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Editorial: Forget Waldo, where’s Ruszkowski on science?

New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski did his cause no favors Monday by skipping a public hearing on his department’s controversial changes to proposed science standards.

Ruszkowski’s stunning absence was the most glaring, but far from the only, problem faced by an overflow crowd of scientists, teachers, university professors, faith leaders and students who voiced concerns over the proposed changes:

• The venue – the 100-seat auditorium of the Jerry Apodaca Education Building in Santa Fe – was far too small to accommodate even half of those hoping to speak.

• The timing – holding the hearing on a weekday prevented many of the teachers and students who will be most directly affected by the proposed changes from attending.

• The explanation – neither Ruszkowski nor anyone else in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration was available to answer questions, such as where the proposed changes originated. Ruszkowski has previously made a nebulous reference to “stakeholders” – but has not said who those stakeholders are.

• The response – not one PED representative offered a comment to concerns voiced in the seven-hour meeting.

PED had plenty of notice that its proposed changes to the state science teaching standards were causing widespread consternation and should have made sure the hearing’s venue and time were accommodating to the public. And Ruszkowski should have made sure his calendar was clear the day of the hearing.

PED’s proposal is based on teaching standards outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. The NGSS, published in 2013 by a consortium of states and the National Academy of Sciences, has been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia. And it has received widespread support in New Mexico.

But PED is proposing about 30 changes to them.

Of the dozens of speakers who managed to address hearing officer Kimberly Ulibarri and PED general counsel Dawn Mastalir on Monday, not one supported PED’s changes. In addition to the public comments, PED received nearly 200 written comments by last Thursday regarding the issue. A review of the comments, obtained by the Journal in response to an Inspection of Public Records request, show the vast majority oppose PED’s changes – even though they are not that sweeping.

They include replacing a reference to Earth’s “4.6-billion-year history” with “geologic history” in the middle-school curriculum, as well as deleting the word “evolution” and replacing “rise” in global temperatures with “fluctuations.”

Herbert Van Hecke, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, seemed to sum up what nearly everyone in Monday’s audience felt: “Science is based on facts, evidence and hard work. We are not doing kids any favors by allowing scientific flimflam into the classroom.”

Ruszkowski has said a decision on the proposed changes won’t be made until the public has had a chance to weigh in – and it did, loud and clear, Monday, despite the poor venue and time. The real question is if anyone was listening.

Ruszkowski said in an op-ed in the Journal he sees this moment as “another chance for collaboration, for us to come together to advance opportunities for all kids while demonstrating respect for the convictions of all New Mexicans.”

Even though Monday’s event didn’t seem much like a collaboration – especially without Ruszkowski’s presence – he has said he is listening. Let’s hope he heard that PED’s changes need to go to the dustbin of history where the earth is the center of the universe, you can sail off the edge of the planet and a mother’s thoughts create birth defects.

There is no question scientific discoveries advance, change and replace accepted principles, but PED’s changes to the Next Generation Science Standards take New Mexico K-12 science education backward. That’s a direction New Mexico students can’t afford to go.

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.

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