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Newton Superintendent Responds to Concerns About High School History Curriculum

Fleishman also responded with an FAQ about the high schools' history curriculum.

Updated Dec. 10, 10:50 a.m.

After a group of residents brought forward concerns about certain materials in Newton high school history classes, Superintendent David Fleishman offered information last week on how the curriculum is handled in the city's high schools. 

"There has been some public comment over the last year and talk about our history curriculum," Fleishman said. "We've [received] questions about our history curriculum from people who haven't been sitting in the audience."

The discussion started last year when a group of parents and residents brought forward concerns about an excerpt of the Arab World Studies Notebook that was handed out in a freshman history course at Newton South. 

The material, the group said, was "anti-Semitic" and "propaganda" that should not be distributed to students in the Newton Public Schools. The specific excerpt that the group brought forward spoke about Israeli defense forces and their treatment of Arab women.

In November 2011, Fleishman informed the group that Newton South Principal Joel Stembridge and history teachers had reviewed the curriculum and decided to remove the Arab World Studies Notebook from the learning plan. 

However, the group has continued to bring forward concerns about how the material got into the curriculum in the first place and what the Newton Public Schools does to review material for students.

"It's an error that needs to be addressed," Newton resident and political activist Charles Jacobs said at the Nov. 26, 2012 School Committee meeting. "We hope you investigate how this happened and tell the public what you find. It's the only right thing you can do."

The group also encouraged the school officials and residents to attend a forum held on Nov. 28 at Temple Emanuel to discuss middle east curriculum in public schools. The event, titled "The Middle East Conflict: Distorting the History of Israel in K-12 Curriculumin America," featured several panelists who spoke on the subject of bias and historical inaccuracies in public school textbooks and supplemental materials. [Updated Dec. 10, 2012]

As a response to the questions and concerns, Fleishman issued the following statement during last week's School Committee meeting. He also included an FAQ on the history curriculum in the high schools:

Overview of Newton’s High School Curriculum From David Fleishman, Superintendent of Schools

The Newton Public Schools value openness and critical thinking.  One of the gifts we give our students is the opportunity to carefully listen to and debate different perspectives.  Our children hear opinions and, especially now in the internet age, they are exposed to a multitude of viewpoints.  As a result, teaching critical thinking is an increasingly important skill.  We can present a range of perspectives, including those that are not widely accepted, and challenge students to examine evidence, debate the issues, and articulate their thoughts.  In this way, students gain skills to assess the quality of an argument and the claims that are made.  

With regard to the history curriculum in particular, our mission statement calls for students to “appreciate the historical and cultural influences that shape their individual identities, our national identity, and the cultures and countries that share our planet,” and to “learn to assess and interpret evidence, to understand change over time, to think logically and express themselves clearly.”  While much of our material is factual, we also present a range of opinions and perspectives.  Our educators work to ensure that students understand when they are receiving a point of view, as opposed to a proven fact. We do not teach students that they should agree with every perspective and point of view they encounter in our classrooms; we are focused on teaching students how to think, rather than what to think.

The high school curriculum begins with a two-year world history sequence—ninth grade is a survey of World History, covering 300 C.E. to 1775 followed by tenth grade World History, 1775-Present.  In eleventh grade the focus is on United States history, pre-civil war to contemporary times with particular attention to the changing role of American political institutions.  Grade twelveoffers a variety of courses and electives on topics ranging from AP European History, to Comparative Governments, Psychology, Race, Class and Gender, and more.

The ninth grade history curriculum includes a survey of world history in which students begin their studies with the golden ages of empires in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas and continue on to the dawning of the Industrial Age.  The ninth grade history curriculum covers the historicalorigins and basic beliefs of major world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. We strive to teach majority and mainstream interpretations of all the religions covered in the ninth grade course, recognizing that all religions have sects and adherents who differ in their interpretations of the faith. Our students learn the origins of each religion and the development of that religion over time; we teach religion from a historical rather than a theological point of view.

Correction [Dec. 10, 2012]: The event held at Temple Emanuel was presented by the Temple Emanuel Israel Action Committee and CJP and co-sponsored by the AJC Boston, Combined Israel Education Committee, Hadassah New England: Boston Chapter, Northern, Southern, and Western New England Regions, JCRC Boston and Prozdor High School of Hebrew College. It was not organized solely by the group who has spoken up at School Committee meetings.

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