Individual differences in education perfmance: cultural diversity and gender issues

Friday, September 01, 2006

Explanations for Differential Educational Performance

How do we explain why girls are doing better than boys? The question we need to ask is - Why are women doing so well? In the past it was ‘why are girls underachieving’ and the simplest explanation was that girls were actively held back by sexism in and out of school. Since sexism is on the decline girls are doing better. However the picture could be more complex than this, as detailed below -

Boys hate school more than girls.

Boys reject the school ethos more than girls and therefore underperform. E.G. Willis (1977) in early research in this area found that boys reject the mental labour required in school and the conformist attitudes. This involved truancy, ‘having a laugh’ and playing teachers up. Real men do manual work and it was who you knew that got you jobs not pieces of paper.

However we should keep in mind that this research was conducted in the ‘70’s and much in terms of economics and values has changed since then, however if such attitudes are still present then boys will be less likely to do well in school since whilst Sue Sharp’s research (‘Just Like a Girl’) in the 70’s showed that working class female students also undervalued education and only took ‘female’ subjects, this was not the case in her follow-up study in the 90’s which showed a significant change in values and expectations of girls so that they viewed education as a positive route into employment and supporting themselves.

The work of Chodorow (1974) and Gilligan (1982) on sex-role development provides one explanation for some of the sex differences in educational performance. Both Chodorow and Gilligan state that appropriate male sex-role development is predicated on the condition that male children establish autonomy from their mothers. In effect, males must establish a separateness from their mothers for normal sex-role development. They must separate themselves from the gender identity and gender role of the mother. Gilligan states: 'For boys and men, separation and individuation are critically tied to gender identity, since separation from the mother is essential for the development of masculinity.' (1982, p. 8). This need for boys to establish autonomy from female figures may be transfered to female teachers in early primary school. The end result is that males often identify school as a feminine activity and feel they must disassociate themselves from it. This disassociation, in turn, causes a greater proportion of disruptive behaviors from males in the classroom. This explanation may be one reason for the gender differences in classroom grades and in problem behaviors.

Girls like school more than boys.

Harris et al (1993) interviewed 16 year olds and found that girls tended to be more hard working and better motivated than boys. Boys where more easily distracted in class and less determined to overcome educational difficulties. Girls worked better to deadlines for coursework than boys did and organised their time better than boys.

They found that the boys had a strongly ‘macho’ attitude towards education and work, which essentially undervalues educations importance and emphasised being with other men in regards to having fun, thus supporting conformity to this value system. However many girls had positive role models of the achieving and organised woman who managed both home and meaningful employment, thus this was informing their attitudes to school and employment. These were called ‘gender regimes’ that young people are exposed to in the home and community.

How do we explain the differences in educational performance related to ethnic background?

Innate ability

Researchers, such as Eysenck and Jensen, have argued that because AfroCaribbean's score on average 7 points lower on IQ scores, that they are genetically less intelligent than white people. Most academics totally rule out such an explanation and instead put the 7 point difference down to the cultural bias of IQ tests and the effects of racism. Also the assumption that there is a gene responsible for intelligence is highly dubious, and the fact that psychologists have yet to adequately understand what intelligence is, have led virtually all researchers to reject such an explanation.

Language barriers

It has been argued that ethnic minority students may not be as familiar with the English language as their white counterparts are, or that they use different dialects which lead them to underachieving in an educational system which is based around the use of particular forms (mostly middle class) of the English lanquaqe. Although it has been noted that different ethnic and class groupings use various forms of English, it is now mostly assumed that it has been teachers reactions to these different language codes rather than the codes themselves which may have influenced achievement. The Swann Report showed how linguistic factors may hold back the progress of a few West Indian children, but for the vast majority of ethnic minority students this was not the case by the age of 16.

Family Life

Early research looked at the potential influence of different kinds of home background to explain differential educational achievement. Pryce, for example, argued that West Indian family life was 'turbulent'. Ontop of this parents were viewed as not encouraging their children to do well in school and that they did not provide as much stimulation through interaction and toys as well as white parents did. Taylor (1981) also argued a similar case when he suggested that although Afro-Canbbean parents have high aspirations for their offspring, they often lack an understanding of the importance of play, toys and child-parent interaction in the early years of a child's development. Taylor went on to point out how there are a higher than average number of one parent families in the Afro-Caribbean community and that children can often be placed with minders who give a low quality of child care, and thus stunt their educational development.

Alternatively it has been suggested that being a member of an Asian community can be an aid for educational achievement. The Swann Report indicated that the closeknit and supportive nature of many Asian communities helps to explain why some Asian students do so well in school. Driver and Ballard came to the same conclusion and viewed being a member of an Asian community as a 'positive resource' in regard to educational attainment.

Finally a compounding factor may be that Afro-Caribbean children come to school with a negative self-image and correspondingly low self-esteem (Milner1975). David Milner investigated the self-images of 100 White English, 100 Asian and 100 Afro-Caribbean children aged 5-8. They were either shown pictures or dolls representing their own ethnic group or the main ethnic group in the area. When asked the question -"If you could be one of these two dolls, which one would you rather be?" - all of the White English children chose the white doll, 65% of the Asian and 82% of the Afro-Caribbean children made the same choice. Even more disturbingly children from ethnic minority backgrounds described the dolls from their own ethnic group using unfavourable stereotypes. Thus wider racism may influence how well children do at school. Though Little (1978) and Taylor (1981) nave argued that alternative causes could be a cultural background that emphasises physical punishment and one in which a large number of children grow up in oneparent families under the care of child-minders. The latter means that the children concerned get a poor educational start in early life and the former that discipline stunts natural curiosity.

Interestingly Bagely et al found that the self-esteem of students from Asian backgrounds did not differ from those of white students. However, Black children who were in schools where the ethnic minority concentration was low had poor self-esteem. These children appeared to accept negative stereotypes transmitted through wider society. Whereas Black children in schools with high levels of other Black children confirmed positive images of Black culture. Thus there are mixed results, but it seems likely that some Black children will take onboard negative stereotypes, just as white lower working class children sometimes have done.


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