Va. lawmakers upset that publisher refuses to submit schoolbooks to state’s education department

Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly reported that Virginia lawmakers raised standards for textbooks to win state approval. New regulations to toughen textbook oversight were actually approved in March by the Virginia Board of Education, not the legislature. The article also misstated the date of an earlier legislative effort to toughen that process; Del. David L. Englin sponsored the bill in 2011. This version has been updated.


A sample page from the textbook "Our Virginia — Past & Present," produced by Five Ponds Press. (Courtesy of Five Ponds Press)
December 17, 2011

Several months after Virginia overhauled its textbook approval process in an effort to cleanse classrooms of error-ridden books, one publisher is refusing to submit its scholarship to the state Department of Education for review, angering legislators who supported the stronger regulations.

Five Ponds Press, which drew scrutiny last year after two of its widely distributed history textbooks were found to contain dozens of inaccuracies, is now planning to introduce a series of elementary school science textbooks that it will market directly to local school systems without seeking Richmond’s stamp of approval. The Connecticut-based company’s Web site heralds its “All Around Us” science series as “the first textbook series created to meet the needs of Virginia students using Virginia’s 2010 science standards.”

“It seems totally improper — and possibly even fraudulent — for a publisher to market directly to school divisions claiming to meet state standards without state review,” said Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), who sponsored legislation in January to toughen the state’s textbook approval process.

Five Ponds did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Washington Post, including an inquiry about the number of orders it has received for the science books. But the company has told teachers that the textbooks will ship by August — in time for the next school year.

Virginia schools are allowed to use textbooks that haven’t been approved by the state, but few do so. Last year, more than 95 percent of textbooks used in Virginia’s public classrooms came from the state-approved list, meaning they were reviewed by the Board of the Education. The state will not know how many school divisions have opted to use “All Around Us” until next year.

In the past, some school districts have pointed to cost as an important consideration in the textbook adoption process. Five Ponds textbooks historically have been less expensive than many of their competitors.

“Five Ponds Press has indicated to the department that it does not intend to submit science books for review,” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. He added that Five Ponds’s marketing campaign “should not be interpreted to mean it has the imprimatur of the state.”

Numerous errors discovered last year in Five Ponds social studies texts prompted Virginia officials to raise the standards that textbooks must meet to win state approval, implementing a more lengthy review process and adding oversight from subject area experts. After Englin introduced his bill to toughen oversight, a state House committee referred it to the Virginia Board of Education. The state board approved the revised textbook review process in March.

Twelve other publishers have developed textbooks based on the 2010 standards, but they have submitted their course materials to the state for approval. The approval process will continue for the next several months.

Englin said Five Ponds’s track record raises questions about the viability of its products in the absence of state review. He said for core subjects, such as elementary science, school systems should be required to choose textbooks from the state-approved list.

Some legislators say the company is exploiting a loophole that allows students to be taught from unproven scholarship. Others say they trust local school officials to use their judgement on what gets taught.

“There is the principle of buyer beware,” said Del. Christopher K. Peace (R-Hanover). “School divisions should care whether companies have attempted to certify their product. They’ll have to make an educated and informed decision.”

The third-grade edition of “All Around Us” lists several scholars from around the country who were consulted during the book’s creation. But the Board of Education reviewed neither their credentials nor the book’s content. Five Ponds hired several of its own reviewers. One of them told The Post that she was paid $75 an hour. The experts submitted comments and corrections to Five Ponds, and said they were impressed with the book.

At The Post’s request, Christopher Carone, a physics professor at the College of William and Mary, reviewed several chapters from the science textbook, which are available online to third-grade teachers. Carone said he “found three instances where the discussion was imprecise, usually including accurate and somewhat inaccurate statements in close proximity.” He said the errors were minor.

State officials said they expect a number of school districts to choose books that are not on the state-approved list, and they have released guidelines to advise them throughout the process.

“It’s in keeping with the ‘Virginia way’ to provide state achievement standards . . . but to leave day-to-day operations and purchasing to local school boards,” Pyle said.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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