Will the Virginia Textbook Accountability Act Makes Things Better?
Erroneous History Book Exposes Problems in Virginia’s Textbook Adoption Process
By Kim Simons
Before textbooks are approved for use in Virginia public schools they are reviewed for completeness, accuracy, and alignment with state standards of learning by a committee of subject matter experts employed as teachers and curriculum specialists in Virginia’s public schools. Based on its review, that committee prepares a list of textbooks it believes are acceptable for use in Virginia public schools. Local school districts then select the books they prefer from the list of state approved textbooks, though they can select non-approved textbooks if they so desire.
Shortly after the list of state approved History textbooks was released, questions began to arise about the Five Ponds Press series. Historians and teachers had noticed that the books contained so many errors and omissions that they felt the books were unreliable. Parents became concerned that their children weren’t learning actual history and an uproar ensued. Of particular concern was that fact that these textbooks had been reviewed by a committee of History teachers employed in Virginia schools, and they hadn’t noticed the errors or felt they were significant enough to warrant rejecting the books.
Because of the controversy, State Delegate David Englin has proposed the Virginia Textbook Accountability Act in the General Assembly, which would change the textbook adoption process in Virginia such that the the state would certify publishers instead of approving textbooks and publishers would be “fully responsible for replacing, correcting, or otherwise fixing any mistakes discovered by the Board or the Superintendent”. I sent an e-mail to Delegate Englin on Saturday January 15 asking him to detail the improvements he expected to result from this bill and have yet to hear from him. While I agree that there are problems with the textbook review process in Virginia, as the example of the Five Ponds Press History textbooks clearly demonstrates, I’m not sure what improvements, if any, will be derived if the Virginia Textbook Accountability Acts passes as it is currently written.
Under current law and practices, Virginia follows a proscribed process to review textbooks, a detailed explanation of which is provided in this report to the Board of Education. One major part of that process is the review of submitted materials by the state textbook review committee. To serve on that committee you must teach that subject or be a curriculum specialist in that area and employed by a school district in Virginia.
Delegate Englin’s bill would eliminate that review. Instead textbook publishers would certify that their materials have been reviewed by content experts in that field, identify the experts and the books they reviewed, and certify that their materials meet the Virginia Standards of Learning. Don’t textbook publishers already do that when they submit their materials to the state? Aren’t the identities of the textbook authors and their qualifications already listed in the materials themselves? So, other than compensating the state for the cost of correcting errors in their materials, how will this improve the textbook review process? In fact, as the Va DOE will no longer be reviewing textbooks for accuracy and content alignment with the state standards of learning, and instead will be relying solely on the promises of textbook publishers, won’t this change actually make things worse?
Certainly there are problems with the textbook review process in Virginia, as the Five Ponds issue demonstrates. Some of those problems relate back to the standards themselves, which are too numerous, vague and non-specific, a criticism which has been leveled at the Virginia Standards of Learning by many independent organizations. But is eliminating the Va DOE’s role in verifying publisher’s assertions as to content alignment and accuracy going to improve the quality of instructional materials used by Virginia students?