The Otten imbroglio…

The Otten imbroglio…

May 2, 2010 Posted by Steve Bowen - No Comments

In my March 4th testimony before the legislature’s Education Committee, I laid out why I thought the state should adopt bold reform measures in response to the federal Race to the Top initiative. We were not doing enough, I said, to compete with states like Michigan and Massachusetts. We needed to do far more than pass an “innovative schools” bill and agree to adopt common standards. We needed to be bold and innovative and really take some big steps forward on education policy.

One of the state’s gubernatorial candidates seems to agree.

In fact, as Matt Gagnon of pinetreepolitics.com, among others, has noted, the Les Otten campaign’s response to an Augusta Insider question about Race to the Top bears an awfully strong resemblance to my earlier testimony.

As Gagnon observed, The start of the Otten response reads: “Under the Race to the Top program, $4.3 billion is being made available to states to help them fund promising education reforms. The catch is that this is a competitive grant program.  States across the nation have responded by passing comprehensive reform legislation that moves their states forward in a dramatic fashion.”

The second paragraph of my testimony, by contrast, reads: “Under the Race to the Top program, $4.3 billion is being made available to states to help them fund promising education reforms.  The catch is that this is a competitive grant program, and states across the nation have responded by passing comprehensive reform legislation that moves their states forward in a dramatic fashion.”

Hmmm….

The Otten piece goes on to cite my findings with regard to Michigan and Massachusetts. On Massachusetts, for instance, I told legislators that “I also have with me the Race to the Top legislation passed by our neighbors in Massachusetts. This 41-page bill expands the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, and gives the state broad powers to intervene in chronically failing schools, including empowering district superintendents to unilaterally amend elements of the collective bargaining agreements in such schools in order to make the staffing changes needed to turn them around.”

Otten’s piece reads:

“MASSACHUSETTS:
•    Expanded the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.
•    Gave the state broad powers to intervene in chronically failing schools, including empowering district superintendents to unilaterally amend elements of the collective bargaining agreements in such schools in order to make the staffing changes needed to turn them around.”

The Otten campaign, in fact, spent quite a bit of time turning my carefully crafted paragraphs into their bulleted lists:

I wrote: “What is Maine doing to create “alternate routes to teacher certification” as suggested in the Race to the Top application?  Nothing.  What are we doing to see to it that “highly effective teachers and principals” are given “opportunities for additional compensation”?  Nothing.  What are we doing to “ensure the equitable distribution of effective teachers”?  Nothing.  What are we doing to “improve the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs”? Nothing.”

Otten’s version reads:
Maine is doing nothing to create alternate routes to teacher certification.
Maine is doing nothing to see to it that highly effective teachers and principals are given opportunities for additional compensation.
Maine is doing nothing to improve the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs.”
(Note that the bit about “equitable distribution of effective teachers” was left out of Otten’s version.)

Where I wrote this: “The Race to the Top grant, though, gives this committee the opportunity to makes its mark on Maine’s schools.  You have the opportunity to rework our data and information systems.  You have the opportunity to re-imagine how we attract, train, certify, support and compensate our teachers and school administrators.  You have the opportunity to take aggressive actions to intervene in chronically underperforming schools, to give our school and community leaders the flexibility they need to make their schools better, and to provide students and families with more educational options, including charter schools.”

The Otten campaign wrote:

“The Race to the Top grant gives Maine the opportunity to:

•    Rework our data and information systems.
•    Re-imagine how we attract, train, certify, support and compensate our teachers and school administrators.
•    Take aggressive actions to intervene in chronically underperforming schools.
•    Give our school and community leaders the flexibility they need to make their schools better.
•    To provide students and families with more educational options, including charter schools.”

Folks, I taught middle and high school for ten years before joining MHPC, and I have seen my fair share of plagiarism, but this takes the cake. Nowhere in Otten’s piece am I cited as the author, and nowhere is it even suggested that the text was lifted from some other source. Certain pieces of my text were used, others were not. My references to the committee were carefully extracted from the text, and my paragraphs were carefully rewritten as lists. Nowhere is there a citation; nowhere is there even a quotation mark to suggest the use of someone else’s words.

