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Chris Spence, Director of Education, TDSB, briefs the media following a Resource Allocation Review meeting with trustees in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Chris Spence, Director of Education, TDSB, briefs the media following a Resource Allocation Review meeting with trustees in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

TDSB director resigns over plagiarism, PhD dissertation includes unattributed passages Add to ...

Chris Spence has resigned as head of Canada’s largest school board after a cascade of plagiarism allegations.

The education director of the Toronto District School Board stepped down Thursday, effective immediately, the board chairman said in a terse statement.

Mr. Spence did not respond Thursday to repeated requests for an interview. In a statement released after his resignation was announced, he made no specific reference to the numerous examples of his work that appear to have relied heavily on the words of others.

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The Globe and Mail has learned that parts of Dr. Spence’s dissertation, submitted in 1996 for his Ph.D. from OISE appear to have been copied from unattributed sources. The 239-page dissertation is entitled “The Effects of Sport Participation on the Academic and Career Aspirations of Black Male Student Athletes in Toronto High Schools” and was partly based on interviews with student athletes and educators.

However, passages are substantially similar to prior work which Dr. Spence does not attribute, and rely very heavily, in one section, on a 1991 book edited by Grant Jarvie, Sport, Racism and Ethnicity.

In his bibliography, Dr. Spence lists the chapter in the book which his work resembles but does not credit the author in the passage in question. In omitting to acknowledge that he is quoting from a 1991 book, he also uses the original citations as his own. The reader has the impression that he has read and is summarizing the original and earlier literature, a key task of any successful dissertation.

On page 18, Dr. Spence writes: “Another view suggests involvement in sport has positive consequences for participants and society as a whole. Among the positive aspects associated with sport is its function as a transmitter of social values. Through athletic participation, it is argued, one learns not only how to play a specific sport, but also how to play the game of life (Snyder and Spreitzer 1989). Sport presumably transmits, among other values, the importance of hard work, character development and team work values that are complementary to those necessary for success in academic life. Sport, therefore, has been traditionally viewed as beneficial to the achievement of academic goals.”

The words appear almost exactly the same on the first page of a chapter by Othello Harris in the Jarvie book:

“One view of athletic participation suggests involvement in sport has positive consequences for participants and society as a whole. Among the positive consequences associated with sport is its function as a transmitter of social values. Through athletic participation, it is argued, one not only learns to play a specific sport but how to ‘play the game of life’ (Snyder and Spreitzer, 1983). Sport presumably transmits, among other values, the importance of hard work, character development and team work values that are complementary to those necessary for success in academic life. Sport, therefore, has been traditionally viewed as beneficial to the achievement of academic goals.”

Dr. Spence continues for one long paragraph in which he discusses the chances that a black high school football player will play for a “Division 1 college football team.”

The paragraph following is again almost identical to Harris’s chapter. Dr. Spence writes:

“Coleman (1961) expressed his concern that high schools give the appearance of being organized around sport rather than academics, as indicated by the visibility of symbols of athletic achievements (for example, displays of athletic trophies in school lobbies) and the relative invisibility of academic accomplishments (for example, an absence of displays of scholarly awards). It is significant to note that although Coleman’s concerns are dated (1961), little has changed in the appearance of how schools are organized. Furthermore, athletes are accorded higher status in high school than scholars. The notion of sport as a threat to academics has lead to the conceptualization of the athlete as an individual uninterested in academics. This stereotype encompasses the idea that time and energy spent on athletics is time and energy taken away from the pursuit of academic concerns, because athletic excellence requires an enormous amount of time and energy for practice and competition. This stereotype has given rise to the dominant ideology that athletes are poor students. The phrase ‘dumb jock’ is evidence of this stereotype.”

