PED proposes education changes

Taos science educators decry proposition

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Imagine a world where high school science teachers are no longer required to teach their students of evolution and climate change. This is the future many Taos teachers are expecting with the recent release of the proposed changes to the New Mexico science standards for public school students.

Teachers, students and parents statewide have expressed displeasure with the proposed changes, calling them a "watering down" of the existing educational curriculum for children in kindergarten through high school. Released with major changes to the existing curriculum, the proposed changes condense several articles in the standards and even omit some key words and phrases that relate to evolution, climate change and the history and age of the Earth.

"You've just affected [Advanced Placement] science on the environmental and biological sides," Taos High School science teacher Andy Leonard said on the removal of the subjects. "They are evidence based, and they are being removed. That's really what it boils down to."

AP classes at the high school follow international standards for the science curriculum. If lower-level classes make no mention of some of the concepts included in AP courses, the transition between the two levels will be more difficult for students, said teachers.

The proposed standards for high school students omit reference to the age of life on Earth - pegged at 3.5 billion years by scientists - and also remove mention of Earth being older than 4 billion years. Teachers say this takes away from important lessons and concepts for regular and advanced classes. In addition, the changes to the existing standards replace words like climate change with "climate fluctuation," something THS science teachers say is too close to political views associated with the current presidential administration.

"Are we happy with the science standards changes? No," said Taos Municipal Schools Superintendent Lillian Torrez. "Usually, we try and stay calm, but in this case, it's not good to stay calm."

According to Torrez, Taos, Santa Fe and Los Alamos school officials have drafted resolutions against the proposed standards and have collaborated in creating the documents. Both Santa Fe and Los Alamos school boards passed their resolutions, showing a direct opposition to the state's proposed standards.

These resolutions express the displeasure the districts have with the proposed changes and will seek to work with the state to develop standards that all can agree on. Within the resolutions, school officials are asking the state for the origin of the proposed changes, since schools across the state feel completely left out of the process. Teachers and school officials are instead asking the PED to adopt what are called "Next Generation Science Standards," a nationally recognized collection of standards worked on by several states, as well as the the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and others.

"One of the things we have done for the last several years is integrate much of the NGSS," said AP biology teacher Carla Chavez. "I think it gives us some of the tools to teach our students the things they really need to be successful, not just if they go on in science. I think we have been trying to move in that direction for a while now."

Science, engineering and application of both disciplines can be found in the Next Generation Science Standards, according to Taos High teachers. Teachers maintain that the key components of geology, evolution and climate are essential to their students' learning and plan to continue teaching the concepts to their students, regardless of what happens with the state's proposed changes to the standards.

State Public Education Department Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski is optimistic about the changes and says the new standards will better ready students for the world after school.

"Fundamentally, what should happen if they are implemented correctly, is that students are going to be doing better in reading, math, science and social studies," Ruszkowski said. "Our kids will be much more globally competitive in the next decade."

Ruszkowski said the state has included elements of the Next Generation Science Standards and wants to ensure that New Mexico local science issues are included with the content students will be learning. In this way, Ruszkowski said the state will maintain some of the control over what is taught. The proposed standards will keep some of the existing standards, such as information regarding New Mexico's involvement in the construction of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history, as well as writing and demonstrating chemical reactions through written formulas and lab experiments.

While the changes are just proposed at the moment, teachers are worried that omitting information in the standards might start with science and move to other subjects, such as history. State officials have yet to approve the proposed chances pending a public hearing Oct. 16, where teachers and the public will have the opportunity to voice their opinions to the PED.

"We'll read letters and comments, listen to folks - and we'll do our best to synthesize that feedback and make some decisions," said Ruszkowski. "I really think our proposal is a reflection of our constituents and constituencies."

The hearing is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 16 at the Jerry Apodaca Education Building, 300 Don Gaspar Ave., Santa Fe. The time of the meeting has drawn criticism from teachers, who say they will need to be in class, restricting their ability to voice their opinions at this meeting unless they find substitutes. Teachers at Taos High School are hoping to either send a representative or a written letter to the PED protesting a number of the new changes. Several members of the community are planning to make the trip to Santa Fe to represent the teachers.

"Science should not be based on a political agenda," said Chavez. "Science doesn't have boundaries, borders. Science is science, and one of the most important things about science is that we are able to collaborate with people from different disciplines, different communities, from different countries - and that's truly what science is about."

Ultimately, the drafting, proposition and implementation are done by the PED, according to Ruszkowski. The current standards were adopted by the state in 2003 and ratified last in 2009.

To see the proposed changes, visit ped.state.nm.us/ped/PublicNotices.html.

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