Why Fairfax's textbook recall is surprising
What is surprising about Fairfax County’s new recall of a social studies textbook approved by Virginia officials despite containing dozens of errors is that every other system using the book hasn't done the same thing.
My colleague Kevin Sieff reported that the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, Jack D. Dale, has decided that fourth-grade history will be taught using supplemental materials until errors in "Our Virginia, Past and Present" are corrected in a subsequent edition.
The book, published by Connecticut-based Five Ponds Press, was written by Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian and who included erroneous information she said she found on the internet. Some of her previous works: "Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty" and "Oh Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments."
One of the big mistakes in the social students textbook she wrote was inclusion of a myth that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederates in the Civil War. This and other errors eluded a long list of people who were involved in Virginia’s latest textbook adoption process last year. Did nobody not know this was false? How is that possible?
Meanwhile, an award-winning 10-volume history series (about which I have written several times) by Joy Hakim, called A History of US, had a much harder time getting adopted in the Virginia textbook sweepstakes.
Hakim’s books are not traditional, dry textbooks but are filled with rich stories and colorful language that have proved successful in elementary, middle school, high school and even college classes. It has captured awards, including the 1997 James A. Michener Award for Writing, and it formed the basis of a Public Broadcasting Service miniseries. Historians, including Civil War expert James McPherson, have praised the series over the years.
Hakim had a hard time getting the books published; she was asked repeatedly to change material; for example, using “enslaved person” instead of slave, but she refused though other authors didn't. Once she found little Oxford University Press to publish the books, she had an even harder time getting them into classrooms. The big publishing companies have big marketing departments; Oxford doesn't.
According to Hakim, the history series was questioned in the latest Virginia adoption because it did not cover required material in two instances: There is no mention of the Canadian shield in the series (it’s a geological formation under North America in the books), and it does not mention a recently discovered archaeological site in Virginia.
Yes, those were questioned. The black Confederate soldier myth was not.
It makes you wonder why any school district would want to use books with major errors written into them.
Hakim and others argue that the textbook adoption process is so flawed that it should be eliminated.
About 20 states undergo textbook adoption processes. Committees are formed to review the proposals, and lobbyists working for publishing company do everything they can to woo the panel members. State officials are more interested in whether their long list of content standards are addressed in the books and to political sensitivities than they are in book quality. A lot of textbooks are just plain awful.
On her blog, Hakim made these suggestions for improving how we use textbooks:
*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.
Makes sense to me.
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| January 8, 2011; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: History, Textbooks | Tags: a history of us, errors in textbooks, history textbooks, joy hakim, textbook adoption, textbook adoption process, textbook recall, textbooks, virginia social studies textbooks, virginia textbooks
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