Author Archive | Doug Tuthill

School choice bookshelf: Emotions, Learning, and the Brain

Public education exists, in part, to promote healthy human development. Therefore, our efforts to improve public education should be informed by the science of human behavior. Public education is most effective when its processes and systems are aligned with our best understandings of cognition, emotions, motivation, and learning.

Hence, my enthusiasm for Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s 2016 book, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience.

Immordino-Yang is a neuroscientist and former public-school teacher who uses brain mapping technology to better understand how our brains work. Her focus in this book is the relationship between emotions, cognition, and learning. Her key finding is that emotions and cognition are inseparable and interdependent. They are two sides of the same coin. Emotions motivate cognition, cognition impacts emotions, and learning is controlled by this symbiosis.

Learning is hard work. It requires purposeful information processing, including attending to information, applying information, evaluating information, and filing information in memory. This level of cognitive effort requires motivation and motivation derives from emotion (and cognition).

As Immordino-Yang writes:

It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion … we only think about things we care about … without emotion, all decisions and outcomes are equal—people can have no preferences, no interests, no motivation, no morality, and no sense of creativity, beauty, or purpose … emotions are, in essence, the rudder that steers thinking. Continue Reading →

What’s driving conflicts over the future of public education

The public education system that was born during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century is slowly, painfully being transformed. New technologies and better understandings of how cognition and emotions impact learning are encouraging increasing numbers of elected officials, parents and educators to advocate replacing standardized, one-size-fits-all schooling with empowered teachers and students working in customized learning environments.

bookshelf-logoPredictably, these changes are generating strong political resistance from school boards, teacher unions, PTAs and others with long-standing ties to the status quo. This political struggle is playing out in numerous venues, including neighborhood associations, school boards, state legislatures, the courts and Congress.

Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is required reading for anyone wanting to better understand this conflict. Kuhn’s descriptions of how various scientific fields have progressed historically illustrates the psychology and sociology at play when communities are challenged to reconsider their most basic beliefs and understandings. His work explains why individuals and communities resist change, and why this resistance, while often frustrating and counterproductive, can also help ensure any changes are genuine improvements.

Kuhn argued that scientific progress occurs in the context of a comprehensive set of assumptions he called a paradigm. The word has been abused and misapplied in the decades since Kuhn published his book, but he saw a paradigm as a worldview that operates as the lens through which a scientific community perceives and understands its field. Continue Reading →

Teachers unions evolved on magnet schools. Can they evolve on charters?

At a National Education Association convention in 1987, I was the floor manager for a new business item endorsing newly expanding magnet schools.  Despite the strong support of then NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell, the item lost because opponents successfully argued that magnet schools drained money and top students from neighborhood schools, creating a public school system of haves and have-nots.

Over time, however, the conversation started to change as thousands of magnet school teachers joined the NEA as magnets grew throughout the 80s. By 1989, the NEA had reversed course and started supporting these schools.

Thirty years later, magnet schools still often attract money and top students from neighborhood schools. In some communities, they may even have contributed to a divide between haves and have-nots in public schools. But teacher unions today don’t talk about these effects, and remain supportive of magnets.

Now, as teachers unions battle charter school supporters over language in the Democratic Party platform, and union organizing drives in public charter schools continue to get attention around the country, the question arises: Will the politics of charters follow the same course as magnet schools? Will teacher unions change from opposing to supporting charter schools if enough charter school teachers start paying union dues? If teacher unions become charter school enthusiasts, the Democratic Party will likely follow suit.

Evidence of how dues-paying teachers can impact a union’s charter school policies is emerging in California, where a growing number of charter school teachers are union members.  Earlier this month, the Los Angeles teachers union filed a grievance against the LA school district on behalf of charter school teachers who are union members, demanding that the district pay these teachers’ retirement benefits.

