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New Mexico's Science Standards Do not Support the Concept of "Teach the Controversy"

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
New Mexico's Science Standards Do not Support the Concept of "Teach the Controversy"
Author(s): 
Marshall Berman and David Thomas
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2005
Date: 
May-August
Page(s): 
4–8
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
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 History

New 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 Distortion

The 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. ...

Further, "for-the-record" questions posed by ID-net confirmed that the SDE's [State Department of Education] 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.

Renick's final evaluation of the situation: "If there is ever a dispute over intent and meaning of the Standards in the area of biological evolution, these policy statements may be referenced for clarification ... [and] will essentially neutralize the impact of the remaining dogmatic language.

What the Standards Actually Say About Evolution

Here 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:

"[Students shall] [u]nderstand that reasonable people may disagree about some issues that are of interest to both science and religion (e.g., the origin of life on earth, the cause of the big bang, the future of earth)."
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.

5-8 Benchmark II: Understand how traits are passed from one generation to the next and how species evolve.

9-12 Benchmark II: Understand the genetic basis for inheritance and the basic concepts of biological evolution.
and:

Strand II, Standard II, 5–8 Benchmark II:

Biological Evolution

7. Describe how typical traits may change from generation to generation due to environmental influences (e.g., color of skin, shape of eyes, camouflage, shape of beak).

8. Explain that diversity within a species is developed by gradual changes over many generations.

9. Know that organisms can acquire unique characteristics through naturally occurring genetic variations.

10. Identify adaptations that favor the survival of organisms in their environments (e.g., camouflage, shape of beak).

11. Understand the process of natural selection.

12. Explain how species adapt to changes in the environment or become extinct and that extinction of species is common in the history of living things.

13. Know that the fossil record documents the appearance, diversification, and extinction of many life forms.
and:
Strand II, Standard II, 9–12 Benchmark I:

Biodiversity

8. Understand and explain the hierarchical classification scheme (i.e., domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), including:
classification of an organism into a category
similarity inferred from molecular structure (DNA) closely matching classification based on anatomical similarities
similarities of organisms reflecting evolutionary relationships.

9. Understand variation within and among species, including:
mutations and genetic drift
factors affecting the survival of an organism
natural selection
and:
Strand II, Standard II, 9–12 Benchmark II:

Biological Evolution

8. Describe the evidence for the first appearance of life on Earth as one-celled organisms, over 3.5 billion years ago, and for the later appearance of a diversity of multicellular organisms over millions of years.

9. Critically analyze the data and observations supporting the conclusion that the species living on Earth today are related by descent from the ancestral one-celled organisms.

10. 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.

11. Understand that evolution is a consequence of many factors, including the ability of organisms to reproduce, genetic variability, the effect of limited resources, and natural selection.

12. Explain how natural selection favors individuals who are better able to survive, reproduce, and leave offspring.

13. Analyze how evolution by natural selection and other mechanisms explains many phenomena including the fossil record of ancient life forms and similarities (both physical and molecular) among different species.


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" Claim

So 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.

Mr Renick tried to use our scientific-inquiry standards to attack our life-science standards when he addressed the Board of Education on the day of their final deliberations. However, the members of the New Mexico Board of Education saw science as a unified whole, not as a house divided against itself, and unanimously adopted the standards without modification or caveat.
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.

The board was poised for [its] final vote when Joe Renick attempted to distort the intention of the standards by suggesting that teachers had to treat evolution according to his own perspective. Using a tactic that focused on student inquiry, he tried to manipulate the meaning of scientific inquiry, as elaborated in the standards, into a discussion of a controversy that may be political, philosophical, or even religious, but is not scientific. The writing team was clear: There is no controversy regarding the principles of evolution as presented in the standards. Mr Renick's attempt to undermine the standards failed.

I was appalled at this attempt to discredit the hard work of so many educators, scientists, parents, and the public, including Mr Renick's fellow members of NM IDnet. Any statements that the New Mexico science standards open the door to "alternatives to evolution" or that science instruction in New Mexico should cast doubt on the principles of evolution are completely false. New Mexicans can be extremely proud of their science standards, and it is unfortunate that some people continue to advance misrepresentations at a time when we need support for strong science education.
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 Clarifications

As 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.

Further, because of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and a wide-reaching United States Supreme Court case, New Mexico public schools are not permitted to endorse a particular religion, teach religion, or teach "creation science" or any of its variations that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.

… Third, the state must remain neutral in matters pertaining to religion. In no way do the science standards support the teaching of notions of intelligent design or creation science or any of its variations.

Fourth, fundamental to science and the New Mexico science standards is the role of inquiry in learning about the world. There is no place in science instruction for the teaching of notions that are not or have not been investigated through rigorous scientific means or that are not consider by the mainstream scientific community to be consistent with sound scientific inquiry.
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.

Conclusion

The 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 [1]: 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.

About the Author(s): 
Marshall Berman
5408 Vista Sandia NE
Albuquerque NM 87111