Failing But Feeling Fine

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Most research suggests that children's self-esteem is closely related to how well they do in school. Kids who get good grades tend to feel pretty good about themselves and vice versa.

Although this connection between self-esteem and academic performance weakens in all children as they grow older, a new study has sparked concern that the link weakens most among African American boys. Their school achievement may slide, but their self-esteem remains largely unaffected. What this means, the study concludes, is that black males become far more alienated from academics than other groups of students as they move through high school.

Published in the December Journal of Educational Psychology, the study compares the degree to which white, Hispanic, and black adolescents nationwide base their self-esteem on academic performance. Such "identification" with schooling is seen by psychologists as an important factor in student motivation and likelihood of success.

Using data from an ongoing national study of nearly 25,000 students, researcher Jason Osborne found that both boys and girls from all three groups identify strongly with academics when they are in 8th grade. For most groups of students, this identification declines modestly as they move through high school. But among black males, the drop-off is dramatic.

"In general, African Americans had the highest levels of self-esteem at all ages," says Osborne, a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "But by 12th grade, the African American boys are detaching their self-esteem from academics. They're removing school from their self-esteem equation as time goes on."

To educators and others concerned about the problems of black adolescents, the disturbing findings come as no surprise. But they say the study underscores the need to focus greater national attention on the needs of African American boys as well as on broader efforts to close the achievement gap between black students and their peers.

"This is a national crisis," says Bobby Austin, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Village Foundation, which was created last fall to explore ways to better engage black males in American society. "It's not a glamorous issue. But someone has to undo this conundrum."

Research by Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychology professor, inspired Osborne's study. Steele has studied what he calls "academic disidentification," a process through which certain people stop caring about their performance in school or in a particular field of study that formerly mattered a great deal. The causes of disidentification vary with students' personal characteristics and surroundings.

Just why black males cease to care about school at a greater rate than others is not clear from Osborne's analysis. "There's no explanation of which came first, the disidentification or poor performance," Steele observes. "I suspect it's a mutually influencing thing: I start to do badly, I start to look for other things that are more gratifying, and all of a sudden I don't identify that much with academics."

Although Osborne doesn't pinpoint a cause, Steele and others say his central findings ring true. "If the picture he's trying to paint is that African American boys become less identified with the academic side of school, there would be very few people who would quibble with that," says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of the 1996 book Beyond the Classroom, which documented a drop-off in student motivation nationally.

San Francisco schools chief Waldemar Rojas concurs with many of Osborne's conclusions about the academic problems of young black males. But he voices doubts that the youngsters' overall self-esteem is actually as strong as the data imply. Rather, Rojas suggests, Osborne's findings may instead reflect false bravado.

For his research, Osborne examined data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, a continuing federal project launched in 1988. He tracks how various groups answer questions aimed at gauging their self-esteem and then explores the relationship between the responses and students' grades and test scores in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

Students are asked to say whether and how strongly they agree or disagree with such statements as: "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself"; "I am able to do things as well as most people"; and "I certainly feel useless at times." Overall, black youngsters held the most positive views of themselves, even though their grades and test scores fell increasingly behind those of whites during high school.

One surprise, Osborne says, is that the correlation between self-esteem and academic performance did not sharply drop for black girls. Instead, it shows a decline between 8th and 12th grade roughly equal to that of white and Hispanic boys. Although this drop among black girls "should be of concern," Osborne writes, "it is clear that the most alarming disidentification is occurring within the boys and should be the focus of the most urgent concern."

For white girls, the correlation between self-esteem and grades weakens less than it does for white and Hispanic boys, while the link between self-concept and test scores grew slightly stronger from 8th to 12th grade.

Hispanic girls bucked the trend more dramatically, with both links intensifying somewhat during the high school years—a finding Osborne says surprises and puzzles him.

A linchpin of Steele's work in this area is his theory of "stereotype threat," which he believes explains why certain groups of very capable college students—specifically blacks in elite colleges and white women in advanced science and math fields—often underperform and drop out. According to the theory, when faced with a challenge that tests the limits of their skills, these students fear they will confirm society's dim view of their abilities. This anxiety hinders their performance to the point that they ultimately leave school.

Based on this theory, Osborne had expected to find a weaker link between schoolwork and self-esteem among Hispanics, mainly because of the societal stigma they face.

Steele, meanwhile, worries that his work on college students may have adversely influenced Osborne's research on high school students. The two age groups are driven by different concerns. Osborne, Steele fears, may have given too much weight to ideas about negative stereotypes. "At the high school level," Steele says, "everything is in the stew." He cites "social class, parental influences, peer-group influences, how they are treated in school, whether they have friends who are school-minded, and whether they experience discrimination there."

Still, Steele contends that Osborne's study "captures the impact of race on schooling outcomes" and serves as a useful prod to further research. "It's important for other researchers to figure out how the experiences of these groups differ in schools," he says. "And if his study does that, that would be a great boon."

—Caroline Hendrie

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