NM focuses on race and ethnicity in K-12 grades

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People demonstrate November 12 outside the offices of the New Mexico Department of Public Education in Albuquerque. While conservative-led states try to restrict discussions of race, gender, and identity in the classroom, other states are trying to engender those discussions, including New Mexico. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

SANTA FE — New Mexico kindergarten through 12th graders will see a greater focus on race and ethnicity, including Native American history, in the curriculum over the next two years under new standards aimed to make the teaching of social studies more culturally appropriate.

The state’s Department of Public Education recently finalized the changes after months of debate that included the pushback from parents fearing their children would be labeled racist. The standards do not mandate specific courses or textbooks, but will require school districts to focus more on social identities and understand the world through the lens of race, class and privilege.

New Mexico is the latest Democratic-led state to approve new standards for public schools as part of a move toward more open discussion about race. As in Washington and New York, the standards require students to identify and articulate their cultural identity as early as elementary school. Ethnic studies will now be part of the high school curriculum, although it is not required for graduation, as in California.

A dozen other states have passed laws to restrict topics related to race and gender due to concerns, particularly among the GOP, about “critical race theory,” which has become a catch-all term. to refer to identity politics in education.

In New Mexico, hundreds of parents, teachers and grandparents weighed in for and against proposed changes last fall. Officials heard public comment in thousands of letters and hundreds of one-day Zoom forum appearances.

Proponents supported a deeper examination of the history of the state’s native communities and a deeper discussion of race and identity at an earlier age.

The final rule, released last month, rebutted some identity criticism and incorporated a plea for the inclusion of personal finance in the program.

School districts will begin training teachers on the new standards next year and implement them in the classroom in fall 2023.

This is the first overhaul of state social studies standards since 2001.

The new standards are changing the way Native American stories are taught. Students will be more likely to study the 23 tribes of the state on their own terms and in greater depth. In the past, this story was superficial, focusing on comparison and contrast with European conquerors.

State education officials are also under pressure to make the K-12 school system more relevant to the 11% of Native American students, in part because of an ongoing lawsuit. A court ruled in 2018 that the state was failing to meet the educational needs of Indigenous children.

Alisa Diehl, an education attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty representing the plaintiffs, calls the changes to social studies standards “a first step toward providing a public education system that takes into account cultures, students’ languages ​​and life experiences, as required by our bylaws and constitution.

Opponents of the new approach have expressed concern that children will be branded as victims or oppressors because of their race.

Some commentators color-coded the entire proposed rule, identifying language they saw as echoes of critical race theory, including phrases such as “unequal power relations,” “systemic privilege or inequity.” and requirements that students identify their “group identity” from in kindergarten.

The agency also removed “references to sexuality, communism, police brutality and gun violence following concerns raised by the public,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said.

The agency has decided to retain the language of privilege, power and inequity.

The response to these criticisms stated that: “Critical Race Theory is suitable for discussions at the graduate level and is not contained in the standards.”

At the heart of the debate is whether discussing differences in class hardens social divisions or lessens them.

Republicans in the state legislature had proposed outlawing critical race theory. They also proposed replacing the leadership of the education department, currently appointed by the governor, with an elected board. Both measures failed.

In a letter to state education officials, Republican leaders said they would advocate for districts to use flex in curriculum requirements to retain conservative textbooks and lesson plans. They said education officials ignored public opposition.

The department “had no real intention of making any meaningful changes to the proposed standards, which were clearly outside the mainstream of New Mexico values ​​and traditions,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by House Republican leaders, including Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences. Dow is one of three members of his party to fight in a primary to face the incumbent governor, a Democrat.

“Whether or not they fit every definition of ‘critical race theory,’ the new norms appear designed to divide New Mexicans by race, ethnicity and economic status,” said Paul Gessing, president of the group. Rio Grande Foundation libertarian think tank.

The authors of the changes say that identity has become a more important and visible aspect of society and must be studied.

“It feels more like an in-depth exploration of the fact that there are differences in identity and not everyone will always think the same. But the level of respect for everyone’s differing opinions is what we want to bring out in the classroom,” said Aztec English teacher Irene Barry.

Barry says the biggest changes in standards are a gradual introduction to social identity from K-12 and the expansion of civics and geography in high school. Previous standards did not focus on identity and encompassed geography and middle school civics.

PED leaders said removing language advocated by Barry and other teachers would devalue their work, despite numerous public objections voiced in the comments.

In economics, the agency responded to public feedback with sweeping changes, adding an all-new section on personal finance, following a letter-writing campaign backed by a local education policy think tank .

In fifth grade, students can learn to track expenses and savings. In high school, the standards include sections on understanding credit scores, the consequences of credit cards, and ways to build wealth with tools like stocks, savings, and real estate.

“New Mexico now joins the other 45 states that include personal finance in their K-12 education standards, which is an important first step in addressing intergenerational poverty,” said Abenicio Baldonado, director of reform. education for Think New Mexico, which promoted the letter-writing campaign. .

Baldonado advocates for personal finance to be mandatory for high school graduation.

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