The video news story below, reported by Rachel Stockman, was the lead story on the 5 p.m. news broadcast by KPNX Channel 12, Phoenix, Ariz., the local NBC affiliate, on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
HIGLEY SUPERINTENDENT'S E-MAIL STIRS PLAGIARISM CONCERNS
by Hayley Ringle
An e-mail sent by the Higley schools superintendent to inspire and congratulate teachers on National Teachers Day was lifted almost word for word from an opinion piece posted on a New Jersey newspaper website by a New York professor.
Superintendent Denise Birdwell’s 19-sentence letter, sent Tuesday to Higley Unified School District staff, contained only five original sentences.
Aside from those five sentences, including one in which Birdwell wrote “We celebrate teachers who INSPIRE,” the letter was almost verbatim from a piece on NJToday.net.
Birdwell on Wednesday told The Arizona Republic that the letter had been mistakenly sent out by her secretary and was only a draft. She said when she learned Wednesday about the mistake from an Arizona State University professor who posted the two pieces on his personal blog, she sent out the “correct” e-mail.
The new letter, which cites the author of the NJToday.net piece in a footnote, was e-mailed to staff Wednesday morning.
“I feel like this is being blown out of proportion,” said Birdwell, adding she is recovering from surgery and was distracted because she had been busy pulling together quotes for a Tuesday night district teacher-awards presentation.
Birdwell said she apologized to staff and the opinion writer Wednesday for not sending out the letter with the “appropriate footnote.”
“Certainly our intent was to thank our teachers,” Birdwell said. “Mistakes happen.”
David Schildkret, an ASU choral music professor, called Birdwell’s first letter “unethical” and “dishonest.”
He posted it on his blog, at tortoise -taughtus.blogspot.com, and included a link to the original piece. He also posted excerpts from Higley’s code of conduct on plagiarism, and said Birdwell needed to live up to the standards set for the district.
“So does this mean if a student turns in a paper and is caught plagiarizing, then all the student has to do is say, ‘I’m sorry. I turned in the wrong draft’?” said Schildkret, who has been teaching for more than 30 years.
Schildkret said he was forwarded the letter from a Higley teacher and friend who raised concerns about plagiarism. He said the friend did not want to be named because the person fears retaliation.
“My concern is that the behavior is not consistent with a person in her position who ought to be modeling good practices for students and staff,” said Schildkret, a Chandler resident who is also the director of music at Scottsdale United Methodist Church.
District spokeswoman Sara Bresnahan said some teachers were lashing out at Birdwell because of recent layoffs. Higley’s school board approved cutting 24 administrators, teachers and staff members last month to close an estimated $4.49 million shortfall in its 2011-12 budget.
“What you are seeing is some anger and unfortunate need to lash out at Dr. Birdwell,” said Bresnahan in an e-mail. “Those who know her, and are not angry at her for recent staff cuts and difficult decisions she has had to make, know that this was an honest mistake.”
Higley school board President Kim Anderson said she understood that Birdwell erroneously sent out the e-mail without the citation. She added that Birdwell has been out of the office and “hasn’t been on top of her game for a couple of weeks” because of her recent health issues.
“It’s an unfortunate mistake and I do believe it’s a mistake,” Anderson said.
The sentences were from an opinion piece titled, “Honoring Teachers on National Teachers Day, May 3,” by Jennifer Lauria, an associate professor and coordinator of undergraduate programs for the Department of Education at Wagner College in New York City. The piece was from the Wagner College News Service.
Lauria said she was “disappointed,” but accepted Birdwell’s apology.
“This (opinion piece) was a very positive thing,” Lauria said. “It’s very unfair that I’m being pulled into this.”