The Dark Side of School Reform: Teaching in the Space Between Reality and Utopia
Publication Type:Web Article
Year of Publication:2006
George Dewey, a Virginia teacher, reviews Brooks’ case study of time he spent teaching and studying school reform at a Midwestern high school with the pseudonym “Wintervalley.” Brooks discusses teacher alienation and the difficulty of implementing reform due to the haphazard way reform measures are applied. Dewey says, “you and your friends are on almost every page.”
Citation: Brooks, J.S. (2006). The dark side of school reform: Teaching in the space between reality and utopia. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.
by Jeffrey S. Brooks
2006 (199 pp/paperback)
Rowman and Littlefield Education
Reviewed by George Dewey
High School Physics
Fairfax County, VA
All of that reform stuff is teacher- or administrator-centered
change – where are the student voices in the conversation?
I am sure that if we let students tell us what they
wanted and empowered them to lead change, the school
would be a different place. If we actually talked about
race, about social justice, and about equity, this would
be a different place. As it is, I think we are maintaining
the status quo. We are keeping the rich, rich and the
-"Jim" Wintervalley H.S.
Summerhill, the British self-governing "free school," was founded in 1921
as a living experiment embodying the philosophy of A.S. Neill,
its founder, and is thriving still. A revised edition (1992)
of Neill's classic 1960 history of his school contains the
following passages; first, from the preface by the editor,
Albert Lamb, a former student and Summerhill teacher; second,
from the foreword by former student Robert Gottlieb.
"The most important thing about the school is its attempt to
provide a structure which will allow the school to fit
"Summerhill is a way of life, living with others in society and expressing
oneself through the passion of interest in love, knowledge,
Like all the names and places in Jeffrey Brooks' The Dark Side
of School Reform, Wintervalley is a pseudonym, given to
the midwestern high school which served as the subject of
his two-year study. The name Brooks chose, Wintervalley, is
the self-acknowledged inverse of Summerhill and yet, there
are many rays of light in this troubled high school community,
symbolized perhaps by the bright faces of children that dash
across the black cover of his book.
Dark Side summarizes the final year of Brooks' research,
the third year of a three-year reform plan at the school (2000-03). It is
a human study by a human, not written in passive voice
or the third person. In his qualitative account, peppered
with some of the requisite sociological and educational vocabulary,
Brooks serves as both mirror and interpreter, but more accurately
as a lens through which we enter the reality of teachers'
lives within a school continually caught between the lights
and shadows of reform. The spectrum of teachers is visible,
from neophyte to veteran (literally and figuratively), coach
to department chair, bitter to hopeful, individual to team
player, technophobe to technophile, withdrawn to engaged.
Some 22 teachers are quoted, some at great length, transcribed
from taped interviews.
In many senses, Brooks is a part of the world he is examining,
which lends an atmosphere of authenticity, if not objectivity,
to his dissertation study. He is actually teaching a class
of 7th graders at the time of his work with Wintervalley teachers.
We enter his world of long hours spent writing and interviewing,
oscillating between major doses of caffeine and immense fatigue,
and even find the author admitting his shortcomings as an
interviewer at least four times. This is important because
his study has to do with communication, an attempt to capture
both the commitments and disillusions felt in the private-public
interface which teaching and learning represents. Brooks (as
any researcher) is also a learner in this process and he includes
the reader in his own education.
The quotes from Summerhill point to two important features
about the community of teachers sampled in Brooks' own study:
evident throughout are the passion of interest in love,
knowledge, and work by teachers and their attempts to create
a school where the structure fits the needs of the students.
Mona comments, "you don't connect with the kids by what you teach...My
vision of the good school is one where you develop...relationships;
a school where no one is afraid to express himself or herself."
Melissa adds, "I'm sometimes so focused on the kids...that
I sometimes forget that we are all learning." A language
arts teacher comments about his students, "Even if they
don't learn to write, they learn to think." Neil sums up
his frustration with the direction Wintervalley is heading:
"We're not going to adjust professional training or adjust
the school's mission to give kids what they really need,
we're going to try to add more on top of what is already
From the picture Brooks gives us, most teachers are articulate,
knowledgeable, competent, and caring. The dark side has
overshadowed these qualities due to the pace and randomness
of efforts at reform. Ever since it opened in the early
1970's, Wintervalley has had principals (in the words of
a social studies teacher who has been at the school for
all of its history) who led a fairly "aggressive search
for innovative ideas."
