The state Public Education Department has agreed to eliminate the most controversial edits it made to the Next Generation Science Standards, but many opponents say those changes don’t go far enough.
Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said his department will restore a reference to the age of Earth and add the word “evolution” back into another section as a response to criticism raised by hundreds of scientists, teachers and others.
The revisions, however, appear to leave in place most of the state’s proposed edits to the NGSS that the Public Education Department announced last month. And while many cheered Ruszkowski’s announcement Wednesday, some continued to question why the department was changing the standards at all.
PED posted its proposed science standards on its website last month to update science teaching for students from kindergarten through high school. Those standards are based on the Next Generation Science Standards issued in 2013 by a consortium of states and the National Academy of Sciences. But the PED proposal contained a number of additions, omissions and changes to the national standards.
In the Public Education Department’s email announcing it would remove some of those the revisions Tuesday night, Ruszkowski said PED’s original proposal took into account standards adopted by other states and input from New Mexicans.
“Many states that have adopted higher standards have made adjustments based upon input from their communities,” he said. “New Mexico is no different.”
Ruszkowski also referred to a public hearing in Santa Fe this week, when hundreds of scientists, educators and others criticized the proposed standards.
“Similar to the process in other states,” he said, “our goal in holding a public hearing is to ensure all those who wanted to discuss these proposed standards would be heard. We have listened to the thoughtful input received and will incorporate many of the suggestions into the New Mexico Standards.”
Ruszkowski told the Journal on Wednesday that the state’s science standards have not been completely finalized, but he will release more information in the coming days.
A number of opponents say that if Ruszkowski was truly listening, he would adopt the Next Generation Science Standards in full.
At Monday’s public hearing, all 77 speakers were opposed to PED’s revisions. The debate also attracted national attention.
“The whole concept of changing the Next Generation Standards is silly,” said Kim Johnson, a physicist and former president of the New Mexico Academy of Science. “For goodness sakes, please do not mess with science.”
Johnson said Wednesday that PED’s new proposal still omits valuable information, such as a lesson comparing embryos from different species and a framework that provides teachers with guidance for their instruction.
Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education President Dave Peercy echoed that view.
“It was clear that everyone who spoke (at the public hearing) said ‘adopt the NGSS without changes,'” Peercy said. “PED can say they are listening. … No, they are not.”
The New Mexico Science Teacher Association has argued that the Next Generation Science Standards’ framework is critical to improving education across the state.
Ellen Loehman, a retired science teacher and a member of the New Mexico Science Teachers Association, said she believes the framework was dropped for political reasons.
“I think they didn’t like some of the words,” Loehman said. The framework, which is included in the NGSS as written, includes practical information, such as laboratory experiments, intended to help teach the performance standards.
State Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said he will reserve judgment on PED’s actions until he sees the final version of its work. But there’s no good reason for New Mexico to change standards crafted by national experts, he said.
“When almost every single scientist, every educator, every publication and a lot of businesses understand that this (original proposal) is going to be bad for education and bad for job creation, I don’t know why these were proposed in the first place,” he said.
Lesley Galyas, PED’s former math and science bureau chief, said in an interview Wednesday that she was directed to write changes to the national science standards by former Education Secretary Hanna Skandera and then-Deputy Secretary Ruszkowski.
Galyas said she resigned her post in November 2016 because she didn’t want her name associated with the changes.
The requested changes included omissions to evolution, human-caused climate change and the age of Earth, she said. Galyas said she turned in her final draft the day she resigned from PED. Still other changes were made after her resignation, she said.
Skandera, Ruszkowski and other members of a small policy group directed Galyas to make the changes over her objections that the action would anger leaders at the national laboratories, Intel and other large science and technology employers.
“I told them they were wrong – that they were underestimating the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) community and the science teachers,” said Galyas, who worked at PED from 2012 to 2016.
In response, Ruszkowski said PED used the Next Generation Science Standards as a starting point, while some other states crafted standards from scratch.
PED gave ample opportunity for public comment, both in writing and during the hearing, Ruszkowski said.
Some critics have claimed PED developed the science proposal under a veil of secrecy.
Ruszkowski “still refuses to disclose who exactly contributed the proposed changes, depriving New Mexicans from knowing who is influencing education in our State,” American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Stephanie Ly and Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said in a joint statement Tuesday.
Ruszkowski told the Journal that all New Mexicans had the opportunity to weigh in on the science standards, and it is his job to incorporate the input.
While Ruszkowski did not attend Monday’s hearing, he asked PED officials to keep the doors open as long as necessary to accommodate everyone who wanted to speak. Ultimately, the hearing ran for seven hours. However, many were turned away due to a lack of space.
Ruszkowski defended his decision to skip the hearing – the most controversial event of his four-month tenure – and instead visit a high-performing Roswell charter school.
“I wanted to keep my commitments to the Roswell community on Monday,” he said.
Typically, PED’s chief does not attend such hearings, Ruszkowski said, but he kept in regular contact with his team throughout the day.
PED released the new changes Tuesday night – roughly 20 hours after the public comment period closed – to respond quickly to the feedback, Ruszkowski said.
He reiterated his view that some opponents are using the science debate to take political shots at PED.
“I thought this would be an opportunity for New Mexico to pull together,” he said. “Some folks just want to keep the controversy alive instead of actually putting down their swords and moving forward for New Mexico kids.”
Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.