Harvard Educational Review
  1. How Girls Achieve



    Girls' education is often deemed an issue of concern for low-income countries and for countries mired in conflict. Underlying this perspective is the assumption that high-income countries, in particular Western nations, have succeeded in providing equal opportunities for boys and girls. In How Girls Achieve, Sally A. Nuamah challenges this notion and presents the struggles and triumphs of the most marginalized girls across low- and high-income countries, highlighting some of their shared experiences. Nuamah, a scholar, activist, and filmmaker, taps into her years of academic research to compose vivid narratives of students and teachers who are developing schools that enable girls to flourish. 

    Nuamah presents a simple proposition: an increasing number of girls across the globe attend schools that were not designed with girls in mind. These schools are assumed to be safe, accepting, and habitable, yet it is within these schools that many girls experience sexual abuse, bullying, and a lack of girl-friendly spaces and materials (e.g., flush toilets, sanitary pads, etc.). She urges advocates of girls' education across the spheres of policy, practice, and academia to look beyond traditional measures of success to create a space that protects and empowers girls. 

    Nuamah argues that statistics showing improved access and achievement rates for girls account for neither the hurdles girls face on a daily basis nor their long-term impact on girls' future prospects. For example, academic achievement rates overlook the negative experiences school-aged girls have on the way to/from and in school, such as experiences with sexual harassment, criminal justice, poverty, and racism. Nuamah points out that while these experiences might not affect academic achievement for all girls, they do affect girls' well-being, level of confidence, and ability to challenge negative societal norms that impede their full participation. She presents a more comprehensive notion of achievement—net achievement—to take into consideration "academic achievement [as well as] the absence of damage from experiences of learning" (p. 6).

    Improving girls' net achievement, therefore, hinges on structural changes at the school level. Nuamah proposes that the world needs feminist schools that account for the gendered reality of students' lives and actively dismantle institutional sexism. Feminist schools "act as models of equity" (p. 13) rather than reflections of an unequal society; therefore, they can be agents for wider social change. They are designed to provide girls with achievement-oriented identities—"defined as positive beliefs, in individual abilities and the facility to translate those beliefs into realizable actions" (p. 15). Achievement-oriented identities comprise a set of traits like self-confidence, strategy, and transgression. While Nuamah focuses on the experiences of girls, she argues that feminist schools are beneficial for all students, regardless of their gender, because they are antiracist and antisexist and promote liberatory practices and ideologies.

    The book comprises an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The three middle chapters each focus on one country—South Africa, the United States, and Ghana—and highlight the history of girls' education within each setting, showing an empirical example of what success looks like as well as identifying areas for further advancement. In each country context, Nuamah illuminates the experiences and perspectives of low-income black girls, because by "concentrating on the most marginalized group, we can develop solutions that will help all students achieve" (p. 20). She chose South Africa, Ghana, and the US because they represent countries that have a clear commitment to realizing gender equality. She presents cases that showcase the achievement of low-income students rather than focusing on how so many schools fail them. Each chapter begins with a historical review of the country's quest to achieve gender equity as well as ongoing challenges. Then, using qualitative interview and observational data, the chapter centers the voices and experiences of students and educators, investigating their achievements and challenges. 

    The country cases highlight a critical component of creating and supporting feminist schools. As the title implies, in chapter 1, "Becoming Safe," Nuamah posits that "developing a school as a safe space is a critical first step to providing all students with the protections they need to secure net achievement" (p. 50). Through the stories of two high school students in South Africa, the chapter highlights the importance of developing gender-conscious curricula (e.g., teaching about sexual abuse) and gender-neutral policies (e.g., uniform and hair policies) and employing school resources (e.g., providing counseling for trauma-affected students or provision of sanitary pads). The next chapter, "Becoming Feminist," turns the focus from students to administrators by centering on one school's leadership team in an all-girls' elementary school in the US. By concentrating on a school where the administration "shares both the demographic and household characteristics of its students (60 percent of the faculty are people of color)" (p. 62), the chapter stresses the importance of representation and relationships. In the US context, racial representation is particularly salient for low-income students; however, in another context it might be ethnicity, language, or class. Nuamah emphasizes that healthy relationships between teachers, administrators, and students are characterized by instilling confidence in students and providing both routine affirmation and discipline. In "Becoming Achievement Oriented," Nuamah focuses on the efforts of the first female principal of a secondary school in Ghana in helping students develop attitudes and skills required to handle "a hostile society" (p. 97). The chapter documents Headmistress Mary's attempts to support girls in their dreams of higher education. Nuamah wraps up the book by reiterating the need for comprehensive institutional change and the opportunity for this to happen at the school level, emphasizing that one factor alone, such as instilling confidence, is insufficient in cultivating feminist schools.

    Throughout the cases, Nuamah locates the center of change in schools. She argues that schools "are more likely to improve the life trajectory of the disadvantaged" than any other institution (p. 20). She contends that this is a space where there is immense opportunity to reshape not only students' experiences but also the world they will one day influence. While she recognizes the role of high-level policy on schools, her book mostly highlights the efforts of students, teachers, and administrators. Scholars and students of critical studies, therefore, might wonder about the role of larger structural forces that shape girls' and boys' life trajectories. Is it appropriate or productive to place the burden of social change on schools? While it might be easy to list the number of ways this will not work, I appreciate that Nuamah takes a strong stance. Her argument is simple but bold. Identifying where change must take place for societal uplift is often more difficult than deconstructing an established argument. While schools undoubtedly require resources and funding to create empowering educational environments, Nuamah reassures us that this is the institution worth investing in to develop healthier societies.

    Moreover, too often we operate on the assumption that schools are safe and therefore priority should be placed on other educational issues. In Afghanistan, where I focus my research, children of schooling age in rural and urban areas remain excluded from the formal education system due to security concerns en route to school as well as out of fear of harassment in schools. And as Nuamah rightly points out, safety on the way to/from and in schools is not a concern only in conflict-affected or poverty-stricken contexts. In the US, bullying, sexual abuse, and shootings and threats in schools have puzzled policy makers, educators, and families on how to best address school safety. Nuamah weaves the discussion of school safety within a more comprehensive conversation on curriculum, mind-sets, and representation and their effects on young peoples' ability to thrive and shape their collective futures.

    In the introduction to How Girls Achieve, Nuamah explicitly defines the book's audience—"I write for girls and to parents, policy makers, educators, organizers, academics, and administrators" (p. 22). Though the book might be of interest to a wide-ranging readership, it will be particularly insightful and useful for individuals with an interest in international and comparative education, whether they are working at the local or international level. The book urges readers to take a step back from a focus on achievement measures—traditional measures of access or quality—and question what might be missing from these measurements. If our ultimate goal is to create a better world for boys and girls, it is not sufficient that girls perform as well as boys in math and science. What is equally important is ensuring that the experiences, attitudes, and beliefs girls develop in school empower them to make a positive imprint in their lives and on the world.

    Bibi-Zuhra Faizi

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