On policy

So, in Educational Philosophy, we're supposed to write a "review" of a school policy, in which we describe, critique and evaluate said policy, offering recommendations for adjustment. We were encouraged to stick to a specific school, and I did, so the version I am about to show you has names omitted.

If you know me, or have read any of my college essays, you may have noticed that I can come on a little strong, and perhaps come off a bit more cynical in writing. I want to apologize, but I don't want to shy away from my opinions.

Gregory House — that's one of the results I got for a Google image search of "cynicism"

So, here's the essay, in all its ungraded glory:

On Social Contracts in the Mat-Su Borough School District
     Social contracts are part of a national program called Capturing Kids’ Hearts, which the Mat-Su Borough School District first implemented at a handful of schools during the 2012-2013 school year. The majority of social contracts are designed by the students and teachers in a given class period at the beginning of the school year, signed by all members of the class, and posted around the room. Contracts are also drawn up between teachers and their principal, as well as District office staff and their respective supervisor(s). Each contract is typically a list of words derived from the answers to four essential questions: 1) How do you, the student (or subordinate), want to be treated by other students (or subordinates); 2) How do you, the student (or subordinate), want to be treated by your teacher (or supervisor); 3) How do you, the student (or subordinate), think your teacher (or supervisor) wants to be treated by you; 4) How do you (all employees and students) want to be treated during times of conflict?
     If a student or teacher calls a “foul” on another student or the teacher for violating any aspect of the social contract, the alleged offender is required to give the alleged victim two or three “put-ups” to make amends for what was perceived as a “put-down.”
     (Although neither Capturing Kids’ Hearts nor social contracts are expressly referenced in the official District handbook, [...] all teachers are expected to have implemented the policy in their classrooms by now.)
     According to [XXXX] Principal [XX], social contracts are “merely one piece of our effort to provide students an environment where warmth and respect are the norm.” Each contract, once signed, [XX] says, “becomes a tool to celebrate, redirect and improve the behavior of a group. The desired end result [emphasis added] is a self-managing group that operates with care, efficiency and time to learn.” However, the “desired end result” seems to be, at best, possible without the drafting of a contract, and at worst, incommensurable with reality.
     Let’s look at the best-case scenario first. Say all of the students get along well with, or at least civilly interact with their English teacher during the whole first week of school. At the beginning of the second week, the teacher asks the students the four essential questions. Multiple students raise their hands and politely offer thoughtful answers to these questions, generating a list of useful words that clearly define the terms of all participants’ relationships. This list goes completely uncontested, and is agreed upon by all — or, perhaps there are slight disagreements in the drafting of this contract that, happily, lead to a constructive lesson in compromise. Later in the semester, and through to the end of the year, the teacher and students follow the terms of the contract admirably, referencing it maybe once or twice when a student (or the teacher) needed to reflect on some less-than-positive behavior. When referenced, the behavior in question is tactfully corrected.
     Those of us who have been in the classroom before know that such a scenario is unlikely, insofar as, “nothing is perfect” and “the best laid plans … often go awry.” But there’s more to my skepticism of this policy than that. First of all, if students are capable of interacting in this way in devising such a document at the beginning of the year, do they really need a social contract? Wouldn’t they be the kind of students who would intuitively understand the need for respect toward their peers as well as their elder teacher, and be able to practice that without a physical reminder? That at least seems reasonable, if not probable, especially for the teachers (at least, one would hope). Secondly, how do you get kids to take the activity seriously? What if some students shout out silly or inappropriate phrases that do not further the social goals of the class? What if some students refuse to participate in the generation of words and/or refuse to sign the document? Some educators might argue, as many do in this District, that this behavior is avoided by cultivating a positive relationship with one’s students. But meaningful relationships do not develop in the course of a few days, and whatever length of time is provided to accomplish such a feat, at the end of the day, you can’t force someone to like you, respect you, or open up to you. Even if a student eventually signs the document and says he “agrees” with it, if he later “fouls” another member of the class, the “put-ups” he is forced to make will not be genuine, which will only engender more animosity between the two people and potentially cause further embarrassment of the victim.
     Lastly, I cannot understand why the third essential question would be posed to the student and not the teacher. Are teachers really expected to have so little agency that how they are to be treated depends solely on how their students think they want to be treated? One might argue that the question and the way the contracts are devised imply some potential back-and-forth discussion between the student and the teacher on this, but I think the fact that this is left up for interpretation is a problem.
     In my experience, [XX]’s “desired end result” of implementing social contracts has been little more than an ideal. Students, whatever their maturity level, inevitably fail to be kind, respectful human beings all the time (as do we all, unfortunately), and a social contract does not prevent that; it is an artifice that is, in all honesty, insulting to the students and teachers who do their best to foster a genuinely positive environment. I therefore believe it would be better to scrap the practice and focus simply on having meaningful, authentic conversations with students that address whatever issues arise and develop organically based on specific situations.

     If, however, the District insists on continuing with this policy of creating and following social contracts, I would suggest that, 1) the language of the third essential question is changed to reflect the teacher’s right to speak for herself, and to have at least as much say in the contract as her students; 2) the use of these kind of social contracts should be limited to elementary and middle school classrooms, where more students are still developing a sense of etiquette; and 3) “put-ups” are not forced upon students (though some other method of redress will likely be required to mediate the conflict). Should the policy remain the way it is, I fear the contracts will do more harm than help, encouraging students and teachers to simply “go through the motions” by checking off aspects of mandated behavior to “address” mistreatment of individuals in the classroom and beyond.

Thoughts? Comment below.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Caitlin! I think your careful analysis of this policy is important. I think you're on to something in the way of respect. I agree, the language of the policy seems a rather patronizing for high school student participants. Your efforts here represent important and necessary work in the field of education today. Keep it up!!!


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