Read This: The Hidden Contract of Urban Schools

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.



Stumbled across this great Eric Juli piece the other day. You'll remember Juli as the urban school administrator who wrote a guest blog entry here on the Radical last weekend about the flawed nature of the "us v. them-ness" in our conversations about accountability.

This quote really left me thinking because as ashamed as I am to admit it, the hidden contract Juli's talking about has been in full force at different times and with different students in my classroom over the past 17 years.

Most of the time, that embarrasses me—I should ALWAYS do more for every child who walks in my door. But other times, I think that should embarrass those who are responsible for creating the conditions necessary for me to succeed.

Here's what I mean:  For the better part of my career, I've been completely overwhelmed by the range of abilities in my classrooms—-and I'm supposedly an accomplished teacher.

I'll have students who can't read sitting next to students that are reading far above grade level.  I'll also have students with severe learning disabilities who don't qualify for services in smaller classes or with educators trained to work with children who struggle academically. 

When I ask for help, I'm told that all I need to do is differentiate my instruction. 

"Craft tiered lessons," the learning experts say.  "Have several different activities for each concept that students of different ability levels can work through.  Create multiple versions of tests.  Design multiple ways for students to show you what they know.  Pay attention to their learning styles.  Play to their strengths.  You know what motivates kids.  Tap into those motivations in every lesson." 

But "crafting tiered lessons" and "creating multiple versions of tests" just ain't that easy. 

It requires a ton of time for planning and preparing several different sets of materials.  It requires time to collaborate with qualified colleagues who understand just what students who are struggling can do.  It requires time to collect and then to analyze data—most of the time using nothing more than three ring binders and sticky notes—-in order to figure out which kids in which periods need which lessons. 

Then, it requires assessing mastery on multiple sets of assessments and crafting new sets of tiered lessons for new units—-all while trying to answer email, attend parent conferences, implement new school initiatives, implement old school initatives, implement even older school initatives, work part time jobs, and be a dad all at the same time. 

A little professional development would help, but money for that has been hard to come by for years.  And digital solutions might could provide a few answers, too—-but technology budgets are limited and the time that it takes to develop online resources to provide academic challenge is just as overwhelming as the time that it takes to develop the tiered lessons that everyone's pushing me to make. 

Honestly, challenging every child at the appropriate level would take a super-human effort that I just can't afford to give.  I do the best that I can, but that "best" just ain't good enough in more cases than I'm comfortable to admit. 

Don't get me wrong:  I SHOULD be held accountable for working to meet the needs of every child.

But YOU—and that YOU includes EVERYONE outside of the public school classroom from parents to principals and policymakers—-should be held accountable for making that possible by ensuring that there are enough resources to actually do the job in my school.



7 thoughts on “Read This: The Hidden Contract of Urban Schools

  1. Kids Nike TN

    far more militant about promotions in the early elementary grades where the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic are introduced and mastered.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Mr. Pump,
    You are a brilliant man. I love the phrase: If a student has to take 6th grade English over and over until they
    can pass, that is far better than asking the 12th-grade English teacher
    to teach 6th grade English simultaneously with the material that they
    are supposed to be teaching simply because thats just the challenge that teachers are asked to wrestle with every day.
    Not only does it set the teachers up for failure, it sets the students up for failure, too.
    While Im not sure that retention in middle and high school is a great idea, I think we need to be far, far more militant about promotions in the early elementary grades where the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic are introduced and mastered.
    Rock on,

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps

    Right problem, wrong solution.
    Trying to teach 40 students spanning 7 grade levels in ability is setting the teacher up to fail, no matter how much “differentiation” they do.
    I think that it is past time for elementary schools and high schools to go back to having prerequisites that students much past to get into courses. If a student has to take 6th grade English over and over until they can pass, that is far better than asking the 12th-grade English teacher to teach 6th grade English simultaneously with the material that they are supposed to be teaching.

  4. Naomi Epstein

    You just described my daily reality. The constant battle to try to challenge ach child at his/her own level when there is an incredible amount of different levels! And “the hidden contract” is certainly there – as long as there are no “drama” the powers that be stay out of the picture. B.T.W – I found bringing senior citizen volunteers for high-schoolers from impoverished backgrounds to be really helpful. Not only academically but for connections with a caring adult.

  5. Eric Juli

    Hi Bill,
    Love the post. It’s ironic that once we become veteran teachers with a wide range of instructional tools in our toolbox, we learn we can’t meet all student needs as we want to because…well, just because.
    I don’t believe the hidden contract I wrote about is exclusive to urban schools. Although I couldn’t name it then, it existed in my suburban high school, when I was a student. @Fliegs wrote about the contract existing in wealthy school districts as well.
    I have no doubt that you, like me, spend more time thinking about your teaching failures, than your successes. And I imagine when you and your colleagues fail to reach a student, you too feel incredible frustration. But I suspect the hidden contract has more far reaching ramifications in my context than in yours. For the students in our schools, education is essentially about life or death. When we fail to engage students, we lose the opportunity to open doors for them to step through. When we don’t articulate well enough that education is their best and often only chance, we almost always know our students will continue in the cycle of poverty.
    Having said that, I agree wholeheartedly with your point about resources. We and you, and almost every school, just don’t have enough. In my context, we need better training, more time with kids… we just need more as I have no doubt you do as well.
    Thanks for referencing my post. I’m glad it got you thinking.

  6. David Coffey

    Hang in there, Bill. There are other methods for differentiation than developing multiple activities and assessments. Are you familiar with the gradual release of responsibility? Here is a video by Jeffrey Wilhelm that might help.

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