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Editorial: PED’s science standards are patently unscientific

Many in New Mexico – home to three research universities, three national labs and a penchant for attracting high-tech companies – are aghast that their Public Education Department plans to veer away from hard science in its classrooms.

With good reason.

While the core recommended standards are based on a science curriculum called the Next Generation Science Standards proposed in 2013 by a consortium of 26 states, just over a week ago, PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski unveiled proposed adjustments critics say omit references to evolution, rising global temperatures and the age of Earth from the state’s science curriculum. PED’s additions and deletions might sit well with far-right conservatives and evangelicals, but they fly in the face of accepted science.

And they are breathtaking in their offensiveness, both to the scientific method and the drive to strengthen STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Among the changes the PED proposes are: eliminating a reference to Earth’s “4.6-billion-year history” and replacing it with “geologic history” in the middle-school curriculum; omitting a reference to a “rise in global temperatures” and replacing it with “fluctuations” in temperature; and omitting the word “evolution” and replacing it with the phrase “biological diversity.”

In 2013, the PED’s own Math and Science Advisory Council unanimously supported adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards “as written without any modifications,” but former education Secretary Hanna Skandera never acted on the recommendation.

We are flummoxed over why a department that stresses data-driven results, even to the point of antagonizing many constituents, would ignore data to suggest such changes. To make matters worse, Ruszkowski trots out these clearly unscientific recommendations as educators and employers push hard for STEM courses in our public schools, and years into an administration that has fought to adjust teaching requirements so more professional scientists and mathematicians can lead K-12 classrooms.

Reaction has been decidedly one-sided. Kim Johnson, a physicist and former president of the New Mexico Academy of Science, says, “I’m certainly not going to move a high-tech company here, because I’m not going to get a scientifically educated population. … We’re doing the one thing in terms of educating our children that tends to push those kinds of businesses away.”

Ruszkowski says his proposal gives New Mexico an opportunity to update its science curriculum in a way that reflects the “diversity of perspectives” in New Mexico. But a “diversity of perspectives” belongs in sociology or theology class – it runs counter to the scientific process that, through experimentation and verification, turns theory into accepted fact or fiction, not something in between.

Whether Ruszkowski is bowing to political pressure to water down the science curriculum that New Mexico teachers will deliver to students – or simply doesn’t believe in climate change, evolution or scientific dating processes – his recommendations are deeply troubling and take New Mexico in the wrong direction for education and the new economy.

Fortunately, the PED is accepting written comments on its problematic proposal through Oct. 16 and will hold a public hearing on the proposed standards at 9 a.m. Oct. 16 at the Jerry Apodaca Education Building, 300 Don Gaspar Ave. in Santa Fe.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.