The reasons for the union’s advocacy on behalf of charter school teachers are complex. But it’s worth noting that the union’s advocacy comes just weeks after the LA union released a paper arguing that charter schools are draining students and money from LA district schools. Continue Reading →

School choice and tribalism

The-Righteous-Mind-Cover1William O. Douglas joined the US Supreme Court in 1939 and served until 1975. Soon after joining the Court, the then Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, told Douglas that almost all judicial decisions on the high court are emotional decisions. That is, Supreme Court justices come to a fairly quick emotional decision about a case and then spend time seeking out legal reasoning to justify that decision.

Douglas was initially skeptical this was true, but after several years on the Court he concluded that Chief Justice Hughes was correct. The overwhelming majority of Supreme Court decisions started as emotional decisions.

While some might want to imagine decisions at the heart of our justice system are purely the result of cold, rational legal analysis, there is nothing unusual in how Supreme Court justices arrive at their decisions. They’re just being human. We now have several decades of psychological research showing that most of our decisions start as emotional decisions and that we use reasoning after the fact to justify these decisions.

This psychological truism, that most decision-making is emotionally driven, has great relevance for us in the educational choice movement. We are engaged in an intense political and public relations struggle and we need to better understand the psychology of judgement, decision-making and persuasion if we are to prevail. Hence, my recommendation that all education choice advocates read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Continue Reading →

Remembering Andrew Coulson

coulsonAndrew Coulson, the gentleman-scholar at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, died yesterday of brain cancer.  Andrew was 48.

I met Andrew in 2008, soon after I became president of Step Up For Students.  I’m sure he was curious about this liberal Democrat and long-time teacher union leader who was now leading the country’s largest private school choice organization.

Andrew and I spoke and exchanged emails frequently during my first few years in this job.  He was a brilliant thinker and extraordinarily polite.  We shared a passion for freedom and equal opportunity, but we did occasionally disagree, and those are the discussions I cherish the most.  He was sure that multiple Scholarship Funding Organizations strengthened tax credit scholarship programs, while I thought the evidence showed the contrary.  We ended up agreeing to disagree. Continue Reading →

Teachers unions, school choice and the Democratic Party’s retreat

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

This is the latest post in our series of the center-left roots of school choice.

Much of the opposition to private school choice seems to emanate from the Democratic Party, but this wasn’t always the case. Just look at the party platforms.

From the 1964 to 1984, the Democrat Party formally supported the public funding of students in private schools.Voucher Left logo snipped

The 1964 platform stated, “New methods of financial aid must be explored, including the channeling of federally collected revenues to all levels of education, and, to the extent permitted by the Constitution, to all schools.” The 1972 platform supported allocating “financial aid by a Constitutional formula to children in non-public schools.” The 1976 platform endorsed “parental freedom in choosing the best education for their children,” and “the equitable participation in federal programs of all low- and moderate-income pupils attending all the nation’s schools.”

Thanks to the influence of U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and devout Catholic, the party’s 1980 platform stated “private schools, particularly parochial schools,” are an important part of our country’s educational system. It committed the party to supporting “a constitutionally acceptable method of providing tax aid for the education of all pupils.” In 1984, the platform again endorsed public funding for “private schools, particularly parochial schools.”

Then the shift began. The 1988 platform was silent on the issue, and by 1992 the Democrats had formally reversed position, stating, “We oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to bankrupt the public school system — the bedrock of democracy — through private school vouchers.”

The party’s current position on school choice was formalized in 1996. That year’s platform endorsed the expansion of public school choice, including charter schools. But it also reiterated “we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give them to private schools.”

The Democratic Party’s shift from supporting to opposing public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools can be traced back to an event that also helped spur the growth of modern teachers unions: The 1968 teachers strike in New York City.

This strike pitted the low-income black community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn against the primarily white New York City teachers union. The issue was whether local public schools would be controlled by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community or by a city-wide bureaucracy.  The union vehemently opposed decentralization since its business model was built around a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement with centralized management.

