The virtues of Cather’s immigrant girls!


Part 4—Who is Eleanor Barkhorn: In our post-journalistic world, few group get discussed less, or less favorably, than our American black kids, all of whom are just kids, of course.

There’s no group we seem to care about less. Consider the current state of play regarding these children’s test scores, which get discussed all the time.

From 1990 to the present, black kids seem to have shown a lot of progress in reading and math. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, their score gains look like this:
Score gains by black students, public schools, 1990-2013
Grade 4 reading: 14.10 points
Grade 4 math: 37.04 points
Grade 8 reading: 13.62 points
Grade 8 math: 26.61 points
Click here, then click MAIN NDE (NAEP Data Explorer). From there, you’re on your own.

As almost anyone would realize, those score gains are meaningless as stated. We need some way to estimate the size of the academic progress those score gains might represent.

A very rough rule of thumb is often used on the NAEP. According to this very rough rule, ten points on the NAEP scale is roughly equal to one academic year.

If that very rough rule of thumb is applied to those score gains, the progress in reading would seem impressive. In math, the progress seems vast.

(Note: Those score gains may be understated by a point or two, due to a one-time procedural change the NAEP made in 1998. “Accommodations permitted!”)

For someone who cares about black kids, those score gains in math may seem glorious. Here are the corresponding gains rung up by the nation’s Hispanic kids:
Score gains by Hispanic students, public schools, 1990-2013
Grade 4 reading: 12.06 points
Grade 4 math: 31.15 points
Grade 8 reading: 16.28 points
Grade 8 math: 26.36 points
Again, those gains may be understated by a few points. In reading, those score gains date from testing in 1992.

In math, those score gains look glorious—but only if you care about the children involved. Plainly, few people in the post-journalistic “mainstream press corps” do.

Simply put, those score gains by those groups of kids never get reported! Reporters report the achievement gaps, which have gotten smaller but remain large. (The gaps remain large for a piquant reason—white students have been recording score gains too.)

Reporters detail the gaps; this lets them express the standard elite-approved gloom. At the same time, as if by law, they fail to report the gains! Judging by their conduct, there’s no group they despise quite as much as the nation’s black kids.

What might those rather large score gains mean? No one ever asks. If those score gains represent real academic progress, what has produced that progress? No one asks that question either. Politely, elite reporters follow the scripts handed to them by elite “reformers:”

They discuss the gaps between different groups. They disappear the gains.

It’s a bit unfair to single out the Atlantic’s Julia Ryan for presenting this sort of work. It’s true—when Ryan reported the new NAEP scores, her work was unusually amateurish. To us, it seems like the work of a college sophomore who isn’t especially skilled or even especially motivated.

Judged on the simplest technical basis, Ryan’s report was awful. It’s stunning to think that work of that type is presented by a major American journal with such a long and storied pedigree.

But in fairness to the youthful Ryan, the news report in the New York Times was basically just as clueless. That report was prepared by Motoko Rich, who graduated summa cum laude from Yale in the 1990s.

Ryan graduated from Harvard—in June of this very year!

How do people with such resumes produce such unskilled work? We’re not sure, but increasingly, education reporting is dominated by young or youngish women from the finest schools. They bring little skill or knowledge, and even less heart, to their reporting.

In Ryan’s case, the standard pattern was followed. She devoted a section to the gaps but never so much as mentioned the gains. Rather, to the extent that she mentioned the gains, she downplayed their size.

Ryan reported a gain of five points in Grade 4 reading since 1992. But uh-oh! After disaggregation, the score gains look like this:
Score gains by public school students, 1992-2013
Grade 4 reading, NAEP
White students: 8.15 points
Black students: 14.10 points
Hispanic students: 12.06 points
Black kids have gained fourteen points in Grade 4 reading; that may be understated by a point or two. Ryan reported an overall gain of five points. She then dropped the subject completely.

Ryan went on to lament the achievement gaps, but she never mentioned that 14-point gain. Is there any group our elites seem to despise so richly?

Thanks to a conversation last week, we decided to reread My Antonia in the past week. Has anyone ever advocated for anyone as ardently as Cather advocates for the women, especially the immigrant women, who built the state of Nebraska out of a giant expanse of soil?

Midway through the book, her narrator, Jim Burden, explains something he says he knew all along about those admirable women. As he starts, he describes the situation of those women, who had worked so hard to create a whole new country:
There was a curious social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school.

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had gotten little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.
A bit later, he describes the triumph he always knew he would live long enough to see. In this highly autobiographical book, Jim Burden is a gender-swapped version of Cather herself:
The Bohemian and Scandinavian girls could not get positions as teachers, because they had had no opportunity to learn the language. Determined to help in the struggle to clear the homestead from debt, they had no alternative but to go into service [to work in peoples’ homes]. Some of them, after they came to town, remained as serious and as discreet in behavior as they had been when they ploughed and herded on their father's farm. Others, like the three Bohemian Marys, tried to make up for the years of youth they had lost. But every one of them did what she had set out to do, and sent home those hard-earned dollars. The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten.

One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county were the first to become prosperous. After the fathers were out of debt, the daughters married the sons of neighbours—usually of like nationality—and the girls who once worked in Black Hawk kitchens are to-day managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.


I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls coming into their own, and I have. Today the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provision and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses.
There is much, much more to Cather’s portrait of these women and their place in Nebraska society. Cather’s admiration for these country girls didn’t mainly concern their material success.

Cather admires the way her “country girls” outworked their native-born neighbors, many of whom hadn't been able to see the physical and moral beauty of their immigrant neighbors. Has anyone ever advocated for any group as ardently as Cather does?

