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Editorials from around Oregon

September 26, 2018

The Oregonian/OregonLive, Sept. 26, on lagging test scores and public education policy:

Two recent developments encapsulate the lethargic state of leadership in Oregon education these days.

The Oregon Department of Education released the results of standardized exams taken by public school students last year. The overall takeaways: Math scores are declining, language arts scores are stagnant and some of the state’s data is unreliable due to many students skipping the test. Yet there was little urgency in superintendent Colt Gill’s public remarks about the need to improve Oregon’s bleak situation.

Then, just hours later, the Oregon Board of Education voted to loosen requirements on how much school time districts must provide students in their senior year. Instead of pushing for full schedules that will best prepare students for college or career, the board authorized a swath of exemptions that let districts offer seniors who are “on track” to graduate fewer classes, provided their local school boards agree. The decision marks a reversal from the strong stand the board took just three years ago after parents protested the “part-time” education that Portland Public Schools provided high-school students.

It’s almost as if state education leaders are content with the lack of progress for Oregon’s students. And, apparently, they think it’s fine for thousands of students to skip tests designed to show whether the education system is improving. It appears they also believe that “on track” for earning enough high school credits to graduate means a student is fully equipped for college. That conclusion is at odds with the reality that many Oregon graduates have to take remedial courses before enrolling in college-credit classes. In fact, more than one-quarter of the 2017 Portland Public Schools high-school graduates who enrolled in Portland Community College in fall 2017 had to take a “pre-college” math class, according to PCC.

Both of these developments should motivate Oregonians to step up their pressure on state and local leaders to treat Oregon’s persistent education failures with the urgency they require. Continuing down the path of least resistance only guarantees that Oregon’s students will continue to be underprepared. And while Oregonians can and should support increased education funding, they should insist on an ambitious strategy that smartly spends money in ways that make a difference.

Unfortunately, when faced with the opportunity to rally Oregonians with a clear vision of what the state plans to achieve, however, Gill and the state education board punted.

Gill did not respond to requests from the Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board to discuss the test results or instructional time rollback. But he did comment on the test results in a press release: “Annual tests give us a snapshot of student learning, but there is more we should be doing to give teachers the tools to target complex thinking in students... Shorter, more focused testing throughout the year can give teachers insights into activities that can help students think and work out problems. That is how we get better results.”

If “that” is the strategy Gill is offering to improve students’ outcomes, then Oregonians should steel themselves for more of the same: third-worst graduation rate in the country; a widening achievement gap that leaves low-income and minority populations behind; persistently mediocre test scores; and an epidemic of students graduating from high school without mastery of basic material needed for entry-level college courses.

Instead, Gill could have explained how the state will take lessons learned from low-income and diverse districts like McMinnville, whose students are handily outperforming the state average in math, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Betsy Hammond reported. Or he could have talked about how the state will improve student participation in test-taking, by showing families that these tests are critical to assessing the system’s progress as a whole and determining whether key efforts to support minority and low-income students are working. He could have said any number of things to assure Oregonians that he and Gov. Kate Brown recognize the state is unacceptably failing its students.

A lackluster response, however, seems to be the norm. The state board of education, whose voting members are appointed by the governor, similarly failed to champion students’ needs when it voted Thursday to change its instructional time policy. Instead, at the behest of the Oregon School Boards Association and the Confederation of School Administrators, the state board authorized four exemptions to the current policy that requires school districts to ensure that at least 80 percent of students in a school receive 966 hours of instruction in a year. School districts need only get permission from their local school boards to enact the exemptions, which allow for scheduling fewer classes for students who are “on track” to earn enough credits to graduate. But a student can be on track while failing to show proficiency in a subject, like math. Shouldn’t they be scheduled to repeat such coursework in high school rather than be forced to pay for remedial classes at college?

It’s difficult to see how the instructional-time decision squares with Brown’s newly-professed interest in extending the school year to 180 days. This doesn’t give anyone a longer school day. And while the education department sought to celebrate the “flexibility” that this new policy will give students, it’s the district administrators who will benefit. Districts can continue to collect Oregon taxpayer dollars meant for educating thousands of seniors full-time, while offering them a part-time schedule. Those dollars can then be used to backfill any number of other expenses, administrative, programmatic or otherwise.

Thankfully, the state education board explicitly said that seniors who proactively demand a full schedule should be allowed to have one. A small victory - and one that will likely benefit only students with the most-engaged parents.

Oregonians should insist their local school boards reject exemptions that cheat students out of their education. With education “leaders” standing on the sidelines, parents, students and community members will need to light the way.

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The Baker City Herald, Sept. 22, on the legacy of Wilson Price Hunt, who helped blaze the Oregon Trail:

Wilson Price Hunt ought to be famous.

