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Error-filled textbooks prompt Va. to call for revamped approval process

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 7:48 PM

Reports of extensive errors in Virginia social studies textbooks prompted state education officials on Wednesday to propose revamping the approval process to prevent the issuing of flawed textbooks. Fairfax County officials also said they may discontinue using one of the books.

The new state procedures would require that publishers hire context experts and provide extensive new documentation for claims in their textbooks. Education Department staff also would do more-detailed reviews before passing the books to the small groups of classroom teachers who traditionally have reviewed them, according to a statement from Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright.

"Virginia students deserve textbooks that reflect the quality of the commonwealth's nationally recognized history and social science standards, and as the errors found by the reviewers clearly show, the review process must be improved," Wright said.

Proposed changes would require the Virginia Board of Education's approval.

The Education Department began increasing its scrutiny of textbooks after The Washington Post reported in October that one provided to fourth-graders, "Our Virginia: Past and Present," included a controversial claim that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. The claim is often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most historians. That book's author, Joy Masoff, has since apologized for that problem, as has the publisher, Five Ponds Press of Weston, Conn.

Historians that the department selected to review "Our Virginia" and another book by same publisher, "Our America: To 1865," submitted lists of dozens of errors this month. A review of books by other publishers also found problems with some depictions of events in the Civil War. State officials plan to meet Jan. 10 to discuss the historians' concerns.

Five Ponds Press publishes four other textbooks used in Virginia classrooms: "Our World Let's Go," "Our World Then and Now," "Our World Near and Far" and "Our World Far and Wide." Officials say they have no plans to have expert panels review those books.

Five Ponds Press owner Lou Scolnik said this week that he was aware of the errors discovered by the state's panels of historians and will correct the problems in future editions of the books. The company also plans to hire a historian to review its books.

On Wednesday night, Scolnik said through a spokesman that he had no comment on the latest actions by state and school district officials.

Individual school districts choose which textbooks to use based on lists approved by the Education Department. It traditionally approves textbooks after panels of reviewers, often elementary school teachers, verify that the books cover the Standards of Learning themes that each course is mandated to teach.

As Virginia officials attempt to improve their textbook approval process, school districts across the state are grappling with what to do with thousands of books already in their classrooms.

Loudoun County stopped using "Our Virginia" in October, after the controversy over the book's claims about black Confederate soldiers. Fairfax initially planned to continue using "Our Virginia" but is rethinking that decision, according to school district spokesman Paul Regnier. He said Fairfax officials, who are awaiting further feedback from the state and a response from the publisher, may stop using the book.

"Initially, we thought it was just a single mistake. But after this review, it's clear that this is a more-significant problem," Regnier said. "We know we're going to have to do something."

A textbook review committee in Prince William County this month recommended approval of "Our Virginia" and "Our America" for use in classrooms. But the division's review committee made that decision only after being assured by Five Ponds Press that it would receive error-free editions of the textbooks.

Kenneth Bassett, Prince William's social studies supervisor, said the committee found the books engaging and well-designed. "It's unfortunate that they had all those things but not the level of historical scholarship that would have made them a home run," Bassett said.

Officials with Arlington County schools, which use "Our Virginia," did not return phone messages seeking comment.

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