To read the chapter from which those excerpts are drawn, just click this.

We’ve thought of Cather’s immigrant girls this week as we’ve considered the way our post-journalistic “press corps” disdains the score gains recorded by our modern black kids. Following scripts preferred by elites, they quickly report the gaps, completely ignore the gains.

It’s an act of condescension straight outta Cather’s portrait of Black Hawk. (In Cather’s portrait, many native-born residents of Black Hawk did understand the worth and the beauty of the immigrant girls.) Readers of the New York Times or the Atlantic aren’t allowed to know about the score gains achieved by black and Hispanic kids. No one bothers to ask what those score gains might mean. No one asks what might explain the apparent progress.

How do people who went to the finest schools produce such horrible work? We don’t know, but the Atlantic hired Ryan straight out of Harvard for the public school beat, despite the fact that she has no apparent background, skill, knowledge or understanding of the subject matter. For what it’s worth, here’s the bio of Eleanor Barkhorn, Princeton ’06, the young woman who supervises Ryan’s work for the Atlantic’s “Education Channel:”
THE ATLANTIC: Eleanor Barkhorn is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Education Channel. She previously edited the Sexes and Entertainment channels. Before coming to The Atlantic, she was a reporter at the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi. She graduated from Princeton University, where she majored in American literature and wrote her senior thesis about Oprah's Book Club. For her first two years out of college, she taught high school English with the Teach For America program.
Could a person that age, with that background, be a strong education journalist? It’s possible, though somewhat unlikely. At any rate, Barkhorn plainly isn’t such a journalist, or that woeful report by Ryan never would have been posted.

Because you’re going to ask, Barkhorn’s father “retired as a partner in Goldman Sachs in New York.” Her husband is communications director for a Republican congressman who seems to make the occasional dumb remark about race.

People! We’re just saying!

To see the New York Times report Barkhorn’s romance and wedding, click this. You’ll see the type of post-journalism the guild performs on itself.

The reporters went to the finest schools. Keeping faith with established practice, they report the gaps, withhold the gains. They seem to bring no skill or knowledge to their reporting on public schools. Rather plainly, these people are getting hired for their outstanding pedigrees.

They’re being hired by social clubs which poses as news orgs. In Black Hawk, this guild might have been looking right past the gains of the immigrant girls.

Increasingly, young women who went to the finest schools are in charge of the nation’s reporting about our black kids, all of whom are just kids, after all. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way three of their number have discussed, or tried to discuss, the general topic of tracking.


  1. "and even less heart, to their reporting"

    That's what's missing to me, passion or real interest or heart. I don't know what it's about. I sometimes think the concentration on "data" (even if they can't really interpret the test scores properly) comes from a reluctance to appear sentimental or gushy about children. We've all decided to approach this as a hard slog. There's no joy in it.

    It comes across as joyless and grim, which is a shame both for the children they're reporting on and for the adults who have chosen this line of work.

    1. I don't think the problem is statistics, nor is the solution more anecdotes. Heart would mean focusing on the real accomplishments that emerge from the hard work of students and their teachers, using statistics to demonstrate that achievement. Heart would mean recognizing progress, not continuing to consign minority children to second-rate status by emphasizing the gaps. Vygotsky, beloved theorist of education, tells teachers to measure progress by starting where children are and helping them extend their rearch beyond that point. Education focuses on making incremental progress. Our tests on the other hand focus on absolute scores and consign even the most improved schools to failure if they do not meet a certain threshold. These Ivy League graduates are adept at meeting high standards and the idea of making progress, advancing from a previous baseline is foreign to them. Their goals are to measure up to external standards, not to learn, and certainly not to improve themselves, as writers or as people.

      Where I work, students approach faculty and ask to be included in their labs as research assistants. They will ask multiple faculty the same thing, adding many lines to their resumes and grad school applications. They spread themselves so thin they have no time or opportunity to pursue meaningful projects or to learn much in the various labs they join. A single such activity explored in depth would develop them far more and be much better preparation, but they fear they will not be admitted if they have only one line instead of several to list on their resumes. This is the trap students at the Ivy Leagues fall into. But if subsequent employers do not care whether they can actually do anything real in their jobs, perhaps the joke is on those of us who try to give students a better education.

  2. "Has anyone ever advocated for any group as ardently as Cather does?"

    And, then this, too-advocates.

    I read Savage Inequalities probably ten years ago, but I still remember a lot of it because Kozol so clearly loved the kids he wrote about. That's really missing in this cold, grim, slog through the ed reform world.

  3. Inherited wealth and position for me, grit for thee!I

    Next, no doubt we will have the mass market Disney cartoon version in which My Antonia is a female version of Horatio Alger and her father is an unsung inventor/entrepreneur who in the end is rewarded with fame and (most importantly) fortune.

    Kozol's book is a masterpiece. And still relevant. He, too, went to Harvard. - E

  4. What I would like to know is: since when has the mainstream media become welfare for the children of the 1 percent? Or are they unpaid interns because they can afford to work without a salary? -E

  5. I used to think the only thing more boring than track was field. It's not. It's Somerby droning on interminably about test scores.

  6. I guess it's just me, but I can't watch this without getting goosebumps:

  7. Admittedly this is an area in which I wouldn't have dug anywhere near as deeply as Bob, but after enough posts on the topic his point finally started seeping into my thick skull.

    Now I find I read carefully through these items, have a better picture of the status of student performance overall and between groups, and can include that information in consideration of arguments and policies that emerge in government/politics.

    It's up to anyone to decide whether the improvements are significant enough to be seen as being as important as the gaps but it helps to have the information and there is no debating that it is of some importance. I appreciate Bob's "interminable" attention to this.

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