Though Still a Target of Attacks, Self-Esteem Movement Advances

By Jonathan Weisman — March 06, 1991 14 min read
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The apostles of a new educational movement gathered here last month in the cradle of its birth to grapple with its definition, to sing its praises, and to plot a strategy to spread its message.

At no time did these advocates have any doubt about what their message should be: The movement to enhance students’ self-esteem is, they said, 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 office of school climate of the California Department of Education, 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 enhanced self-esteem.

Increasingly, though, self-esteem advocates are confidently carrying forward their “social vaccine” 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, especially among educators.

Evidence of the movement’s gaining popularity can be found in many quarters:

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 for use in the classroom.

A year after the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility released its report, similar task forces have emerged in 50 of California’s 58 counties and in the states of Louisiana, Maryland, and Virginia. The governors of Arkansas, Hawaii, and Florida and state legislators in Minnesota and Maine are considering state 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.

Fifty chapters of the California-based National Council for Self-Esteem have cropped up across the country.

“It’s gone bananas,” said John Vasconcellos, the assemblyman from California who wrote the legislation that created the ground-breaking task force. “It’s really become a movement in more of a way than I ever expected.”

Adherents have championed self-esteem as a “social vaccine” against educational failure, drug abuse, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, crime, child abuse, and welfare dependency, among a host of other social vices.

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, self-esteem programs are cheap, say the movement’s boosters, who argue that enhanced self-esteem can lead to increased productivity, a widened tax base, and a reduction in the need for costly social programs.

“This is the key to community development, the key to self-worth, and the key to balancing the budget,” Mr. Vasconcellos said. “And it works.”

While interviews with numerous academics revealed 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 is a cure-all.

Many said they feared that the benefits to be gained from enhanced self-esteem were being promoted like a dangerous snake oil.

“I perceive the whole movement to be diversionary,” said 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.”

Indeed, critics in California say the movement has already taken its toll in that state.

They note that, at the same time the state is reeling from deep budget cuts in education and social spending, schools are being encouraged to use this year’s $6.3-million state “school-restructuring fund” for self-esteem programs.

“The state government cuts money for kids on [welfare],” Mr. Specht said. “On the other hand, they put money into this self-esteem nonsense. That’s infuriating. If you want to create low self-esteem in a child, let him go hungry.”

While some experts like Mr. Specht dismiss self-esteem seminars and curricula altogether, others are more willing to acknowledge its benefits.

They note that self-esteem enhancement can provide an initial, if 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 there is little evidence either way.

Low self-esteem has been found to be a common denominator among dropouts, criminals, drug abusers, and other social failures, observers say. But, they add, it is just one factor, and its relative significance is not known.

One of the movement’s most persistent critics, Joanne Jacobs, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, suggested that adherents could have latched onto any number of traits found in high achievers, such as the ability to write well, but absent in those who fail.

Said another critic who served on the California task force, David Shannahoff-Khalsa: “We may as well have been looking at whether people are happy or not. Sure, if people are happy, they may do better in life, but can you build a curriculum around that?”

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

The book, entitled The Social Importance of Self Esteem, goes on to dispute asserted links between low self-esteem and child abuse, teenage pregnancy, crime, welfare dependency, and alcohol and drug abuse.

In education, one of the reports in the book found, self-esteem accounts for only 3 percent or 4 percent of the variation among students’ academic performance.

Mr. Shannahoff-Khalsa, a neuroscience researcher at the Khalsa Foundation in Del Mar, Calif., who refused to sign the task force’s final report, points to studies of international math performance that seem to fly in the face of claims touting the benefits of enhanced self-esteem.

In results from achievement tests, South Korean students place near the top, he noted, while American students place near the bottom. But after one such test, he said, American students boasted that they would do the best, and Koreans thought they would do the worst.

Another study, released last fall by Junior Achievement, indicated that American students had more confidence in their education than their Japanese counterparts.

“There’s actually a lot of self-delusion out there,” Mr. Shannahoff-Khalsa said.

He charged that the task force ignored its own and other studies, and instead published “a lot of fluffy puff, a smoke screen surrounded by a lot of quotations from famous people trying to build a case for self-esteem.”

“There isn’t a lot of research,” Mr. Vasconcellos admitted. Self-esteem “is hard to define, hard to isolate, and even harder to research.”

But Neil J. Smelser, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, contended that, while the evidence linking low self-esteem to most social problems is thin, it is strong enough in education to warrant a closer look.

“While you don’t have anything like scientific proof,” said Mr. Smelser, who edited the research book, “there’s no question there is some legitimacy.”

In fact, advocates are beginning to develop more sophisticated measures to support their claims, readily admitting that efforts to gain wider acceptance of their ideas depend on it.

“If we really think this is a social vaccine, we really need to look at some measures,” said Robert Reasoner, the superintendent of the eight-school Moreland district in San Jose, Calif., and a past president of the National Council for Self-Esteem.

While acknowledging that most of the supporting evidence is anecdotal, supporters say their case is bolstered by the success stories of those who have embraced the approach.

Six years ago, Mr. Reasoner said, he began implementing “esteem boosters” into his district. Teachers and administrators were encouraged to discover their own self-worth, he said, in an effort to create a climate for students to achieve.

Efforts to enhance self-esteem were then launched in a variety of areas, including involving students in setting discipline policy, using more cooperative-learning techniques, having students outline goals and achievements, setting firm parameters in which students can achieve and recognize their own achievement, and adjusting grading patterns to reward progress more than final results.

