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032415i plagiarismPlagiarism is as bad for administrators as it for students, but there’s an actual rulebook that warns students against copying others’ work and defines the punishment. When an administrator crosses the line – because they get tired, lazy, sloppy or just don’t understand when the line is – there’s no guide showing how to respond.

Opinion boxNothing turns tweens and teens cynical faster than a double standard, but it’s worth saying that Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga crossed that line recently and has acknowledged the issue in an emailed statement and apologized in person.

The district’s student handbook – which gives a failing grade to an assignment for a first offense, along with a conference with a guidance counselor, parent or guardian and dean of students, and for a second offense raises that to a failing class grade for an entire term – addresses plagiarism and cheating together with the admonition that “every student is expected to complete his or her own work.”

On March 6, Huizenga revived her personal “Exploring Learning” blog, inactive since Oct. 12, 2013, with a post called “Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Achievement … A Conversation.” School Committee member Fran Cronin pointed it out to members of a popular online parents’ group the next day, praising it as “a pretty terrific piece.” But in the blog were two examples of material taken from other sources without credit, including problem samples about “ratio concepts and [using] ratio reasoning to solve problems” written by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo in addressing New Jersey’s core curriculum. His articles and book get credit in several online presentations, including a September 2010 Report to the President by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, but not from Huizenga.

She also borrowed language from Cambridge Day, from a story posted a day earlier in which Jean Cummings wrote about an update on math curriculum given to the School Committee by math department staff Eileen Gagnon. Huizenga went to the effort to link elsewhere in her post to another blog, Shanahan on Literacy, and to a Huffington Post item.

Other examples of this inconsistency can be found in other recent public work of Huizenga’s. A report on “Curriculum Review Cycle” last year includes an explanation of “Backward Design” that can also be found on Wikipedia, and on that site it comes with three separate footnoted citations. In the same report by Huizenga there’s a list of “Important Terms” that copies word for word a discussion of “Enduring Understandings” and doesn’t credit academics named Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, although they are identified nearby as a source for other terms.

Again, sloppy and inconsistent, and looking largely like simple lapses of attribution – albeit with light touch-ups that go beyond simple copying, such as changing “they” to “we,” or adding a “moreover” or “they” to replace a bullet and turn a list into a sentence.

We understand the assistant superintendent is very busy and does plenty of her own work, but surely all of the district’s students being held to that standard could make the same argument?

When contacted with concerns about her work, Huizenga replied at length:

I welcome the opportunity to use this oversight as a means to improve.

My intention in the blog post was to build upon the well-received Math Presentation, and communicate the bigger picture of our work in Curriculum to parents who continue ask the question, why, and what the work of our department means for their children in CPS. It was an effort to bring in the community, and open a conversation.

I do want to emphasize that the oversight was not intentional in any way. I was unaware of a citation rule that outlined how I would cite my own words in a presentation that was quoted in a paper … I used my own words and ideas, as quoted in the paper, because I did not want to confuse anyone who may have read both. I also realized that I missed a couple of other citations … none of which was intentional, but mistakes that I both own and have since rectified since it was brought to my attention.

I appreciate this learning experience as a means to reflect upon how essential attention to detail is, and I will be sure moving forward to take the time to make sure my communication is accurate, reliable and properly cited. Mistakes are how we grow, and I appreciate the opportunity to grow in this area.

School Committee members and Superintendent Jeffrey Young were told of the citation concerns in an email from Cambridge Day. Committee members made no statement on the topic, but Young raised the issue with Huizenga and later said he had “tremendous confidence in Dr. Huizenga and support[s] her fully in her work in Cambridge.”

While saying Huizenga seemed to have “learned an important lesson,” he suggested contacting her directly with “this type of question” in the future rather than going to the superintendent or School Committee.

Unfortunately, a correction Huizenga made to the blog post quoting Cambridge Day was still wrong. While she added quotation marks and stated she was taking text from another source, she still said the quoted matter is “my response” – and it was not. What she presented as her quotes are actually Cambridge Day paraphrases – in the first instance, a summation of a three-minute presentation given not by Huizenga but by her staff. Even if she did not remember what she had said at the meeting, the use of paraphrase instead of quotation in the article might have served as a reminder: If it’s not in quotes, it’s not a quote.

Later, Cambridge Day was removed from the post altogether and Huizenga explained that her initial corrections were rushed. Later still, she had Wiggins himself call to stress that his findings were meant to be treated as a kind of common property that academics could spread without citation.

In addition, she argued that the problems in her blog and academic work were almost completely errors of citation, not the purposeful theft of material that most people refer to as plagiarism, and an expert at the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University affirmed there is “absolutely” a difference between the two, although it was hard to determine which was at play in Huizenga’s work based on the provided examples.

The expert went on to say that for many of Huizenga’s slips, “plagiarism” might be too harsh a term for what look like “attribution errors”:

When information is cited in one place and not another, most of the time that would be classified as an attribution error. Things like that happen a lot when people are revising. They cut something and they put it somewhere else and they don’t realize that now the other stuff is sitting there without the citation … It happens to all of us, really. Hopefully we catch it most of the time but it’s a very easy thing to do now.

The actions Huizenga taken may well be good enough – if administrators are willing to let this be the standard for students as well. If not, there is still a correction to be made.

A student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School said most instances of plagiarism at the school are minor, and that “because of the severity of … punishments, students are very rarely brought through the official channels” for discipline. “Teachers are much more likely to deal with it quietly by having a meeting with the student, asking them to redo the assignment for half credit or something of that sort.”

