More than 650 pages of public comments submitted so far on the state’s proposed changes to K-12 social studies standards contain an array of reactions — from praise to concerns about how teachers will develop new lesson plans in such a short time and outrage over what some educators and Republican politicians decry as “divisive” and “leftist ideology.”
One thing is clear: New Mexico’s first social studies overhaul in more than a decade is a big deal.
The proposed standards, which would be introduced to students in the next school year, add events in modern history, regional Native American history and civics, and the history of the LGBTQ movement. They ask students to think critically about issues like equity and social justice.
Former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos, who co-chairs the Tribal Education Alliance, sees the updated standards as a “significant first step” in providing public school students with culturally competent curricula, as required under a state judge’s 2018 ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit.
“We consider this to be a watershed moment in light of a landmark decision,” Pecos said.
Others, however, cite the need for more time for school districts to review and consider the sweeping changes, plus time to implement them, as well as fears of dwindling local control over how teachers address sensitive topics in classrooms. One comment, attributed to Portales High School social studies teacher Wade Fraze, said the proposed standards would abuse parental rights by indoctrinating children.
The New Mexico Public Education Department will host a virtual public hearing Friday to gather input on the draft standards. That is also the deadline to submit written comments.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said at a school board meeting Thursday the local district will provide comments at the hearing.
The standards have guiding principles that expand the historical lens and include the perspectives of “all Americans,” he added.
District social studies coordinator Erica Wheeler, who helped write the draft proposal, told the board, “We’re excited about them and really do think they’ll provide the academic understanding as well as the academic skills required for the 21st century.”
Other districts are asking the state to slow down.
At least 10 school boards from Aztec to Artesia have passed identical resolutions calling for an extension of the public comment period to July 2022, when teachers would have to start building the new material into their lessons.
The Pojoaque Valley school board passed the resolution in late October. It cites concerns over the length of the proposed standards, a lack of stakeholder input before drafting them, learning losses from the coronavirus pandemic and the overwhelming workload for educators who are trying to help students catch up.
“There’s a very short time between the end of the comment period and the implementation period,” said Sondra Adams, superintendent of Pojoaque Valley Public Schools.
State Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who is vying for the GOP nomination in the governor’s race, is one of many Republican lawmakers who oppose the draft standards and repeatedly have called for the Public Education Department to extend the time allotted for public comment at this week’s hearing.
Instead, the department moved the hearing from in-person to online. Spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the change was due to the wide public interest in the issue and to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We hope that PED will listen to school districts, the parents, to the people in the minority who are saying this is not the right time and it’s not ready for implementation,” Dow said.
Heather Bassett, a policy analyst for Albuquerque Public Schools, called the proposed standards “a big shift.”
She has compiled feedback from teachers to submit to the Public Education Department. Teachers seem to be on board with the way the new standards address complicated aspects of history and identity, she said, noting many teachers may already address such topics in their classrooms.
“I think maybe the general public hasn’t given teachers enough credit for being able to handle controversial or divisive issues in the classroom. They do it every day,” Bassett said.
Still, she said some teachers fear it could be difficult to implement the standards, and they wonder if they will have enough support for the process. She said the district may recommend a slower implementation process.
They also have questions, she said: “What’s the accountability? Is there an end-of-course exam?”
Some of the sharpest criticisms of the standards have come from New Mexico Republicans who, like their conservative counterparts in other states, liken some of the principles students would learn to a concept in higher education called “critical race theory,” which explores how race plays out in the legal system.
According to the nonprofit Heritage Foundation, a public policy think tank, 21 states have introduced bills that would ban the teaching of critical race theory in public K-12 schools or colleges. Seven of those bills are now laws.
Virginia’s Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, a newcomer who defeated Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe last week, had vowed to ban critical race theory from public schools. Many people credited the stance for his election victory.
Depending on the outcome of Friday’s hearing, Dow said, New Mexico lawmakers may consider introducing legislation on how race is addressed in schools.
“I’m not against accurate history being taught,” Dow said; however, she added, “If we as a state are opposed to critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools, make it plain and say it.”
She declined to define critical race theory. “I’m not going to get into an entire college degree coursework,” she said.
But she said the concept shows up in parts of the standards that ask children to “process, identify and write in a narrative way about what would make America a just place to live.”
One section of the high school standards says students can demonstrate competency in “critical consciousness and perspectives” by “creating an action plan for a more just and equitable America for diverse groups of people including Native Americans and African Americans.”
Pecos — who praised parts of the new social studies standards, including a section that calls for students to know how different belief systems affect land use — said Friday’s hearing is an opportunity to assess opposition to standards aimed at viewing history from a variety of cultural and ethnic perspectives.
“How people respond to this public hearing will be the first kind of barometer of where New Mexico stands, comparatively speaking, with the nation,” he said.
After the hearing, the more than 60 local teachers who helped write the draft proposal will revise it based on public feedback. The state will then develop training resources and prepare to implement the standards in the 2022-23 school year.
Monte del Sol Charter School founding member and social studies teacher Wendy Leighton, who was on the writing team for the standards, said it’s important for people to understand the difference between standards, curricula and lesson plans.
Standards are state-issued guidelines showing what each student needs to know, but how students get there — through curriculum — is overseen by school boards and developed by local educators. Finally, she said, specific lesson plans based on curriculum are designed by a teacher.
“People can teach the standards in a multitude of ways,” she said.
Leighton described her time on the writing team as an “honor.”
“We have developed a very thorough, up-to-date, historically accurate social studies standard which will provide a well-rounded education, where all stories and voices will be heard,” she said. “This includes marginalized groups in history.”