Editor’s Note: New Mexico’s current social studies standards have been in place for 13 years. After working with teams of experts, educators and stakeholders, the New Mexico Public Education Department has proposed a new set of standards for public schools. This article explains how the proposed standards were written by educators and modified by input from stakeholders. It also provides a framework for reading the proposed standards in the hope that it will allow more fruitful discussions of the merits and drawbacks of the standards. Finally, the article addresses a significant misunderstanding ”—here in Sierra County and elsewhere—of a new content area, “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Studies,” and provides clarity about ECIS’s aims.
“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies
The New Mexico Public Education Department has been working since July 2020 to replace its subpar standards for social studies education in the state’s public schools with new standards that “focus on the knowledge, skills and dispositions critical to ensure ALL students in New Mexico are college, career, and civic ready.”
The current standards, which have been in effect since 2009, received grades of “C” in civics and “C-“ in history and an overall designation of “mediocre” from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which published an analysis of all states’ social studies standards in June. Additionally, a 2018 district court ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, which consolidated a number of education-equity advocacy group claims filed against NMPED and the state legislature, found that New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional obligation to prepare all students to be ready for college or careers. The mandated remedies included providing the state’s diverse student population with an education that was culturally and linguistically relevant.
GUIDANCE FROM DIVERSE STAKEHOLDERS
An advisory council, made up of members of higher education, cultural institutions and representatives from sovereign tribes, met to advise the NMPED on the development of the new standards. These stakeholders set the guiding principles (see text box), which the department’s technical advisor, American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan organization offering social science research and evaluation, described as “outlin[ing] the ways new standards should be changed.”
As summarized by AIR, the guiding principles specifically called for “incorporating more themes of power and oppression; social justice; equity and diversity; empowering students to develop pride in their identity, culture, and history; and mov[ing] the standards from a Eurocentric perspective towards an equitable inclusion of accurate historical stories that reflect . . . other cultural perspectives.”
After establishing the guiding principles, NMPED issued an open call to New Mexico’s K-12 teachers to write the standards. Judy Robinson, NMPED’s deputy communications director, told the Sun via email that there were 81 applicants. From that pool, 64 educators from 38 school districts and charter schools were selected to participate. There were no participants from the Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools.
“Professional credentials and experience were considered,” Robinson said of the selection process. “We looked for a balance of representation from all regions of the state as well as assuring equal representation of expertise at all levels K-12.”
Participants were placed on writing teams based on subject and grade level expertise. Each team had a lead writer who coordinated that team’s work. The educators worked for four months to draft the new standards
NMPED next sought input from stakeholders, issuing statewide invitations to the public to participate in the Zoom focus group sessions, using social media, newsletters to educators, principals and superintendents and other communications vehicles. A total of 187 individuals, none from Truth or Consequences, attended Zoom sessions over the week of May 31 through June 4. In addition to educators, stakeholders included 56 parents and four students.
The writing teams spent the remainder of June and July revising the standards based on stakeholder input. The next draft of the proposed standards was posted on NMPED’s website on Sept. 29 for the public to read and comment on. The period for posting comments ended on Nov 12.
The required 30-day comment period was extended by 15 days because the education department anticipated there would be considerable public interest in the draft proposals. According to NMPED’s Judy Robinson, the department received 2,909 pages of comments and heard from 107 participants during a public Zoom meeting held on Nov. 12.
The writing teams are currently meeting to consider the public comments and develop a final draft. Upon the completion of their work, NMPED is expected to adopt the new standards in January 2022.
Robinson said that NMPED will make teacher training modules available online. School districts will be able to use the modules as they wish
, and teachers can also use them for self-study.
PROPOSED NEW STANDARDS
At a first glance, the proposed new standards, outlined in a whopping 122-page draft, seem to represent an intimidating increase in demands on students and teachers; the former standards were contained in a mere 26 pages. However, a truer measure of the proposed changes can be found in the number of required performance standards for each content area.
For primary schoolers (K-4) the number of standards remain generally the same. For middle schoolers (grades 5-8), the number of standards increases as the students mature. The biggest increase in the number of performance standards falls upon high school students and teachers in the subject of history (New Mexico, U.S. and world). In the past, high school history scholars had to meet a little more than 100 performance standards; the draft proposed that they be required to meet more than 200 performance standards.
