Who gets to write public-school history textbooks?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 22 2010 5:53 PM

Who Gets To Write Public-School History Textbooks?

Anyone with an "intent to submit" form.

Do you need special credentials to write a textbook? Click image to expand.
Do you need special credentials to write a textbook?

A new fourth-grade Virginia history textbook was found to contain the dubious assertion that battalions of African-American soldiers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The textbook's author, who has written other textbooks and children's books like Oh Yuck!: The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty, says she found the information in question on the Internet. Can just anyone write a school history textbook? 

Sort of. Anyone can write and publish a textbook, but before it gets handed out to public-school students, the book's content would have to be approved by several review committees. As long as the textbook is deemed to meet state-specified guidelines and cover the subject matter with accuracy and coherence, the author's pedigree can be of secondary importance. Textbook publishing is typically a collective endeavor, anyway. Publishers often contract with a handful of freelancers who have knowledge about specific subject areas. There's no particular qualification required for these freelancers: Anyone with a Ph.D. in a relevant field might be acceptable, for example, but so would a high-school teacher with a decent writing sample. In general, the publisher hires a more distinguished scholar as the main editor, who oversees the project and has final say over the content.

For a third- or fourth-grade state-history textbook, a publisher might approach an individual who's a content expert—a college professor or museum director—to serve as sole author on a project. That person would be given an outline of material that must be included, such as the state's geography, symbols, and history. Publishers sometimes assemble independent, in-house panels to review the text for quality assurance.  Then the publisher submits the book to the appropriate state review committee, which can recommend the book to the state board or suggest changes if the book is found to be deficient.

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In Virginia, as in most states, the board of education sets guidelines for a textbook's content but not for the qualifications of its author. In theory, anyone with a self-published manuscript could send her work to the review board and try to get it into the public school curriculum. Interested educators and authors can simply find out which instructional materials are up for review, send in an "intent to submit" form, and then mail a sample textbook to the preliminary review committee. (The book must adhere to state educational standards, but those are easily downloaded.) 

It's rare for self-published, single-author textbooks to get approved, but it happens. The faulty textbook in Virginia, which was published by a company owned by the author, made it through a review committee consisting of three teachers, an open public comment period, and a final board review before becoming one of 61 state-approved titles last spring. The same author has five other titles on the list.

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Explainer thanks Kathy Borkowski of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, Jay Diskey of the Association of American Publishers, Richard Hull of the Text and Academic Authors Association, Hollie Keith of Gibbs Smith Education, and Charles Pyle of the Virginia Department of Education.   

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Don Waters is the author of the story collection Desert Gothic.