Feature

Losing Faith in Self-Esteem

Researchers have yet to find that instilling positive feelings in students can lead to better academic achievement by RICHARD COLVIN

The principal of Rib Mountain School in Wausau, Wis., F. Robert Pellant, is no touchy-feely, crunchy-granola type. In fact, most of his 42 years in education have been spent working in high schools and in his last job before coming to Rib Mountain a decade ago he was an assistant high school principal in charge of discipline. So he's not likely to be drawn in by the feel-good fads.

Yet Pellant is an enthusiastic fan of something that's been denounced by some as not only faddish but unproductive and even, by some academics, potentially damaging: boosting the self-esteem of students. "We want kids to enjoy coming to school and feel good about themselves so that they have an opportunity to learn," he says.

To that end, the school has at least two self-esteem assemblies a year, one where professional musicians sing about the value of feeling good about yourself and one in which students perform their own musical celebration of self-esteem.

Teachers at Rib Mountain, which serves a relatively affluent population and is located in the one of the state's top skiing areas, hold class meetings during which students are encouraged to talk about their feelings. The school is big on looping, the practice of having students stay with the same teacher for two or more years, to help them feel more comfortable. Discipline, too, is carefully crafted to avoid negativity. "We hardly ever use the word 'don't,'" Pellant says.

All of that has paid dividends, the veteran principal says. "What works, you use, and I've seen some great things out of it."

Skeptical Attitudes
Rib Mountain is hardly unique. The practices Pellant and his staff at Rib Mountain employ can be seen in schools all across America. Some schools have adopted packaged programs, such as Quest International, which is used in many middle schools. Other programs are called "I Like Me" or even "I Love Me." Yet as engrained as they are, skepticism abounds about the role high self-esteem plays in the healthy development of students.

In part, this reflects a broader cultural tug-of-war between the poles of liberation, self-expression and individualism on the one hand and discipline, responsibility and a sense of community on the other. The debate over self-esteem also is fueled by concerns some parents have that schools overstep their bounds when they go beyond academic pursuits to worrying about the psychological well-being of students. There's also a sense, in these affluent times, that parents as well as schools are coddling children, praising them for the least significant accomplishment. In addition, many educational psychologists have turned negative on feeling positive because they don't think schools actually can influence how kids feel about themselves and, even if they could, there's little scientific evidence of a payoff in terms of behavior, academic achievement or much of anything else.

The shootings at Columbine High School outside of Denver last spring intensified the discussion. In the immediate aftermath of the April massacre of 12 students and a teacher, educators said the tragedy showed the dangers of anonymity at a large high school. The fact that the two killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were outsiders with few friends was widely cited as an argument in favor of making sure students feel connected to some adult in the school. Not only would this give the students an outlet for their feelings, it would help educators stay on top of what was going on with students and help them head off problems.

But subsequent revelations showed that, at least superficially, neither Harris nor Klebold suffered from a shortage of self-esteem. Indeed, Harris' diaries, as revealed in Salon, the on-line magazine, reveal a young man with a hyper-inflated view of himself. Harris thought of himself as superior to just about everyone--Star Wars’ fans, people who drive in the slow lane, rich people and so on. "They do consider the human race beneath them," one investigator told Salon.

A strong sense of self-esteem is supposed to serve as a vaccine against such violent outbursts. People who felt good about themselves, self-esteem theorists say, would be less likely to strike out against others. Similarly, positive self-esteem would make it more likely that students would make good choices, eschew drugs, delay sexual activity and, perhaps uppermost in the minds of educators, work harder and do better in school.

Questionable Merits
Much to the consternation of many school administrators, however, those notions are being challenged on a variety of fronts. Academics, including a couple of prominent deans of schools of education and leading educational psychologists, say having high self-esteem certainly feels good. But, contrary to intuition, researchers have yet to find a stable relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement or anything else. According to one review of the literature, more than 10,000 published studies have tried without success to make that link.

"It's time for people who have been claiming that improved self-esteem will improve performance to put up or shut up," says Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "While self-esteem has some positive effects, we have yet to see it produce improvements in school performance or better grades."

Baumeister has been studying self-esteem for more than two decades, unsuccessfully trying to prove what common sense seemed to support. In 1998, Baumeister and a colleague, Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, published the results of a study that went beyond doubt about the value of self-esteem to even suggest that it might be harmful. The study gave its test subjects, who were graduate students, the opportunity to blast individuals with high-decibel noise who they had been told had given them a poor grade on an essay they had written. The study concluded that there was no connection between the self-esteem of the participants in the study and how they reacted.

That study's findings, because they were unusually clear-cut and because they suggested that those with the highest opinion of themselves were more likely to want to harm someone who they thought had wronged them, have been widely distributed. "The false belief in self-esteem as a force for social good can be not just potentially but actually harmful," wrote Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Robyn M. Dawes in the Harvard Mental Health Letter. "There's definitely a rethinking going on."