Teachers, both recent and veteran, have been caught in the storm of
reform which spit out concepts like mastery learning, new
accountability, experiential learning, the Golden Apple,
credit recovery, Horace Mann. School mission, vision, commitments,
and the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools
have been adopted at different times. Teacher leadership
has been addressed (top down it would seem), and the computerization
of grades, interstaff memos, minutes of meetings, and parent
communication have occurred as well. Professional Learning
Teams, a Team Tutor Program, and Shared Planning Teams have
been created. So many good ideas, yet what has gone awry
in their implementation? Or are these simply the growing
pains inherent in executing any reform plan?
Brooks has chosen several themes to elaborate on his principal thesis
of alienation: the pace of the school day, the random addition
and subtraction of teacher duties and responsibilities, absence
of clarity and articulation during reforms, perceptions of
the old guard versus new ways, inside circles of power, isolation
and division within the school, teachers' personal struggles
between the cries of the individual and the profession, the
effect of distractions and disorientation on disaffection,
and the suspicion and confusion resulting from vague values.
The Wintervalley principal had been in place for four years,
a man with great vision and energy, yet easily manipulated,
"a combination of essentially good qualities put into a school
and situation that makes him a loose cannon." "He hasn't lost
sight of the goal...he has lost sight of the process," Neil
concludes. The principal is "very irreflective about himself."
I found myself forming my own list of themes from Brooks' study:
issues dealing with time for reflection or focusing on the
central needs of students; powerlessness of teachers and their
need for respect ("Teachers have a psychological need to believe
that they are making a difference," veteran Neil concluded);
loneliness which results from the intensity of the effort
to reconcile private and public life; the importance and the
inadequacies of communication vertically and horizontally
within a school; and the overarching sense of sadness (especially
in Chapters 2-4) and lack of trust. Especially trust. "Trust,"
"distrust," "mistrust" appear throughout the book. As Megan
Tschannen-Moran elaborates in her own book, Trust
Matters, the aspects of trust in a school community
are benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competency.
These are the facets of the leadership at Wintervalley High
School which are fractured or lacking altogether.
[I wondered why there was no mention of interviews or dialogue
with the principal in Brooks' study. Perhaps this was only
an account of the reactions and interactions among the school's
teachers and, because of tension and suspicion, it was best
for the researcher not to be seen with his recorder in the
principal's presence. I was mistaken. The first year of Brooks'
two-year study was reported as "Teacher Leadership in
the Context of Whole School Reform" in the May 2004 issue
(14:3) of the Journal of School Leadership (Brooks,
Scribner, and Eferakorho). In the report, the emphasis is
upon the effect of reform on the principal's and teachers'
perceptions of teacher leadership. The report makes clear
the successes and frustrations relating to teacher leadership
as seen through both principal's and teachers' eyes. Confusion
is evident from the ambiguities arising from poor communication
and every-changing committee and team structures. Leadership
was generally positive, an "exciting time" to one teacher,
"a real step forward" to the principal who felt he was working
together with teachers to implement much of the "accelerated
school" model of reform. From the perspective of both chronology
and context, it would have been helpful for this report to
have been included in the book, either as a preface or an
appendix. It provides a significant backdrop to what was in
reality Brooks' two-year presence at the school.]
Throughout Brooks' account there is a pervasive atmosphere of isolation
and fatigue through which his thesis of teacher alienation
is pursued. Alienation is a complex issue, one has to be alienated
from something. Our profession — our ministry for those
who accept it as such — lies at the convergence of countless
demands and responsibilities, especially the reconciliation
of public with private. For me, the heart of this dilemma
is found in the poignancy of Chapter 7, devoted entirely to
one veteran teacher's personal and professional struggle —
a struggle both for Jim, the teacher, and for Jeff, the researcher.
The weather was stormy, rain sliding down the windows of the
coffee shop in which the interview took place. Despite all
the sociological and educational jargon, the human element
rose triumphantly. To some, thunder and rain are depressingly
monotonous, to others water brings life and hope. This chapter
encapsulates the essence of a teacher's mission: how to find
life for both the private and the public self. In the end,
a father dozes on the sofa wedged between a back pack of papers
and his little sleeping daughter.
In the preface to a book about individualism and commitment in
American life, Habits of the Heart, to which, ironically,
Brooks admits his distaste, the authors write: "Many [Americans]
doubt that we have enough in common to be able mutually to
discuss our central aspirations and fears. It is one of our
purposes to persuade them that we do." The Dark Side of
School Reform has achieved this purpose, too. To extend
one of Brook's chapter aphorisms, there may be no "I" in the
word "school," but there is in "education." Set aside a good
chunk of time for this book, not because of the difficulty
of understanding, but because you won't be able easily to
put it down. You and your friends are on nearly every page.