An earlier version of this article appeared in educational Horizons (Winter 2006) pp. 69 - 77

Who Controls Teachers’ Work?
Richard M. Ingersoll
Harvard University Press, 2003

BOOK REVIEW by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 11/6/18

Teachers don’t, that’s for darned sure -- at least not in the nonacademic areas that are the most central to school teaching, according to Richard Ingersoll’s Who Controls Teachers’ Work? Power and Accountability in America’s Schools. Overall, the author has performed a valuable service, identifying a number of problems and making a number of important distinctions. What is less clear is whether his suggestions -- or for that matter, anybody else’s suggestions -- about how to improve the job will make a difference.

Most fundamentally, Ingersoll exposes the myth of the teacher shortage. The fact is that although there are spot shortages -- not enough science teachers here, not enough special ed teachers there, et cetera -- there is no general shortage of qualified teachers in the United States. There are millions of fully prepared teachers who are not teaching and who will not teach in our schools.1 This is an extraordinarily important distinction, since with it we understand that most states are now employing precisely the wrong solution for precisely the wrong problem. If there really is a teacher shortage, alternative certification and other methods of filling the classrooms with adequate adults (i.e., warm bodies) might be appropriate. But if the real problem is teacher attrition, we need to address the conditions that make teaching unattractive.

Ingersoll’s data are compelling: teaching has persistently suffered a distressingly high turnover -- for instance,15.7 percent in the 2000–2001 school year, compared to a national average of 11.9 percent for all occupations. I would like to have seen the problem analyzed in more depth, but Ingersoll has already done so in previous works,2  and it was not difficult to get useful information from other sources.   Especially interesting are findings that roughly 40 percent of teacher-college graduates do not enter teaching, that 33 percent of new teachers quit within the first few years, and that retirement is a relatively minor element in teacher turnover (currently only about 12 percent of the yearly loss is to retirement).3  Although migration, firings, and riffings are important causes of teacher turnover, Ingersoll finds that teacher dissatisfaction is also alarmingly important.4

Of course, it could be argued that this kind of career mobility is simply a fact of modern life. A few weeks ago the summer commencement speaker at our college enthusiastically informed us that the typical American today changes jobs nine times by age thirty-one.5  Her figures might well be correct, but I couldn’t help thinking: “Yes, and the typical kid changes parents twelve times by age eighteen, and I’m not sure that’s such a great idea, either.”  One may expect a reaction to this “fact of modern life.” As people in the next decade or so start worrying about psychological dislocation, problems of anomie, loyalty, fidelity, expertise, and excellence, might they soon start asking us just why we aren’t preparing kids for careers, and in the case of teacher educators, vocations? They will;  you can bet on it.

But in this volume, Ingersoll has other fish to fry. He is looking for how much real control teachers have over their work and the effects of that level of empowerment or disempowerment, only one of which is teacher attrition. (As the bumper sticker says, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.) The dust jacket gives a good summary:

Drawing on large national surveys as well as wide-ranging interviews with high school teachers and administrators, Richard Ingersoll reveals the shortcomings in the two opposing viewpoints that dominate thought on the subject: that schools are too decentralized and lack adequate control and accountability and that schools are too centralized, giving teachers too little autonomy. Both views, he shows, overlook one of the most important parts of teachers’ work: schools are not simply organizations engineered to deliver academic instruction to students, as measured by test scores; schools and teachers also play a large part in the social and behavioral development of our children. As a result, both views overlook the power of implicit social controls in schools that are virtually invisible to outsiders but keenly felt by insiders. Given these blind spots, this book demonstrates that reforms from either camp begin with inaccurate premises about how schools work and so are bound not only to fail, but to exacerbate the problems they propose to solve.

Using both business and education literature, Ingersoll outlines the problems of control and consent. One of his major themes is that the large-scale character of schools calls for bureaucratic organization and control -- rationalization, accountability, and directive management. But the nature of teaching is antithetical to such structures, calling for a personal orientation and professional autonomy and consent because it involves so many intangibles and requires the discernment to make justifiable exceptions and the fluency to explain them. One would hope this is a real no-brainer. Unfortunately, decision-makers don’t appear to understand this simple distinction and how it can play out in schools, with kids. Even worse, one may wonder how many teachers have a handle on it.

