Without getting into the details of the complaints, this page wants to point out a trend in public-school textbook writing that can be troubling for the future.
Virginia, like many other states, has “Standards of Learning,” a series of themes a textbook must address. In the review process, those evaluating the textbooks look to see if potential books cover the standards identified for that subject. Teachers who would use the books are asked to go over the textbooks to make sure each of the Standards of Learning themes is covered.
Unfortunately, those teachers are not told to go over the books with care and point out errors, which they surely could — if that was their task. But don’t blame those reviewers.
Errors should be caught and corrected before they reach the review stage. But in the case of Virginia, the errors originated with the author.
This happened because the author was not a trained historian with experience writing and teaching that subject. The author, the owner-publisher of the company that produced the text, was apparently more concerned with meeting the standards than with the correctness of the content. The result was the mess in which Virginia finds itself.
Anyone who has written and published knows that errors can slip in. Even the best proofreader, the most careful scholar, can miss something.
But what happened in Virginia goes beyond that. Moreover, it could happen in other states, including Alabama.
The public-school textbook market is a lucrative one; Virginia’s is $70 million and growing. Publishers large and small try to get a piece of the pie, and the competition is fierce. Larger publishers have general histories of the United States written so state histories can be “plugged in” the text at various points to cover whatever Standards of Learning the state requires. Then they offer teachers and school systems a host of supplemental products — CDs, DVDs, etc. — to sweeten the deal.
In other cases, such as the one in Virginia, smaller companies seek a niche market and produce texts specifically for it, texts that can be flawed.
It’s obvious that the review process could be tightened and those doing the reviewing charged to do more than make sure Standards of Learning themes are covered.
However, what the publisher of Our Virginia: Past and Present has announced it will do gets to the heart of the matter. The next edition of the textbook will be produced under the watchful eye of a “professional historian from a Virginia university.”
That is the lesson textbook producers and selection committees should take to heart. Textbooks used by students should have been written or at least carefully reviewed by professionals in the field — be they biologists, mathematicians, political scientists, economists or historians.
Bringing these people into the process at the start will do much to prevent what happened in Virginia from happening in other states.