SANTA FE, N.M. -- New Mexico’s K-12 students will see a greater focus on race and ethnicity, including Native American history, in their curriculum over the next two years under new standards aimed at making social studies teaching more culturally responsive.
The New Mexico Public Education Department recently finalized the changes following months of debate that included pushback from parents worried their kids would be labeled racist. The standards don't mandate specific lessons or textbooks but will require school districts to increase their focus on social identities and understanding the world through the lens of race, class and privilege.
New Mexico is the latest Democratic-led state to approve new public school standards amid a move toward more open discussion of race. As in Washington and New York, the standards require students to identify and articulate their cultural identity starting in elementary school. Ethnic studies will now be part of the high school curriculum, though not required for graduation as in California.
A dozen other states have passed laws to restrict topics related to race and gender over concerns, particularly among the GOP, about “critical race theory,” which has become a catch-all term for identity politics in education. In Virginia, the governor is looking to root out all traces of “inherently divisive concepts” some parents believe could make children feel as if they are racist because of their skin color.
In New Mexico, hundreds of parents, teachers and grandparents weighed in for and against the proposed changes last fall. Officials heard public comments in thousands of letters and hundreds of appearances in an all-day Zoom forum.
Supporters backed a closer look at the history of Indigenous communities in the state and more discussion of race and identity at an earlier age.
The final rule, published Feb. 16, rebutted some criticisms about identity and integrated a plea for including personal finance in the curriculum changes.
School districts will begin training teachers on the new standards next year and implement them in the classroom in the fall of 2023.
It’s the state's first overhaul of social studies standards since 2001, expanding sections in history, geography, civics and economics.
The new standards change the way Native American histories are taught. In the coming years, students are more likely to study the state’s 23 tribes on their own terms and more in depth. In the past, that history was cursory and focused on comparing and contrasting with European conquerors.
State education officials are also under pressure to make the K-12 school system more relevant to the 11% of students who are Native American, owing in part to an ongoing lawsuit. A court ruled in 2018 that the state isn’t meeting the educational needs of Indigenous kids, and the education department has yet to release a plan to address the issues laid out by the court, and faces further litigation.
Alisa Diehl, an education attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty representing the plaintiffs, calls changes to the social studies standards a "first step toward providing a public education system that takes students’ cultures, languages and life experiences into account as required by our statutes and constitution.”
Opponents of the new approach expressed fears that children would be labeled as victims or oppressors based on their race.
Some commenters color-coded the entire proposed rule, identifying language that they saw as echoes of critical race theory, including phrases like “unequal power relations,” “privilege or systemic inequity,” and requirements that students identify their “group identity” starting in kindergarten.
The agency also removed “mentions of sexuality, communism, police brutality and gun violence following concerns raised by the public,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden.
The agency decided to keep the privilege, power and inequity language, and even increased the instances of those terms in an effort to make the language consistent across different sections of the final rule, in response to public comment.
The response to those criticisms stated that: “Critical race theory is suited for graduate school-level discussions, and is not contained in the standards.”
At the heart of the debate is whether discussing differences in the classroom hardens social divisions or softens them.
Earlier this month, Republicans in the New Mexico Legislature proposed banning critical race theory. They also proposed replacing leadership at the education department, currently appointed by the governor, with an elected board. Both measures failed.
In a letter to state education officials last week, released Wednesday, Republican leaders said they would advocate for districts to use wiggle room in the curriculum requirements to keep conservative textbooks and lesson plans. They said education officials ignored public opposition.
The department “had no real intention of making significant changes to the proposed standards which were clearly outside of the mainstream of New Mexico’s 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 her party fighting in a primary to take on the sitting governor, a Democrat.
“Whether they fit all the definitions of ‘critical race theory’ or not, the new standards appear designed to divide New Mexicans by race, ethnicity and economic status,” said Paul Gessing, president of the libertarian think tank Rio Grande Foundation.
Authors of the changes say identity has become a more important and more visible aspect of society and needs to be studied.
“It’s more like a deep exploration that there are identity differences that exist, and that everybody is not always going to think the same. But the level of respect for everybody’s varying opinions is what we want to bring out in the classroom,” said Irene Barry, an English teacher in Aztec, New Mexico.
Barry says the biggest changes in the social studies standards are an incremental introduction to social identity from K-12, and the expansion of civics and geography into high school. The previous standards didn’t focus on identity and wrapped up geography and civics in middle school.
Education department leaders said removing the language advocated by Barry and other teachers would devalue their work, despite the many objections from the public voiced in comments.
“You want to be respectful of them and their voice and the role they played in creating these (education standards),” said Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy secretary of teaching, learning and assessment for the education department.
In economics, the agency responded to public comments with sweeping changes, adding an entirely new section on personal finance, following a letter campaign backed by a local education policy think tank.
By fifth grade, students can be learning how to track spending and savings. In high school, standards include sections on understanding credit scores, the consequences of credit cards, and ways to build wealth with tools such as stocks, savings and real estate.
“New Mexico now joins the 45 other states that include personal finance in their K-12 education standards, which is an important first step to tackling intergenerational poverty,” said Abenicio Baldonado, education reform director for Think New Mexico, which promoted the letter campaign.
Baldonado is advocating for personal finance to be required for high school graduation.
This version has been corrected to reflect that the social studies standards were last overhauled in 2001, not 2009. It also has been updated with additional examples of changes implemented by the agency in response to public feedback.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.