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