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Chris Spence’s Books Are Riddled With Probable Plagiarism, Too

The former TDSB education director, already accused of plagiarizing his op-eds and his dissertation, has more to answer for.

TDSB education director Chris Spence. Photo courtesy of {a href="http://www.facebook.com/toronto.dsb"}TDSB's Facebook page{/a}.

What hasn’t been remarked upon much in all the coverage of the resignation of TDSB Education Director Chris Spence is the fact that he was a published author. The one-time star educator—who left his job two weeks ago amid allegations that he had plagiarized some op-eds he wrote for the Star, as well as parts of his 1996 doctoral dissertation—has a back catalogue of at least six books, all of them related to his field of expertise. They’re some of the best, most extensive samples of his writing style.

We’ve fed the text of the first chapters of two of those books to Google. They don’t hold up very well.

Large swaths of writing were apparently swiped wholesale from sources as diverse as academic journals and personal websites. Among the questionable passages are bouts of learned analysis, jokes, and even, on at least one occasion, a personal anecdote—in other words, a thing that supposedly happened to Spence, but that was previously written about by someone else, using exactly the same words.

Pembroke, the publisher of Spence’s three most recent books, is already looking into the matter, according to the National Post.

A close look at Spence’s books suggests that his academic dishonesty wasn’t occasional. It’s hard to come away without wondering if appropriating the thoughts of others wasn’t just a work habit for him.

Spence isn’t talking to reporters at the moment, so we’ll leave it to others to determine why he did what he did. Here, meanwhile, is a look at what we found during our time with his oeuvre.

Book One: On Time! On Task! On a Mission!, 2002

This book is ostensibly a sort of memoir of Spence’s tenure as principal of Lawrence Heights Middle School, a North York public school with a rough reputation. The meat of the book is a daily diary of Spence’s experiences during the 1999/2000 school year, a lot of which appears to be written in his own words. But some parts of the book seem to have been taken from other places. Often, it’s just a line or two. On occasion, whole paragraphs are questionable.

The single most egregious example we came across in our search begins on page 16 of the book, which you can see embedded as a PDF below. The highlighted sections are the ones that seem to have been taken from elsewhere.

All of this looks at first glance to be a great, knowledgeable explanation of some of the difficulties involved in teaching underprivileged kids—all straight from the pen of a guy who’s been there.

In fact, it is all those things, but the guy who’s been there, it appears, isn’t Spence. It’s this guy, a man who identifies himself as Rich Geib. He wrote a compelling, unvarnished account of time spent as a new teacher at a middle school in Los Angeles, then published it on his personal website. Judging by cached copies of the website at Archive.org, Geib’s words predate Spence’s by at least five years.

All of the telling details in Spence’s version—the kids who “came to school without a pen or pencil,” the decision to “have school on Saturdays, during vacations, and at night”—appear in Geib’s writing, verbatim.

We know for a fact that Lawrence Heights is a low-income area, and that Spence was known for mentoring students there. (Several people who knew Spence during his Lawrence Heights days say nice things about him in the Star‘s recently released ebook on the scandal.) But here he is, apparently lying about specific things that happened in the classroom. Undeniably, this casts a shadow over the rest of what he says about himself in the book.

This is the only significant instance we found of Spence lifting autobiographical details from other sources. Most of the suspect passages were more academic, like those on the pages below.

The highlighted section turned up Google hits. The first two paragraphs are nearly identical to two paragraphs of this research digest, dated 1993 and still kicking around on the web. The third paragraph is almost identical to one in a 1987 case study of Centennial High School, which is located near Portland, Oregon. Here’s the paragraph from that study, for comparison:

The establishment of the leadership team and the involvement of staff in school improvement vastly increased the collaborative, cooperative, collegial efforts in the school. The leadership team itself represented an opportunity for teachers to work together in a decision-making capacity as they worked to move the school through the improvement steps. They met frequently to learn new skills, collect and share data on the school and develop ways the rest of the staff could work together to focus on school improvement. Teachers were directly involved in leading the improvement effort.

On Time! On Task! On a Mission! is 151 pages long, minus its appendices. We checked the first 50 pages and found unattributed passages—most of them short—that also appeared in a combined total of 17 other published works. (One of the 17 appears to have been published after Spence’s book, raising the possibility that someone plagiarized him.)

And again, this is just what we were able to turn up on Google. A more thorough search might have yielded more examples.

Book Two: Leading With Passion and Purpose, 2009

This book, maybe because it was published more recently and the trail wasn’t quite as cold, turned up many more Google matches than the other one. We looked at the preface and the first two chapters—a total of 30 pages, out of 101—and found passages that also appeared in a combined total of 19 other published works.

Nine of those unattributed sources appear in the preface alone, where Spence even goes so far as to take a joke that seems to be in wide circulation online and retell it using someone else’s words. Check the embedded PDF, below, to see how it’s used in context, and compare to the version on this website.

