Va. schools should in­sist on re­fund for text­books

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - ROBERT MCCART­NEY

AmongNorth­ern 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 so­cial sci­ences 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 spokesman­Wayde 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. (Prince Wil­liam was lucky. It hadn’t bought the book yet and now has the lux­ury of wait­ing for a cor­rected edi­tion. Alexan­dria doesn’t use it.)

But now it turns out that even Loudm­c­cart­ney

oun’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 bymy col­leagueKevin Sieff on Dec. 29, means school sys­tems across the state are stuck with thou­sands of books that ought to be dis­patched to land­fills im­me­di­ately. Nomatter 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— which­may 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 Every­thingNasty.” 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 atHam­p­den-Syd­ney Col­lege and one of the re­view­ers who ex­am­inedMa­soff ’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 one­my­self.) Con­fed­er­ateGen. 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, JamesMadi­son’s ten­ure as sec­re­tary of state and Lin­woodHolton’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 re­view­pro­pos­als 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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