The XX Factor

A Textbook Example

I have never been a big fan of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, our state’s answer to the standardized testing requirements imposed on public schools by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Doubtless, there are virtues to a program that aims to measure school performance by making sure students master a concrete set of facts and methods. But from a parental perspective it’s sometimes been hard to see what those virtues are. Instead, what I see are teachers obliged to teach to the annual tests, and my kids getting super-stressed every springtime, despite parental reassurances that these tests are meant to test their teachers, not them. The idea that the tests are actually in their interest seems to them, as they sharpen their No. 2 pencils, a bit far-fetched and hard to swallow.

Given all this, it’s depressing to read that one unforeseen consequence of the “standards” movement has been error-riddled textbooks. According to a story in the Washington Post, Virginia’s adoption of the SOL curriculum meant that schools had to acquire textbooks that contained the material the tests would cover. There was of course not enough money to do the job right, because there never is. Smaller publishing houses could fill the void, producing textbooks that were both compliant with the tests, and relatively cheap. A number of Virginia’s history textbooks are produced by Five Ponds Press, which seems to have assigned the bulk of the writing to a single author, Joy Masoff, who is not a trained historian, and whose oeuvre also includes “Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty.” Back in October, Five Ponds made headlines when it emerged that a Virginia history textbook included the discredited assertion that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy. This eye-opening revelation led to a review of that and other textbooks by actual historians, who were appalled by the number of errors they found. One historian, Mary Miley Theobald, read “Our America: To 1865,” and found it “too shocking for words.”

The irony here is glaring. The national “standards” movement, of which Virginia’s SOLs are a reflection, owes an intellectual debt to the work of scholars like the University of Virginia’s influential E.D. Hirsch, Jr. , who in the 1980s and 1990s called attention to a dearth of shared knowledge, a lack of a common intellectual well that all students could draw from. He argued that civil society (and social equality) depends on a citizenry educated in certain crucial facts–cultural literacy is the term Hirsch used. Those of us who were alive during the culture wars will recall that these arguments were seen by some as well-intentioned and correct; by others as reactionary nostalgia for the days of a single canon, which had been exploded by the inclusion of women and minority authors, one reason the reading experience had become more individualized and fragmentary.

How extraordinary, though, that a movement to instill facts and common knowledge has led to what appears to be the abandonment of other standards one associates with the good old days–things like fact checkers, copy editors, eagle-eyed review boards that work in advance. The president has proposed overhauling No Child Left Behind , to see if there might be a better way of measuring school performance. Virginia seems like a good place to conduct a review. It would be interesting–and seems important–to know whether the same problems exist in other states; whether corners have been cut in the interest of churning out textbooks to go with the tests. How ironic it would be if, in the interests of giving America’s schoolchildren a shared core of knowledge, what we are really giving them is a shared set of errors and misconceptions.