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Science standards don’t need New Mexico-only additions

I always told my middle-school students the story of Galileo and the Tower of Pisa because it’s such a good story. In all honesty, I had to add that we don’t have any direct evidence that he really did drop weights from the tower with his students standing below. It’s a powerful, should-be-true story because it illustrates an important scientific principle.

The story of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens 2,500 years ago to announce the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon, too, is a great, should-be-true story. The kicker, of course, is that after bringing the news, poor Pheidippides promptly died from physical exhaustion.

Public school teachers are asked to daily run a metaphorical marathon. The to-do list grows every year. The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) has been urged to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by virtually every stakeholder group. The NGSS is a full and complete K-12 set of standards that has interlocking and cross-connected science concepts. It comes with a full set of additional resources for support.

The PED has taken the NGSS and added dozens of additional standards. Many are quite state specific. Third-graders, for example, are exhorted to “Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments include the state fossil Coelophysis, a theropod dinosaur.”

As a native-born son and licensed secondary science teacher, I have to admit I could not name our state fossil. I don’t see how this provincial view does much except add a mile to the third-grade teachers’ marathon. It also does not have the support given by the NGSS standards and will never appear on a national test.

High school students are asked in one of the PED additions to “Explore and communicate a 21st Century innovation created by the National Laboratories in New Mexico that demonstrates how advances in technology enable further advances in science.” There is no question that Sandia and Los Alamos have made significant contributions to the advancement of science. Our students, however, are living in an ever-shrinking global world and should not be limited to exploring discoveries specifically from our labs. Limiting this exploration to the last 16 years seems very narrow, too.

In an ever-mobile world, there is much to be said for having national standards. The daughter of a military family that spends two or three years in New Mexico before moving to another state should expect to have the same curriculum from state to state. Colleges and universities will appreciate students who come to their halls of learning equally exposed to the wonders of science.

There is absolutely nothing to prevent any New Mexico teacher from using local examples. I cannot imagine a single teacher in Albuquerque explaining rifts and faults without having students look out a window or step outside to observe the Rio Grande Rift and the Sandia Mountains. Good science teaching always makes connections.

It’s unclear to those of us in the classroom just where these PED additions came from. In the time of Aristotle, it was thought that spontaneous generation was the answer to the origin of living organisms. Louis Pasteur demonstrated through experiment that life does not arise from non-living materials.

The PED would have us believe that the New Mexico specific standards were the result of some mysterious process that was akin to spontaneous generation. That’s not a good answer. A well-rounded committee of science teachers and curriculum experts should have been on the record in their development. But such a committee was really not needed because the additional standards are not needed.

The PED, in effect, has taken a world-class document and added to it a host of New Mexico specific standards written by an unknown and unreferenced source. This only increases the length of the marathon we are asking science teachers to run. No teacher should reach the finish line and die from exhaustion.

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