In the US, most education standards are set by the individual states, and local communities are free to develop lesson plans that ensure that their students meet the state’s expectations. Unfortunately, that has often led to education standards becoming ideological battlegrounds, as different groups try to put their stamp on things like history education. Even more unfortunately, battles often break out over basic reality, as scientific topics that people reject for cultural or ideological reasons—think evolution and climate change—can get diluted or eliminated entirely from the state standards.
In an attempt to make it easier for states to handle science education a bit better, a group of prestigious scientific societies banded together to make their own science education standards. The resulting Next Generation Science Standards were offered to the states free of charge, allowing them to be adopted in their entirety or modified to fit a state’s needs.
Last week, it became apparent that New Mexico’s modification of the standards was a bit extreme, eliminating references to climate change, the age of the Earth, and evolution. And this week, some New Mexico legislators are blaming it on a misguided attempt to “politically sanitize” the science.
The problems came to light earlier in August, when New Mexico’s Public Education department released a formal notice that it was seeking input on new science standards. (The notice y changes in the rules are both available as .docx downloads.) Mother Jones decided to have a look at some of the changes, and they turned out to be rather striking.
For example, a mention of “Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old geologic history” was chopped down to “Earth’s history,” neatly getting rid of the information about how old it was. A reference to the evolution of life was cut entirely. The clear rise in global temperatures was swapped out in favor of talk about temperature fluctuations. In short, the proposed new standards get rid of basic facts, specifically in areas that are politically or culturally contentious.
The one thing that was missing was why. This wasn’t a case where local politicians had made messing with science education a part of their platform, as has happened in Texas and elsewhere.
Now, two Democratic lawmakers have pointed the finger at the state’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez. The lawmakers, Bill McCamley and G. Andrés Romero, use an editorial in the Las Cruces Sun-News to make their case. The two had been supporters of a bill that would see the Next Generation Science Standards adopted verbatim, a course that had been recommended by a panel of education experts organized by the state. The bill passed both houses of the state legislature, but was vetoed by Martinez, who complained that it would interfere with the executive branch’s vetting of the standards.
But McCamley and Romero allege that the vetting process is exactly what’s gone wrong here. They say that, at one of their committee hearings on the bill, a former state employee testified that, “Toward the end of my tenure at the Public Education Department, I was tasked to edit and change some of the language in the standards to make them politically sanitized.” Because evolution and climate change can be politically controversial, they apparently got sanitized.
New Mexico residents have until October 16 to voice their opinion on these edits, at which point the Public Education Department (it’s website’s ironic slogan: “Kids First, New Mexico Wins!”) will host a hearing to accept further input.
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