Sixty-two million girls are school-aged but not in school. We know that girls’ education has positive impacts, not just for girls themselves but for their communities: educating girls is associated with decreased mortality and incidence HIV/AIDS and with increased economic growth. Non-cognitive skills – attitudes, attributes, and personal skills apart from aptitude that individuals can draw on to achieve success – can have important impacts on improving educational outcomes. “Grit” is the paradigm example: perseverance towards one’s goals may be just as important to academic achievement as aptitude. While there is evidence that non-cognitive skills shape academic achievement, it is less clear how these skills are transmitted, and in particular what role schools play in transmitting these skills. Further, much of the research on non-cognitive skills has been done on elite male students in a U.S. context, which may not be entirely generalizable to other settings.
Our first WAPPP seminar of the spring semester featured Sally Nuamah, WAPPP Fellow and Joint Postdoctoral Fellow, University Center for Human Values and Center for Study of Democratic Politics, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Dr. Nuamah presented the results of a study on non-cognitive skills and educational achievement focusing on 37 girls in Ghana striving to be the first in their families to go to college. Dr. Nuamah’s research focused on three key questions: What challenges do girls face? What does it take for them to achieve? And how do schools contribute to their achievement?
The girls in the study faced three levels of obstacles to educational achievement: their low socioeconomic status, under-resourced school, and particular gendered challenges, including risk of pregnancy that led many students to drop out of school. Schools have an important role to play in mediating the negative effects of this sociocultural environment. Dr. Nuamah found that the school in her study facilitated “achievement-oriented identities,” positive beliefs about students’ own abilities to succeed and to translate those beliefs into realizable actions. The school emphasized both self-efficacy – impressing upon students that they have the ability to overcome challenges – and strategy – helping students to create, implement, and monitor plans to overcome challenges. This achievement-oriented identity was particularly affirmed at the school leadership level, in after-school programs, and in the religion and morality curriculum.
School leadership: At the time of the study, the school had its first female headmistress. She initially perceived the female students to be timid and took policy steps to change that. Every year, the school held a speech competition at which only male students had delivered the keynote. This year, the headmistress required that a female student give the keynote. This small change had a big impact – the girl chosen to deliver the speech said that it increased her confidence, and “I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.”
After-school: There is a great deal of research on the benefits of after-school groups: in particular, these groups create social support systems among peer groups. In Dr. Nuamah’s descriptive survey, girls reported an additional 2-5 more hours of housework per day than their male peers, with schedules that allowed for only 4-5 hours of sleep per night. Discipline and time management are critical for these girls, and these values are reinforced in their peer groups.
Curriculum: Dr. Nuamah emphasized the importance of religious and moral education in the Ghanaian context. Formal education in Ghana was historically closely tied to Christian missionaries, and schools’ practices reflect this history, including morning worship and daily prayer. In particular, rhetoric about achievement remains entwined with religion. Students are told to believe in themselves and their God-given gifts. This appeal to faith, even for students who aren’t particularly religious, engenders greater confidence in their ability to overcome challenges like the cost of education.
In conversations with students who had graduated, those seeking to go to college perfectly encapsulated the achievement-oriented identity—having faith and taking positive steps to achieve their goals. One student who had been accepted to university but couldn’t afford the fees voiced her anxiety, but said worrying wouldn’t solve her problem. She just had to pray to God… and she had applied for several scholarships.
Dr. Nuamah’s work highlights how school context can contribute to female students’ achievement, and particularly how schools can help girls grapple with gender-specific challenges, rather than assuming that the sole impediment to achievement is poverty. We look forward to learning more about this exciting area of research!