Virginia Explained: How Virginia’s history textbooks are vetted

By: - May 1, 2019 11:45 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam has said he’s concerned students were learning incorrect information about African American history — part of the reason he formed a commission to evaluate the state’s Standards of Learning and local curricula. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

According to a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt textbook allowed for use in Virginia high school classrooms, the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles were a burst of violence brought on by black Americans’ frustration about discrimination.

But that’s not the whole story: Before the riots broke out, there was a violent confrontation between police and onlookers during an arrest of a black driver and his relatives, noted Shawn Utsey, director of the African American Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

An excerpt from a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt textbook describing the 1965 Watts riots (Mechelle Hankerson/The Mercury)

“The Watts story leaves out the major precipitating event — police brutality during an arrest,” Utsey said in an email after reviewing the excerpt. “It makes it sound like violence just erupted out of thin air. I think the description is problematic in that it leaves out the context for the violence and fails to mention the violence that sparked the violent reaction.”

Throughout Virginia’s approved history textbooks are mischaracterizations and missing information about major events in African American (and other groups’) history, state officials and educators say. The state’s Standards of Learning, which are supposed to be reflected in the books, make only passing references to African Americans, some scholars said.

That’s become an issue for Gov. Ralph Northam, who says he is on his own journey to better understand racial history and how it still affects the state in the wake of his blackface scandal.

Northam’s racial reconciliation efforts have included private meetings with black community leaders, cancelled speaking engagements at historically black colleges and universities and a list of legislative priorities he’s tried to support through his vetoes and approvals.

At a community meeting in Danville, Northam said that he’s noticed information students are being taught about African American history is “inadequate and often times inaccurate,” the Danville Register & Bee reported.

Virginia’s curriculum often skips over major events in black history and leaves out some information, said Ofirah Yheskel, the governor’s press secretary.

At an event hosted by the American Civil War Museum last month, Secretary of Education Atif Qarni agreed that Virginia’s history education guidelines are lacking.

“It really doesn’t give our children a sense that our nation has a complicated history,” Qarni said. “We don’t give a full contextual understanding.”

That bears out in Virginia’s approved textbooks, which wasn’t Northam’s focus, but were at the center of a controversy in 2010 for including incorrect information about slaves’ involvement in the Civil War. 

“Part of a high-quality education is ensuring students and teachers can have meaningful conversations about race, equity and our history,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “The governor is considering a wide range of avenues to support these conversations in our classrooms.”

SOLs are revised once every seven years and the state hopes to be more thorough when making changes, Qarni said in an interview. He used to teach middle-school history and said there weren’t many opportunities in the classroom to examine experiences of minority groups and for students to connect historic and current events.

“We want to make sure that when the next revision is occurring, it’s inclusive and makes sure all the varying perspectives are present,” he said.

What’s missing?

Two ways the state manages what students learn in the classroom are the Standards of Learning, Virginia’s expectations for what students should learn in different subject areas throughout their careers, and which textbooks are approved for use.

William & Mary history professor and parent Carol Sheriff found a number of concerning passages in her daughter’s fourth-grade history textbook in 2010, which prompted Virginia to create a new textbook adoption and revision process.

Sheriff took particular issue with a passage that claimed thousands of slaves fought alongside Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Confederate army.

“To my knowledge, not a single piece of peer-reviewed scholarship contends that blacks served in such large numbers as soldiers (rather than laborers) in the Confederate army or that Stonewall Jackson commanded black soldiers (rather than black laborers),” she wrote in a Civil War research journal.

The passage was in a book by Five Ponds, a Connecticut-based company. The Board of Education temporarily removed Five Ponds’ books from its list of approved books in 2010. The books were corrected and new editions remain on the list of approved textbooks for use in kindergarten to fourth grade. 

Out of the 2010 controversy came new rules for textbook adoption: Publishers are required to show proof they consulted a content expert while writing; the company is responsible for the price of fixing errors and providing corrected books and they must submit a corrective action plan to the state to prove they’ve addressed problems identified by reviewers.

Since those rules were put into place, only Five Ponds has been required to submit a corrective plan to the state. Reviewers pointed out a range of issues in the books, like making it seem only the Lakota tribe lived in the American plains and glossing over the details of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The company responded to many of the issues raised by reviewers by saying it would be fixed in future editions or that the SOLs didn’t require such information.

