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Students pitch in to make NM social studies standards more culturally relevant

Nash Jones
Ivan Torres, junior at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, N.M. and district lead for Diversify Our Narrative, is advising the New Mexico Public Education Department as it revamps its social studies standards.

New Mexico’s social studies standards haven’t been fully overhauled in 20 years, even though the state says best practice is to do so every decade. It’s happening now, guided by a team of 64 New Mexico educators, with an eye toward making lessons more culturally relevant. A group of students is informing the process, too.

Ivan Torres is a junior at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho. He is part of a team that consults with education officials and shares their expertise as students with marginalized identities.

“Saying ‘OK, this is what we’ve seen, this is what could be improved, this is how it’s like as a student’,” he said. “Not just from an educational or policy perspective, but a real-life perspective of what it’s going to look like in the classroom.”

Torres mostly attended Title 1 schools in Albuquerque, and as a Hispanic student, he said he’s seen first-hand the disparities brought to light by the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit

Revamping outdated social studies standards is part of complying with the judge’s ruling that New Mexico provides an insufficient education to some students. Torres’ group, Diversify Our Narrative, is contributing to the effort.

“To sadly say: racism exists in today’s education system. And it’s time to root it out,” said Torres. “It’s time to give a fair and accurate education for all students, no matter what background you come from, of what truly happened in our state.”

Torres said including ethnic and cultural studies in public school lessons will impact him and his peers well beyond the classroom. 

“It’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life,” he said. “It informs your own life choices. You learn how prejudice and injustice was latent in our history, and how we can move forward from that.” 

Jacqueline Costales, the state’s division director for Curriculum and Instruction, said the most significant change is the addition of two content areas: inquiry, and ethic, cultural and identity studies. 

“Can they see themselves in both in history and in the future of the country?” she asked. “And for our kindergarten students, can they see themselves in just their classroom conversations?”

She said diverse representation can have far-reaching effects. 

“Students who can bring their full selves to the table in their learning are actually able to perform higher in their academics,” she said, “because they’ve developed a sense of identity, wellness, and a sense of who they are in relation to their community.”

The state Republican Party and numerous public commenters raised issues with what they are calling Critical Race Theory being integrated into New Mexico classrooms, echoing a national trend of protests over teaching about race and culture in K-12 schools. 

Costales said Critical Race Theory is primarily used in higher education to study law and policy, and PED agrees it should not be taught to K-12 students. But, she added, CRT is not in the proposed standards. Plus, she emphasized that districts, educators and parents will have significant control over the curricula, including textbooks. 

“How it comes to life in a lesson plan, and what specifically will be the academic objective related to that standard, is created at the local level,” she said.  

A deputy secretary with the Education Department told lawmakers they received over 2,700 pages of written feedback in the expanded 46-day public comment period, which concluded this month with over five hours of spoken comment at a public meeting online. 

Costales said the department is taking the feedback seriously as they begin revisions. 

“I’m going to trust our educators that have volunteered to participate in this process to really have that debate with each other,” she said. “And to get to a middle ground that’s representative of that feedback.”

Superintendents and others requested more time to implement the new standards after they are adopted, so the rollout has been pushed to the 2023/2024 school year. 

This public service is part of our #YourNMGov project, in collaboration with KUNM radio. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.