New Mexico’s proposed science standards leave out climate change

The changes have run into stiff opposition from scientists and teachers alike.

Protesters oppose proposed state science standards in New Mexico.
 (CREDIT: AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Protesters oppose proposed state science standards in New Mexico. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

The New Mexico Public Education Department has proposed changes to the state’s science curriculum that cast doubt on the consensus on climate change and evolution, changes that have prompted stiff opposition from scientists, public school teachers, and Democratic lawmakers.

The standards, known as Next Generation Science Standards, were developed by a consortium of states and the National Academy of Sciences and have been adopted by 18 states as well as the District of Columbia. New Mexico’s proposed revisions, however, include several unique changes proposed by the Public Education Department, such as replacing references to the “rise in global temperatures” with “fluctuations.” The curriculum would also teach students about the benefits of New Mexico’s oil and gas industry, while downplaying the role that fossil fuels play in global warming.

At a hearing on Monday, scientists, educators, and New Mexico legislators took turns decrying the proposed changes, arguing that teaching students false or incomplete science would put them at a disadvantage later in their educational or professional careers.

“They delete or diminish key concepts,” William Pockman, a professor and chairman of the biology department at the University of New Mexico, said during a hearing held at the state capitol. “Students trained to these standards may not be ready to keep up with their peers from states following more rigorous standards.”


Pockman also presented a letter criticizing the standards signed by nearly 150 faculty members and department heads from the University of New Mexico.

Public school employees also testified against the proposed changes, describing them as politically-motivated.

“I am appalled that the state of New Mexico would choose to disregard research-based standards in place of politically motivated and scientifically inaccurate information. By excluding scientific facts, educators would be asked to purposefully obstruct preparation for college, careers,” Melissa DeLaerentis, coordinator of a math and science learning center for Las Cruces Public Schools, said at the hearing. Los Alamos and Santa Fe school districts have also formally announced their opposition to the standards.

The Public Education Department has refused to name anyone that it met with in crafting the standards, citing a need to keep the names of those consulted confidential, but opponents fear that the oil and gas industry might have had an outsized-influence in the proposed changes. Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski, who was appointed in August, did not attend the hearing but released a statement arguing that the standards would give teachers and families “flexibility and local control around science materials, curriculum and content.”


The agency has also not said whether it will accept the new standards, and educators in the state have raised doubts that the agency would have the money or personnel to successfully implement the new standards by July — the deadline for which the standards would go into effect if approved. The state has not updated its science guidelines since 2003.

New Mexico is hardly the only state to cause controversy in re-writing its science standards to dismiss climate change. In February, the Idaho House Education Committee voted to approve new science standards for the state that rejected all reference of climate change and man’s role in the phenomenon. That vote set off a firestorm of criticism from scientists and educators, and lead the state’s education committee to consider reinserting information about climate science back into the curriculum — though the updated proposal simply advises students to “go and look at the evidence” to draw their own conclusions about climate science. In reality, the scientific community is nearly uniform in its consensus that the climate is changing and human activity is the primary cause.

With the Trump administration touting climate denial at the federal level, it seems that conservative organizations have become emboldened to try and sway educators across the country. In February, conservative think tank the Heartland Institute sent out 25,000 packages to educators across the country, which included the organization’s book “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming”, as well as a DVD contradicting the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. The materials came with a cover letter from Lennie Jarratt, project manager of Heartland’s Center for Transforming Education, asking teachers to “consider the possibility” that climate science is not settled. That language mirrors statements made by high-level Trump officials, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has consistently cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.

“It’s not science, but it’s dressed up to look like science,” the National Center for Science Education’s executive director Ann Reid told Frontline of the Heartland campaign at the time. “It’s clearly intended to confuse teachers.”