When questioned about this significant increase, Robinson explained in her email that the writing teams “referenced documents from the field, what other states had also included, and NM’s current standards. They included what they thought relevant to the students of NM.”
The proposed new standards are divided into six content areas. Four of them—”Civics and Government,” “Economics,” “Geography” and “History”—are the same as in the current standards. The new standards include two new content areas: “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Studies” and “Inquiry.” The draft color-codes each of the six areas to make them easier to track.
The areas are further divided into anchor standards—”the core ideas, at the heart of a discipline,” the draft states, that “establish the universal vision that defines what students should understand and be able to do.”
For example, in Civics and Government, there are four anchor standards for all grades:
- Civic and Political Institutions
- Processes, Rules and Laws
- Civic Dispositions and Democratic Principles
- Roles and Responsibilities of a Civic Life.
Students are required to show that they understand the concepts in the anchor standards by mastering performance standards, described in the draft as “specific grade-appropriate content to be mastered by the end of a specific grade.”
The Civics performance standards that a third grader, for example, would need to master are:
“Explain how the democratic principles motivate people to migrate then and now”—to demonstrate an understanding of the third anchor standard: “civic dispositions and democratic principles”
“Explain how to be a responsible and active citizen in a democracy”—to demonstrate the “roles and responsibilities of a civic life.”
While the old standards were separated only into primary-, middle- and high school-appropriate levels, the new standards are specific to each grade. This makes it somewhat easier for teachers and parents to understand what a child is expected to learn during each year of school.
CONCERNS OF THE TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES SCHOOL BOARD
State laws do not give public school boards a “role in adoption of state standards” NMPED’s Robinson told the Sun. “School boards,” she pointed out, “had the same access to the proposed standards as all other members of the public and the same right to read, review and comment on those standards.”
No T or C school board members’ names were included in written comments received by the NMPED. Board members did, however, make public their feelings about the proposed new standards at the most recent board meeting held on Nov. 8.
School superintendent Channell Segura, Ph.D., informed the board that she had sent out the new standards to all teachers and asked them to look at their grade levels and content area for anything controversial. The response she received was that there was nothing that could adversely affect classroom teaching.
However, Dr. Segura, as well as several of the board members, expressed concern about “sensitive issues” that might prompt “highly emotional responses from students or teachers.” The superintendent added that she wasn’t “sure that all teachers have facility to navigate discussions in safe and meaningful way.” Board member Christine LaFont echoed that concern, adding that if a teacher was not sensitive, “buttons could be pushed.”
The Sun asked NMPED’s Robinson about whether training might help teachers deal with issues of sensitivity. She responded: “Educators will be involved in the development of the NM Instructional Scope and will provide input on what professional development would be helpful.”
Another problem for the board members was the academic language used throughout the draft. Board member Julianne Stroup admitted that it made for difficult reading, and Chairperson Brett Smith complained about the “mumbo jumbo.” Board member Barbara Pearlman agreed, saying the proposals “could be put into simpler language.”
Judy Robinson told the Sun that public comment regarding language revisions will be considered for the final draft of the standards.
The opinions of the school board members about the standards themselves varied. Segura, LaFont and Pearlman pointed out positive aspects, while Stroup and Smith voiced strong sentiments in opposition. Board member Doug Whitehead was not present for the discussion.
“I like that there is more emphasis on cultures and critical thinking and looking at causes and effects for all groups,” LaFont said. However, she was concerned about the emphasis on teaching elementary students about different identity groups. “This is not the way to go,” LaFont argued. “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.”
In response, Pearlman related how proud she was of her heritage and lamented that “a lot of kids don’t know their own history.” Of the proposed standards overall, she said that she finds “a lot of it encouraging” and emphasized that the intent of the anchor principles is good, but that itemizing so many performance points was “ridiculous.”
“I don’t want this in our schools,” Stroup said.
