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Proposed bill would overhaul Va. textbook adoption process

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In the wake of a state review that found dozens of errors in Virginia social studies textbooks, Del. David Englin will introduce a bill Monday that would overhaul the state’s textbook adoption process.

The legislation would shift the responsibility of vetting textbooks from panels consisting mostly of school teachers to the publishers. Companies would have to be certified with the Virginia Board of Education before their books are approved for use in public schools. 

Last year, textbook review committees approved two books by Five Ponds Press — “Our Virginia, Past and Present” and “Our America to 1865” — that several state-appointed scholars found last month to have dozens of historical inaccuracies.

“As a legislator and a parent, I was shocked and appalled to learn that Virginia social studies textbooks had such egregious factual inaccuracies,” Englin (D-Alexandria) said. “As parents, the bare minimum we expect from textbooks is that the facts are correct.”

To receive state certification under the proposed bill, publishers would be forced to pledge, and later prove, that their books are reviewed by subject-area specialists whose expertise would be approved by the Board of Education. Publishers would also assume responsibility for correcting mistakes subsequently discovered by the board.

Virginia Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle declined to comment on the legislation but said the department would “provide technical assistance to legislators interested in submitting bills related to the textbook adoption process.”

The Education Department approves textbooks on a book-by-book basis, based largely on whether the content is consistent with the state’s Standards of Learning.  That process has opened the door to small publishers such as Five Ponds Press, whose books are tailored to the state’s curriculum but were not properly vetted for accuracy. 

The Washington Post reported in October that “Our Virginia,” provided to fourth-graders across the state, included a controversial assertion that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. The assertion is often made by Confederate heritage groups but is rejected by most historians.

The Education Department has acknowledged flaws in the textbook approval process, saying that it is hamstrung in part by a lack of resources. By shifting the onus to publishers, Englin hopes to reduce the number of errors in textbooks without using public dollars to hire a team of subject-area experts. 

The Board of Education would publish a list of certified textbook publishers on its Web site, but local school divisions would still be able to use books from publishers that are not certified.

“We want to make sure we’re allowing innovation in our content, and it’s not going to be possible for the board or for one small group of teachers to review every single piece of content,” said Rob Krupicka, a board member who helped formulate the bill. “The system now essentially relies on good graces of publishers, but we don’t have control over how their books are edited or validated.”

The bill appears consistent with a proposal last week from Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright to “require that publishers provide documentation that the books they submit have been reviewed by competent authorities who vouch for their accuracy.” 

Several pressing questions would be left in the hands of the Board of Education — such as whether books that have already been approved by the state should be reviewed. Six books published by Five Ponds Press are in use in elementary classrooms. Two were reviewed by state-appointed historians last month. 

Many publishing companies employ scholars to vet textbooks. Five Ponds Press has announced its intention to do so soon. 

Some historians, although pleased with Englin’s legislation, say the state should conduct a review, too. 

“The bill sounds like a step in the right direction in that it demands accountability from the publishers, but I think the Department of Education still has a responsibility to have its own independent content experts review textbooks before the state recommends them. The more safeguards in place, the better,” said Carol Sheriff, a history professor at the College of William and Mary. 

While the bill works its way through the General Assembly, local education officials will mull what to do with error-ridden textbooks that are now in students’ hands. Loudoun County stopped using “Our Virginia” in October. Fairfax officials, awaiting further feedback from the state and a response from the publisher, might stop using the book soon.

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