Leading With Passion and Purpose is essentially a handbook for school administrators. Spence published it while he was director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, a position he held until 2009. The first chapters contain a lot of no-nonsense advice, but much of it is reused from other places without proper attribution. One odd example is below. Spence cites a source parenthetically (“Australian Principals Associations Professional Development Council, 2003″), and then everything that follows appears to be taken verbatim from a different source, a research paper [DOC] delivered at a 2007 education conference in Australia.

Other suspect passages from Leading With Passion and Purpose were similar. In general, they were lengthy—sometimes paragraphs long—and they tended to be taken from scholarly sources. One imagines that Spence would have had a lot of journals and books on his desk while he was writing, and it appears he put them to use.

Some parts of the book are properly cited, but much of the good stuff in the first thirty pages seems to be plagiarized.

For a reader, the irony can sometimes be unbearable. At one point, Spence writes: “It takes hard, steady work to improve student achievement, yet the culture around us values convenience, short cuts, expediency, and painless learning. These and other obstacles can seem daunting, but we must not let them daunt us.”

A fine defense of never taking the easy way out.

Except that those words were first used in a 1999 speech [PDF] by a career education advocate named M. Hayes Mizell.

Oh well.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/mjrichardson_to Mark J. Richardson

    This wasn’t “untraceable doping” ala Lance Armstrong – this was EASILY checked Fraud.

    Why were everyone’s standards so low, and background / content checks ignored..?

    How did this go on for YEARS and YEARS…?

    What are the standards at the TDSB…?

    • Robert Moses

      What standards?

    • mark_dowling

      Mark J. Richardson – these were published texts. Why should the TDSB have checked them? That was the responsibility of the publisher.

      • OgtheDIm

        So nobody should do a background check on
        Jonah Lehrer if he goes up for an academic job?

      • http://twitter.com/mjrichardson_to Mark J. Richardson

        It wasn’t just these published texts. It was his articles, his doctoral dissertation also…

        It didn’t start with one Star editorial in December where he was “rushed”, there is a history of the same pattern going back years.

        The TDSB is NOT the only “guilty party”, but if you are going to put anyone in the spotlight as the “face” of your organization – you have to be willing to conduct some “uncomfortable” background checks to protect your institution BEFORE they are hired.

  • Astin44

    I feel kind of bad for the guy. I’m not excusing him, but I wonder how much plagiarism could be found in similar books by random authors? How many speeches or memos contain sections lifted from other sources without attribution? And how many individual lines are just random coincidence? There are only so many ways to write out a single sentence. Jokes get told and retold. How often does “this happened to a friend” really mean “a friend told me this happened to a friend” for the sake of brevity?

    I’d be far more interested if this opened up investigations into the whole industry. Not just one guy who obviously got away with it for years. Why wasn’t his publisher checking these things? How many of their other authors get away with this?

    In a time of instant access to information and global propagation of thoughts and writing, I imagine that very few people could escape completely unscathed by such a thorough investigation.

    Still, he got caught, and he was in a position where plagiarism would carry greater consequences. No excuse.

    • http://twitter.com/candleflame3 PlantinMoretus

      Ugh, Another “others do it too!” comment. And you even go so far as to say that most people do this, since “very few could escape completely unscathed by such a thorough investigation”.

      For one thing, there hasn’t been a thorough investigation of Spence. Only a few bits and pieces have been found.

      For another, “very few” is pure conjecture on your part. You haven’t got a f**king clue how much plagiarism there is.

      For a third, “escape” is a very weird choice of words. Why should anyone need to “escape” an investigation of the authenticity of their work? If it’s legit, they have nothing to worry about.

      You say you aren’t excusing Spence but you ARE trying throw together a phony context to make his failure look not so bad. Weak. Like Spence himself.

      • Astin44

        Nitpick much?

        As I said, I’m not trying to excuse the guy. I have zero stake in this whole fiasco. No kids, no connection to the board, no connection to publishing or media. Just a guy who keeps reading about this and wondering “who else is getting away with it.”

        Yes, “very few” is conjecture, hence why it has “I imagine” just before it. Do you have a clue? Please share your knowledge with the class.

        As for the investigation, let’s see. His speeches have now been back-checked and found to contain multiple examples. His publisher is reviewing his books. His Alma Mater is investigating his thesis. Blogs like Torontoist are checking chapters of his books independently, using only a Google search and finding example after example. You’re right… barely anything is being done.

        • Robert Moses

          You are excusing him.

          • Astin44

            How so? Never did I say he didn’t do it, nor that it wasn’t his fault, nor that he shouldn’t be punished for it. I didn’t say “everyone else is doing it.” I didn’t suggest he should be forgiven. I didn’t imply that if it is a bigger problem, he shouldn’t be vilified. “Everyone else does it!” isn’t a valid excuse for a 6-year old or an adult. Neither is “I didn’t think I’d get caught!”

