11/24/2010 01:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Waiting for 'Superman' Experience

I finally saw Waiting for "Superman" at a Chamber of Commerce showing. The United States Chamber is taking the film on a 12-city tour. The film was even more inaccurate than I expected.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the panel discussion that followed. The local American Federation of Teachers president renewed our longstanding position that trial de novo is not a good way to protect teachers' due process rights. The AFT again proposed a streamlined process requiring an arbitrator or some other independent hearing officer to terminate ineffective teachers. The local newspaper had been complaining that it took a 15 minute hearing to fire a bus driver (who should have been fired). The point is not whether the hearing took 15 minutes or 15 seconds. The point is that the district must certify that the evidence it is presenting is true, and it applies to the defendant.

The AFT renewed its longtime proposal to remove the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent of teachers per year using peer review. Our president was too polite to remind the audience that the union has long been committed to a collaborative method of improving teacher quality, but the sticking point has been the fear of sharing power by administrators, who are under the gun due to NCLB.

And once again, neither the panelists nor the members of the audience seemed enthralled by the Obama administration's plan to use test scores to fire teachers. After public meetings, I often walk away wondering why "reformers" first pushed the crackpot theory of risking a legal Battle of Verdun by using numbers produced by a statistical black box, that may or may not be linked to a specific teacher's effectiveness, in order to fire that teacher.

I was also pleased with the union president's characterization of the teacher quality issue. Accountability, he said, must come before salary increases. He did not say, however, that accountability must be the be-all, end all that comes before investments in our poorest children.

The issue with whether we invest in longitudinal data systems to serve kids, or create gotcha systems for firing people. The issue is whether we use diagnostic assessments to teach reading comprehension, or do we continue to impose primitive NCLB-type testing that may increase some decoding skills, but not reading comprehension. The issue is whether we double or triple the number of standardized tests in order to destroy "the status quo," or whether we use the miracles of the digital age to provide more engaging instruction. The issue is whether we follow Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and the people who gave us Waiting for "Superman" in creating a "culture of accountability," or whether we make evidence-based reforms to create respectful learning cultures. The issue is whether we use the sword of data-DRIVEN accountability, or whether we use data-INFORMED decision making.

I was pleased that the Republican state superintendent elect spoke for "data-informed" instruction, as well as high-quality pre-school. The new superintendent can pursue those policies, or she can use standardized testing to attack unions. I hope she and the audience realize that we can produce evidence-driven systems for helping kids or we can create paint-by-numbers systems for fighting adult battles, but that the two goals are mutually exclusive.