It’s true that he died 176 years ago, which makes TV appearances and other forms of publicity troublesome.

But there are people of his vintage who remain widely known today but whose exploits, in my view, are inconsequential by comparison.

I admit that my opinion is influenced by provincialism.

Hunt, who was in the employ of the fur-trading magnate John Jacob Astor, in 1811 led the first party of white men — and one very notable woman, about which more later — to pass through what would become Baker County 51 years later.

Perhaps because Hunt arrived in the West six years after Lewis and Clark, and perhaps because he was dispatched not by a president but by a businessman, Hunt is nothing like as well-known as that pair of explorers.

Yet Hunt was instrumental in blazing sections of what became the Oregon Trail, and even though he did so 32 years before the first major wave of emigrants, his role, or so it seems to me, is sometimes given short shrift in Oregon Trail histories.

Hunt’s legacy shines rather brighter, though, in Baker County.

The summit that juts to the east from the main spine of the Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Baker City, and is one of the more prominent peaks visible from town, is Hunt Mountain.

Hunt himself probably saw that mountain, which rises to an elevation of 8,232 feet, on Dec. 28, 1811.

Likely he was disturbed by the sight rather than entranced, however.

On that wintry day Hunt was struggling not only to fulfill his commitment to Astor, but also with the more pressing matter of merely trying to survive in a wilderness in which he and his party had been reduced, over the past month, to eating dogs.

And they were happy to have those.

I had been vaguely aware of Hunt’s travels, but it was my recent reading of Peter Stark’s fine 2015 history, “Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire,” that both enriched my knowledge and piqued my curiosity about this somewhat obscure frontiersman.

Stark describes the two-pronged campaign — one by land, one by sea — that Astor bankrolled with a goal of establishing a fur-trading post on the all but unknown Pacific Coast.

The oceangoing side of the operation was the ship Tonquin, captained by Jonathan Thorn.

The chapters devoted to Thorn and his eventful voyage are compelling enough.

But in part because I’m no sailor, and in part because the overland trek has such a local connection, it was Stark’s account of the travails of Hunt’s party that had me turning the pages as rapidly as I could get through them.

I read many of those pages while sitting in a chair in a shady corner of my yard. As I relaxed there in the dry July heat I felt that uniquely human desire to not only read about history but to experience it, a compulsion all the more powerful, it seems to me, because it’s apparently unobtainable.

(I use the hedging word “apparently” only because the physicists, with their inscrutable equations and fantastic theories, might eventually figure out that H.G. Wells was onto something more than science fiction.)

I tried to imagine what I would have seen and felt were I able to go back almost 207 years ago and to sit in this very spot, just a few miles from where Hunt and his party were trudging, their cheeks hollow and their stomachs empty and the keen winter wind freezing their cheeks.

They had struggled mightily over the previous two months, since Hunt decided to abandon his horses and float down the great river they called the Mad and we call the Snake.

Hunt believed the Columbia River, and thence the Pacific, might be only a modest distance away, and that he might arrive before winter settled in.

He was of course wildly off.

After blundering into Hells Canyon during a snowstorm in early December, Hunt backtracked and was fortunate to convince a few Shoshone Indians to guide him through the Blue Mountains and on to the Columbia Basin.

The party was camping near a group of six Shoshone tipis on Dec. 30, 1811, when Marie Dorion, an Indian married to Pierre Dorion, who served as Hunt’s interpreter, gave birth to her third child (her two other children, ages 2 and 4, were also with the group).

This historic birth happened near what today is North Powder, and the event is commemorated by a sign along Highway 237.

Marie’s newborn — the baby’s gender, curiously, seems not to have been documented — died about a week later.

The Hunt party fared better once it reached the Columbia. The group arrived at the newly christened Astoria in February 1812.

Hunt was neither a mountain man like Jedediah Smith nor an inveterate explorer in the mold of John C. Frémont, which perhaps explains his comparative anonymity.

Yet the history of the Oregon Trail, and thus of Baker County, owes a great deal to Hunt and to the party he led.

Stark’s excellent book had the effect on me that works of history should have, which is to say it made me wish I could share in Hunt’s experiences.

Well, at least some of them.

I have no taste for canine casserole.

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The Register Guard, Sept. 25, on survivors of sexual assault:

Let’s be clear about sexual assault: The majority of survivors do not report the crime. They have their reasons, that is their right and society has no right to judge them.

It seems necessary to make that point in light of a myth perpetrated last week by President Donald Trump regarding Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were high school students. Ford is now a university professor in California and Kavanaugh is a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

Trump tweeted, “If the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.” Trump followed up this week by assailing a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, who has alleged sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh when they were college students.

