Tuesday, February 14, 2006


To the Principal:

My son Tex is in 11th grade at Masterman, and every September, he brings home two or three “contracts” similar to the enclosed Academic Integrity Policy. He and I both have to sign them. We agree to respect the dignity and personal property of others. We agree he will do his homework. We agree he will bring his textbook to class. For all I know, we may have agreed to mow your lawn, since neither he nor I read them anymore. I grumbled a bit at first, but I never wrote a letter to the principal before. At Tex’s request, I just signed these contracts and forgot about them. He did not want to be the kid with the crazy father.

Now, with this Academic Integrity Policy, the stakes have apparently been raised. Tex was told he would receive a detention unless he signs on the dotted line and “agrees” not to cheat, not to plagiarize, etc., etc., etc. Enough, already. It’s time for me to break my silence.

So here’s my question: why? What is the purpose of this continuing program of forced “agreements”? Throughout my life, I have had rules laid out for me by parents, teachers, nuns, coaches, bus drivers, trash men, camp counselors, employers and wives, and NOBODY demanded I sign a contract about them. In fact, nobody cared what I thought of them. They were simply the rules, and if you broke them, sanctions were imposed. You got kicked off the bus. Somebody hit you. Your trash didn’t get collected. Your wife wouldn’t talk to you. Whatever.

I live in the freest country on earth, and long may I wave. I am not oppressed. But freedom, and civilization itself, depends on the existence of tacit, semi-formalized authoritarian arrangements of rules and sanctions, and a universal understanding that we all have to submit to these arrangements or all hell will break loose. None of this has anything to do with laws, or “contracts.”

Masterman High School is the best school in the Philadelphia area in terms of all the usual measures---test scores, college admissions, etc. And every student at Masterman got there because they had excellent marks in lower grades and aced a competitive admissions test. Here’s the point: THERE IS NOT A STUDENT IN THE ENTIRE SCHOOL WHO DOES NOT KNOW HOW SCHOOL OPERATES. They know what a teacher is, they know what a rule is, and they know what happens when a rule is broken. Yes, they’re teenagers, and they’re not entirely civilized, but they’re not wildebeests wandering the Serengetti either. The fundamentals of the organization of society were implanted in them a dozen years ago. Forcing them to sign an agreement to do their homework can have no possible effect on the likelihood they will actually do their homework, can it? The only possible effect I can see of such an agreement is that it will nourish the innate teenage anti-authoritarian impulse and provide further evidence (as if they need it) for the proposition that all adults are idiots.

I mention Masterman, with its high standards, to highlight the absurdity of this contract craze. But would the analysis be any different at other schools? No matter how dopey a student is, or inattentive, or even violent, he knows what rules are and what teachers are. A student will break rules out of rebelliousness, or indifference, or perhaps because a teacher shoved the rules in front of him and demanded a signature and he’ll be damned if he’s going to bend over for some fascist, but not because he doesn’t understand he’s supposed to obey them. The social dynamic of the “me-teacher, you-student” relationship is not terribly complex. Every kid understands it on his first day of school, if not before.

In fact, if you could find a student who did not understand the basics of school/rules/sanctions, wouldn’t it be your job as a teacher or administrator to help that child understand how the world works? And how the world works doesn’t have anything to do with contracts, does it? I mean, when somebody sits down next to you on the subway, do you hand them a contract under which they agree not to annoy you for the duration of your journey? Do you present your loonier colleagues with contracts demanding they not falsely accuse you of hideous crimes? Of course not. Living in peace with one another requires all of us to give the other guy the benefit of the assumption he is not a sociopath. We accord every stranger a modicum of respect, at least until that respect is abused. It’s called manners. And that, of course, is another problem with presenting contracts to your students. It’s rude. It’s insulting. When you do it, YOU become the wildebeest in the classroom. And you are teaching students to behave in a fashion that really has no place in a civilized society.

Even you don’t take these contracts seriously, I’ll wager. Suppose a student refused to sign. Would you flunk him? I’m guessing you would tell him, “Well, these are my rules and you’ll have to abide by them whether you sign or not.” So why not simply state your rules and cut out the middleman?

Or suppose a student hands back your contract, and you do not notice it is unsigned. Further suppose that the next day, he cheats on a test. “Aha!” he says. “But I never signed the contract.” If you don’t punish him, you’ve let a cheater escape. But if you do hold him responsible for his behavior, aren’t you admitting the “contract” was a pointless exercise to begin with?

Are you beginning to see how the use of these contracts actually reduces the authority of teachers in the classroom?

Or suppose a student attempts to negotiate the terms of the contract with you. I have often thought of doing this---presenting a counterproposal to the teacher---simply as a means of highlighting the absurdity of it all:
I, Tex’s teacher, agree to
1) brush my teeth regularly;
2) refrain from drinking alcohol after 9:00pm on a school night;
3) not appear tired or listless the morning after the Eagles play on Monday Night Football;
4) stifle the urge to lecture upon, or even mention: a) the horrors of No Child Left Behind, b) my recent colonoscopy, or c) my soon-to-be-ex-spouse’s unreasonable demands in our property settlement.

I don’t know how this fad got started. A Ph.D thesis at some Ed School, perhaps? What is obvious, however, is that it has spread, like e. coli on a week-old Big Mac, largely because no one involved in education has ever spent twenty seconds thinking about it. That is what I am urging you to do.

Are there really any benefits that accrue from making everybody sign these things? I would argue that no benefits can be demonstrated. On the other side, what is the harm? The point of this letter is that there is a real downside to the practice (other than the waste of time it entails). If part of the role of schools is the socialization of our children, then teaching them through forced assent is simply wrong because that’s not the way our society operates. In addition, I suggest that these contracts make educators look like fools, and totalitarian fools at that, since there is no escaping the stink of the loyalty oath that surrounds them.

Copyright 2006 Michael Kubacki