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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

VA's Textbook Muck

The Washington Post reported on October 20th that a Virginia social studies textbook, purchased widely in that state, is not only something less than scholarly, it seems to have been written to push an agenda. According to an article by Kevin Sieff, “A textbook distributed to Virginia fourth-graders says that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War — a claim rejected by most historians but often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the conflict.”

The author of the book, published by Five Ponds Press, defended her work. “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she said. “I am a fairly respected writer.” She claimed she did her research on the Internet, where her source for information on the Civil War was the Sons of Confederate Veterans, not historians.

All this has created a bit of brouhaha, as it should. According to Sieff, “Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson of Princeton University said, ‘These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.’”

There are several issues here: Virginia has what is supposed to be a rigorous adoption system, books with agendas aren’t supposed to get through the process. This book was called “accurate and unbiased” by a committee that didn’t read the book carefully. Virginia needs to figure out what went wrong. A lot of money was spent in the state on a book that most of us wouldn’t want our children to read. That’s nothing new in the school world. It doesn’t have to happen.

One big reason for textbooks that are often inaccurate and almost always dull lies with the adoption process. It’s usually a winner-take-all affair that leads to giant adoptions and huge profits for a few publishers. They spend their efforts-not on creating good books-but on promotion, gifts, and fancy presentations. Think of the power of lobbyists; textbook salespeople perfect lobby-like outreach to teachers and administrators.

This doesn’t have to be. Here are some suggestions:

Have closed adoptions. No salespeople allowed. Just let books and other teaching materials speak for themselves to teachers and committees who make choices. Have a subcommittee of children read the books and submit their thoughts to those committees. If a book doesn’t work for its potential readers, it shouldn’t be adopted.

Consider giving teachers a choice of books. Let schools or even individual teachers pick books from a vetted list. Let individual teachers who take the time to do research, have some leeway if they want to pick volumes not on the list. Teaching U.S. history, or any subject, with good bookstore books, rather than texts, makes a lot of sense if a sophisticated teacher wants to go that route.

Yes, the money-management folks will talk about the savings from mass purchases. I question that. Most standard textbooks are outrageously overpriced. Those massive adoptions bring billions of dollars in annual income to a few publishers whose goal, as with most businesses, is to make money. Educating children is a minor consideration.
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