The Baumeister and Bushman study also was featured in Education Week, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and regional papers, including the Buffalo News. In addition, John Stossel, a correspondent on ABC's news-magazine program "20-20," recreated parts of a study in a segment last year that was a sweeping attack on self-esteem programs.

The broadcast featured Robert Moawad, head of a company called Edge Learning Institute and former president of the National Association for Self-Esteem. In a response, Moawad, who these days speaks about self-esteem mostly to corporations and organizations, including some school administrator groups, says that Stossel, like many journalists and researchers, had confused self-esteem with egotism, narcissism and a sense of grandiosity.

Self-esteem, Moawad says, means "being worthy of happiness and capable of meeting life's challenges. How can a person be too worthy of happiness and too capable of meeting life's challenges?"

But, unlike many academics who study such issues, he also is a strong believer in the transformational power of promoting self-esteem.

"Five times a day you walk up and put your hand on a student's shoulder and say, `You're an excellent math student and you enjoy working with numbers and you prepare each week and you're going to do well on your Friday exam,' " says Moawad. "He's going to think you're nuts but when a teacher affirms that for a student we've had miraculous results."

He adds: "You have to see them as if they already were. If you're not their ad campaign, whom are they going to turn to?"

Educational psychologists, such as Robert J. Stevens of Penn State University, agree that students must have a certain amount of motivation and self-esteem before they can function. But, he says, research shows that kids are not fooled if praise from their teachers is false. "They trust reality more than what other people tell them," he notes.

Moreover, healthy self-esteem comes from achievement, not the reverse.

So it makes more sense for schools to ensure children can do math well or write effectively or spell proficiently rather than spending time making them feel good about themselves, although that might be a side effect. "There's nothing that boosts self-concept more than being able to do something--it doesn't matter if it's reading or something on the monkey bars your brother can't do," Stevens says.

Other researchers stress that the most accurate predictor of student achievement is effort. Harold F. O'Neil, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Southern California, says students will try harder at tasks they are confident they can do. But that feeling--usually referred to as self-efficacy--tends to be specific to certain areas. A mathematician, for example, is likely to have a greater sense of self-efficacy in that area than in, say, repairing an auto engine. Since the mathematician feels confident, he or she is more likely to put in effort and that then relates to the outcome. "If you're high in self-efficacy, you'll accept challenging tasks, which leads you to put in more effort … and that's the proximate for output," he says.

Still, though, that's different from simply feeling good about oneself and expecting those positive feelings to pay off.

A Fitting Role
Despite all the debate about self-esteem in the media and among experts, most educators do not see any contradiction between being supportive of kids, making them feel comfortable about themselves and secure in their surroundings while also setting high goals for academic achievement and citizenship.

Certainly Robert Pellant doesn't see any conflict at the Rib Mountain School. Even as the 375-student elementary school tries to promote self-esteem, he says, teachers and administrators are very clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. "We make sure they understand that if you don't do things right, you don't feel good about yourself."

Neither, Pellant says, are academic standards compromised in order to avoid honestly evaluating student work. "Somewhere along the line a student has to realize that not everyone is going to get straight A's and that their grades are going to be based on how they perform," he says.

Ron Booth, principal of the 1,975-student Arapaho High School in Littleton, Colo., agrees that self-esteem "is only enhanced through authentic achievement."

"We believe in providing students with a rigorous curriculum, high standards and challenges and then we offer a great deal of support and recognition for achievement," he says. "Teachers say, `I know you can do it. I know you can do it. I'm going to stay with you. You can do it, but I'm not going to give you the answer.'"

Students who maintain a cumulative 3.4 grade-point average through the end of their sophomore year are given letter jackets. But the school takes pains to make sure the achievement is real. No students, for example, are allowed to earn extra credit. The reason, Booth says, is that Arapaho teachers believe assignments ought to be completed on time and at the best of students' ability the first time. That way, the principal says, "students don't feel they can trivialize some assignment and pick and choose what they're going to focus on and then come back with extra credit."

To be sure, Arapaho is concerned about students' self-esteem. Every student is assigned a mentor to make sure they have an adult they can talk to. Coaches and club sponsors are drawn from the faculty to strengthen the bond between teachers and their students. "We focus not only on the cognition part but also on the affective part of growing up," Booth says. "I think it's time to really talk with kids and do a lot of listening."

Since the shootings at Columbine, that's assumed a top priority. But raising self-esteem does not result from an isolated event or class, Booth says. Instead it comes about gradually through experiences that "nurture the wholistic development of the kid, in an ongoing, day-to-day, semester-to-semester process."

Booth believes that's how most schools approach the issue. Few schools, he says, simply hand out bumper stickers and top grades for little effort. In fact, he thinks much of the criticism of self-esteem efforts by schools is exaggerated.

Judith Casey, principal of Antelope Trails Elementary in Colorado Springs, Colo., is sensitive to the public's doubt about over-emphasizing self-esteem. "I knew it would be a red flag for some people," she says.

But that hasn't prevented her from focusing on the needs of individual students. "Every single practice we have needs to be evaluated in terms of whether it is really … fulfilling a need that a child has," she says.

