An apparent attempt to water down language about evolution and climate change in the guidelines for science education in New Mexico met with protests this week at an eventful public hearing at the Public Education Department’s offices in Santa Fe.
Hundreds of people — some of them demonstrating outside with signs — showed up to the event. The meeting lasted for hours, well past its noon deadline. At one point, someone interrupted the proceedings by setting off a fire alarm.
The attendants overwhelmingly called for officials to include evolution and climate change in proposed standards that would guide science education for public school students. That was on Monday, and it appears the New Mexico Public Education Department heard their complaints; on Tuesday, it announced that it would incorporate the public’s suggestions.
But some say that still wasn’t enough.
All of this began last month, when the state’s education department unveiled a proposal to update its standards for science education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
It borrowed language from the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of education guidelines that was released in 2013. (The standards, meant to be adopted — or at least adapted — by state-level education departments, were developed by a consortium of states and some national organizations like the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association.)
But there were some notable differences between those standards and the ones that ended up in New Mexico’s original proposal. As Mother Jones reported last month, a mention of “the rise in global temperatures” was changed to: “the fluctuation in global temperatures.” A reference to “4.6 billion years” as the approximate age of the earth was erased. So was at least one mention of “evolution,” though other references to it remained.
Suddenly, the rather bureaucratic process of updating educational standards became a hot-button issue, one with statewide implications for political discourse and religious freedom. “It’s the latest battlefield in an ongoing war about to what extent we’re actually going to let children learn about what scientists say about climate change,” said Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.
New Mexico’s two senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, wrote in an article on Medium last month that they were “disturbed” by the original language in the proposal. “If we weaken our science standards to advance an ideological agenda at the expense of scientific facts, we will put New Mexico at a distinct disadvantage,” they said.
Eileen Everett, the executive director of the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico, was at the public hearing on Monday. She said her organization, a nonprofit that promotes environmental education, has been pushing state officials to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards because New Mexico’s existing science education guidelines have not been updated since 2003.
“One thing our organization has said since the beginning of this is that science is science,” she said. “And evolution and climate change — using terms like that is rooted in science.”
Ms. Everett said she was happy that so many members of the public had come in person to Monday’s hearing, and that the public education department responded so quickly with revisions.
But as of Friday, the revised language still deviated from the Next Generation Science standards a little bit, according to analysis
from the Environmental Education Association. For instance, a line about middle school students using pictures to study embryonic development has been scrubbed.
And a line about high school students using computers to show the changing “relationships among earth systems” omits the phrase: “due to human activity.”
The proposal, which was to take effect next year, has not been finalized yet. It is unclear whether there will be further changes.
Climate change has become a politically charged issue, but a majority of scientists, as well as governmental and scientific organizations like NASA, the American Meteorological Society and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree that warming temperatures are existentially dangerous and caused by humans.
The theory of evolution is supported overwhelmingly by scientific consensus, but some people who believe in intelligent design claim that the theory is fundamentally flawed, and that the earth is thousands of years old rather than billions.
The Public Department of Education did not respond to questions about why the language about evolution and climate change was watered down in the first place.
“Our goal in holding a public hearing is to ensure all those who wanted to discuss these proposed standards would be heard,” said Christopher Ruszkowski, the state’s education secretary, in a statement on Wednesday. “We have listened to the thoughtful input received and will incorporate many of the suggestions into the New Mexico Standards.”
Mr. Branch of the National Center for Science Education said the proposed standards “remain inadequate” even after changes were made this week, and he questioned officials’ transparency on the issue.
“The origin of the changes is mysterious,” he said, adding that Mr. Ruszkowski “has been very vague about the source of the changes, and public records requests have met with stonewalling from the department.”
An article on Saturday about guidelines for science education in New Mexico misstated part of the name of a group that studies climate change. It is the Intergovernmental — not International — Panel on Climate Change.