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First Impressions
Published Thursday, May 3, 2001
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N.C. school board tries to trim texts' errors


RALEIGH -- Concerned that student textbooks are riddled with factual mistakes, the N.C. Board of Education on Wednesday discussed several solutions - including requiring local school districts to fact-check the books.

In a review of math and science textbooks used by N.C. school districts, the state's Textbook Commission recently compiled a list of publisher-admitted mistakes.

While most of the elementary and middle school math and science books averaged no more than five mistakes per book, some had as many as 50. In high school texts, the publishers admitted to no more than 10 errors in most cases, but one book had 276.

In a separate, two-year study by an N.C. State University researcher, errors discovered in science books used by Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other districts included an incorrect depiction of what happens to light passing through a prism, a reversed photo of the Statue of Liberty (the torch is in the wrong hand), and a photo of singer Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicone crystal.

But board members Wednesday were skeptical whether they could stop such mistakes.

"I'm convinced the cure is worse than the illness," said Asheville member Robert Douglas.

The five options outlined by Tom Zeiko with the state's Attorney General's office were:

  • Requiring publishers to promise that experts have reviewed the textbooks. However, this isn't different from what the state already asks for, and this option outlines no penalties if errors are discovered, Zeiko said.

  • The state could review the books itself. Publishers would be notified of errors and be required to change them before shipping the books. Zeiko noted that this would take additional staff time, would put the error responsibility on the state and could drive publishers away.

  • Make sure the contract between the state and publishers states that if errors are in the books, the state could sue for damages. Such a guarantee could be difficult to enforce, Zeiko said.

  • Require individual school districts to check books for errors. In North Carolina, individual school districts buy textbooks; the state merely offers recommendations. Putting the responsibility on local districts could be less efficient, would put too much work on the districts and could reduce the publishers' incentives to make sure their books are error-free, Zeiko said.

  • The state board could notify districts about a publishers' track record on errors, leaving it up to the individual district to decide whether they want to buy from that publisher.

    The state board did not vote on any of the recommendations, but favored the ones that did not put fact-checking responsibility on the state or local districts. The issue will be revisited at the board's June meeting.

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