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New Mexico's Science Standards Do not Support the Concept of "Teach the Controversy"
On August 21, 2005, The New York Times published an article entitled "Politicized scholars put evolution on the defensive." This otherwise excellent article unfortunately contained several errors that resulted from treating some false information from the Discovery Institute as accurate. One major error was accepting the claim that New Mexico has "embraced the institute's 'teach the controversy' approach." This is absolutely false, as the following evidence will show.
New Mexico Standards Development Process and HistoryNew Mexico's Public Education Department states on its website (http://www.nmlites.org/standards/science/index.html), "The Science Standards, Benchmarks, and Performance Standards revision process began in 2002. Writing teams consisting of educators and scientists developed draft standards, which were reviewed by teachers, scientists, parents, and other community members; over 200 responses were received during the review process."
On August 28, 2003, the New Mexico State Board of Education unanimously (13–0) approved a new set of public school science standards that had been strongly supported by scientists, science teachers, the New Mexico Conference of Churches, and dozens of other state and national organizations (see RNCSE 2003 Sep–Dec; 23 [5–6]: 9–12).
New Mexico Intelligent Design Network Intervention and DistortionThe evolution portions of these standards had been opposed by the New Mexico Intelligent Design Network (IDnet–NM; http:/www. nmidnet.org/) for many months, and they continued to propose massive wording changes right up to the day of the vote.
Four days before this vote, on August 24, IDnet–NM capped months of intense lobbying of state education officials by publishing a full-page ad (http://www.nmidnet.org/IDNet.pdf) in the Sunday Albuquerque Journal, saying that "the goal of completely objective language has not yet been met," and pleading for people to get involved.
What was the "objective language" that "intelligent design" promoters wanted? IDnet–NM posted a document on its website in the summer of 2003, entitled "IDnet–NM Proposal for Alternative and Added Language to the 2003 Field Review Draft Science Standards, dated May 27, 2003, Submitted to the individual members of the New Mexico State Board of Education, July 21, 2003."
In the proposal, IDnet–NM objected to the following draft standard as being "dogmatic":
Examine the data and observations supporting the conclusion that one-celled organisms evolved into increasingly complex multi-cellular organisms.IDnet–NM formally asked the State Board to replace that statement with this one:
Evaluate the data and observations that bear on the claim that one-celled organisms evolved into increasingly complex multi-cellular organisms.And what was finally adopted? Here's the statement the State Board approved 13–0 on August 28, 2003:
Understand the data, observations, and logic supporting the conclusion that species today evolved from earlier, distinctly different species, originating from the ancestral one-celled organisms.There were sixteen other changes proposed by IDnet–NM, and none of those was accepted by the Board of Education. IDnet–NM's plea to the board to delete the phrase "Explain how natural selection favors individuals who are better able to survive, reproduce, and leave offspring" was denied, as were all the rest of their suggestions. (For details, see the article "Do NM's science standards embrace intelligent design?" available on-line at http://www. nmsr.org/embrace.htm.)
However, just prior to the board vote, and to the shock and dismay of most of the audience and the board, Joe Renick, executive director of IDnet–NM, used his final opportunity for public comment to try to trick the Department of Education staff — Steven Sanchez and Sharon Dogruel in particular — into expressing support for his views and to try to "place on the record" his false interpretation of the board's support for the standards. This display of arrogance and disregard for the staff and the board was halted by board member Flora Sanchez. As reported by Diana Heil of the Santa Fe New Mexican (2003 Aug 29), "Board member Flora Sanchez put a stop to mixed messages, though. She clarified this point: The state is not asking teachers to present all the alternatives to evolution and 'put them on an equal footing.'"
Renick then reversed himself. The Albuquerque Journal reported (2003 Aug 29): "Joe Renick, executive director of the New Mexico branch of the Intelligent Design Network Inc, on Thursday reversed course and recommended that the board adopt the science standards without changing the language on evolution. 'All we wanted to do was have an opportunity to state our concerns,' Renick said after the board vote."
The IDnet–NM "intelligent design" strategy then metamorphosed into a different public relations approach to turn their defeat into victory. Two other members of IDnet–NM, Rebecca Keller and Michael Kent, wrote a letter to the Albuquerque Journal (2003 Sep 4) extolling the standards, but inserting once again their distorted view of what the standards say: "There must be an opportunity to analyze the data critically from an open philosophical view. This is an area where it is necessary to present the evidence and the arguments for and against, and let the students decide for themselves what to believe."
Renick then further advanced this propaganda in a piece for the the website of the Center for Reclaiming America, which describes itself as a project of D James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries which enables Christians "to defend and implement the Biblical principles on which our country was founded" (http://www.reclaimamerica.org/pages/NEWS/newspage.asp?story=1416). Disregarding the actual text in the standards, Renick bragged about his success, and considered his rude interrogation as "for-the-record" support for his misrepresenting the standards. The article reported:
While much language in the standards was not changed, an important caveat was added which stated in part, " ... these standards do not present scientific theory as absolute. ...
What the Standards Actually Say About EvolutionHere is the only portion of the New Mexico standards (available on-line at http://www.nmlites.org/standards/science/index.html) directly relevant to this issue:
Strand III, Content Standard V-A, Benchmark 9–12.16:Even the word "controversy" does not appear anywhere in the standards.