To give a personal example: last spring, just before final exams, my son’s girlfriend (first love . . . you remember, don’t you?) was killed in an automobile accident. The funeral was scheduled for the same time as Daniel’s history exam. Under school policy, exams could be rescheduled only for death in the immediate family. Forced as a consequence to make an unfortunate choice, he ended up failing the course -- and I am proud of him. The policy itself is not a bad one; the administrators involved are good people; and I suspect Daniel has learned a valuable life lesson about not getting himself into such a fix that one exam would make that much difference, but still . . .

Every teacher (including me) has some similar kind of story about how they would like to make exceptions but don’t believe they can. But American law, our primary guide in such thinking, has usually allowed for mitigating and aggravating factors. The individual who breaks the speed limit taking a loved one to the emergency room is treated differently from the drunk who plows through an intersection, and the drunk is treated differently from the gangbanger prowling for somebody to murder. In Emerson’s words,“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”6  But whether students have such rights is moot if school employees don’t know about them or can’t intelligently consider such factors.

Enabling teachers to make intelligent exceptions is one of the functions of teacher education, as distinct from teacher training and teacher preparation. All three are important elements for teachers, but I am afraid we are in danger of forgetting the primacy of education. Teacher training includes intensive and repetitive preparation in methods and technologies. That is valuable, but it is also transitory -- methods will be superseded and technologies will be replaced.   Teacher preparation, encompassing mastery of subject matter and process, curriculum goals, how learning happens, and how schools operate, is also valuable, but only somewhat more durable. Curricular goals and how schools pursue them are especially trendy and even capricious.7 Teacher education, however, is comparatively constant, although emphases and balances may vary. Teacher education includes both the technical aspects subsumed under training and preparation, plus liberal learning -- knowledge in a range of fields,intellectuality of a respectably high order,8  and a number of dispositions,which include an orientation to persons, compassion combined with integrity (two attributes that do not always go together!), and a high degree of motivation, initiative, team spirit, energy, and resilience. Whether anybody who counts is really interested in teacher education is open to question.

I believe teacher education is needed. Take a recent example of how this need can manifest itself. A few weeks ago a local high school social studies teacher caused an enormous uproar when he demonstrated freedom of expression by stomping on an American flag in his civics class. I don’t know the gentleman and my knowledge of the event is incomplete, but I can reasonably deduce several good things:

1. Apparently the teacher knows his rights, which suggests that he has the requisite subject knowledge for teaching civics. That would be enough to make him “highly qualified” according to some people’s thinking.

2. He seems to know the importance of student interest and emotional engagement, and heaven knows we’ve all seen enough boring social studies classes to understand his rationale.

3. He appears to have had good intentions. He is a war veteran, very articulate, and he appears to have intended to promote a better appreciation for the country he has served and continues to serve.

Nevertheless, I think his action was imprudent, given the characteristics of young adolescents, this community, and schooling:

1. Young adolescents are excitable and have been known to “hear selectively.” That can be especially troublesome around report card time if one or more of them are unhappy about their grades. If this teacher is the person of integrity that he appears to be, he will have one or more kids unhappy about their grades. Questionable soldiering:  he is already outnumbered about 150 to one, so why would he want to provide them with ammunition?

2. Ours is a relatively conservative community in which the public schools are already under considerable public scrutiny. Questionable professional practice: Should he have invited the sort of reaction that he did in fact draw?

3. I am afraid his action will prove self-defeating, reducing his own freedom of speech and action. If I were his principal, I would monitor his teaching and even his lesson plans very closely -- wouldn’t you? His action bolsters the case that teachers require close supervision and direction. Questionable citizenship: Has he reduced the freedom of our nation’s decentest people, and by doing so reduced our students’ abilities to make intelligent choices about important issues? I hope I’m wrong, but . . .

The pros and cons of that example both illustrate the kind of thinking that a good teacher-education program should make second nature in its candidates. Of course teachers will make mistakes and do questionable things, but isn’t it wise to minimize some kinds of snafus? Trial-and-error learning is a risky business, especially with kids in our hands.

Which brings us back to Ingersoll’s book. With mature analysis and restrained language, Ingersoll encourages us to increase teacher control of the “social” functions of schooling he rightly considers central to the job of schoolteaching and teacher morale. Such functions include “gatekeeping” (curricular tracking and admission, placement, suspension, and expulsion from class); student and teacher behavior codes and norms; and discipline policymaking and enforcement.

