New Mexico’s secretary of education says new and controversial proposed science standards for K-12 public schools were put together by the state Public Education Department based on input from “a bunch of different groups,” including “business groups, civic groups, teacher groups, superintendents.”
But it remains unclear which individuals and groups participated in the development of the teaching standards. Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski declined to name them, saying only that the process for drafting the proposal is “how PED does business.”
A public records request by The New Mexican in mid-September to get those names elicited this emailed response from the education department’s public records custodian, Beverly Friedman: “There are no documents in the custody or control of the PED that appear responsive to this request.”
In an email Tuesday, Lida Alikhani, a spokeswoman for the department, said those who provided input did so with the understanding that their suggestions would be kept private.
“For more than a year now, the Secretary and the PED team have been traveling the state celebrating student success and conducting unprecedented stakeholder engagement on just about every educational topic,” she said in the email. “Along the way, members of our communities, whether parents, teachers, principals, business leaders, or legislators, will pull the Secretary and team members aside and — in confidence — share their candid feedback and input, expecting their voices to be heard.”
In an interview earlier this week, Ruszkowski said the department heard from many New Mexicans who said they wanted the state to create science education standards that make better connections between science and New Mexico.
The new teaching guidelines do use examples of science- and technology-related industries and discoveries in the state to help capture students’ interest and encourage them to consider career opportunities. The standards have drawn widespread criticism, however, for omitting the age of Earth and all references to human-caused climate change, as well as for diminishing language on evolution and for promoting the benefits of the fossil-fuel industry.
The proposed standards are largely based on the Next Generation Science Standards created by the nonprofit National Science Teachers Association and the National Research Council. The national group’s guidelines, touted as a comprehensive and interactive approach to teaching science principles, have been adopted by 18 states. But New Mexico’s version leaves out what critics say are key concepts.
Critics of the proposed science standards also have voiced concerns about behind-the-scenes groups or individuals playing a role in shaping the standards.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation sent the education department a letter last week saying the process for developing the teaching standards “lacks transparency.” Although the department created a Math and Science Advisory Council in 2007 to help prepare the new standards, the foundation’s letter said: “The collective expertise and voice of the council was ignored, with no involvement in the revisions leading to these objectionable changes proposed by the PED.”
The council had recommended the state adopt the Next Generation Science Standards in full.
The LANL Foundation, which has more than $75 million in net assets and had a $3.5 million operating budget in 2016 to promote education — and for years has provided science materials and curriculum for hundreds of elementary school classrooms across Northern New Mexico — has emerged as one of the staunchest opponents of the proposed science education standards.
The foundation’s letter to the education department said the changes and omissions were politically motivated, overly simplistic and deliberately opaque.
“Furthermore, there has been no public explanation of why these changes are being proposed as well as from whom and from where they came,” the letter said.
Jenny Parks, chief executive officer of the LANL Foundation, and Gwen Warniment, who oversees K-12 science programs for the foundation, told The New Mexican in an email Tuesday, “As our letter signifies, we do have serious concerns about the proposed standards. We have had a conversation with the Secretary, and our understanding is that PED is having conversations with several stakeholders. We are hopeful that this signifies that they are listening and will respond.”
State education officials say they are taking the foundation’s concerns seriously.
Although Alikhani said the agency won’t revise the science education standards before a public hearing on the issue Oct. 16, she said in an email that “LANL’s feedback has been and will continue to be taken seriously — in terms of content, instruction, implementation, assessment, accountability, roll-out, and funding.”
Alikhani said the education department “conducted unprecedented stakeholder engagement” with groups across the state, especially as it developed its plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
“That collaboration will continue — both with LANL and with others partners that put New Mexico’s students first,” she said.
The proposed new science standards do have some supporters. Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in an email to The New Mexican: “As a national leader in energy production, which includes oil, natural gas and renewable, we support teaching our students how science, technology, engineering and math are used to develop natural resources in their own backyard.”
Ruszkowski said that after the Oct. 16 hearing, the department “will spend some time thinking about that feedback, considering that feedback and then we will move forward with new STEM-ready standards.”
The department is working to come up with an implementation plan and timeline, he said, and the state will have to consider what it will take to get the new standards in place, including professional development for teachers, both in terms of policy and budget.
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.