Here are some of the other standards related to evolution:
K-4 Benchmark II: Know that living things have similarities and differences and that living things change over time.and:
Strand II, Standard II, 5–8 Benchmark II:and:
Strand II, Standard II, 9–12 Benchmark I:and:
Strand II, Standard II, 9–12 Benchmark II:
Benchmark 9 above may be (deliberately?) misinterpreted by suggesting that "critically analyze" means "criticize" or "reject", when in fact it is intended to have the students apply the scientific method. Both Benchmarks 9 and 10 include the phrase "supporting the conclusion", with no suggestion that the conclusion is not, in fact, well-supported. The phrase "critically analyze" appears several times in the standards on other topics ranging from technology and scientific knowledge to ecology. It appears to be misused only by the "intelligent design" movement with reference to evolution.
Renick's "for-the-record" ClaimSo the standards themselves disprove the "intelligent design" propaganda. But the Center for Reclaiming America's article, which clearly relied on Renick, said that his "for-the-record" cross-examination "confirmed that the SDE's intent for the new standards was that (1) evolution would not be taught as absolute fact and (2) teachers would be allowed to discuss problems with evolution." His public attack was directed at two Education Department officials who managed and led the standards revision effort: Steven Sanchez and Sharon Dogruel. What do the victims of his interrogation say about this episode?
Steven Sanchez, former Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Learning Technologies, notes:
From the beginning of the development of these science standards to their adoption by the State Board of Education, we were guided by two principles. First, important content should be introduced in early grades and strengthened year after year, so that our students will be scientifically literate when they leave high school. Since evolution is the only accepted scientific theory of the history and unity of life on earth, it is unambiguously central to our life-science standards, beginning in middle school and with increasing sophistication in high school. Second, students should understand the process of scientific inquiry in addition to specific scientific content, so our standards require that students learn to use scientific thinking to develop questions, design and conduct experiments, analyze and evaluate results, make predictions, and communicate findings. In a classroom where those standards are met, students will understand that scientific methods produce scientific knowledge that is continually examined, validated, revised, or rejected, and they will understand the difference between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge.Sharon Dogruel, Program Manager, Curriculum, Instruction and Learning Technologies, said:
Over 14 months, members of the science standards writing team worked diligently to craft standards in which science content, scientific thinking and methods, and societal and personal aspects of science were integrated into a coherent framework for exemplary science education. Members of this team considered all issues at great depth and, in the area of biological evolution, they were confident that the standards respected the backgrounds and beliefs of all students while remaining perfectly true to science. Based on the extensive development and thorough public review process completed for the science standards, coupled with the strong support from New Mexico teachers, and the praise and congratulations from numerous state and national science organizations, the team and the Department recommended that the New Mexico State Board adopt the standards without further modification.It appears that Renick and the people he interrogated disagree about whether his comments reflected any reality in the standards. In our view, his behavior was boorish and his conclusions are disingenuous.
Official Public Education Department ClarificationsAs the "intelligent design" advocates continued to misinterpret the standards and even conduct teacher workshops to promote this misinformation, the Public Education Department issued two memoranda to all the state's school districts, describing in no uncertain terms how the department interpreted the standards; in addition, Berman also received a third memorandum. Excerpts from these three memoranda, written by Richard Reif, science consultant for the department, follow:
The Public Education Department requires all school districts to align their curricula to the New Mexico Science Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Performance Standards. Therefore, all science teachers in New Mexico should be teaching about evolution in the appropriate grades and courses, according to their districts' curricula.So far, nothing that the "intelligent design" movement has produced meets the criteria of acceptance by mainstream science or is consistent with sound scientific inquiry.
ConclusionThe claim that New Mexico's science standards support the teaching of "intelligent design" or any other alternative "theory" to evolution, or encourages teachers "to present the "evidence and the arguments for and against" evolution, is baseless and false.
Nevertheless, this disingenuous and/or self-deluding misrepresentation has been widely circulated, including by the Discovery Institute, which has published similar claims on its website. These misrepresentations have infected such outlets as the Washington Post, which claimed (2005 Mar 13) that "Alabama and Georgia legislators recently introduced bills to allow teachers to challenge evolutionary theory in the classroom. Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio [sic] have approved new rules allowing that," and The New York Times.
New Mexico is not the only state to have been misrepresented in "Politicized scholars put evolution on the defensive" (The New York Times 2005 Aug 21), which (like the Washington Post's article) claimed, "Ohio, New Mexico and Minnesota have embraced the institute's 'teach the controversy' approach. In Ohio, as Patricia Princehouse of Ohio Citizens for Science explained (RNCSE 2004 Jan/Feb; 24 : 5–6), the problem was not primarily with the standards but with the "secret process ... used to build the model curriculum in 2003, incorporating creationist mischaracterization not only of the content, but also of the process of science itself." As for Minnesota, Glenn Branch of NCSE reports that on seeing the story, he alerted a public relations official in the Minnesota Department of Education, who promptly e-mailed the Times to request a correction with regard to his state.
A correction of sorts followed in the August 24, 2005, edition of the Times, reading: "The article also referred incorrectly to recent changes in science standards adopted by Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico. While those states encourage critical analysis of evolution, they did not necessarily embrace the institute's 'teach the controversy' approach."
If there's anything to be learned from the saga, it's that claims from proponents of "intelligent design" ought to be taken, as we used to say in Latin class, cum grano salis — with a grain of salt.