Thumbing through two elementary history texts this summer, Zachary Schrag spotted what he described as dubious quotations, misleading images and maps depicting inaccurate borders. His list of errors - including a reference to the "United States Navel Academy" - fills nearly four pages.
The college history professor forwarded his comments to the Virginia Board of Education, which decided this morning to place those books back on its approved textbook list. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright recommended their inclusion.
Schrag, an associate professor in George Mason University's Department of History and Art History, was among fewer than a dozen people to comment on the second editions of "Our Virginia: Past and Present" and "Our America: To 1865," published by Five Ponds Press. He acknowledged improvement in the books but said some mistakes remained.
Schrag said he was troubled by statements in the text of "Our America" that are attributed to a "Native American Elder" and "An American Indian Proverb."
"I don't expect a book to be error-free," he said. But "I am concerned by the use of quotations that don't have clear sources."
When the education department launched a review of the first editions of the Five Ponds Press books and others last year, historians discovered multiple inaccuracies. The state board revoked approval of "Our Virginia" and "Our America" in March. In South Hampton Roads, only the Chesapeake and Suffolk school divisions continue to use either book, though not as a primary resource.
The state board overhauled its textbook review process earlier this year and is considering similar guidelines for local school divisions. Under the new rules, publishers must certify that their textbooks have been checked for accuracy by subject-matter experts. They also have to agree to fix mistakes discovered in their texts.
A document provided Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Education lists changes Five Ponds Press has said it will make in response to the public comment, including some of the concerns expressed by Schrag. A call made to the Connecticut-based publisher on Wednesday was not returned.
"The superintendent feels that Five Ponds has provided adequate responses and taken adequate measures," education department spokesman Charles Pyle said.
"Our Virginia" sparked controversy last fall when Carol Sheriff, a parent and College of William and Mary history professor, disputed a sentence found in the book. It read: "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson."
Sheriff, a teacher of the Civil War, reviewed the second edition of the "Our Virginia" chapter dealing with that subject. While pleased to see many errors had been corrected, Sheriff wrote in an email that some misleading characterizations remain.
"For example," she said, "the book might lead children to believe that slavery did not exist in the Union itself; that the North and South were entirely different from one another; or that white Northerners immediately and universally greeted the Union's black soldiers as heroes."
So how many errors are too many?
The Virginia Beach school system, for example, doesn't ask its textbook reviewers to count mistakes, said Joe Burnsworth, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. And a typo or misspelling wouldn't necessarily knock a book out of contention.
But a book with a "glaring error" - a misrepresentation of facts or an obvious bias - would likely be discounted immediately, Burnsworth said.
However, he said, "I can't tell you that every text that we adopted had no errors in it."
Hattie Brown Garrow, (757) 222-5562, email@example.com