The School Committee’s Response: Newton schools remain focused on academic integrity

The Newton public schools have long been recognized as among the very best schools in Massachusetts and the United States. Their excellence has been achieved over many years by a community that enthusiastically supports its schools, outstanding teachers and educational leadership, and a constantly improving first-class curriculum for our 21 schools. Maintaining a high-performing school system requires that we remain focused on academic integrity, and reject politically motivated attempts to compromise or hijack our curriculum.

Recently, a small but vocal group of residents and nonresidents have leveled accusations against our school system, including charges that we use material that is anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and puts the United States and the West in a poor light. Some of the accusations have included what I consider to be offensive and bigoted comments about Muslims and Islam – comments that have no place in any community, let alone in an open meeting of the Newton School Committee.

The accusations often start with a sentence from a document that is taken out of context or altered in a way that changes its meaning. The accusations typically do not repeat a full passage or provide the background that the students have been given to help them understand how it is used. At times, the accusations seem to make reference to works that are not part of the curriculum. We are left with a hodgepodge of unrelated sentences and phrases, not recognizable as part of the original documents, accompanied by claims of horrible bias.

It is impossible for the School Department or School Committee to continually respond to allegations about materials we do not recognize or that are inaccurately portrayed. Shouting angry accusations at a School Committee meeting does not make them accurate. Repeating the same distorted sentence over and over does not make the accusation truthful. The McCarthyesque tactic of waving an unopened book and claiming it is filled with terrible prejudices does not mean that the book actually contains such biased material. As a School Committee member, I recognize that it is our responsibility to ensure the integrity of an excellent curriculum. It is also the responsibility of the School Department to address concerns from parents and the community when they are raised. However, it is inappropriate to alter our curriculum in order to appease particular political agendas. I find the notion that we use such hateful material and indoctrinate our students with anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel biases to be ridiculous. This is a not a situation where we believe it is OK to teach bigotry because of “academic freedom” – rather, I find the accusations to be contrived and false.

As a parent of four children who attend the Newton public schools, I have never seen these terrible biases in any of my children’s courses. Our school system has a large number of Jewish students, parents, teachers, and leaders (not to mention people of many other faiths sharing values of respect and tolerance). Does it really sound plausible that for years virtually everyone has unknowingly been the victim of the teaching of such horrible material?

Finally, as a practicing Jew who is serious about my religion, I am concerned that these tactics could be counterproductive in the larger community. Biases in American society and schools, including but not limited to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda, must be confronted, and dealt with firmly and swiftly. Distortions of Newton’s curriculum, risks lessening the attention paid where there is a real problem, like the boy who cried wolf.

The Newton public schools will continue to offer an outstanding education taught by top-quality teachers. It is our responsibility to ensure the integrity of our materials and deal swiftly with any problems in the curriculum, and we will continue to do so.

But we cannot address systematic problems that do not in fact exist. Furthermore, we risk poisoning everyone – current and future students and families, our educators, and our community – if we allow the politicization of our school system.

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