Disputed Va. textbook wasn't reviewed by history experts

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 7:30 PM

State officials had no historian review the textbook "Our Virginia" before it was distributed to fourth-graders last month with a passage saying - wrongly, according to most scholars - that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The Virginia Department of Education has long said that its textbooks are vetted by review committees "made up of content specialists, teachers and other qualified persons." But department spokesman Charles Pyle said Thursday that the review committee for "Our Virginia" consisted entirely of three elementary school classroom teachers.

The passage, which state education officials this week instructed teachers to skip, has highlighted weaknesses in a vetting process that relies mainly on teachers who are paid $200 and given credit toward the renewal of their teaching licenses in exchange for serving on textbook review committees. Content specialist sometimes serve on textbook review committees, but none did when "Our Virginia" was being reviewed in 2009.

"We can't impress people into service," Pyle said.

The teachers, including one from Fairfax County and two from suburban Richmond, concluded that the textbook was "accurate and unbiased," recommending it for distribution to fourth-graders across the state.

Historians have challenged the textbook's statement that black soldiers fought in large numbers for the Confederacy. Some researchers, many of them affiliated with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group, make such claims, but Pyle acknowledged that such conclusions are "outside of mainstream Civil War scholarship."

Virginia is one of 20 states that have a textbook adoption processes, intended mostly to ensure that its textbooks adhere to the state's Standards of Learning. State officials have long said Virginia's textbook review process is among the country's most comprehensive.

But five of the 10 committees assigned to review elementary school social studies textbooks in Virginia last year did not include a specialist.

David Foster, a member of the Virginia Board of Education, which approved "Our Virginia" after the committee endorsed it, said he wasn't surprised by the committee's oversight. "We have limited resources," Foster said. "It would worry me if we had a lot of these problems, but the system seems not to have produced many."

Although "Our Virginia" followed most of the state's curriculum guidelines, the book's author, Joy Masoff, said she added the claim about black Confederate soldiers as "a little something extra."

In a chapter on the Civil War she wrote, "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson."

Masoff, who is not a trained historian, told The Washington Post this week that she substantiated that assertion primarily by doing an Internet search, which led her to the work of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and some other sources. The heritage group disputes the widely accepted conclusion that the struggle over slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Masoff said she was unaware that a number of her sources were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

After a review by the state committee, the public has 30 days to comment on proposed textbooks, which are made available at community centers and local universities. The Department of Education did not receive any complaints about "Our Virginia" before the board approved the book for distribution, Pyle said.

Some school systems have textbook review committees that decide which state-approved textbooks to use in classrooms. Many of them chose "Our Virginia" after it received the state's endorsement.

The publisher of "Our Virginia," Connecticut-based Five Ponds Press, announced Thursday that it will distribute "sticker labels" that can be used to conceal the questionable paragraph.

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