Unlike many schools, Antelope Trails does not give awards to individual students. The reason, Casey says, is that it prevents all students from being recognized. If one student is honored as the "student of the month," that tells others they haven't measured up. So instead, she will give an entire class what she calls "a school pride thank you" for a behavior she wants to reinforce.

Casey says self-esteem is woven throughout everything the school does. First, relationships are built on trust and respect. Second, quality work is encouraged and acknowledged. Finally, the staff tries to ensure the school curriculum is relevant and useful. Like many experts, though, she believes the essence of self-esteem "comes from a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that you've done your personal best."

Boosting Academics
All of these issues are complicated by the standards movement that now is moving from the theoretical phase to the implementation phase. All across the country, states are developing graduation tests based on more challenging academic standards and launching policies aimed at ending social promotion of students who are not well-prepared. Such policies, especially in schools that have not aimed for high academic standards previously, may cause many more students to become discouraged and to drop out. That possibility is causing schools to try to figure out how to both enforce the standards and to encourage students to stick it out.

Catherine Sumpter, principal of 1,400-student Bret Harte Middle School in Los Angeles, is stressing the importance of academic skills. "We have large masses of students who have reached middle school … who are not proficient readers and that's why we have so much difficulty showing significant growth in test scores," she says.

This year's 8th graders will be the first class to be affected by California's new high school exit exam so Sumpter is working hard to get them ready. The school is offering tutoring before and after school and homework assistance and even may add Saturday classes. She also has sent letters home stressing the importance of having students read every day.

At the same time, however, Bret Harte is working on students' self-esteem. The school holds double-dutch jump rope, marbles and yo-yo contests; they work on skits having to do with diversity; the school gives out awards for student of the week, for good attendance records and for reading a required number of books. "It's a lot of recognition, a lot of positive reinforcement," Sumpter says. "You cannot ignore self-esteem."

As educators wrestle with these issues, what rankles many is what they say is a misconception--the idea that promoting self-esteem is automatically at odds with excellence. Marilyn Lane, a coordinator for gifted and talented education in the Campbell, Calif., Union School District and one of the earliest proponents of self-esteem, says high expectations actually help build students' positive sense of themselves.

In the past, Lane says, many schools might have gone astray and handed out M&Ms to reward students for the slightest accomplishment and drenched them in false praise. A poster that still can be seen in some schools is titled "101 Ways to Praise a Child" and ranges from "Way to go!" to "Good work!" These days, though, most administrators understand that helping students become proficient at a task in an emotionally safe, supportive atmosphere does far more for their sense of themselves.

Supportive Conditions
In response to the concerns about self-esteem programs, those who promote them have changed their focus. Robert Reasoner, a retired California school superintendent who was one of the founders of the self-esteem movement in education, says the central ideas have, in many cases, been misunderstood. (See related article.)

"Self-esteem requires some attitudes and abilities and skills, not just attitudes," he says. Just praising kids makes them dependent on continuing to receive praise, he adds. Instead, schools should focus on helping students feel like they have some control over their lives and have the skills to accomplish something worthwhile.

Michele Borba, an author of self-esteem programs and books based in Palm Springs, Calif., agreed that the concept had been trivialized in many schools. That's why, she says, in-service activities based on her Esteem Builders program stress competence, helping students develop a sense of mission and direction, the ability to get along with others, an accurate sense of one’s strengths and weaknesses and, finally, making schools supportive so that students feel secure.

"You cannot give kids self-esteem. They can only build it within themselves," Borba says. "But you can create conditions that nurture it." In an attempt to gather evidence that her approach works, Borba set up experiments at three schools in Minneapolis, Kansas and British Columbia. In all, 1,040 students from kindergarten through grade six were exposed to three lessons a week stressing self-control, problem-solving, getting along with peers, active listening, understanding one's feelings and empathy.

The research study did not try to measure changes in students' self-esteem. Tests that attempt to measure self-esteem, based on student self-reporting, are difficult to calibrate. The study also did not attempt to directly link the lessons to any change in academic achievement.

Instead, the study tracked changes in behavior as well as changes in teachers' perceptions. It found significant increases in students' willingness to undertake new tasks, establish goals and offer their ideas. Bullying, fighting and detentions all went down, especially among at-risk youngsters. Teachers also indicated that students seemed more tolerant, respectful, caring and courteous.

The data do not show conclusively that the program resulted in improved academic outcomes, but it does show significant increases in such things as students' willingness to undertake new tasks, establish goals and offer their ideas.

Michael Furlong, a professor of psychology at University of California-Santa Barbara who trains school psychologists, says it's important that schools and parents keep the issue in perspective, whatever direction the debate and research over self-esteem takes. They also should recognize that the nationwide drive to improve test scores should not be allowed to create a destructive learning environment.

"The better schools want to create a nurturing, caring environment … in which kids are valued and achievement is expected and supported," he says. "In that setting, kids thrive, they do well, and then maybe you don't need a specific self-esteem activity."

Richard Colvin is an education writer with the Los Angeles Times. E-mail: richard.colvin@latimes.com