The student continued:

For something smaller like bad citations or incomplete citations, disciplinary action is rarely taken. Instead, there’s sometimes a category on the assignment rubric (especially for the underclassmen) for ‘Works Cited’ or something. Without citations or with bad citations, a paper is usually given simply a lower grade, and often the chance to rewrite it is given. For the upperclassmen, proper citations are seen as a must, but if someone fails to properly cite it’s seen, as you said, as ‘a teachable moment’ rather than a disciplinary problem. Really it comes down to whether the teacher feels the action was a legitimate mistake/example of laziness/sloppiness or a malicious/purposeful attempt to steal someone’s thoughts. I think the impetus for bad citations is rarely the latter, and teachers see this.

Finally, the student said Huizenga had taken a short-cut largely denied to students: “Wikipedia is repeatedly forbidden by teachers as a research source. A vast majority of teachers will mark you down for using Wikipedia as even a cited source,” the student said. “It simply isn’t seen as reliable – its references can be used as a ‘jumping off point,’ but it may never be used as a source itself.”

Huizenga, of Burlington, has taught in Plymouth and has served as an assistant principal in Randolph and as principal in Holliston and Westford. She received a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2011. She was assistant and then interim superintendent of the Freetown-Lakeville school district before her appointment in Cambridge in July 2013.

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After several instances of plagiarism led to his firing Feb. 12 as news director of the website Mic, writer Jared Keller is already back in the pages of The Atlantic as of Wednesday. Perhaps more relevant, Newton schools Superintendent David Fleishman was caught copying parts of a graduation speech, and the local school committee held three meetings and decided last summer to dock Fleishman a week’s pay.

It’s clear from these widely reported recent stories that a charge of plagiarism doesn’t have to be a professional disaster, even in this era of Google and an Internet where such stains don’t fade quickly, if at all.

That the permanence of an accusation would be too much punishment for Huizenga was the reason that this item was posted for only about three hours Wednesday before being replaced temporarily with an explanation of its removal – and an invitation for readers and community members to give their opinions.

Here are some excerpts from what people said on the topic, which have offered clarity on the situation and led to the return of the original essay. These comments are lightly edited for coherence and consistency:

bullet-gray-small“I disagree with your decision to take down the evidence. It’s up to her employers to decide if there are to be any repercussions; it’s up to the press to tell the truth about our educational leaders.”

bullet-gray-small“She is an adult who should know better. Indeed, she is responsible for the English-language arts curriculum design that is in process. We need an expert with a very high moral compass for this job. To not report on what has happened is potentially interfering with our ability to achieve this.”

bullet-gray-small“Don’t you think the community deserves to know that the person they hired to be assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, one of the most important positions in our school system, to whom we pay $150,000 in taxpayer dollars plus luxurious benefits, does not know the rules of plagiarism? To me, the idea that a educator and professional at that level would not is beyond shocking. It’s newsworthy.”

bullet-gray-small“This type of thing seems to happen fairly routinely and newspapers from The New York Times to the Newton Tab deal with it straightforwardly, without second-guessing … I worry that the schools are protecting and harboring an educational leader who would engage in such a basic and serious ethical breach as engaging in plagiarism, which even most high school students recognize as wrong. What messages are we sending our kids? And ourselves?”

bullet-gray-small“This is an important topic that should not be swept under the rug. If Superintendent Jeffrey Young and the School Committee won’t address the issue, I think Cambridge citizens should be made aware of it. Teachers in Cambridge started talking to my children about plagiarism in the third and forth grade. Not only do they warn about cutting and pasting from Wikipedia; they say not to use it as a reliable source.”

bullet-gray-small“If she plagiarized, a professional with loads of academic experience behind her, you’re given her a pass on something that would, and has, screwed the kids she is supposed to be serving. That’s simply not right. More than one kid has been screwed by much less in Cambridge Public Schools, losing out on huge academic opportunities such as the National Honor Society for smaller gaffes. I’ve talked to a bunch of people so far, including students, and all think that if she truly crossed a professional, ethical or educational line and did something that would have resulted in severe disciplinary action for a 15-year-old who, arguably, doesn’t really know better, she should go find work someplace else. The thought of such a double standard within the ranks of our educational leaders is bothersome and robs the system of the integrity it needs for folks to think the rules mean anything. If she truly plagiarized, did something that she knew or should have known she shouldn’t have done, she should pay a much higher price that simply saying ‘I’m sorry.’”

In addition, educators in the district worried how Huizenga’s approach was affecting her implementation of policy. “We know that often the ideas she espouses are not hers, but jargon that she is adopting from various sources, many of them education activists who are pushing initiatives that are very controversial. If she is taking those ideas, or using the ideas of others, in order to sell us on a new direction, we have the right to know where those ideas originated and whether we are looking at making a very critical decision using falsified information,” one educator said. “We have a right to know whether or not the head of curriculum development is, frankly, as bright as she seems to be. Especially if she is one of a number of candidates who very well might be considered as the next district superintendent.”

A Harvard educator who claimed experience catching plagiarism compared Huizenga’s writing with its sources and warned that “when plagiarism like this is found it is usually not an isolated occurrence.”

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This post was updated April 4, 2015, with slight changes throughout about the nature of Huizenga’s writing errors and to reflect that references to Cambridge Day have been removed from her blog; and to add comments from an expert the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University and student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

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