“With a review process that apparently values correlation with the Standards of Learning curriculum above accuracy, the department indirectly influences not only what gets into textbooks but what does not,” Sheriff wrote.

It’s difficult to know how much incomplete or inaccurate information is included in textbooks approved for use in the state. Virginia allows people to submit concerns about inaccurate information in textbooks via email and allows public comment on the material during the process of adding titles to approved lists.

Since 2015, when the state began updating social studies and history SOLs and adopting textbooks to match those, the Department of Education received 13 emails about textbooks and the adoption process, according to information received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Mercury.

Four of those emails were feedback on textbooks; three of those focused on books the respondents liked. There were three requests to provide a list of approved textbooks; two emails seeking information for college research projects; two solicitations from publishers to adopt their books; a question about why some math textbooks were removed from the state-approved list and one asking if teachers can require students to purchase books.

History of textbooks

Virginia doesn’t write its own textbooks. The state Board of Education last attempted that in the 1950s in the throes of the massive rmovement, Sheriff found in her research.

In 1950, the General Assembly created the Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission to write three history books for use in public schools. That group came out of an earlier legislative study commission from 1948 that formed at a time when former Democratic governor and U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd, an ardent segregationist, led state politics. 

If the textbook commission couldn’t find a textbook that adequately detailed Virginia’s history, the group was tasked with creating one. Commission members, appointed by Gov. John S. Battle, worked with out-of-state publishers to create the book, but retained the right to request revisions, Sheriff found.

“Natalie Blanton, a member of the Textbook Commission, later candidly reminded her fellow members that the commission had been ‘appointed as a protest so to speak,’ against ‘a left wing, new deal philosophy of life and government,’” Sheriff wrote.

It was an exhausting process that caused friction between commission members, the authors and publishers. Commission members wanted the book to be factual, but also capture the “Virginia Spirit,” which was never explicitly defined, and downplay the role of race in the state’s history, especially when it came to the Civil War era.

“Members of the commission frequently told the authors to emphasize that Virginia was within her rights when she seceded,” Sheriff wrote. “Most emphatically, the commissioners warned from the project’s outset that the authors ‘should not give the impression that slavery was the cause of the war.’”

Commission members also took special care to not offend African Americans, Sheriff wrote, “eager to avoid stirring up further controversy amid the crisis over desegregation.

“Both black and white children would use these same textbooks, after all, even if they used them in separate schools.”

Commission members nixed words like “mammy” (“colored people” object to that word, one member said) and took issue with the phrase “the whites,” according to Sheriff’s research.

The Civil War wasn’t the only area in which commissioners wanted to downplay race in the state’s history. One commission member wanted to avoid reminding black children of “their low-vaulted past,” and instead highlight positive black role models, especially those who were slaves and obeyed their masters, Sheriff wrote. 

The commission did prioritize accuracy in some instances. In one example, a commission member preferred to say slaves were imported, not immigrated. “They were property, bought and sold,” another clarified.

When the books were done, they caused immediate backlash. The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk published a three-part series about reactions to the books and quoted the author of the books saying it was a “method of indoctrination.”

By 1972, under the direction of Republican Gov. Linwood Holton, father of current Board of Education member Anne Holton, the state began to decommission those books, though they stayed in some Virginia classrooms until the late 1970s.

Since then, the Board of Education has distanced itself from textbook writing and has, in turn, adopted what Sheriff considers a “laissez-faire review process.”

Textbooks are not the only resource available for teachers. School districts can locally approve additional books for use in the classroom, and teachers can pull in their own materials, said Meg Huebeck, director of instruction at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

But that requires time and expertise teachers may not have, Huebeck said. Her department at UVA helps teachers by providing some of those resources for free.

The textbook isn’t the end-all, be-all of education anymore,” Huebeck said. “If you’re going to have a textbook and you want to say you have to have them, then they better be accurate.”

When Huebeck reviewed the Five Ponds books in 2010, she noted things she said were “subconscious” choices by the publisher, like only showing photos of white children on pages describing what a good citizen is.

Stephanie Arduini, education coordinator at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, said history from perspectives other than white people is documented, but rarely told. It’s one of the reasons the recently reopened museum focuses on educating visitors about the primary cause of the Civil War, which was slavery later disguised as states’ rights, she said.

“We can’t deal with the current issues well until we deal with the history,” she said. “We can’t get right with ourselves if we can’t get the history right.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.