How Girls Achieve

by Sally A. Nuamah, Harvard University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Rachel Marcus

This book explores how schools can maximise human potential now and in the future. Through focusing on marginalised girls and dismantling the barriers they face – barriers that are shaped by institutionalised sexism, racism, and poverty in many contexts – the author, Sally A. Nuamah, argues that schools can become engines for transforming society. The book responds to a concern that promoting gender equality in education is often reduced to provision of toilets and supplies for managing menstruation, while a focus on test scores, and even the development of socioemotional skills represents a very limited vision of what education can and should seek to achieve.

The book synthesises insights from the author’s qualitative research in Ghana, South Africa, and the USA, analysis of quantitative data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and wider literature. The focus is explicitly on marginalised girls. Though the book does not discuss boys’ experiences or the challenges they face in any detail, it is Sally A. Nuamah’s contention that developing schools that are feminist will provide an environment free from toxic masculinity, which is beneficial to boys and students of diverse gender identities, as well as girls.

Sally A. Nuamah’s core argument in relation to feminist schools, however, is that they are needed to shape achievement-oriented identities among girls. She believes that achievementoriented identities are based on girls having the confidence to believe in themselves, strategies to negotiate barriers, and the audacity to transgress societal norms. Achievement itself comprises academic success, wider well-being, and contributing to society. Nurturing these identities requires schools to be safe environments for all their students, to be attentive to power dynamics that shape students’ experiences in the classroom, and make use of democratic educational practices that contribute to the development of self-confidence. Sally A. Nuamah introduces the concept of ‘net achievement’, constituting academic success and an absence of damage from educational experience, whether through school violence, suppressing aspects of one’s identity or from high pressure, high-stakes education systems that damage some students’ physical and mental health as they strive to achieve in the face of institutionalised challenges.

Three case study chapters focus on specific schools in Ghana, South Africa and the USA, siting them within a discussion of overall educational context, and the political and policy backdrops. In each chapter, Sally A. Nuamah outlines the specific challenges girls of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds face, in school and their home lives, including poverty, sexual violence, pregnancy, racism, violence, and mental health challenges. The South Africa case study focuses on a government fee-paying school in Cape Town, located in a suburb in a relatively safe environment; the US case study, a girls-only urban primary where the majority of students are Black; and the Ghana case study, a mixed-sex government secondary school serving a low-income urban area.

None of the case studies shows a ‘perfect’ school: instead each focuses on a number of practices that may be helping girls to develop achievement-oriented identities and provide a wider feminist environment. For example, the school Sally A. Nuamah studied in South Africa provided free sanitary products, and adopted a gender-neutral uniform policy and included discussions of rape and sexual abuse in Life Orientation classes; the US case study highlights the value of group affirmations encouraging high aspirations, positive discipline strategies, exposure to Black female role models, and discussions around racism; in Ghana, positive practices include strong pro-equality sentiments and self-belief messages, framed so they accord with the school’s religious values and moral code, and ensuring girls as well as boys have opportunities to develop self-confidence through student leadership roles.

Quotes from the interviews with teachers reveal their motivations for attempting to provide empowering education, the strategies they have used, and the challenges they face. The case studies also show the limits to what an individual school can achieve on its own, and emphasise the importance of action both by the state and wider society to support disadvantaged students and the schools that serve them. After showcasing insights from the three case studies, Sally A. Nuamah then examines data on confidence, its role in enhancing academic achievement and its limitations, drawing on 2011 TIMSS data for Ghana, South Africa, and the USA. She presents nuances in the relationship between confidence, economic background, and mathematics scores between the three countries (and between racial groups in the USA), finding that confidence plays a role in improving students’ academic achievements, both among girls and boys, but cannot alone bridge learning and achievement gaps that are based on inequalities by race, class, and gender.

One of the book’s greatest contributions comes from its intersectional approach, which runs throughout all analysis, and its grounding in deep qualitative research in the three case study schools. For example, the quotes from students – from a range of social and religious backgrounds, and in one case, of gender-fluid identity – provide deep insights into their lived educational experiences, the contexts of their lives outside school, and how different aspects of their lives and identities influence their aspirations. An appendix to the book based on a ‘womanist writing activity’ in the US case study school features students’ letters to young Black victims of police violence, and testimony about the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on their thinking.

How Girls Achieve is short, accessible, and engagingly written. It explains key concepts clearly. Overall, the book navigates the trade-off between length and depth well, though a few sections (such as ‘The Problem with Academic Achievement’) are tantalisingly brief. It provides an original lens on gendered educational inequalities and ways of dismantling them, is at times provocative, and as such should be of interest to anyone engaged in education or concerned with progressive social change. As part of the book’s commitment to practical action, it provides a Feminist Schools Toolkit – a set of questions for educators to think through in pursuit of creating feminist schools – and suggested additional reading, adding further value to this stimulating read.