Harris wrote: “More recently, Coleman (1961) expressed his concern that high schools give the appearance of being organized around sport rather than academics as indicated by the visibility of symbols of athletic achievements (for example, displays of athletic trophies in school lobbies) and the relative invisibility of symbols of academic accomplishments (for example, an absence of displays of scholarly awards). Furthermore, athletes were accorded higher status in high schools than scholars or bright students as indicated by the backgrounds of members of the high schools’ leading crowds. This notion of sport as a threat to academics has led to the conceptualization of the athlete as an individual interested in athletics but not academics. This stereotype encompasses the idea that time and energy spent on athletics is time and energy taken away from the pursuit of academic concerns. Because athletic excellence requires an enormous amount of time and energy – for practices, team meetings, home and away games, time to reflect, etc. – university athletes have little time to spend refining their academic skills. This stereotype has given rise to the dominant ideology that athletes are poor students.”

In his written statement Thursday afternoon, Dr. Spence said: “I regret that I have not set a good or proper example for the many thousands of young people I’ve been privileged to meet and know.”

“I intend to continue to do the things I pledged to do - to restore my reputation, and to uphold the academic integrity I consider to be so important. But most importantly, to make amends for what I have done.

"I do not wish to be a further distraction to the Trustees, or my many friends and colleagues at the Toronto District School Board. I therefore submit my letter of resignation and, once again, offer my sincerest apologies."

Mr. Spence’s fall from grace began when a keen-eyed reader of The Toronto Star noticed that he appeared to have plagiarised a recent piece he did for them. The paper investigated and Mr. Spence admitted lifting material from five different sources.

That brought attention to his other work, including a blog he started writing in his professional capacity shortly after taking the TDSB job in 2009. In the blog, which disappeared from the TDSB site around the time his resignation was announced, he mixes inspirational advice with personal anecdotes. But a close read raises questions about several entries, including one of the most moving.

In an emotional entry written Dec. 17, Dr. Spence relates how he told his son about the massacre three days earlier in Newtown, Connecticut. He remembers how he put on his “calmest face” and told his child that “some people were killed. It’s very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school.”

This exchange is very similar to an account published on the 14th by a U.S. journalist. Aisha Sultan wrote, in a piece posted at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the afternoon of the shooting, that she put on her “calmest face” and told her son that “some people were killed. It’s very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school.”

In both cases, the two wrote, they then hugged their respective children.

Reacting to the plagiarism in the Star, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had called for stiff punishment, while noting that he is not “a fan” of Dr. Spence. The two have differences that go back to the mayor's winning campaign.

“He shouldn’t be plagiarizing, number one, and I think there should be major sanctions. And I’ll let [TDSB Chairman Chris] Bolton and the board decide on that,” he told reporters. “It’s pretty severe. He can’t be the director of education and plagiarizing, put it that way. It’s serious.”

Mr. Spence has apologized for plagiarizing in his Star article, but did not respond Thursday to requests for an interview to discuss numerous places where his blog contains material that has appeared elsewhere.

In one case, a message from Dr. Spence to graduating students in 2011 has passages that mimic addresses to students in Texas and Washington, D.C.

“But something in danger of being trampled in the stampede to the future is the delicate thread that draws us together as human beings,” Dr. Spence wrote in an entry posted June 27, 2011. “We surf the internet in multiple languages, yet never speak to the person next door. The news shows us suffering in the far reaches of the globe, yet we never notice the poverty in our own backyard. What good is crystal clear reception on your smartphone if you can’t hear the voice of your own conscience or your neighbour asking for help?”

There are only two differences – “the news” instead of “webcams” and “smartphone” instead of “Bluetooth” – between that and a 2006 commencement address to the University of Austin at Texas, posted online.

“But something in danger of being trampled in the stampede to the future is the delicate thread that draws us together as human beings,” Antonio Garza, then U.S. ambassador to Mexico, told students. “We surf the internet in multiple languages, yet never speak to the person next door. Webcams show us deprivation in the far reaches of the globe, yet we never notice the poverty in our own backyard. What good is crystal clear reception on your Bluetooth if you can’t hear the voice of your own conscience or your neighbor asking for help?”