And it is all so blatant, that’s the amazing thing. I don’t think any of the students I had, who were 14 years old, by the way,  would ever have dared to hand in something so patently fraudulent.

But how has the Otten campaign responded to the mini-furor this has created? Did they take a stand for integrity and the importance of intellectual property by identifying and firing the author of Otten’s piece?

No, they sent out the following statement instead:

In one of our responses to the Augusta Insider’s recent questions regarding education, specifically the Race To The Top program, part of the answer came from public testimony from the Maine Heritage Policy Center on LD 1801. We should have attributed this quote directly to Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The correct citation should be listed as coming from testimony regarding L.D.’s 1799, 1800 and 1801, The Maine Heritage Policy Center http://www.mainepolicy.org/resources/media/237_1507417858.pdf

Les and members of the Otten campaign staff previously met with the Maine Heritage Policy Center and Steve Bowen, who pointed us toward this public testimony. We have spoken to the Maine Heritage Policy Center executive director Tarren Bragdon who appreciates the fact that we have gone back and attributed that quote to their organization. We apologize for the inadvertent oversight as the final draft of our response was being prepared. This is an error of omission not an error of commission.

We will continue to seek out the best minds in the state such as the Maine Heritage Policy Center on the issues that face us.

One or two things for the record in response:

First of all, “part of an answer?” “that quote?” Really? Is there any part of Otten’s piece that came from anyone other than me?

Second, the idea that they intended to cite my work but neglected, mistakenly, to actually do it is laughable. When you as an author intend to cite the work of another, you quote the cited work exactly as it appears. You don’t deconstruct paragraphs and rework them into bullet lists, and you don’t rewrite sentences your own way, then slap quotes around them. In fact, if you intend to quote another’s work, you actually use quotation marks.

Had the Otten piece simply been comprised of big sections of unedited text from my work, they could plausibly argue that they cut and pasted it into a new document with the intent of later adding quotation marks and citations. But what they did was rewrite and reorganize whole sections of it. You don’t accidentally turn a paragraph into a bullet list, take out the bullets with which you disagree, then accidentally forget to cite the author of the original paragraph from which the bullet list was crafted.

Are they joking with this?

Third, a couple of us from MHPC did indeed meet with the Otten campaign in Bethel on March 23rd. We have met with most of the gubernatorial candidates at one time or another, and not just the Republicans. It is also likely that we did give them some of our reports, and we may very well have given them a copy of the legislative testimony from which they borrowed so brazenly. We have provided materials to a number of gubernatorial candidates, and are more than happy to provide them – any of them – with any information or materials that we might have. We are a research and educational organization and not a day goes by that we don’t send someone – a taxpayer, a college student, a legislative candidate, a school board member – a report or a paper that we’ve authored. This is what we do for a living.

What we did not do was give the Otten campaign some kind of green light to steal our work and pass it off as their own, which is what is suggested in the campaign’s response. We spend a lot of time and money “pointing” people toward our work, and we don’t do it so that they can then rewrite it and pass it off as their own thinking.

This is no small matter for us. Our donors and supporters trust that the work we do is intended to advance our mission of developing and promoting limited-government, free-market public policy solutions that benefit the people of Maine. We do not intend for our work to be used in a way that implies we endorse a specific political candidate, nor do we expect candidates to slyly suggest in their statements that we are somehow working behind the scenes to advance their campaigns. That appears to me to be what the Otten campaign is implying and it is both offensive to me and to the organization and potentially damaging to our credibility.

The Otten campaign has taken steps to apologize to me and to MHPC, but not for stealing our work. In their mind, it seems, this was simply an unfortunate accident, not a blatant attempt to pass off my work as the work of Les Otten.

I, for one, am not buying it.