The Hidden Contract of Urban Schools

This week, I read on the TeachPaperless blog, Shelly Blake-Plock’s post entitled “Example of a Paperless Exam”. I’ve been reading TeachPaperless for more than a year, and it’s one of my favorite blogs. Shelly has inspired me to significantly decrease my paper usage, but the posts I like the most are the one’s in which he describes what he’s teaching and how he’s assessing learning. I love the exam he offers in this post. It’s a great example of using content to apply skills, rather than the exams I see all the time, which are only assessing content, usually through matching, short answer and fill-in the blanks.

For me this exam exemplifies what I want teaching and learning to become in my district, and it also shines a light on all that is difficult about teaching and learning in an urban district. I work on a campus of high schools. These aren’t schools within a school; they are six distinct high schools, with their own staff, students, leadership and themes. There are about 280 teachers combined across all six schools, and I’m responsible for overseeing curriculum and instruction across the campus. Essentially, I’m a principal without a school, and my responsibility is for teaching and learning. My office is on our campus, so I’m in classrooms, working with principals and connecting with students every day.

We have a few teachers who may want to give an exam like this one, but for most teachers it isn’t something they are considering at all. But it isn’t because they don’t care about kids, or they aren’t good teachers. The context of our  school community is so important to understanding the challenges of teaching and learning in city

schools. Our students come to us with so much baggage. When I entered high school, I was a sponge. I just wanted to learn everything. I had experienced, good, great and mediocre teachers, but my fundamental belief in school as a positive place was clearly embedded in my psyche.

The average student in my district has had a different experience. He/She reads 3-4 years below grade level. Most ninth graders entering our schools have not experienced success in school. The textbook has been too difficult for as long as they can remember. As Hispanic students, primarily from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, they cannot find themselves in any of the curricula we teach. For the English Language Learners, school has been a confusing mix of academic vocabulary with multiple meanings, and lessons taught from the Speak English Louder School of instruction. A culture of low expectations permeates their school experiences. Students don’t think they’re going to be doctors and lawyers, they think they will be medical technicians and paralegals. Most will be the first in their family to graduate from high school; virtually all will be the first to attend college.

The Hidden Contract dominates decision-making in an urban school. In many schools, the implied contract between teacher and student is the following. You the teacher will agree to not challenge me, force me to work hard, embarrass me, or make me struggle, and I the student will not act out, disrupt the class, embarrass or challenge you in any way. This same contract exists between Principal and Teacher as well. If you the teacher do not disrupt my day, excessively ask for students to be removed from your class, push at what should and should not be taught, then I the principal will support your decisions, evaluate you positively and leave you alone. Essentially, between and among all parties; you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.

I see these contracts in action every day; passive students, sitting in teacher-directed classrooms, answering lower order questions that challenge no one. Students without pencils or paper, teachers without challenging plans, and everyone surprised if a student, a teacher, or administrator wants or expects more from a class. I understand why classrooms are this way. Students are used to failing. They don’t know what success feels like, and failure is no longer scary or painful, it’s become the norm. Teachers want to connect students with whatever passion it is that brought them to the subject they teach, but they are faced with vast gaps in students’ content knowledge, and so called basic skills are so low. Additionally, the reality of poor standardized test scores causes incredible fear. Each teacher faces incredible pressure to teach to the test to give students the best opportunity to pass and earn their high school diploma.

It is in this reality that I view the great exam that Shelly Blake-Plock offered in his blog. How do we change almost everything about the way teaching and learning occurs to bring us to a place where that exam is the norm, rather than an exam offered in some other school with someone’s else’s kids? Do I show teachers this exam to give them a clear picture of where we want to go? Or, will showing this exam to teachers offer a stark reminder of the Grand Canyon between our schools and his?

Relentlessly attacking this hidden contract is where leadership begins in urban schools. As leaders, my colleagues and I have to grab hold of the hours teachers and students are with us, within our shared walls. Every year during the hype leading up to the Superbowl, I think of leading in an urban school. Coaches must find a way to get their players to ignore the hype. They must keep players away from all the opinions, facts, and beliefs about their team and the game ahead. A Superbowl coach must ensure the players hear his voice above the cacophony of the media and the fans.

