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Virginia schools should insist on full refund for error-ridden textbooks

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 12:29 AM

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.

Gee, why didn't they think of that before? Because too often, companies assign glib writers to produce textbooks without worrying too much about academic professionalism.

Masoff is not a professional historian, but she has written several books, including "Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty." Its cover features a large photo of a nose-picking child.

"This seems to be standard fare in the textbook community. You find someone with a talent for writing and putting together nice pictures, and you let them perform, without double-checking their evidence," said Ronald Heinemann, retired professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College and one of the reviewers who examined Masoff's book.

Admittedly, some of the errors cited by the historians are quibbles or matters of interpretation. But dozens reflect simple sloppiness.

For instance: Thomas Jefferson was minister to France in 1787 and not, as asserted on page 94, attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. (I would have caught that one myself.) Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee did not wave a white flag from a hill when he surrendered at Appomattox (page 125).

Mistaken dates are almost too numerous to count. The historians listed wrong years for Pocahontas's marriage, James Madison's tenure as secretary of state and Linwood Holton's term as governor.

Of course the state and individual school systems bear some responsibility for ensuring that students receive accurate texts. Unfortunately, by all accounts, they currently neither have the resources nor are properly organized to do so.

In Fairfax, for instance, the books were reviewed by panels of teachers focused not on accuracy but on confirming that the text touched on every issue and detail about Virginia history required by state standards.

"Elementary school teachers are not social studies specialists. As a result, they would not necessarily have the background needed, nor do we necessarily give them the time to read the textbook cover to cover," Alice Reilly, the county's social studies coordinator, said.

"To a certain extent, you rely on the publisher that it is accurate," she said. "It's similar to buying a car. When you buy a car, you expect it to run. You don't necessarily know that much about the engine."

On Thursday, Virginia's Board of Education will review proposals about how to prevent a repeat of this embarrassing episode. The General Assembly will also consider legislation on the matter.

For starters, they should settle for nothing less than repayment in full from Five Ponds. If ever there were a case where the buyer deserved a refund, this is it.

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