Tag Archives: self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor

Is the self-esteem movement just another education fad?

18 Jan

Education is prone to fads and the next “new, new thing.” Many are beginning to question the self-esteem movement which put the emphasis on children feeling good about themselves. The question is whether the emphasis should be put on acquiring skills and focusing on helping children to achieve success in areas where they have shown both an interest and some competence. One of the best definitions of self-esteem comes from the Canadian Mental Health Association and the article Children and Self-Esteem which is posted at their site.

Self-esteem is the value we place on ourselves. It is the feeling we have about all the things we see ourselves to be. It is the knowledge that we are lovable, we are capable, and we are unique. Good self-esteem means:

  • having a healthy view of yourself,
  • having a quiet sense of self-worth,
  • having a positive outlook,
  • feeling satisfied with yourself most of the time,
  • setting realistic goals.

Both adults and children benefit from good relationships, experiences and positive thinking. Many of the steps necessary for building a child’s self-esteem will also help you in developing and maintaining your own. http://www.acsm.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=2-29-68

Moi feels that good schools are relentless about the basics.

A 1999 Los Angeles Times article, Losing Faith in Self-Esteem Movement by Richard Lee Colvin was raising caution flags:

At Loren Miller Elementary School in Los Angeles, a school struggling to raise test scores that are barely in double digits, children last year spent part of each day working on . . . their self-esteem.

In daily “I Love Me” lessons, they completed the phrase “I am . . . ” with words such as beautiful, lovable, respectable, kind or gifted. Then they memorized the sentences to make them sink in.

No more. The daily “I Love Me” lessons will soon be replaced by rapid-fire drills and constant testing of kids’ skills.

With the pressure to raise test scores building nationally, schools are rethinking their decades-long love affair with self-esteem.

Self-esteem, which burst into the national consciousness in the late 1980s with help from a California task force, has long endured attacks from cultural conservatives. What’s new today is that the criticism is being heard from deans at such education bastions as Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and in prestigious venues such as the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

“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 that publication in October.

Having high self-esteem certainly feels good, psychologists say. But, contrary to intuition, it doesn’t necessarily pay off in greater academic achievement, less drug abuse, less crime or much of anything else. Or, if it does pay off, 10,000 or more research studies have yet to find proof.

With researchers growing increasingly negative about being positive, a switch from tenderness to tough love is in vogue now among social commentators, politicians and educators.

Fretting about students’ feelings has become an unhealthy classroom obsession, researchers declare in academic journals and elsewhere. Better, they say, to spend more time on something children can justly be proud of–acing algebra or becoming a super speller.

“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,” said Robert J. Stevens, a professor of educational psychology at Penn State University.

That is the lesson teachers at Bessemer School in Pueblo, Colo., learned this year. Teachers there were stunned a year ago when only 12% of their fourth-graders were reading at grade level.

Out went the three hours they spent weekly on counseling and self-esteem classes. In came more attention to the basics. Up went test scores. Last fall, 64% of the students passed. And self-esteem soared.


Moi would posit that true self-esteem comes from the accomplishment of acquiring a skill or successfully performing a task.

Michael Alison Chandler reports in the Washington Post article, In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise:

For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments. Consider teacher Shar Hellie’s new approach in Montgomery County….

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/in-schools-self-esteem-boosting-is-losing-favor-to-rigor-finer-tuned-praise/2012/01/11/gIQAXFnF1P_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend

There were critics of the self-esteem concept in education at the beginning of the movement.

Alfie Kohn wrote the 1994 article, The Truth About Self-Esteem for PHI DELTA KAPPAN which critiqued the concept. Among Kohn’s many concerns were:

Putting aside for a moment the questions of what statements are included and how they are scored, the point to be emphasized here is that self-esteem ratings are almost always based on what subjects say about themselves, and self- report measures are rather problematic. They may tell us more about how someone wishes to appear than about his or her “true” state (assuming this can ever be known). In fact, some of the most respected researchers in the area have argued that people designated as having high self-esteem are simply those who demonstrate a “willingness to endorse favorable statements about the self” as a result of “an ambitious, aggressive, self-aggrandizing style of presenting themselves.(2)

As if this fact were not disturbing enough, something on the order of 200 instruments for measuring self-esteem are now in use. Many of them haven’t been properly validated (to use a popular self-esteem term in a different way) and are of questionable value. More important, even if every single test was top- notch, there is no reason to think that any two of them are comparable. It’s difficult to generalize about research findings if self-esteem has been measured — and, indeed, conceptualized — differently in the various studies that have been cited.(3)

One result common to almost all measures, though, is that very few people who fill out self-esteem surveys wind up with scores near the bottom of the scale. When a researcher talks about subjects with “low” self-esteem, he or she means this only relative to other subjects; in absolute terms, the responses of these individuals put them somewhere in the middle range of possible scores. In other words, people classified as having low self-esteem are typically not so much down on themselves as simply “neutral in their self-descriptions.”(4) This suggests that it may be necessary to reconsider all those sweeping conclusions about what distinguishes people who love themselves from people who hate themselves. Moreover, the very fact of defining low self-esteem in relative terms means that no intervention can ever make any headway; half the population will, of course, always fall below the median on any scale.

But let us assume for the sake of the argument that we find none of these facts — or any other methodological criticisms that have been offered of the field(5) — particularly troubling. Let us assume that all the self-esteem studies to date, all 10,000 of them, can be taken at face value. Even so, the findings that emerge from this literature are not especially encouraging for those who would like to believe that feeling good about oneself brings about a variety of benefits. (I am ignoring here the vast number of studies that have treated self-esteem as a dependent rather than an independent variable — that is, those that have tried to figure out what causes self-esteem to go up or down rather than investigating whether such fluctuation affects other things….)


Another article which is critical of the self-esteem movement is Can Your Teen Have Too Much Self-Esteem? from Aspen Education Group:

Back in the 1970s, many school districts became enamored with the idea that if you raised children’s self-esteem they would do better in school. Although this so-called “self-esteem movement” proved to be ill conceived, many people still believe the canard that high self-esteem is the root of all achievement. Since that time many researchers have studied the topic of self-esteem, and the findings have been pretty consistent: high self-esteem for the sake of personal validation, meaning self-esteem that is not based on actual personal achievement or positive behavior, is not necessarily a healthy thing.

Dr. Jean Twenge recently published the book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable than Ever Before,” in which she documents the failures of the self-esteem movement in schools. Her research makes clear that phony self-esteem can be a very self-destructive thing. Her conclusion is that self-control is a much more accurate predictor of success than self-esteem.

A recent article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter (June 2007) also suggests that encouraging self-esteem as a primary goal is not healthy and could in fact remove any incentives to improve behavior. If you are supposed to feel good about yourself just because you exist, why study hard, work hard, treat others well, or take any actions to earn these feelings? While it is certainly beneficial to encourage young people to feel good about real accomplishments, encouraging self-esteem for its own sake is not healthy. http://www.aspeneducation.com/Article-too-much-self-esteem.html#.TxOAfgDkqkE.email

It is crucial for low-income children and children of color to be firmly grounded in acquiring reading, math, and writing skills. They will feel better about themselves when they know that they can compete and yes, moi did use the word compete with other children.

Good schools are relentless about the basics.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©