Psychologist William Coulson helped found the movement to emphasize "self-esteem" as a path to school success. Today, he travels the country confessing, "I take responsibility. I was part of this approach which has taken over our education system. We were wrong." Coulson now encourages teachers to "stand up for a return to academics. That is really what is needed."
What explains this turnabout? Partly, new research debunking the notion that boosting a child's image of himself brings greater competence. For instance, a recent, exhaustive review of different classroom techniques known as "Project Follow-Through" tracked 7,000 children at 139 sites across the country and discovered that the educational models focusing on self-esteem "resulted in lower academic scores than any other model evaluated." On the other hand, the instructional methods that produced the best student performance stressed effective teaching of academics and made no attempt to enhance good feeling except by rewarding good work — on the ground that self-esteem is simply a byproduct of achievement.
"Critics," summarize the project analysts, "have predicted that the emphasis on tightly controlled instruction might discourage children from freely expressing themselves, and thus inhibit the development of self-esteem and other affective skills." Real-life results, however, show that "In fact, this is not the case."
Leading researchers of self-esteem like Morris Rosenburg, Thomas Moeller, and Alfie Kohn now conclude that self-esteem does little or nothing to enhance academic success. More darkly, pushing the concept may actually bring new problems.
A 1996 study in Psychological Review, the Journal of the American Psychological Association, indicates that an artificial emphasis on self-regard can actually increase violence and other anti-social behavior. "Conventional wisdom has regarded low self-esteem as an important cause of violence," note the authors. But this is not what the research shows. "Instead, violence appears to be most commonly a result of threatened egotism — that is, highly favorable views of the self that are disrupted by some person or circumstance."
Many schools today are lowering their grading scales, eliminating honor rolls and honors courses, and doing away with academic competitions like spelling bees and testing with the idea that students will improve their output if only their self-images are lifted. Exercises specifically designed to make students think well of themselves have become part of the curriculum in some places. All this because of a widespread view that, as Bill Clinton put it when he was governor of Arkansas, "a child's self-esteem is the most important contributor to education."
The only problem: None of this is true.
Dr. Feel-Good Goes to School
by Ralph Reiland
For some reason, Staten Island's Public School 5 rose above the expected mess, ranking first among New York City's public schools in standardized reading and math tests. But one thing didn't click. "Patricia Walsh couldn't figure out how her daughter scored in the ninety-ninth percentile in reading, yet could not read street signs," the New York Post reported. STOP was baffling; YIELD was unfathomable. Other top graduates in School 5 couldn't do simple addition or write a sentence.
After complaints from parents, the Board of Education's Office of Special Investigations uncovered widespread cheating at School 5, but not by sneaky students. The school's principal, Murray Brenner, "altered answer sheets," charged the Schools Chancellor of New York City. Wrong answers were erased and punched-out overlay sheets were used to make the correct circles. Linda Moschello, scoring in the ninety-ninth percentile in math, plummeted to the eighteenth percentile after re-testing.
While pleading guilty to an unrelated charge of falsifying business records in the school's supplies account, Brenner denied the test-tampering charge and retired before the Board took any additional actions. Linda Moschello transferred to a parochial school. "In Catholic school," her mother says, "they almost didn't let her make her confirmation because she couldn't pass the written test."
Except for being so blatant, the exam-fixing at School 5 isn't all that unusual today. Throughout the system, textbooks and tests are being dumbed-down so students score higher. Students learn less and feel better. In 1992, an international study by the Educational Testing Service shows American students ranking last in math achievement (we trail Slovenia), yet the same students rank first in the world about how good they feel about their math skills.
By contrast, in the 1950s the parochial grade school in my neighborhood produced high math skills, despite class sizes of sixty and low-paid nuns for teachers. Students were lined up at the classroom door and required to recite multiplication tables before going home for lunch. If any answer was wrong, you didn't eat.
Ralph R. Reiland teaches at Robert Morris College. These articles are reprinted from The American Enterprise, a Washington-based magazine of politics, business, and culture — (614) 375-2323.
Cheri Yecke is a member of the Virginia State Board of Education and a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia.