that be our state’s decision, because when our state students are compared to other students in the nation, we would want a similar empirical belief in science,” Schmidt said on Oct. 27. “… It did make sense to do some of the new (state-specific) standards — that I’m still going to study a little bit more — because they’re unique to New Mexico, but I think the important thing is take the politics out of education and let kids learn what students from other states are learning.”
Bloomfield School District Superintendent Kim Mizell declined to comment on the proposed standards, but she said she supports the Next Generation Science Standards as originally written.
“I’m fine with the Next Generation state standards for science,” Mizell said on Nov. 2. “They’re progressive. They’re in the 21st century. They are moving forward with what our students need to understand and know to be successful in a technologically enhanced world.”
Kirk Carpenter, superintendent of Aztec School District, said it’s important to keep language “neutral” in standards, but that controversial topics shouldn’t be something schools shy away from.
“As you present any kind of subject matter, you have to do it in an unbiased manner and move forward,” Carpenter said. “Our kids in schools have to be able to go through subject matter and be able to deal with it. We can’t protect our kids to the extent where we can’t cover what may be seen as these controversial issues.”
That’s part of the point of a science education, Hermosa Middle School science teacher Cindy Colomb said — to use critical thinking to wade through controversial topics in science and form opinions based on fact and research.
Part of New Mexico’s science curriculum is and has been teaching and exploring the difference between scientific law — which are accepted statements based on repeated experimental observations “that cannot be disputed” — and scientific theory, which are well-substantiated explanations based on a body of facts repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment that “is still gathering data and evidence to support just a theory,” Colomb said.
“To teach science better, we have to teach them how to critique science, but we have to give them the tools that they can (use) and they have to make a decision,” Colomb said. “I don’t really want the state to determine what children believe spiritually. I think that’s the family’s job, but to teach them how to be critical thinkers goes in line with that (science curriculum).”
Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.