What Trump is implying about not contacting the police is stunning; but, sadly, not surprising in our society. Too many people believe that myth, even though research and anecdotal evidence consistently show that many victims of crimes — particularly sexual assault and domestic violence — do not report them to law enforcement. Some may tell no one for years or ever, especially if they were teenagers when sexually assaulted.

The National Sexual Assault Resource Center lists rape as the most under-reported crime in the U.S., with 63 percent not being reported. The percentage is even higher when attempted rapes and other sexual assaults are included. Meanwhile, the number of false reports is low.

For those who do report, it might be years or decades before they are ready to do so, according to B.B. Beltran, executive director of Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS) in Eugene.

The role of SASS and similar organizations is to support survivors and help them understand their options but not tell them what to do. “We’re available. We’re free. We’re confidential. We’re not mandatory reporters,” she said. “We’re a safe place for people to discuss their options.”

Survivors’ experiences, and the way they respond to the trauma perpetrated on them, is individual to them. Each person is different, and friends and family need to respect that individuality instead of expecting them to react in a certain way. One of the worst things people can do is place a timeline or other expectations on how survivors should respond to their trauma.

The #MeToo movement has helped survivors realize they’re not alone. Beltran said SASS has seen an uptick in requests for services since the news coverage of allegations involving Bill Cosby (who was sentenced to prison on Tuesday), Harvey Weinstein and now Kavanaugh.

Those high-profile allegations mimic what happens throughout the country. Survivors who disclose their assaults are criticized for what they remember or how they responded.

In fact, Beltran said, the No. 1 reason for why so many survivors don’t report their assaults is the fear of not being believed. Their accounts may not come out in an orderly fashion. There may be gaps or inconsistencies. Trauma does that to a person.

Most perpetrators are known to the victim, not strangers. The crime is one of power and control, not sex. Already traumatized, the survivor may think the stakes are too high if the perpetrator is a well-regarded family member or a supposed pillar of the community.

Survivors often blame themselves, although they are never to blame. Nothing explains or justifies rape. Regardless of the circumstances, it takes a predatory person — not a decent human being with a conscience — to commit sexual assault.

And there is no excuse for anyone, whether the president or the co-worker chatting over coffee, to perpetuate the myths about sexual assault. Our society should endeavor to be a safer place for survivors to report. If we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement, we can’t let the blame games and shaming of our past continue. And shame on our President for continuing to promote that kind of distrust.

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East Oregonian, Sept. 22, on the importance of agriculture:

We do not exaggerate when we describe agriculture as the top profession. If you think something else is more important, ask yourself this: Can we do without it?

Can we do without accountants? Probably.

Can we do without lawyers? Definitely.

Can we do without politicians? You answer that one.

And now the big question: Can we do without farmers? Anyone who thinks society can do without the people who grow the food we eat and the fiber we wear is deluded. Farming — agriculture — goes hand-in-hand with civilization. Since the first seeds were planted about 10,000 years ago, agriculture has allowed people to specialize. Instead of everyone being hunter-gatherers, some could grow food and others could do other things. Out of that division of labor has grown great societies.

But without farmers, it would have all come crashing down.

Which is why getting young people to join the profession is so critical, and teaching them how to succeed is of the utmost importance.

Only a few years ago, those who wanted to learn about farming had only a few choices: They could do it the hard way, by trial and error. Or they could learn about it in 4-H or FFA or through colleges and universities. Otherwise, they would need help from a mentor, a parent or other relative, or a neighbor.

Without help, the odds against any new farmer succeeding were steep.

Blue Mountain Community College has greatly expanded its programs for those interesting in the field, including a precision agriculture partnership with Oregon State University Extension Service. The future of agriculture will bear some similarities to the past, but technology’s impact can’t be understated.

And the number of options continues to grow. In addition to formal training, university extension services, the USDA, state departments of agriculture, nonprofits and financial institutions all offer help to new farmers.

With that help, new farmers can find suitable land, determine what to grow and how to grow it and learn how to maintain equipment, how to market crops and how to finance the whole operation. From there they can getting training in advanced technology that will define the profession in the years to come, and stay on the cutting edge.

Few businesses have more moving parts than a farm. And a farmer is the person who keeps them all moving.

Some nonprofits and other organizations such as soil and water conservation districts have even established farm incubators, which provide new farmers with affordable land, equipment, expertise — everything they need to succeed.

One such incubator is Headwaters Farm near Portland operated by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. Near Bellingham, Wash., Cloud Mountain Farm Center also operates a farm incubator and offers internships that allow aspiring farmers to learn from the ground up. Other incubators operate around the nation, and we’d love to see similar programs grow in Eastern Oregon.

With that help, the odds are with new farmers. Not all will succeed, but the likelihood of success goes way up.

These new farmers deserve support and encouragement. They are part of the future of the most important profession in the world.

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