Her remark echoed the nationwide consternation arising from the mistaken but widespread belief that educators are trying to sneak critical race theory into the K-12 curriculum. In a May 2021 article headlined “What is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is it Under Attack?”, Education Week explained that CRT, which is currently taught only at the college level, is an “academic concept” that assumes that “race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
“Our county is not a racist county,” Stroup insisted. “We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”
“I don’t differ from Julie,” Smith chimed in. “. . . I was never denied that atrocities happened in our history.” But, he counseled, one has to “go forward, can’t go back. I teach my kids not to be victims, to be responsible.”
MISUNDERSTANDING OF ETHNIC, CULTURAL AND IDENTITY STUDIES
The only action taken by T or C school board members regarding the new standards was to sign a resolution at their October meeting requesting that NMPED push back implementation so that districts, teachers and communities could have more time to do a closer reading of the proposed standards.
Dr. Segura had followed up on the board’s request, she reported at the November meeting, by speaking with New Mexico Representative Rebecca Dow (R-District 38) about a legislative push to hold off implementation.
When asked by email what legislation she would bring forward to slow down the implementation of the new standards, Representative Dow told the Sun that she would “be signing onto a bill to ban CRT in K-12 schools.”
There is no mention of CRT in the proposed standards, as school board member LaFont acknowledged during the November meeting. Nonetheless, some members of the board and audience at the November meeting were unaware of this fact.
NMPED’s Robinson confirmed that Critical Race Theory is not included in the standards. In an attempt to correct the misunderstanding, she explained: “CRT is a framework—one of many—that higher education scholars use to examine systemic racism. The term has been misunderstood—perhaps intentionally—as a catch-all by those opposed to broadening standards to be more representative and inclusive.”
Some of the confusion may lie in the fact that the draft does not give a clear, concise description of Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Studies. This lack of specificity may lead the discussion far afield from what NMPED hopes to accomplish with this addition to the standards.
Speaking officially for the education department, Judy Robinson provided the Sun with an explanation of ECIS’s impetus and intent. “The Yazzie/Martinez Consolidated lawsuit called attention to an existing reality about New Mexico public school students,” Robinson stated. “If you add together all the ‘focus groups’ identified in the lawsuit (Native American, English language learners, special needs, economically disadvantaged, highly mobile), you are defining a majority of New Mexico public school students. That reality creates a moral imperative to provide all New Mexico students with an education that is culturally and linguistically relevant. The teachers who wrote the proposed standards were responding to the moral imperative. The lawsuit added a legal imperative.”
ECIS PERFORMANCE STANDARDS EXPLICATED
The anchor standards in the ECIS content area of the draft are “Diversity and Identity”, “Identity in History” and “Community Equity Building.” These somewhat vague terms especially address the fifth and sixth guiding principles of the draft standards. It is possible to get a better understanding of the ECIS anchor standards by examining the performance standards that students will be expected to meet, which are reproduced in their entirety at the end of this article.
More than half of the performance standards for ECIS center around the anchor standard “Diversity and Identity.” Students must meet performance standards in this anchor standard at every grade level. At the kindergarten and primary school levels, the performance standards center on helping students to become aware of their own identities and to develop a positive attitude about themselves while also learning that others are different and learning to be respectful of those differences.
By middle school, students start to learn more about how the identities of different peoples have influenced their cultural histories and allowed access or set up barriers to inclusion in different aspects of society. Middle schoolers also develop an understanding of stereotypes and how they want others to see their own cultures. The performance standards of high school students reinforce what they have already examined in their earlier school years.
The anchor standard of “Identity in History” is a focus primarily of eighth grade and high school performance standards. Eighth graders begin to acquire an understanding of how people of different cultures experienced Colonial life and their roles in early American history. High school students learn about different ethnic and cultural identity groups in world history and in the United States. They discuss peoples’ countries of origin and whether they were native or came here voluntarily or by force. Students also examine how identity has affected power relations in this country in the past and present and how assimilation has changed various peoples.
The “Community Equity Building” performance standards begin with teaching younger children how to work with and respect those from other cultures. Later, students learn about groups that have worked to bring justice and fairness to all. They will also learn to understand how the ways various groups of people have been treated shapes their behaviors. Finally, in high school, students will learn about how different groups have contributed to our history, how they have been treated differently and what has been done to address inequities.