Va. approves revised history texts, but some say they are still insufficient

September 30, 2011

The Virginia Board of Education has approved revised versions of two history textbooks found last year to contain inaccuracies and questionable research, a decision that is drawing criticism from some lawmakers and academics.

The errors and dubious scholarship in “Our Virginia: Past and Present” and “Our America to 1865,” both published by Five Ponds Press, will be fixed in the next editions, according to the state Department of Education, making the books appropriate for elementary and middle school classrooms. The board approved the books last week.

But politicians and professors who helped craft the state’s textbook adoption standards say fixing the errors isn’t enough. Books by a writer who is not a trained historian and who used questionable Internet research — as was the case with both titles — should not be in Virginia classrooms, they say.

“It’s stunning that so much accommodation is given to a publisher that probably shouldn’t exist in the first place,” said Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), sponsor of a new law intended to keep error-ridden textbooks out of students’ hands.

Increased scrutiny of textbooks caught dozens of errors in recent drafts of “Our Virginia” and “Our America,” including a reference to the “United States Navel Academy” and a misquote from Thomas Jefferson. The state approved these drafts contingent on Five Ponds addressing its concerns. But historians say the fact that such errors made it into the books casts doubt on the publisher’s credibility.

“I don’t have much confidence in these textbooks,” said Zachary Schrag, a history professor at George Mason University who enumerated his concerns in a four-page memo to the state.

The mistakes, mostly minor compared with errors in previous drafts, were not caught by experts Five Ponds was required to appoint to review the textbooks internally. Neither the company’s executives nor the author could be reached this week for comment.

The first editions of “Our Virginia” and “Our America,” which were distributed to elementary and middle school students across Virginia last fall — including those in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties — contained one particularly glaring inaccuracy: a claim that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. That claim is made by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans but disputed by mainstream historians.

Last year, the textbook’s author, Joy Masoff, told The Washington Post she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research.

State officials say the constructive feedback from academics proves that the new textbook standards are a success. But some experts still point to the fresh errors inserted into the texts.

“Some of the new problems seem to result from the author’s attempt to remedy omissions identified by experts; in those instances, she has added information without adequate historical explanation or conceptual clarity,” Carol Sheriff, a professor at the College of William and Mary, wrote to state education officials in August.

Still, Sheriff acknowledged, “the author seems to have responded diligently to the expert reviews.”

Five Ponds Press, based in Weston, Conn., has made a successful business out of tailoring textbooks to Virginia’s rapidly changing Standards of Learning. Most of its books are written by Masoff.

Some state politicians said the textbook review process will not be complete until the policy requires that authors are experts in the subjects they write about.

“I am very concerned to learn that the author of both ‘Our Virginia’ and ‘Our America,’ Joy Masoff, only has a bachelor of fine arts degree and does not have the credentials required of the reviewers of textbooks,” Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk) wrote in a letter to the Education Department.

Amid the controversy over its history books, Five Ponds announced on its Web site that it will release series of science textbooks, which it markets as “the first textbook series created to meet the needs of Virginia students using Virginia’s 2010 science standards.”

Five Ponds has told the Education Department that it does not intend to submit those books for state approval. That won’t necessarily keep them out of classrooms, though: School systems can adopt textbooks if they are not approved by the Board of Education.

“Anything from Five Ponds will get an extra level of scrutiny from us,” said Charles Pyle, an Education Department spokesman.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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