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Virginia OKs Formerly Error-laden History Books

September 22, 2011

The state Board of Education has signed off on overhauled versions of two textbooks that initially were riddled with factual, grammatical and typographical errors, including an erroneous claim that thousands of black people fought on behalf of the Confederacy.

The board on Thursday approved new, corrected editions of "Our Virginia: Past and Present" and "Our America to 1865," published by Connecticut-based Five Ponds Press. The publisher turned in its revised textbooks after they underwent a more rigorous state approval process this summer.

The review included scrutiny from a state committee that included a teacher, a content specialist and a subject-matter expert. Members of the public also weighed in with comments this summer, and historians pointed out numerous errors that remained — including pre-Civil War maps showing Virginia and West Virginia as separate states and a reference to the United States "Navel" Academy. They also expressed continuing concerns about the books and the fact that the author isn't a historian.

College of William and Mary history professor Carol Sheriff, who originally pointed out the black Confederates error in "Our Virginia," said she was pleased there were fewer inaccuracies in the revised edition. However, she said, the Civil War chapter "still contains some problems that were in the first edition while it also introduces some new ones."

Sheriff pointed out in her letter to the Department of Education that she was concerned that experts didn't review supplemental materials for "Our Virginia." She said the materials included significant problems, including multiple-choice questions with more than one correct answer and an essay question: "Do you think Nat Turner was a brave civil rights leader or a crazed killer?"

Department of Education officials provided a document that listed the steps Five Ponds said it would take before publishing its final editions. Board members didn't get to see final proofs before their decision to put them back on the state-approved textbook list.

Board member Winsome Sears voted against approval Thursday and asked if the supplementary materials also should have been subject to the review process.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Linda Wallinger said the department didn't ask to review the supplementary materials, and noted that schools aren't required to purchase them.

An earlier evaluation by five historians of "Our Virginia" presented in January to the board included an extensive, page-by-page listing of wrong dates, factual errors and inaccuracies, including the passage: "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." It also said 12 states seceded from the Union; in fact, 11 did.

The historians also raised questions about balance and emphasis, as well as misspellings and punctuation errors that one reviewer feared could undermine schools' efforts to teach proper language and writing skills.

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