In the same entry, Dr. Spence told students that to remember that they had not been “educated to be a bystander. You are not just a face in the crowd, forgotten by the powerful people passing by. YOU are one of those powerful people, and YOU will be watched, critiqued, criticized and complimented, and through all of those tests you will be held up as a role model and exemplar.”

This matches exactly, including capitalization for emphasis, an on-line copy of words spoken during a 2008 luncheon talk at Trinity Washington University.

“We have not educated you to be a bystander,” university president Patricia McGuire said. “You are not just a face in the crowd already forgotten by the powerful people passing by. YOU are one of those powerful people, and YOU will be watched, critiqued, criticized and complimented, and through all of those tests you will be held up as a role model and exemplar.”

In another example, Dr. Spence referred on Oct. 21, 2011, to the different reality in Chinese schools. “In Chinese schools, teachers are respected, and the most admired student is often the brain rather than the jock or class clown,” he writes.

This observation had earlier been made by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “Teachers are much respected, and the most admired kid is often the brain rather than the jock or class clown,” he wrote in January of 2011.

In another entry on Chinese schools the same day, he discussed concerns about standardized test scores. “There are extremists at both ends of the education spectrum — i.e., those telling us international tests are meaningless and those claiming the scores are a sure sign that the sky is falling,” he wrote.

A Time magazine piece published online earlier that year made the same point. “But the extremists at both ends of the education spectrum — i.e., those telling us international tests are meaningless and those claiming the scores are a sure sign that the sky is falling — are wrong,” Andrew Rotherham wrote in January of 2011.

In another case, a post by Dr. Spence in the autumn of 2010 notes that “students should be taught not only the ability to master, access and use factual knowledge, but also the ability to challenge assumptions, to interrogate and reconstruct knowledge and learn to know, to care and to act. This type of teaching will educate ‘students' heads, but also their hearts,’ and create transformative citizens who are prepared to take an active role in their society and work for social justice. A person is not simply a citizen of one country or a member of one ethnic group. Instead, our identities incorporate a variety of factors, including nation and race, but also sexual orientation, religion, language and class.

This is very similar to language used in the spring of 2008 in a press release posted on-line by the University of Virginia, which describes a talk by Professor James Banks.

“Banks stated that students should be taught not only ‘the ability to master, access and use factual knowledge, but also the ability to challenge assumptions, to interrogate and reconstruct knowledge’ and learn ‘to know, to care, and to act,’ the three goals of global citizenship education,” the release states.

 

“This type of teaching will educate ‘students' heads, but also their hearts,’ and create ‘transformative’ citizens who are prepared to take an active role in their society and work for social justice. The notion of simple patriotism to one nation has become obsolete and our society needs to accept the multi-dimensional nature of diversity, Banks said. A person is not simply a citizen of one country or a member of one ethnic group. Instead, one's identity incorporates a variety of factors, including nation and race, but also factors such as sexual orientation, religion, language and class.”

 

And in a speech available on YouTube, Dr. Spence says that “one of the things that we need to continue to do is to create schools for the 21st century, which really requires less time looking in the rear-view mirror and more vision anticipating the road ahead. Almost identical words are credited ((https://sites.google.com/site/usd343trc/project-definition)) on-line to a George Lucas and appear in a presentation called Edutopia.

Dr. Spence’s work was already under the spotlight after he admitted lifting material from multiple sources for an article in the Toronto Star. In a statement posted at the TDSB site, he pledged to have the offending article removed and his apology put in its place.

“It goes without saying that it will never happen again,” he wrote. “And I intend to take real and meaningful steps to learn from this, and learn how to avoid a reoccurrence.” (sic)

In his writing of the article, he explained, he had copied material from elsewhere and then gone back and used it, apparently in the belief that it was his own. He made no mention of other instances.

With reports from Kate Hammer, Oliver Moore, Adrian Morrow and Stephen Spencer Davis

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