Education Bulletin: Self-Esteem Rises to All-Time High; Test Scores Hit New Lows

By Shaw, Peter | The Antioch Review, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Education Bulletin: Self-Esteem Rises to All-Time High; Test Scores Hit New Lows


Shaw, Peter, The Antioch Review


Educators have for some time been united in the belief that to do well in school students above all else require high self-esteem. Yet the merest glance at either the professional literature it is the responsibility of educators to read, or the student testing results on which they comment annually, makes it clear that they are wrong. How well or poorly students think of themselves neither helps nor hinders their work. Raising self-esteem, as all the studies show, simply does not raise academic achievement. Neither, one may add, does raising the self-esteem of educators improve their performance. No professional group thinks better of itself than they, yet they have presided over a stunning, thirty-year-long decline of schooling at every level.

Despite their high self-esteem, moreover, they have proven incapable of learning the simplest lessons. It does not help students simply to encourage them about their work. It does not help to "empower" them by puffing up pride in their ethnic or racial group, everywhere highlighting and exaggerating its accomplishments. And it does not help to give students "positive role models": public figures from the already glorified history of their group, along with same-color or ethnic-group teachers right in the classroom.

All of these and more have been provided in grammar and high schools for some ten years. Yet educators, ever dedicated to reform," continue to advocate manipulating self-esteem as though it represented a brave new initiative. In education the hoariest practices, if originally introduced as reforms, will never lose their aura of embattled innovation. This has been true, for example, of the thoroughly ensconced and perennially unsuccessful "look-say" method for teaching reading, of the equally disastrous "new math," of open classrooms, and of solipsistic concentration on students' own lives and own creative impulses at the expense of objectivity and technique.

Each of these innovations, in common with self-esteem manipulation, has within the past fifty years not only been introduced as the latest, bravely advocated, stubbornly resisted educational reform to date, but also has continued to be regarded in that light despite its evident, measurable failure with generations of students. But "failure" is not quite the term wanted here. The innovations in question have been mighty contributors to the ever worsening decline of American schools. And of them all, the grand effort to produce better scholars by kidding children and youths about their achievements can hardly be matched either for fatuousness of conception, catastrophic outcome in practice, or dogged allegiance on the part of educators.

The educationists are aided by the reluctance of sociologists to investigate a theory so politically correct as self-esteem. "Few sociologists," Paul Hollander has pointed out, "would venture on an empirical study of the taken-for-granted link between group pride and academic achievement." When a reporter for the New York Times asked teachers in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, middle school about self-esteem, some were willing to admit that the wholesale praise they were required to give out had become meaningless. The only measurable effect of their efforts to raise self-esteem was to give practically every child in the school an A average. But the teachers who were willing to admit all this to a reporter "asked not to be identified."

Despite the constraints on openly discussing the failure of self-esteem, a number of sociological studies have been undertaken over the years, as Henry Louis Gates pointed out in the Modern Language Association's publication, Profession, in 1992. A 1979 survey of such studies in the Review of Educational Research found that "neither the internal needs model [i.e., self-esteem] nor the identification with one's ethnic group model has stimulated an educational model with positive results linking self-concept with academic achievement.

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