I suspect Ingersoll’s findings will hold up well. One could argue on one hand that he relies too much on self-reported perceptions of teachers and administrators, and some serious ethnographic research could strengthen his argument. On the other hand, his review of the literature is extensive, his interview sites were selected well, and his analysis of evidence is sound. He knows what’s going on, especially in the nonacademic functioning of schooling, which is currently under-emphasized by reformers and policymakers. In fact, Ingersoll may actually understate the degree of upper-level control and the lack of teacher consent in the academic functions of schooling. Most of his data are pre-2001, and the accountability movement has ratcheted up dramatically since the passage of NCLB that year.

As a taxpayer and parent as well as an educator, I want my money, my child, and my efforts used effectively. But I’m afraid the increasing adoption of highly directive standards, scripted instruction, and intrusive, time-intensive reporting requirements will reduce accountability to “all the formal methods used by miseducators to keep educators in their place.”9 Among the formal methods Ingersoll studies are detailed policies, inspection of work, using students’ test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance, task assignment, budget,student tracking, employee selection, and the establishment of policies, norms, and customs.

I think, however, that Ingersoll leaves out what may be the most ubiquitous method of teacher management: leaving them ignorant. Perversely, it could be argued from his research that teachers really don’t need teacher education and that there is an alternative to teacher empowerment; if the schools are going to continue to hire warm bodies and then “churn and burn” them, I hope they do teacher-proof the curriculum. Maybe I am wrong: maybe training is primary, maybe preparation can be limited to “socialization” to the law and the authorities -- i.e., the only teacher disposition we need is obedience10  -- and maybe education would only confuse the poor dears. To be as offensive as possible, that is the twenty-first-century equivalent of keeping ’em barefoot and pregnant.

Ingersoll’s data analysis rings true to my experience and observation. What’s more, he is savvy: he understands the informal and even surreptitious methods of control used by politicians and administrators to “proletarianize” teachers.11 His book could be used as a primer for unscrupulous future administrators. (Once again, bet on it!) But at the same time, it contains nothing that any halfway intelligent administrator doesn’t learn quickly anyway, so maybe there’s no harm done. Perhaps it could do some immediate good if teachers can be made aware of the ways they can be manipulated and do something intelligent about it.

Of course, even if teachers were more astute, administrators and politicians would just devise cleverer ways of controlling them. For example, one splendid technique for what we may call “next-generation command and control” is to do precisely what Ingersoll suggests: go ahead and give teachers more control over “central” issues -- and then make them accountable for them. Such a policy will inexorably lead to enough committee meetings, dissension, and paperwork that the teachers will never accomplish anything meaningful that the people in charge don’t desire. Simple rule of thumb: to slow something down, appoint a committee. To stop it entirely, form a committee of the whole. Works every time.

So what can we do about it?

“1. Vote the bastards out.” But frankly, I have given up on political messiahs. My experience tells me that (to put it delicately) partisan politics usually amounts to “same garbage, different can.”

2. Reject political solutions and privatize. This generation may end up learning from the Iraq War what my generation learned from Vietnam: that on the whole, politicians are just not the sort of people we should trust with our children. But although there may be value to private schools and school choice,12   Ingersoll shows that private schools face many of the same control and consent problems that public schools face and have even greater teacher turnover.

3. Sabotage. Teachers have long been good at disengagement, slowdowns, passive-aggressive behavior, “work-to-rule”or “teach to the contract” minimalism, nickel-and-diming their administrators to death, making superiors look bad, and other nasty forms of “asymmetrical warfare.” But although I occasionally hear of such skullduggery undermining bad bosses, I seldom hear of it doing anybody any good. Even education in how to resist bad ideas constructively13 is likely to have very limited value, and that kind of resistance is usually very risky.

4. Better coordination of research and policy, especially in the areas Ingersoll recommends. This could help a bit, but I’m impressed by the fact that, remarkably, Ingersoll doesn’t oversell his own recommendations. Good man.

