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Many errors spotted in Va. history texts

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"Teachers are not reading textbooks front to back, and they're not in a position to identify the kinds of errors that historians could identify," Pyle said.

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The creation of Standards of Learning requirements helped create niche markets for smaller publishers, including Five Ponds Press. One of its early books was "Mali: Land of Gold & Glory," which, according to news reports, was crafted to fit a newly introduced Standards of Learning theme.

Five Ponds Press gradually expanded to other subject areas, filling a growing portion of Virginia's $70 million-a-year textbook market. Many larger publishers employ professional historians, but all of the books by Five Ponds Press have been written by Masoff, who is not a trained historian. Other titles by her include "Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty" and "Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments."

Scolnik said Five Ponds is in the process of hiring a professional historian from a Virginia university.

School districts choose textbooks from a list approved by the state. Among the factors is price. The books by Five Ponds Press often are less expensive than those produced by larger publishers.

Fauquier County uses "Our America." Loudoun County used "Our Virginia" but pulled it in October, after The Post's report. Fairfax County still uses "Our Virginia," and last week, a review committee in Prince William County recommended both "Our America" and "Our Virginia" for approval.

"They are willing to go to great lengths for our business. Their product is substantially less expensive than the committee's next highest-rated competitor - very appealing in these lean economic times," said Kenneth Bassett, Prince William's social studies supervisor.

He said the textbook was not the only state-approved option with inaccuracies. "Unfortunately, errors are not all that uncommon in textbooks," Bassett said. "For example, one of the other publisher's books we reviewed confused Mount Vernon and Monticello," he said.

Four of the five experts reviewed books published only by Five Ponds Press. The fifth reviewer, DePaul University sociology professor Christopher Einolf, has written a book on a Civil War general. He reviewed Civil War content in nine Virginia textbooks published by companies other than Five Ponds Press.

His review found that one book - from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - has particular problems. Einolf took issue with some characterizations, saying, for example, that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman did not "destroy" Atlanta but only portions of the city. Einolf also said that Pickett's Charge, which the book says involved 5,000 men, actually involved more than 10,000.

Calls to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt over the past week were not returned.

Einolf said many of the other books neglect key elements, such as the role of African Americans in 19th-century Virginia.

"Making a mistake is one thing. Ignoring the role that African Americans played in the state is almost as bad," Einolf said.

Historian Mary Miley Theobald, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor, reviewed "Our America" and concluded that it was "just too shocking for words."

"Any literate person could have opened that book and immediately found a mistake," she said.

Theobald's list of errors spanned 10 pages, including inaccurate claims that men in Colonial Virginia commonly wore full suits of armor and that no Americans survived the Battle of the Alamo. Most historians say that some survived.

sieffk@washpost.com


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