New Mexico has a vibrant scientific community, with two world-class national laboratories (Los Alamos and Sandia), the Santa Fe Institute, astronomical observatories dotting its southern mountains, research universities, and noted biomedical and microelectronic research facilities.
So perhaps it should not be such a surprise that when the state’s public education department said it wanted to make a few changes and deletions to the nationally recognized Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for public schools that the state’s scientists and educators rose up in defiance.
The proposed changes would have deleted key terms and concepts such as evolution and the 4.6-billion-year age of the Earth. Specifically, “evolution” would be called “biological diversity,” the specific age of the Earth would be changed to “geologic history,” and a “rise in global temperatures” would be changed to “temperature fluctuations.”
The secretary-designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department didn’t say who had asked for the changes, or why, except to make some vague reference to unspecified “stakeholders.”
The outcry was immediate, loud, and persistent.
The New Mexico Academy of Sciences, New Mexicans for Science and Reason, and the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Engineering all issued statements condemning the move. Local scientists and teachers organizations did the same. National science teacher and biology organizations joined in as well. The Albuquerque Journal did critical reporting on the effort and eventually editorialized against the changes. One issue of the Sunday Journal published nearly a full page of letters to the editor, all but one expressing concerns about the proposed revisions. Hundreds of people (including me) wrote letters and emails to the public education department opposing the changes. So many scientists, teachers, professors, even faith leaders attended a public hearing in Santa Fe to oppose the changes that many had to stand at the back doorway or out in the hall. “I didn’t hear a single argument against adopting the NGSS standards [without change],” said one participant, a physician, after listening to six hours of testimony.
And then, just as suddenly as the controversy arose, it ended. The Public Education Department announced on October 25 that it had decided to adopt the NGSS standards “in their entirety.” None of the changes to the science standards it had proposed the previous month would be made.
Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said the public debate had become a distraction to the vital work of implementing good standards to “raise the bar” on science education.
It was all over, a quick, intense, and somewhat perplexing flap—once again showing how vigilance is necessary and quick, overwhelming response can work in defending good science standards from those who would adulterate them.