Scores decry new science standards

Opponents of state's proposed curriculum voice skepticism and push for alternative at public hearing

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It wasn't a traditional scientific experiment, but there was evidence that showed many New Mexicans do not want the state's proposed science standards.

More than 200 people showed up at the Public Education Department on Monday (Oct. 16) to voice opposition to the New Mexico STEM-Ready Standards, due to go into effect for state schools in July 2018. Of those, at least 70 spoke against the standards and many urged the state to instead adopt the Next Generation Science Standards during a nearly daylong public hearing aimed at gathering input about the plan.

By midafternoon, not one person spoke in favor of adopting the standards.

Those Next Generation Science Standards, developed 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 grades K-12.

Although some experts who have compared the two say that New Mexico's proposed standards use somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of the Next Generation Science Standards, the new plan nonetheless eliminates or waters down such important scientific concepts as evolution, the age of Earth, the human impact on climate change and global warming. The proposed standards also play up the importance of the oil and gas industry in New Mexico while downplaying the option of seeking alternative and renewable energy resources.

And that, critics say, opens the door for politics, big business and religion to come into the classroom.

"This hearing is not about science," said Marcus White, who told the assembly he works as an "IT" person at The University of New Mexico. "This hearing is about corruption."

White said he was referring to the education department's refusal to say who played a role in shaping the new standards, calling those proponents "faceless, nameless" entities.

Rabbi Neil Amswych, an outspoken critic of the new standards, said they "call into question the entire academic integrity of the Public Education Department."

He, too, rebuked the department for declining to say who was behind the standards, saying that points to a "behind locked doors" influence of creationists, oil lobbyists and politicians.

"It shows the dishonesty that is at the heart of this proposal," he said.

Other speakers voiced similar concerns in less heated tones. Los Lunas science teacher Lisa Durkin earned a laugh during the mostly somber meeting when she compared the standards to "too many burnt cookies in the batch." Those cookies, she added, "need to be tossed."

Some attendees told the five members of the hearing panel, led by Kimberly Ulibarri, the department's legislative program manager, that the standards will diminish critical thinking skills and make the state's children less competitive when seeking STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

"If our students don't come out [of school] with a good education, no one will want to employ them," said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces. He likened the department's handling of the new standards to a football game, saying its approach "is like fumbling the ball in the end zone."

Though Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski has repeatedly stressed the new standards' potential to better prepare students for college and careers, the criticism lobbed at the department since it unveiled those standards has been constant.

A number of statewide science groups, including the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Science Teachers Association, have urged the department to choose Next Generation Science Standards because they align with what many other states are doing and will make students more competitive in the job market.

During Monday's hearing, Eileen Everett, executive director of the Environmental Education Association, reiterated that request, but also said: "Most of what has been proposed in the New Mexico STEM-Ready Standards is a big, important step forward for our schools."

Even critics of the new proposal say that it is past time for the state to update its current standards, adopted in 2003 and modified in 2009, to meet the ever-changing needs of today's technological world.

Ruszkowski said the department created the standards after looking at what is being done in other states, though he did not give specifics. He also has repeatedly said that the standards reflect the state's diverse population.

In a statement released Monday, he said, the model will "create as much flexibility as possible for our local schools and districts ... today represents an important step forward in the state's comprehensive STEM-ready agenda, with new proposed standards that could replace our current, outdated standards."

Ruszkowski was not present during Monday's hearing, which also drew the ire of many in the crowd. But the state's secretaries of education have rarely if ever attended such public hearings in the past. Lida Alikhani, spokeswoman for the department, said Ruszkowski traveled to Roswell to visit a school Monday.

She said the department would review all the comments it received, including by email and regular mail, and will make a final decision over the next several weeks. Monday was the deadline for providing input.

The hearing was interrupted for close to 40 minutes around 10:15 a.m. when a fire alarm went off in the building, necessitating an evacuation. As fire marshals investigated the alarm, some in the crowd joked that someone pulled it to cause a distraction and break up the meeting.

Both a police officer and security officer on the site said they were told that someone had, in fact, pulled the alarm and that it was not a planned drill.

Santa Fe Assistant Fire Chief Jan Snyder confirmed that detail, saying fire personnel responded to "a false alarm ... someone pulled it maliciously."

Though Ulibarri and the other hearing officers were scheduled to end the meeting at noon, they took the fire alarm interruption into consideration and allowed attendees to provide input well into the afternoon. For the most part, the hearing officers listened attentively, if dispassionately, as a court reporter recorded the testimony.

Contact Nott at (505) 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.c­om. This story was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.

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