Public weighs in on science controversy

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Looming behind the battle over new K-12 science standards is the state’s purchase next year of textbooks and other instructional materials that will shape how science is taught in New Mexico well into the next decade, educators say.

New Mexico’s Public Education Department unveiled proposed science teaching standards last month that have attracted strong opposition from scientists, university groups, teachers and school board members who say the proposal omits clear references to evolution and climate change.

The 30-day public comment period ends Monday, and a public hearing scheduled that day is expected to attract a large crowd. As of Thursday, the PED has received nearly 200 written comments, most of them expressing concern.

The proposed science standards are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, issued in 2013 by a consortium of states and the National Academy of Sciences. But PED’s proposal included additions, deletions and changes to the original NGSS, and those changes are what is generating opposition.

The science standards proposed by PED contain 35 additional standards not found in the NGSS standards, according to an analysis by the state Science Teachers Association.

PED’s proposal also would eliminate one standard related to evolution and significantly change nine others, the association said.

Among those changes, the proposed standards would eliminate a reference to Earth’s “4.6 billion year history” and replace it with “geologic history” in the middle-school curriculum. While the standards include the concepts that make up evolution, it deletes the word “evolution.” It also replaces the word “rise” in global temperatures with “fluctuations” in temperature.

Both sides accuse the other of injecting politics into the issue.

“Changes and deletions from the (Next Generation Science Standards) are within the topics of evolution, Earth history and climate change,” the New Mexico Science Teachers Association said in a written response to the Public Education Department.

“Science is objective and nonpartisan; the proposed changes inject political opinions that do not represent the consensus of scientists worldwide.”

Christopher Ruszkowski, secretary designate of the PED, said most of the objections come from people who use every change proposed by the agency “to make political hay … there are those who are deciding either to call us political, or are being very political about their approach,” Ruszkowski said.

But he also said some of the critics “are very constructive,” and he leaves the door open to making further changes based on those discussions.

Update is needed

All parties agree that New Mexico needs to update its existing science standards, which were adopted in 2003. And most seem to support the Next Generation Science Standards.

But critics say PED’s proposed changes to those national standards would weaken the state’s science education and discourage technology companies from moving to New Mexico.

“We’re doing the one thing in terms of educating our children that tend to push those kinds of businesses away,” said Kim Johnson, a physicist and former president of the New Mexico Academy of Science.

Ruszkowski said the proposed standards offer the state an opportunity to improve the academic rigor of science education.

“The proposal on the table has an intensive focus on critical thinking and engineering skills,” he said. “These standards dramatically raise the bar for what our kids are expected to know and be able to do from a skill concept.”

Ruszkowski said the proposed alterations to the national standards are based on “stakeholder feedback,” but offered few specifics.

“We gather our stakeholders together and listen to stakeholders,” he said. “There were several groups and individuals across the state that weighed in from a variety of perspectives” over several years. PED also has collaborated with other states that have adapted NGSS in various ways.

Educators also say that altering the NGSS would make it difficult for New Mexico to attract publishers of textbooks and other materials that all have designed materials aligned to the national standards.

The standards have been adopted as written by 18 states and the District of Columbia that serve an estimated 35 percent of U.S. elementary and high school students. About a dozen states have adopted NGSS standards that include “fairly substantial changes,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

The textbook companies have responded to the fact that so many have adopted the standards without changes by developing texts that reflect the Next Gen standards, said Kathryn Watkins, a professor at the University of New Mexico College of Education. If New Mexico adopts the proposed changes to those standards, “it will limit the number of textbooks that will meet the criteria set by this new set of rules,” Watkins said.

Difficult implementation

Altering the national standards also would make it difficult for New Mexico to use a vast amount of material developed by California and other states to training teachers and administrators to implement the new standards.

“Associated with any kind of curriculum change, you have to have professional development,” said Ellen Loehman, a retired science teacher and a member of the New Mexico Science Teachers Association.

Ruszkowski said he believes New Mexico can use textbooks and other materials developed to align with the Next Generation Science Standards, even if the state adopts modified standards.

“I don’t see that as a major concern,” he said. He noted that several New Mexico school districts have purchased materials that align with the NGSS.

Among the groups that have provided public comments to PED is the New Mexico Science Teachers Association, which urged PED to adopt the Next Generation standards as written – a position the association has taken since 2013.

The 11-page letter sets out a variety of concerns with the proposed standards, including the tight schedule for buying materials and training educators.

PED’s schedule calls for issuing the new standards by July 2018, evaluating approved textbooks and materials during the 2018-2019 academic year, and issuing the new materials to schools statewide in 2019.

Proposed changes
Here are some of the sections altered by PED. Italics marks the changes.
MS-ESS1-4: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth’s 4.6 billion year old history. PED replaced Earth’s 4.6 billion year old history with geologic history.
HS-LS4-2: “Construct an explanation based on evidence that the process of evolution primarily results from four factors: (1) the potential for a species to increase in number, (2) the heritable genetic variation of individuals in a species due to mutation and sexual reproduction, (3) competition for limited resources, and (4) the proliferation of those organisms that are better able to survive and reproduce in the environment.
The words the process of evolution primarily results from four factors is replaced by biological diversity is influenced by:
MS-ESS3-5: Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures the past century.
The words the rise were replaced by fluctuations.
MS-ESS3-5 NM: This sentence would be added:
Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the fluctuation
in global temperatures, and consider the risks and benefits associated with technologies related to energy production.
MS-ESS3-3 NM: This sentence would be added:
Describe the benefits associated with technologies related to the location industries and energy production.

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