Since then, he said, 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 said, 89 percent of the students now go on to higher education, compared with 65 percent six years ago.

“Undoubtedly, there were many factors,” Mr. Reasoner said, “but we found that by focusing on self-esteem, we could make a real difference.”

Susan Cannone, president of the New York chapter of the self-esteem council, said simple exercises she piloted in New York schools during the 1988-89 school year had a visible effect from the first day they were implemented.

Students were asked to tackle tongue twisters, and success elicited rousing applause from their peers. They were encouraged to write positive slogans on their schoolwork, such as “My reading is improving every day” or “I am an artist.”

“The children loved it,” she said. “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 former classroom teacher continued. “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, said his self-esteem program helped get his 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. Based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and 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, self-confidence, 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. Pre-printed slogans and posters are provided. The message is incorporated into daily announcements and classroom activities throughout the day.

Parents and teachers are also invited to participate in self-esteem seminars and pep rallies to foster a more nurturing environment.

“Eighty-eight to 92 percent of success is due to attitude,” said Mike Mitchell, the executive director of pops. “This is a systematic approach to developing and sustaining attitude.”

The whole program costs $2,000, he said, but few schools spend that much. The kits are sold in pieces, with most schools buying about $450 worth of products a year.

Observers said pops is one example of how the booming self-esteem industry is becoming more sophisticated. Instead of targeting students, it is increasingly trying to reach the wider environment around the student.

It also stresses activities designed to foster achievement, not just a showering of compliments, a method that only creates what Mr. Reasoner calls “praise junkies.”

Observers say the self-esteem movement has spawned a cottage industry that is flooding the market with materials, many of them targeted at educators for use in their classrooms.

The Self-Esteem Store in Mount Shasta, Calif., for example, sells 26 activity books and curriculum guides for the classroom, plus 44 books and programs for adults, 66 for children, 13 cassette sets, 8 videotape series, and 2 song collections.

The problem with many of the materials on the market, those both inside and outside the movement concede, is that they are worthless.

“There is an enormous amount of junk in the self-esteem world,” admitted Hanoch McCarty, a professor of education at Cleveland State University and a member of the self-esteem council’s executive board.

According to Martin Ford, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, most programs provide one-time or once-a-year seminars that make participants feel good for a few hours by pumping up their sense of self-worth.

The problem, he added, is that, beel34lcause self-worth comes from real achievement, not vice versa, the effects quickly dissipate.

“All you have done,” he said, “is create a transient, pleasant episode that may not add up to a whole lot in time.”

Even the more sophisticated approaches that involve goal setting as well as efforts to increase achievement and improve a student’s environment are greeted skeptically by many.

Roger Wilkins, a professor of American history and culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., agrees that low self-esteem is an issue in the United States, especially for economically deprived African-Americans.

But, he said, a child’s “core of self-regard” must be built in early childhood by his parents and reinforced through economic opportunity. A school-based repair job, no matter how thorough, will not work, he added.

“For people in a hole in this society, you can’t say we’re going to have a self-esteem program and that’s all,” Mr. Wilkens said. “That won’t cut it.”

Self-esteem advocates agree that parenting is a key, but they 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 Uni4versity 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, the study found.

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 the self-esteem out of students.

“Self-esteem is not something we give kids,” Mr. McCarty of Cleveland State said. “It’s what we have to stop taking away.”

Still, Mr. Smelser and others said, teachers are naturally drawn to the notion of self-esteem because they see it as an area of students’ lives they can affect.

“It’s quite clear that teachers are in the trenches,” Mr. Smelser said. “They see so much evidence of struggling, of kids fighting with a sense of failure or inadequacy, they are drawn to the salience and importance of the issue.”

“It is in the interest of [teachers] to identify the problems of the world in psychological terms,” he said, adding that they typically feel powerless in the face of problems related to a student’s health or economic well-being. “They constitute a natural interest group.”

Other observers noted that the proliferation of off-the-shelf self-es8teem curricula easily meshes with some teachers’ reliance on prescribed curricula.

R. Hayman Kite, a former professor of education at Florida Atlantic University who has completed a $1-million study on the relationship between self-esteem and students’ dropping out, concluded that teachers are definitely a part of the problem.

“If teachers would sweat it out and teach [students] how to develop relationships, the dropout problem would go away,” he said. “Instead, most classroom teachers fuss about having the time to do things like this.”

Added Rodney Skager, a professor of education psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, “It all has to do with good teaching anyway.”

Whether the importance of self-esteem will be embraced as educational orthodoxy is yet to be seen.

Ms. Cannone of the New York chapter of the self-esteem council characterized New York City’s first self-esteem conference last October as a bit of a bust. After sending out 15,000 fliers, the conference attracted a disappointing 150 participants, she said.

“New York is a tough place to crack open,” she said. “In New York, the feeling is that this is just another fad, another passing fancy that has no substance.”

Even the national conference here attracted far fewer than than the 1,500 expected--mainly, its organizers said, because tight budgets prevented districts from sending their teachers.

Still, they noted, the first conference nine years ago attracted 23 participants. Of 775 who did attend this year, about two-thirds were from California.

Mr. Specht of the University of California at Berkeley predicted that self-esteem would soon go the way of phrenology, hydrotherapy, spirit channeling, and electric shock.

But believers see the movement as one worth pursuing.

“I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go,” said Mr. Reasoner, who is retiring this year after more than 30 years in education. “I really believe this is far more significant.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Though Still a Target of Attacks, Self-Esteem Movement Advances


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