The state Public Education Department is updating its social studies standards for the first time in more than 20 years, and for educators like Wendy Leighton, a founding faculty member of Santa Fe’s Monte Del Sol Charter school, it’s a welcome change.
A social studies teacher and member of the LGBTQ community, Leighton said the current standards don’t require students to learn about the history of gay people, lesbians and other minorities in the U.S.
Leighton and Marie Fernandez, who teaches at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, are co-leading a group of teachers revising U.S. history and social studies standards for the state. In all, more than 60 educators throughout New Mexico — including a handful from Santa Fe Public Schools — are part of the writing team that will help modernize a variety of expectations for students.
Fernandez and Leighton said they are looking forward to incorporating themes like social justice and tribal sovereignty into U.S. history standards for New Mexico students. They say refreshing those measures will better challenge students and move them from the rote “yes” and “no” answers that often arise under the current curriculum.
“This is about teaching historically accurate history,” Leighton said.
But the writing team’s work is not without controversy. Potential updates have prompted Republican legislators and at least one superintendent to raise concerns the new standards will forward “critical race theory” — a concept that refers to ways structural racism perpetuates inequities in the legal system and elsewhere — in New Mexico schools.
Those warnings came last week in a letter signed by 17 GOP legislators to the Legislative Education Study Committee, in which they warned proponents of critical race theory would “… advance controversial agendas and impose their nontraditional values on unsuspecting children in the classroom.”
Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Renee Russ also wrote a letter to the Public Education Department, noting a “widespread concern of a strong correlation” between the revision of standards and critical race theory. She added the focus groups offered in her area “felt very staged and one-sided,” leaving attendees “questioning the motives and intent of the presenters.”
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said the group had not heard back from the Legislative Education Study Committee as of Tuesday.
Educators involved say the new standards aren’t informed by critical race theory.
The revised standards will be informed by eight guiding principles, according to documents provided to The New Mexican by the Public Education Department. They include one that aims to ensure divergence from a “singular Eurocentric cultural script,” and ensure equitable inclusion of “historical stories” from different races and ethnicities.
The plan, Leighton said, is to keep some existing standards and build from there.
Fernandez defended the process, contending it’s important to have history education “that’s more meaningful, that’s more connected to students’ lives and experiences.”
The term critical race theory entered the wider public sphere in 2020, largely after former President Donald Trump issued an executive order excluding any diversity and inclusion training from federal contracts that featured “divisive concepts,” “race or sex stereotyping” or “race or sex scapegoating.”
Since then, different bills across the country have arisen attempting to control how issues like race, sex and class are talked about in schools. In Idaho, a recently passed bill bars public institutions from compelling students to “personally affirm, adopt or adhere” to beliefs about race, sex or religion, according to the Atlantic magazine.
A news release that accompanied the representatives’ letter to the Legislative Education Study Committee describes the guiding principles as “extremely troubling” and containing “political buzz words” used to “impose non traditional values on unsuspecting children.”
The release addressed worries about critical race theory but didn’t provide a definition. When asked in an interview what the term meant to him, House Minority Leader Jim Townsend — who also signed the letter — did not provide one.
Instead, he said the state needed to better define the term. He added a number of constituents called legislators to inquire about the decision-making process around the standards, and who is involved.
“It should be open and transparent,” added Townsend, an Artesia Republican.
The Public Education Department has hired American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C.-based research nonprofit — it was called a “left-leaning think tank” in last week’s GOP news release — to facilitate the writing of the standards. PED has hosted focus group sessions at different schools around the state.
Montoya said guidelines calling for “divergence” from the “Eurocentric cultural script” would lead to erasure of Western culture and therefore Hispanic culture, and insisted that with the potential changes would come a push for critical race theory, which could even lead to anti-capitalist rhetoric in schools.
“If we’re going to go down that road, we should pull our kids out of the public schools and we need to rewrite our state pledge,” he said. “Because if you’re going to go down this road, it’s going to create division.”
This isn’t the first time social studies curriculum has sparked conversation in New Mexico.
Andrés Romero, the vice chairman of the Legislative Education Study Committee and a social studies teacher in Albuquerque, recalled that in 2017, the Public Education Department was scrutinized for crossing out certain historical events and figures, including Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, from exam study blueprints meant to aid teachers in preparing students for end-of-course exams.
In an interview last week, he invited more open conversations around the updated standards and also called for a revitalization of the current standards.
The Public Education Department maintains the standards will undergo the state’s rule-making process, which will involve a minimum 30-day public comment period and a public hearing after July, when the state anticipates the standards will be ready.
The agency hopes to release the standards in the next year along with professional development modules before fully implementing updated standards for the 2022-23 school year.
“The work we are doing is about inclusion, not exclusion,” Deputy Education Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment said in a statement provided by the Public Education Department. “We are adding important and previously missing perspectives and making sure our standards tell the stories of all our diverse communities and their contributions to the state and the nation.”