The Apostles Of Self-Esteem

May 01, 1991 7 min read

The superintendent deems the experiment a success: Student achievement is up, he says, and the school climate has significantly improved.

Reasoner is at the forefront of a burgeoning educational movement to enhance students’ selfesteem. He and other apostles of the movement gathered recently in Santa Clara, Calif., the cradle of its birth, to sing its praises, further define it, and plot a strategy to spread its message.

These advocates have no doubt about what that message should be: The movement to enhance students’ self-esteem is, they agree, the answer to the nation’s educational woes, or at least the foundation on which all other school reforms must be built.

“Self-esteem has come of age,’' Mary Weaver, director of the California education department’s office of school climate, told the 775 participants at the Ninth Annual Conference of Self-Esteem. “We here must renew our commitment and make it a reality.’'

During the past few years, the movement to promote self-esteem in schools and society has been the target of considerable ridicule and scathing attacks. Garry Trudeau even used his comic strip Doonesbury to lampoon the movement’s message. Indeed, many educators say that good teachers have always taken steps to bolster a child’s sense of self and that a formal movement was not needed to espouse the benefits of self-esteem.

Increasingly, though, self-esteem advocates are carrying forward their cause from the accepting climate of California to the nation at large. And while it is still dismissed by some as “New Age fluff’’ and “yuppie evangelism,’' the role of self-esteem in promoting positive change is gaining wider currency among educators.

There is ample evidence of the movement’s gaining popularity:

A growing number of districts, schools, and teachers throughout the country have begun offering both formal classes and informal programs in an effort to bolster their students’ self-esteem.

The booming industry that has developed in the wake of the movement’s birth has spawned hundreds of books, curricula, musical programs, and training packages, many designed for classroom use.

A year after the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility released its report, similar groups have emerged in 50 of California’s 58 counties and in the states of Louisiana, Maryland, and Virginia. The governors of Arkansas, Florida, and Hawaii and legislators in Maine and Minnesota are considering studies or legislation. Also in the past year, more than 30,000 copies of the California task force’s report, Toward a State of Esteem, have been distributed nationwide.

Fifty chapters of the Californiabased National Council for SelfEsteem have cropped up across the country.

“It’s gone bananas,’' says John Vasconcellos, the California assemblyman who wrote the bill that created the groundbreaking task force. “It’s really become a movement.’'

Adherents have championed selfesteem as a “social vaccine’’ against educational failure, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, crime, and welfare dependency, among a host of other social woes. It has been called the “key to rebuilding community’’ and a “vision for developing our human capital to make America competitive again.’' Best of all, say the movement’s boosters, self-esteem programs are cheap.

While interviews with numerous educators reveal a range of opinions about self-esteem and its social applications, critics say there is a glaring lack of evidence to support claims that it’s a cure-all.

Many fear that the benefits to be gained from enhanced self-esteem are being promoted like a dangerous snake oil. “I perceive the whole movement to be diversionary,’' says Harry Specht, dean of the school of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley. “On the one hand, it’s not socially pernicious. On the other hand, it detracts from some socially useful approaches to social problems.’'

While some experts like Specht dismiss self-esteem seminars and curricula altogether, others are more willing to acknowledge its benefits. They note that self-esteem enhancement can provide a short-lived boost of confidence that may propel students to achieve. Also, they say, if properly integrated into teaching, techniques to promote self-esteem can encourage students to try harder.

The problem, they agree, is that there is little evidence either way. Low self-esteem has been found to be a common denominator among dropouts, criminals, and other social failures. But it is just one factor, and its relative significance is not known.

A book published by the University of California that contains research reports commissioned in conjunction with the state task force’s work states, “One of the disappointing aspects of every chapter in this how low the associations between self-esteem and its consequences are in research to date.’'

While acknowledging that the evidence linking low self-esteem to most social problems is thin, supporters of the new movement say their case is bolstered by the success stories of those who have embraced the approach, people like Reasoner of the Moreland school district.

Since Reasoner began implementing his “esteem boosters’’ six years ago, achievement scores have risen by 10 percent, annual vandalism damages have dropped from an average of more than $1,000 per school to $187, and student attendance has climbed to 97.7 percent. In addition, he says, 89 percent of the students now go on to higher education, compared with 65 percent six years ago.

“Undoubtedly, there were many factors,’' says Reasoner, a past president of the National Council for Self- Esteem, “but we found that by focusing on self-esteem, we could make a real difference.’'

Susan Cannone, a classroom teacher and current president of the New York chapter of the selfesteem council, says simple exercises she piloted in New York City classrooms had a visible effect from the day they were implemented. Students were asked to tackle tongue twisters, and success elicited rousing applause from peers. They were encouraged to write positive slogans on their work, such as “My reading is improving every day’’ or “I am an artist.’'

“The children loved it,’' she says. “They come back and say, ‘It’s happening. It’s happening.’ The impact comes from going in there, perceiving the children, and conveying your perception of the total child and the wonder of that child as a special human being. The educator’s job is to weave that wonderment into our interaction throughout the day.’'

Bill Wotring, principal of Stone Elementary School in Belpre, Ohio, says his self-esteem program helped get the school named to the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators’ top-10 list. Stone Elementary is one of 5,000 schools in the United States and Canada subscribing to the Power of Positive Students, or POPS, program.

Founded in 1982, POPS is perhaps the largest self-esteem program in the country. The program is based on three life “skills’'--human relations, communications, and coping--and five “attitudes’'--belief in self, selfconfidence, high expectations, goal setting, and self-esteem.

Subscribing schools receive videos, textbooks, and workbooks that present problem-solving exercises designed to help develop the three skills and five attitudes. Each month is devoted to one concept. Preprinted slogans and posters are provided. The message is incorporated into daily announcements and classroom activities throughout the day.

Although advocates of the burgeoning movement agree that good parenting is a key to self- esteem, they believe schools also play an important role. Many, for example, point to studies that show school to be a major factor in the loss of self-esteem among children and adolescents. A study released in January by the American Association of University Women found that, in elementary school, 60 percent of girls and 67 percent of boys said they were “happy the way I am.’' Eight years later, however, 46 percent of boys and only 29 percent of girls agreed with that statement.

What that shows, experts say, is not entirely clear. But some say the results provide evidence that a demoralizing school environment and insensitive teachers are draining selfesteem out of students.

“Self-esteem is not something we give kids,’' notes Hanoch McCarty, a professor of education at Cleveland State University and a member of the self-esteem council’s board. “It’s what we have to stop taking away.’'

Whether the importance of selfesteem will be embraced as educational orthodoxy is yet to be seen. Specht of UC-Berkeley predicts that the movement will soon go the way of phrenology, hydrotherapy, and spirit channeling.

But believers say they are just cranking up. “I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go,’' Reasoner says. “I really believe this is far more significant.’'

-Jonathan Weisman, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The Apostles Of Self-Esteem