Textbook mess should make Virginia rethink its learning standards

Saturday, January 1, 2011; 6:43 PM

THE REVELATION that some Virginia history textbooks are riddled with factual mistakes is more than embarrassing. It's shameful that such shoddy scholarship could have passed a state review process and gone undetected for so long. More significantly, it raises the question of how useful the state's much vaunted Standards of Learning really are. After all, if the system can't get the easy things right, what does that say about its ability to deal with the real challenges of public education?

A review of history textbooks being used in some Virginia classrooms, including Fairfax County's, revealed dozens of errors. Among the mistakes: wrong date for America's entry into World War I, incorrect tally of states that joined the Confederacy, gross understatement of casualties at the battles of Bull Run. "I absolutely could not believe the number of mistakes - wrong dates and wrong facts everywhere," said Ronald Heinemann, one of the historians who reviewed Five Ponds Press's "Our Virginia: Past and Present." Reviewing another of the publisher's books, historian Mary Miley Theobald concluded the mistakes were "just too shocking for words." The unusual review of the books followed the disclosure by The Post's Kevin Sieff in October that "Our Virginia" included the statement (quite incorrect) that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War.

Perhaps the mistakes shouldn't have come as a surprise considering the author is not a trained historian and has produced works including "Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments." One factor in the popularity of this particular publisher, clearly, is low cost. Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, Patricia I. Wright, moved quickly to deal with the fallout, ordering guidelines on how to deal with the misinformation and promising a tighter state review process, including a requirement that publishers provide documentation on the accuracy of their products. She should also give serious consideration to Mr. Heinemann's suggestion to drop the suspect texts as soon as possible.

Part of the state's predicament with the textbooks stems from the fact that its Standards of Learning require a specialization of instructional material not available on the national textbook market. With most other states signing on to the common core standards, more debate is needed about whether Virginia's insular pursuit of its own standards is still in the best interests of its students.

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