2/26: School Districts and Ethics Agreements
Updated: Mar 19
Are teachers really required to sign non-disclosure agreements?
Every school district in this country writes its own version of an Ethics Agreement for its teachers. Such agreements outline non-teaching personnel requirements for its employees. Things like appropriate use of the internet are included, along with how and when to accept or offer gifts.
In 2013, our faculty was introduced for the first time to a requirement to sign the ethics agreement. Prior to that, it was simply a document our principal referenced at the start of the year. But in 2013, a digital signature suddenly became required. The online document itself is about ten pages long, and when I read it, I noticed that the language contained within many of the requirements and prohibitions of activities was broad enough to be interpreted in almost any way.
For example, here’s a blanket statement in the section called “Conduct”: “Compliance, support, and enforcement of policies and regulations of the district.” A document that is ten pages long cannot possibly contain every policy and regulation of a district whose employees number more than 14,000. Yet signing that document indicated that I was fine with being held accountable for policies and regulations I might not even know about. It seemed that this could become the set-up for getting rid of teachers who were deemed “undesirable”.
The more problematic part of the ethics agreement for me, however, was contained in the section called “Fraud”: “Prohibition of disclosure of proprietary information to outside parties.”
Proprietary information? I wasn’t working for Apple! I was teaching in a public school district that receives public tax dollars. How can any of its information be considered “proprietary”? I asked my principal for clarification on this; her response was that it was intended to keep teachers from grousing to parents about school policies they disagreed with. I was not convinced. If that were the case, wouldn’t the language specifically discuss parents and school policy? And why would it be contained in a section labeled “Fraud”? When I pressed her, she admitted that the wording indicated that I could not share any policy, regardless of content, with anyone outside my own school, unless I was in a setting where that was an expectation of my employment. In effect, I was signing a nondisclosure agreement. This conversation is specifically why I chose to write my first book as a novel rather than an exposé.
A week later, our faculty was provided the district’s new performance-based teacher evaluation system, and that became my ‘ah ha!’ moment. The new protocols were filled with time-consuming, non-teaching requirements for goal-setting, data collection, and documentation. It was staggering, the amount of work it represented. I wondered how the public would react if it knew how teachers were now compelled to spend a large portion of their work day. Oh! The public wasn’t going to know, because none of us could share this information outside our own faculty, or even with our aides, most of whom were parents within the community.
Why was the district afraid to let the public know what it was doing? Shouldn’t the taxpayers fully understand how their tax dollars are being spent? (Believe me, the evaluation system handed down to us would require millions of dollars to manage – and new employees hired for just that purpose. My book, Chaos in Our Schools, discusses this in detail.)
Incorporating an NDA into an ethics agreement is an underhanded and inappropriate administrative strategy. Knowing that most teachers probably only give a cursory glance at the document prior to signing it, the district now had them all over a barrel. And it still does. Current research of my former district shows that the wording in their ethics agreement has not changed. They still prohibit employees from disclosing “proprietary” information. I wonder how many other districts require similar nondisclosure agreements from their teachers? It’s worth looking into.