The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Who Controls Teachers' Work?
Richard M Ingersoll, 2003
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
345pp., £26.50 (hardback), ISBN 0-674-00922-3
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2003
Having taught in both Canadian and US schools, Richard M Ingersoll was struck by a number of significant differences. American schools had higher levels of conflict and a 'pervasive sense of disparagement', and the teachers had far less input into how their schools operated or the nature of their jobs. Despite the fact that US teachers 'had little control over what they were assigned to teach' they seemed to be blamed for a host of societal ills.
In his book Who Controls Teachers' Work? he sets out to answer three sets of questions: Are schools centralised or decentralised? Do schools have the means to control the work of teachers and hold teachers accountable? Does school centralisation or decentralisation matter? His answers are based on research studies undertaken over a ten year period, including a field study involving extensive interviews at four different types of school, and advanced statistical analyses of several large-scale surveys, most notably the Schools and Staffing Survey conducted by the National Centre for Education Statistics, the School Assessment Survey conducted by Research for Better Schools, and the OECD's International Survey of the Locus of Decision-Making in Educational Systems.
He describes two opposing views. Those who subscribe to the school disorganisation perspective hold that 'schools are far too loose, too disorganised, and lack appropriate control, especially in regard to their primary activity - the work of teachers with children and youth.' He suggests that this view is 'popular among a large number of education reformers, researchers and members of the public', whose preferred remedy is to 'increase the centralised control of schools and to hold teachers more accountable.'
The second - and antithetical - view is that of the teacher disempowerment perspective. Those who take this view believe that 'factorylike schools unduly deprofessionalise, disempower and "demotivate" teachers.' Proponents claim that schools are far too centralised and argue that more control should be in the hands of local communities, school principals and the teachers themselves.
Both views can't be right. Ingersoll suggests that their conflicting analyses are the inevitable outcome of their use of different yardsticks to evaluate schools. The disorganisationists favour the traditional bureaucratic model - the 'machine model' of organisation, while the disempowermentists prefer the ideal of traditional professions and find teachers highly disempowered compared with, for example, doctors.
He explains how the organisation of schools has become an important problem, outlines the theoretical and research perspectives of control in schools and the many policy initiatives and educational reforms they have fostered and supported, and describes the limits of each perspective's portrait of the distribution of powers, the degree of centralisation or decentralisation and the organisational hierarchy within schools.
He notes that there is a basic tension within all organisations - 'how to harness employee expertise and still meet the simultaneous need for both control and consent, for both accountability and commitment, for both organisational predictability and employee autonomy.' This is especially difficult in schools, he suggests, since teaching is 'inherently non-tangible, fluid work; it requires flexibility, give and take, and making exceptions.'
Using a range of data, Ingersoll demonstrates that, while American teachers have some control in the area of academic instruction, they have little influence on which courses they are required to teach, resource allocation, teaching schedules, class sizes or classroom space; the hiring and firing of staff; budgetary decisions; or the admission, placement, assignment or expulsion of students. Importantly, they do not often have significant levels of influence over the determination of school behaviour policies.
He examines the mechanisms and processes by which schools hold teachers accountable and control their work, looking at both the formal and informal organisation of schools and the direct and indirect mechanisms by which school administrators supervise, account for and regulate the activities of their teaching employees. Again, he suggests that schools present very different problems compared with other organisations, since 'in teaching there is very little consensus as to what the final ends ought to be, very little consensus as to the best process, method or means of reaching those ends, and, moreover, very little consensus as to how to measure whether those ends have indeed been achieved.' In addition, the 'motives, values, and aspirations of those entering the teaching profession differ dramatically from those entering many other occupations.' Teachers generally have a much greater altruistic or public-service ethic.
Ingersoll notes that schools place great emphasis on the individual responsibility of teachers and draws the key distinction between the delegation of responsibility and the delegation of power. He demonstrates that teachers have the former but not the latter and suggests that this is not only inherently unfair but ultimately self-defeating. Of course teachers must be held accountable, he says, but it is unfair to hold them responsible for activities they do not control. Indeed, doing so may harm the very thing we seek to improve - teacher performance.
He presents a series of statistical analyses examining the impact of teacher decision-making influence on the degree of conflict, cooperation and cohesion among teachers, students and administrators in schools. He demonstrates that there is little effect on teacher-student conflict in schools where teachers have greater control over instructional issues, but much more effect where teachers have greater control over social issues. He concludes that 'the good school ... provides high levels of teacher control, especially over social issues.'
Ingersoll's book has a number of important messages for education researchers and policy makers.
He warns that research on school organisation, from either of the two perspectives, has 'underemphasised the fundamental fact that schools are social institutions,' and has failed to recognise that 'one of the main purposes of schooling is to socialise the next generation.' This is a profoundly important point. 'Teachers do not just teach subjects, they teach values and behaviour, and they teach them to children - our children.'
He makes a plea for even-handedness in the state's treatment of its teachers. 'Accountability and power must go hand in hand. ... If we want to improve the quality of our teachers and schools, we need to improve the quality of the teaching job.' He concludes 'The work of teaching - helping prepare, train, and rear the next generation of citizens - is both important and complex. But on the other hand, those who are entrusted with the training of this next generation are not entrusted with much control over many of the key decisions in their work.'
In his opening chapter, Ingersoll says he aims 'to present the data in a clear, accessible and nontechinical manner.' He has certainly succeeded - his book is both scholarly and eminently readable. As a well-argued plea for a fairer deal for teachers, it is timely. And though it is about the American education system and is based on data from US surveys, the book could just as easily have been about education in the UK. This is an important book which should be read by all those involved in the task of educating the next generation.