5. Finally, and reluctantly, my best recommendation right now is pretty much to let nature take its course. Face the fact: we are not in the era of teacher empowerment, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. The bean-counters rule, and there may not be much teachers can do about it. I think our best course now is just to teach our children well, educate ourselves humbly, and let God do His job. But outside of faith, is this not the counsel of defeat, a pusillanimous Europeanization of the heroic American ideal? Well, maybe. But my hunch is that things may start getting better as soon as the right people digest what I’m about to say:


More specifically, malpractice insurance.14  Thus far, no court has found for the plaintiff in an education-malpractice case,   largely for the excellent reason that the courts have been reluctant to rule that X is good teaching and Y is bad teaching.14  But as standards, rubrics, scripted curricula, and other efforts at top-down direction of teaching are adopted more and more universally, we may find the courts getting past that reluctance and ruling against teachers and school systems.  If a teacher doesn’t do Treatment X and the kid doesn’t learn, will the teacher be held liable? How about if the teacher does use it and the kid still doesn’t learn: will the district be held liable?15  Yet again, you can bet on it, especially if your mate is an attorney or something of the sort. Once education policymakers are faced with the kind of ruinous premiums currently required of many medical specialties, I’m betting they will start rethinking accountability, pdq.

My wife is in liability insurance. See you on the cruise.


1.See also Richard Ingersoll. 2001. “Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages.” American Educational Research Journal 38(3) (Fall): 499–534; 2001. “Deprofessionalizing the Teaching Profession.” Educational Horizons 80(1): 28–31; 2002. “Holes in the Teacher Supply Bucket.” The School Administrator Web Edition (April). < 2002_03/colIngersoll.htm>; 2003. “Is There Really a Teacher Shortage? A Research Report.” The Consortium for Policy Research in Education and The Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. < faculty_research/Shortage-RMI-09-2003.pdf>;Wade A. Carpenter. 2004. “Behind Every Silver Lining:The Other Side of Highly Qualified Teachers.” Educational Horizons 82 (2): 103–107.

2.Ingersoll. 2001. Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages, and the Organization of Schools. Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

3.Ibid. See also Douglas N. Harris. 2004. “Putting a Highly Qualified Teacher in Every Florida Classroom: Policy Brief.” < EPRU/documents/EPSL-0401-111-EPRU.doc>; see also D. Harris and S. Adams. 2004. “Is Teacher Turnover High or Just Different? A Comparison with Other Professionals.” Paper presented at the 2004 annual conference of the American Education Finance Association, Salt Lake City. Admittedly, however, retirement will become much more significant in coming years as the “boomers” age.

4.M. T. Luekens, D. M. Lyter, and E. E. Fox. 2004. Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results from the Teacher Follow-up Survey, 2000–01 (NCES 2004–301). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

5.State Rep. Barbara Massey Reece. 2005. Commencement address. Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia (July 29).

6.Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1940. “Self Reliance.” In The Complete Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library,152.

7.Wade A. Carpenter. 2000. “Ten Years of Silver Bullets: Dissenting Thoughts on Educational Reform.” Phi Delta Kappan 81(5): 383–389.

8. Isn’t it sad that the mass media’s most respectful depiction of a high school teacher in my entire lifetime was on Gilligan’s Island?

9.Per scripted instruction: Ingersoll notably doesn’t mention “Saxon Math” . . . but maybe he doesn’t need to!

10.A few years ago I saw the quintessential example of this viewpoint in a recommendation form one of my student teachers gave me provided by a school system in which he was interested. The form did not have one single question about the candidate’s subject knowledge or intelligence, but had three questions about the candidate’s attitude toward authority. That pretty much told me all I needed to know about that school system!

11. The classic volume on proletarianization: Harry Braverman. 1974/1998. Labor and Monopoly Capital:The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Monthly Review Press.

12. See the winter 2005 issue of Educational Horizons, 83(2).

13. Wade A. Carpenter and Jesse Laseter. 2001. “When Your Principal Is a Wimp.” Kappa Delta Pi Record 35(3): 132–135; Carpenter and Laseter. 2002. “Teachers and the Ever-Present Danger of Reform.” Kappa Delta Pi Record 37(3): 116–121.

14.Louis Fischer, David Schimmel, and Leslie R. Stellman. 2003. Teacher and the Law. 6th ed. Boston:Allyn and Bacon.

15. I am, of course, aware of the protections enjoyed by public school systems under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. However, sooner or later some smart lawyer will convince some dumb court that this is a Section 1983 exception.