It’s the same in an urban school. We must find a way to turn the state standardized test scores, the federal call for turnaround schools, and the local media attacks into white noise for our teachers. We must protect them, nurture them, cheer for them and create a school where failing at student engagement is okay. Until teachers feel safe to fail at engaging their students, we cannot be successful. We must lead efforts to do the same with our students. Together with our teachers, we must create an environment for our students, where their past failures and current struggles are irrelevant to the learning occurring in our classrooms. Teachers must be the eye of the storm in our students’ lives. Together, we must give name, shape, and form to the dreams of a better future that our students have, but are afraid to say aloud. And once those dreams are named, we must offer a roadmap to achieving them.

We have so much to overcome. But speaking from my own experience, when urban students engage, when the classroom becomes a door to connecting with the world, and students for a moment, or a period, a week, or a semester, see options and choices in their future, it is a profoundly beautiful experience. Ensuring this occurs for all our students and not just a few in one classroom is the challenge I love in the work we do.

If we could find a way to get groups of students to succeed on Shelly’s exam, we would hear the hidden contract of school breaking, like a thousand mirrors crashing to the ground. But to get there, from where we are today, is an incredibly long journey.

So I’m struggling this weekend. How do I use this example exam? I need a way to make it an encouraging discussion. We need teachers to leave the discussion feeling empowered, despite our context. We need to turn the discussion away from the abstract and to the concrete, so new and veteran teachers can feel empowered to shift away from content only classrooms. We need to move beyond drill and kill, to meaningfully connecting our students to the world, and engaging them. We need to give up the standard urban classroom relationship of teacher as all knowing and student as empty vessel to be filled. I see all this and more in this one exam example. But I need to make it accessible to our teachers, so I’m still thinking.

Any suggestions?

CC Images:

Bluebell Railway Luggage Pile by Daves Portfolio

Our Direction by B Tal

32-p1 by Zephyrance

This post is cross-posted on Growing Good Schools


  1. Jill Geiser said:


    Yes, I have seen this contract too. In fact, recently I received a communication from a colleague who lamented that they were not making many people happy these days (this person is in a position of leadership). That one comment got me to thinking about how much of our work has become about simply making people happy. (Seth Godin referred to this in a recent blog about pleasing people.) Perhaps some of this is about fear. Fear that teachers will push back. Fear that the media will make one a target of their next negative news story. Fear that parents will complain. This contract is there to keep the peace but as you noted, not necessarily to make any real change in teaching and learning.

    Making something new accessible begins at the “why” we are here. You are going to have those who continue to focus their view on how students misbehave and need the ‘drill and kill’. But I believe at least the majority want something more for their students. Getting to the core of why we go to school everyday and put so much energy into our students, why we got into this business in the first place, will tap into that motivation within teachers to bring their students to greater learning. They may struggle more with the “how” as we all do at times. I know I am not saying anything here you don’t already know. Perhaps I am just reminding myself!

    Jill Geiser

    February 6, 2011
  2. Eric,

    Wlcome to Connected Principals. This is a strong post that applies to some of the wealthy suburban districts that I know. For some, the contract is a way of life. I am glad to know educators like you who reject it.

    Thank you for writing.

    February 7, 2011
  3. Ted Lombardi said:

    The curious thing to me is where this contract comes from. I think most of us who work in urban districts (maybe any district) can speak to the power and influence of “traditional” thought and practice and how it has gotten us to where we are. What is baffling to me is that few can identify the current source of this contract. Teachers often say that progressive thought is where their heart is, but ‘the system’ will not allow for it. Administrators often say that they are trying to push a different paradigm in their schools but that the teachers are too set in their ways to adapt. Maybe we overvalue our own assuptions of others’ perceptions?

    Quick example: We have a 9th grader in my school who is brilliantly creative, but beyond bored with the structure of school. The only class she is passing is English, where her teacher has given her the flexibility in her assignments to explore her thinking on the novels they’ve read. When her fellow students read her writings they comment on how they’d buy anything she writes in the future – they get it, but we apparently don’t. When this teacher came to me last week about her (the latest in a long series of conversations we’ve had about her this year), we threw ideas around on reaching her to maximize her capability. One idea was to just give her one herculean task that would be her project all year (or all four years) that would demonstrate her ability in different areas and take advantage of her creative thinking. Here lies the problem – the first thing we discussed after this came up were all the limitations of this idea – our traditional grading system, standardized testing, etc….you all know the list.

    So maybe all that is in the way is us – maybe the contract on exists as a crutch to not be progressive. Maybe it’s just a bit too initimidating to think that we can just do what we think is best for students and not be a slave to tradition.

    February 7, 2011

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