            I asked a question – how widespread is this? I’m using this singular example as a starting point of looking for at a potentially broader, systemic problem. Is it wrong if someone gets abused to then ask, “how do you stop this from happening? How many times does this happen that we don’t know about?” Or do you just jump on the one person who was caught and ignore potential abuses elsewhere?

            Casting questions of “if it happened with this guy, how much more is it happening?” as trying to excuse the exposed party condenses the issue. It turns a blind eye to the potential of this being more widespread in the HOPE that it’s just one guy doing this.

            After all, was there not a bunch of time spent on Margaret Wente last year? How about Dongqing Li and Yasaman Daghighi? All of these people were caught blatantly copying the work of others, had their widespread media exposure, and then… what? All of these occurrences happened in environments where editing and checker and safeguards are expected to be in place and enforced to prevent this very thing, yet they still happened and reached the public. Does this not speak to some sort of systemic problem? Even if it’s just as simple as editorial laziness, it’s not an isolated incident.

            So I’m sorry if this comes off as some excuse for someone I honestly couldn’t care less about, or as a “others do it to” comment, but there potentially IS a bigger issue that gets ignored because it’s much easier to write multiple pieces to make an example of one well-covered person than to investigate larger organizations.

        • http://twitter.com/candleflame3 PlantinMoretus

          A thorough investigation would involve checking every line of Spence’s published work and a big chunk of his academic work too (not every undergrad essay but certainly his master’s and doctoral work).

          Your cop-out that you were “imagining” that very few don’t do this fails because you imagined it out loud in a comment that sought to find ways that diminish the severity of Spence’s wrongdoing.

          “I imagine very few elite cyclists could withstand rigorous testing for doping.” At best that would mean that cycling is rife with lies and corruption. Are you suggesting that Ontario’s education system is as ethical as elite cycling? That most people plagiarize their way through school, university and career?

          Anyway, it’s irrelevant who else is getting away with it. Spence did it, got caught, and is now suffering the consequences.

      • Derec

        You say you aren’t excusing Spence but you ARE trying throw together a phony context to make his failure look not so bad. Weak. Like Spence himself.

        Good thought by the way …

        plagiarism detector

    • gsd lkd

      Actually Astin44 you have some good points despite what others might say. The fact is that Spence got away with this for quite some time and that was a failure of those who hired him and accredited him. Direct plagiarism (copyright) is a civil matter and there are situations where it is actually done on purpose (ghost writers, sampling etc.). Many of the most prolific bands have been involved in some sort of plagiarism dispute (beatles, zeppelin, dylan etc). Plagiarism was rampant when I was in school and was probably worse before; it is perhaps less common now because of the software and databases used to catch it.

      Furthermore, from a legal perspective, illegal plagiarism is a violation of the rights of the original author, and not a violation against the audience. From this perspective, almost every single young person I know has engaged in this kind of behavior (downloading music, movies etc.). .

      Spence’s level of plagiarism seems to show a level of sloppiness and intent that goes beyond your occasional mistake though. Smart plagiarists know how to modify the language sufficiently to avoid getting in trouble.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        “… Many of the most prolific bands have been involved in some sort of plagiarism dispute (beatles, zeppelin, dylan etc)….”

        Tangent: There’s a very interesting web documentary series called Everything is a Remix that explores this in music and film, and the ramifications.

  • ashleigh

    Overall I am uneasy with “investigation, conviction and condemnation by Google”. It seems within the same milieu of plagiarizing swathes of academic research and anecdotal publications: an easy way out.

    Yes, I see that the reporter does reference sources and publication dates, rather damning of Mr. Spence, but:

    “And again, this is just what we were able to turn up on Google. A more thorough search might have yielded more examples.”

    is an egregious drive by accusation: do you have sex with barn animals anymore? type conundrum. A more thorough search might exonerate him, on some instances.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rfmcdonald Randy McDonald

      How could it exonerate him?

    • http://twitter.com/candleflame3 PlantinMoretus

      He definitely committed plagiarism. He can’t be “exonerated” now.

    • NOYB12345

      Since he has hired a firm to restore his reputation, we can expect to see more vaguely supportive statements like this one suggesting he could be exonerated.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      No, a more thorough search can only spread the blame around, it can’t exonerate him. His editors and publishers should have caught the plagiarism in his books and the school should have caught it in his dissertation.

      The closest he can get to exoneration is if an investigation reveals a conspiracy to inject lifted passages into his work against his will, in which case he’s “just” a co-conspirator in this fraud.

  • Glen T Brown

    I guess that’s the difference between a SWAP file and a SWIPE file.

  • teacherattdsb

    Spence is a disgrace and everyone in the school board knew it….he was always so full of himself. Those who saw him as a genuine person were fooled, most of the educator’s saw through him.