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Many errors spotted in Va. history texts

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; A01

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917).

These are among the dozens of errors historians have found since Virginia officials ordered a review of textbooks by Five Ponds Press, the publisher responsible for a controversial claim that African American soldiers fought for the South in large numbers during the Civil War.

"Our Virginia: Past and Present," the textbook including that claim, has many other inaccuracies, according to historians who reviewed it. Similar problems, historians said, were found in another book by Five Ponds Press, "Our America: To 1865." A reviewer has found errors in social studies textbooks by other publishers as well, underscoring the limits of a textbook-approval process once regarded as among the nation's most stringent.

"I absolutely could not believe the number of mistakes - wrong dates and wrong facts everywhere. How in the world did these books get approved?" said Ronald Heinemann, a former history professor at Hampden-Sydney College. He reviewed "Our Virginia: Past and Present."

In his recommendation to the state, Heinemann wrote, "This book should be withdrawn from the classroom immediately, or at least by the end of the year."

The review began after The Washington Post reported in October that "Our Virginia" included a sentence saying that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South. The claim is one often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most mainstream historians. The book's author, Joy Masoff, said at the time that she found references to it during research on the Internet. Five Ponds Press later apologized.

The unusual review process involved five professional scholars. The results, said three of those involved in the process, proved disturbing. Some submitted lists of errors that ran several pages long. State officials plan to meet Jan. 10 to review the historians' concerns.

"The findings of these historians have certainly underscored and added urgency to the need to address the weaknesses in our system so we don't have glaring historical errors in our books," said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for Virginia's Department of Education.

Five Ponds Press, based in Weston, Conn., has not disputed that its books have errors, and it said in an e-mail that it plans to incorporate historians' critiques into the next editions of their books.

"Most of the items you reference have been identified, and we sent a notice a week ago to the Virginia Department of Education with our intent to make these edits in the book's next printing," Lou Scolnik, owner of Five Ponds Press, wrote in response to questions.

Five Ponds Press provides books mainly to the Virginia Department of Education. The department is required to find texts that meet the state's stringent Standards of Learning, which includes lists of themes that each textbook must cover. That disqualifies many books produced for the national textbook market.

The department approves textbooks after panels of reviewers, often elementary school teachers, verify that the books cover each of the Standards of Learning themes. Experts in particular subject matters also sometimes review books.

"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.

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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