In the wake of the recent Virginia textbook scandal the general public was reassured by the Department of Education that the problem was being addressed. I was contacted by the VDOE’s Director of Communications, Charles Pyle, following my NYTs editorial on the subject that proper action had been taken:
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provided detailed guidance to division superintendents and history specialists about the errors in “Our Virginia: Past and Present” on October 20 – the day the original Washington Post story was published. This guidance advised that the statement concerning the alleged service of black Southerners in the Confederate miliary is not in keeping with the Standards of Learning and is outside the bounds of accepted Civil War scholarship. The department consulted with several historians – including Dr. James Robertson of Virginia Tech – in preparing guidance for the field. This same week, two VDOE history specialists met personally with division history supervisors and classroom teachers during their back-to-back conferences in Williamsburg to raise awareness of the errors in the textbook and provide guidance about accurate instruction on the roles of blacks in both the Union and Confederate armies. Since late October, Superintendnet of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright has communicated repeatedly with school districts providing additional guidance and information about actions of the department and the state Board of Education regarding Our Virginia: Past and Present. It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”
This past week I was contacted by a concerned parent, who wrote the following:
If I may, just a follow up on a point by Mr. Pyle (VA Dept Ed) now that the Times story has died down. My daughter is a 4th grader in —— County Public School system. As Mr. Pyle pointed out, “It also should be noted that Virginia fourth-graders don’t reach the Civil War era until the spring, so it is unlikely that any students were taught that thousands of blacks fought as soldiers for the South. As a history teacher, you know that a textbook today is just one of many resources teachers will use to teach the required content. While the department has taken responsibility for the need to improve its textbook review process, VDOE did not leave students and teachers to “fend for themselves with little guidance.”
My daughter just finished her Civil War unit, and despite Mr. Pyle’s assurances of ample guidance, Eva’s recent study guide for her test specifically included the point that blacks fought for the Confederacy. I tried to explain to my daughter why this was not true, but because her own teacher had just lectured her on it she would not believe me. She insisted that blacks fought because their masters threatened to kill them if they wouldn’t! I didn’t want to post this publicly because my aim is NOT to get my daughter’s teacher in trouble. But —– County has done an abysmal job of correcting this misperception and my daughter is proof. Mark my words, I bet that -CPS will still be using the erroneous textbook and any accompanying worksheets, study guides, etc next year. Do you have any suggestions for a parent in my shoes? I fear a visit to the principal or school board rep will be brushed off with the usual “We’ve got this under control…” Thanks for your work!
I’ve heard other stories as well that suggest that this problem is not being adequately addressed. I am not surprised. I would recommend that this parent contact the proper authorities in her child’s district. Perhaps a local committee of concerned parents can be organized. After all, it was a concerned parent, who happened to be a historian, that initially exposed this problem. The alternative is the continued dissemination of a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Civil War and Virginia history.