portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary oregon & cascadia

actions & protests | education

Oregon's TSPC Is Nuts

Oregon has fourth worst h.s. graduation rate in the country, third worst for Blacks. Yet Teacher Standards/Practices Commission spends its resources requiring third grade teachers to know college level content.


Comments to Salem:
Portland Public Schools Teacher's Ouster Sparks Uproar Over State Tests

[Special to The Oregonian on February 16, 2013 at 7:00AM, updated February 16, 2013 at 7:05AM]

The recent midyear dismissal of a much-loved Japanese language immersion teacher at Richmond Elementary School in Southeast Portland is fueling a long-simmering debate about teacher licensing tests.

Upset parents say the third-grade teacher was one of the school's best but was tripped up by a standardized teacher-certification test given statewide that they suspect has cultural and linguistic biases.

"This was the best teacher we ever encountered," said parent Amy Hall, a graphic designer who lives in Northeast Portland and has had two children in the Richmond program, including one taught by the teacher. "Our children made the best progress in her class under her guidance and individual attention. It broke my heart to hear that someone whom we consider the best teacher we have ever seen was let go on a technicality."

State officials, though, say the federal No Child Left Behind law requires all elementary school teachers to pass a "rigorous" state test to be licensed, and that such a test is necessary to ensure all teachers have a baseline knowledge of the curriculum.

"We need to be sure that teachers who do our immersion program understand our U.S. content just as much as they are proficient in speaking Japanese, or any other language," said Vickie Chamberlain, the longtime executive director of the state's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which is responsible for issuing licenses. "In this age of accountability, you want to be sure that your teachers have a certain level of content knowledge."

The issue is sure to surface again in coming years, said G.M. Garcia, the dual language director at Portland Public Schools, as language immersion schools have exploded in popularity in the past decade. Within the next few years, 10 percent of all PPS students are expected to be enrolled in a dual-language program, in which foreign language speaking educators teach some classes while English speaking instructors teach others. After being taught in both languages, kids emerge as fluent speakers.

Portland offers dual-language programs in Spanish, Russian and Chinese, in addition to the Japanese program at Richmond. Applications to the programs, conducted by lottery, are consistently increasing, Garcia said.

Additionally, many metro-area suburbs, including Beaverton, Hillsboro and North Clackamas, have either begun or are strongly considering such programs, Garcia said. Teacher salaries are generally higher in those districts than in PPS, increasing competition for qualified teachers.

At Richmond, the teacher was a licensed special education teacher who was brought into the classroom several years ago to teach third grade, as the state allows teachers licensed in another discipline to instruct "out of field" on a conditional license for a short period of time.

She had been teaching this year with such a license but in December failed to pass her Oregon Educator Licensure Assessment, or ORELA test, resulting in losing her credential midyear. Elementary school teachers must pass a "multi-subject" test, since they are called upon during a school day to teach several topics, including English, math, science and social studies.

Garcia noted that the ORELA test is written at a college level, both in its language and content, which she said has posed a particular barrier for Portland language-immersion teachers in the past.

"We think the language demands and the contextual demands of being able to pass a college-level U.S. history exam, for example, might not be indicative of whether a teacher is qualified or prepared to teach elementary-level social studies," she said. "The test has what we believe are some inherent biases."

PPS would back some sort of alternative path to certification for immersion teachers, Garcia suggested, including portfolios of work, though such a system has been targeted in the past for having uneven or subjective results.

The state commission's Chamberlain bristled at the suggestion of cultural prejudice in the ORELA tests. They are produced by a national testing company, she said, and underwent rigorous bias review before being released for use. Second-language speakers are also able to request that they get extra time when taking the tests.

"I am half-Latina, and I find it insulting when people suggest the standards need to be lowered for me because I belong to another culture," she said. "If you give this test to one teacher, you have to give it to the others. Oregon is no different from anywhere else."

Pat Barton, a Richmond parent of two who lives in Southeast Portland, said he is convinced that the teacher in question, who preferred not to speak with The Oregonian, had that certain level of content knowledge and far more.

"Look, she took my son under her wing, using all the skills she had in her previous experience as a special-education teacher. She showed a lot of human compassion, and she kept him on track," Barton said. "We have a proven, effective teacher who is demonstrating success in the real world and has been doing so for years. The teacher failed the test they gave her to determine her competence to teach. I have to ask myself whether the test is at fault."

-- Julia Silverman