The strike lasted from May to November 1968. Given school districts are usually the largest employer in most communities, union power quickly grew. Continue Reading →

Tuthill: School choice is good for teachers, too

Editor’s note: This article originally ran in Education Week. Tuthill is the president of Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

With her recent passing, Marva Collins is being remembered for her glorious educational crusade to turn around the lives of low-income black children in Chicago. It’s also worth remembering how she chose to do this. She cashed in her teacher-pension savings in the 1970s to start her own private school. With it, she combined a no-excuses attitude with high standards, strict discipline, and love—and got amazing results with limited resources.

In other words, Collins was empowered by school choice.

teachers and choice logoTwenty-five years after Milwaukee put private school vouchers on the map, a majority of states now have some form of private school choice. Just this year, Arkansas created its first voucher program, and Indiana expanded its voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs. Five states either created or expanded education savings accounts, including Florida, which tripled funding for its program; and Nevada, which spawned the nation’s most inclusive program, available to more than 90 percent of its students.

These opportunities are created, first and foremost, to give parents the power to choose the educational options that are best for their children. But teachers benefit as well, even if the story lines seldom mention them.

As choice expands, teachers will see more opportunities to create and/or work in educational models that hew to their vision and values, maximize their expertise, and result in better outcomes for students. Increasingly, they’ll be able to bypass the red tape and micromanagement that plague too many district schools and serve students who are not finding success. In short, they’ll be able to better shape their destinies, and the destinies of their students. Continue Reading →

Why I went from teachers union president to school choice leader

Doug Tuthill is president of Step Up For Students, which helps administer the nation's largest private school choice program (and co-hosts this blog).

Doug Tuthill is president of Step Up For Students, which helps administer the nation’s largest private school choice program (and co-hosts this blog).

I often get asked how I went from being a teachers union president to the president of the country’s largest private school choice organization. It feels like a natural transition to me, but when I step back I can see how others might find it an unusual journey.

My wife likes to tell everyone how boring I am and that I’ve been giving the same empowerment speech since I was 22. She’s right on both counts.

My world view has changed little since I was first elected a local teachers union president in 1978. I was 22, and believed strongly that organizations and societies work best when they maximize the value of their greatest asset – their people.  And since individual empowerment is a necessary condition for healthy human development, my work in public education has always focused on creating well-managed education systems that empower individuals.

As a teachers union leader in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I was a strong advocate for teacher empowerment.  I traveled across the country on behalf of the National Education Association, our nation’s largest teachers union, preaching the gospel of school-based decision making.

But while the NEA leadership regularly highlighted my views in speeches, publications and press events, most of the NEA bureaucracy thought I was naïve and wrong. They saw teachers unions as being in the business of protecting teachers from bad administrators, clueless politicians and dysfunctional school districts. They saw decentralization of power as antithetical to their efforts.

These teachers union traditionalists believe teacher power should be centrally controlled and used by the union for the greater good of teachers collectively, which is where I split from them. I believe a primary function of collective teacher power is the empowerment of individual teachers.

A good example of this difference is how teacher compensation is determined. I believe in free agency.  That is, teachers should be able to sell their services to the highest bidder. I would use the collective power of teachers to strengthen free agency, similar to what the professional sports unions do. Teachers unions strongly oppose free agency. They believe all teacher salaries should be determined centrally through a one-size-fits-all salary schedule.

Another good example is found in how teachers unions think about charter schools. I believe teachers unions should help teachers start and run their own schools, while the traditionalists think all publicly-funded schools should be centrally owned and managed by school boards and district bureaucracies.

The school choice movement is founded on a belief in parental empowerment, so adding that to my lifelong commitment to teacher empowerment feels natural to me. I believe in giving teachers the power to create and manage new and innovative learning options for families, and I believe in giving families the power to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. For me, both are necessary components of a highly effective and efficient public education system.

I’m a strong advocate of teachers organizing themselves and using their collective power to promote the public good. I’m convinced teachers unions will eventually embrace a model that does that. But this shift is still years away. Until then, teachers unions will continue to be one of the biggest obstacles to improving our country’s public education system.