Va. schools should insist on refund for textbooks

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Among Northern Virginia school systems wrestling with how to handle a wildly erroneous fourth-grade social studies textbook, Loudoun County initially received the gold star.

Loudoun yanked the book, "Our Virginia: Past and Present," when the first falsehood - describing nonexistent battalions of black Confederate soldiers - was discovered in October, and the county didn't stop there.

Loudoun's staff studied the book and identified 12 other errors or problems. It then put the text back on shelves and told instructors to use the mistakes to show youngsters the importance of being skeptical about what they read.

"It's a teachable moment," said Loudoun school system spokesman Wayde Byard. He said kids learn that "everybody tries their best but sometimes they don't research enough. You can't rely on a single source. You can't trust everything you read on the Internet."

By contrast, Fairfax and Arlington were content just to cover up the offending sentence with a blank sticker. (Lucky Prince William hadn't bought the book yet.)

But now it turns out that even Loudoun's extra effort was insufficient. Three historians who reviewed the book at the state's request found so many mistakes that it took 31 pages to list them.

The overwhelming number of errors, first reported by my colleague Kevin Sieff on Dec. 29, means school systems across the state are stuck with thousands of books that ought to be dispatched to landfills immediately. No matter how resourceful, no teacher can make a "teachable moment" out of 31 pages of errors.

Then there's the question of who's going to bear the cost of replacing all those books. Fairfax, which announced Friday that it was withdrawing the book until a corrected version appears, bought 12,000 copies of the text last summer at $47.50 apiece. Loudoun and Arlington are studying what to do.

There can be only one acceptable solution. The small publishing company responsible for this fiasco, Five Ponds Press of Weston, Conn., should agree right away to cover the entire price.

So far, though, Five Ponds has stopped short of committing to that. In an e-mailed statement, Five Ponds owner Lou Scolnik would say only that the company was "developing a program favorable to school systems to satisfy replacing the books - which may include replacing the books at no cost."

Scolnik also, for the first time, fingered a culprit responsible for the errors. It wasn't author Joy Masoff, he said, but an unidentified underling.

"Unfortunately our fact-checker missed some important facts. This person is no longer in our employ," Scolnik said. The company is now "bringing in a highly respected historian who will review our books before we reprint," he said.

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