Reassessing Gender and Achievement: Questioning Contemporary Key Debates
reviewed by David Bills - 2006
Title: Reassessing Gender and Achievement: Questioning Contemporary Key Debates
Author(s): Becky Francis and Christine Skelton
Publisher: Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
ISBN: 0415333245, Pages: 200, Year: 2005
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On average, girls receive higher test scores on most measures of academic and cognitive achievement than do boys. This gender gap has been evident for some time in many countries around the world and has drawn a great deal of attention, some of it scholarly and some of it not, from observers of schooling. Reassessing Gender and Achievement: Questioning Contemporary Key Debates by educational researchers Becky Francis and Christine Skelton is a welcomed attempt to stand back and offer some broader perspective on the often contentious debate about the gender gap. The volume itself is part of Routledges Gender in Education series.
Probably the most important point to make about Reassessing Gender and Achievement is that its subtitle needs to be taken literally. Although Francis and Skelton are convinced that the test score gap is real, they are not particularly interested in understanding and explaining why girls and boys score differently on standardized tests. Readers seeking an assessment of the relative determinants of the gender gap will need to look elsewhere. The authors focus instead is on the debates about the achievement gap. They are far more concerned with understanding how we talk about the gap, what discourses scholars, policy makers, and the public adopt in their attempt to make sense of differential achievement. Thus, Francis and Skelton have much to say about the various explanations that have been offered for the gap in achievement, but less to say about which of these explanations provide the best empirical account. This is certainly a valid and justifiable strategy, but one that places their effort more in the realm of the politics of education than in the realm of the educational psychology of achievement.
The book consists of eight chapters and several appendices of statistical tables. The authors present their own perspective on differential achievement in chapter 1. They argue, contrary to some feminist writers who have disparaged the focus on the poorer academic achievement of boys, that the issue of boys underachievement in literacy and languages is an important one, at least in part because it directs attention to the larger issue of educational and social equity. Francis and Skelton are clear about their feminist perspective and their distrust of a variety of politically conservative analyses of the gender gap. In chapter 2, the authors summarize nine theoretical perspectives (for example, functionalism, social constructionism, and psychoanalytic theory) that scholars have used to analyze gender and achievement. This material is informative and well written, although little of it resurfaces for interpretive use in later chapters.
Francis and Skelton turn their attention in chapter 3 to the construction of gender and achievement in education policy. They draw empirical examples of policy talk from a handful of nationsAustralia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In some of the best material in the book, Francis and Skelton construct a typology of discourses of boys and schooling. This typology illustrates that the underachievement of boys is variously described in terms of poor boys, boys will be boys, problem boys, and 'at risk boys. They are generally skeptical of each of these discourses. Francis and Skelton criticize the discourses for their tendency to identify boys underachievement solely in characteristics of boys, rather than in broader patterns of exclusion and privilege.
Chapter 4 is more frustrating. The authors goal here is to present the statistical information drawn upon by policy makers and other participants in the construction of the various underachievement discourses in their efforts to mobilize one set of responses or another to the achievement gap. Francis and Skelton have in fact assembled considerable national and international data, and are in general evenhanded in their treatment of this information. They do, however, spend more time presenting the data than analyzing them. Particularly unfortunate is their failure to examine distributions rather than simply means. For example, it is important to know, for both scientific and policy reasons, if boys are disproportionately represented at the high and low ends of achievement distributions, as some analysts have claimed. Relying solely on published tables does not permit them any leverage on this question.
In chapter 5, Francis and Skelton critically assess five common explanations for gender differences in achievement. Briefly, these explanations are boys and girls are born with different interests, motivations, and abilities, boys and girls have different learning styles, schools are feminised and this disadvantages boys, assessment procedures and teaching practices are biased towards girls, and pupils constructions of gender produce different behaviours which impact on achievement. The authors marshal the research evidence for and against each of these positions. They quite wisely avoid making any firm commitments or rejections of any of these explanations (although they are a bit dismissive of explanations not based in social constructionism). Their skepticism might be resisted by those looking for quick solutions to the gender gap, but their unwillingness to draw any definitive conclusions from the research is the only defensible position.
Chapters 6 and 7 provide a very useful account of the gendered nature of achievement. The argument here is nicely nuanced, drawing attention to the interplay between transformations of broader opportunity structures, social movements, and cultural understandings of gender on the one hand, and the experience of femininity and masculinity in educational institutions on the other. The authors close in chapter 8 with some suggestions for equitably raising achievement in the classroom. These suggestions, happily, are more in the form of hard won, if contingent, recommendations rather than cookbook solutions.
Reassessing Gender and Achievement succeeds well in its ambition to provide readers with a fresh overview of the escalating discussion of the educational underachievement of boys. It is not exactly a detached overviewFrancis and Skelton are clear about their normative preferences for gender equity and social justicebut it is an informed and evenhanded one. The book will be of value to scholars, policy makers, and practitioners.