Self-control, not self-esteem, leads to academic success, researchers have concluded. Indeed, teaching self-esteemactually reduces student achievement and undermines the work ethic of some students. “In one study, university students who’d earned C, D and F grades ‘received encouragement aimed at boosting their self-worth.’ They did worse than students with similar grades whose self-esteem had been left alone. ‘An intervention that encourages [students] to feel good about themselves, regardless of work, may remove the reason to work hard,’” notes “Roy Baumeister, a Florida State professor who’s studied the topic for years. ‘Self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success,’ he says.”
Last January, the Washington Post ran a news story about the failure of self-esteem to improve educational achievement: due to the self-esteem fad, American students’ self-esteem outstripped their achievement, which fell compared to their international peers. U.S. eighth-graders did worse in math than their peers in countries like Singapore and South Korea, but felt better about themselves and their ability in math. “‘We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,’ Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. ‘That has backfired.’” Yet, “for decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement.” That false “theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies” and time-consuming feel-good exercises in our schools.
So now, teachers in some school systems are “tempering praise to push students” to achieve more rather than just feel good about themselves. But in other school systems, there are “self-esteem” teachers, who continue to teach students to feel important despite their own mediocrity, and to feel “bullied” when their exaggerated ego is affronted by behaviors like “eye-rolling” or critical comments from peers, which some self-esteem teachers claim is a form of “bullying,” even though it is often constitutionally protected speech.
Years ago, while visiting my mother in western Washington State, I heard a bossy “self-esteem” teacher talking to then-Governor Lowry on a talk radio show, where he was a guest and she was a caller. “Governor Lowry, I teach self-esteem,” she growled, in a deep, harsh voice that made her sound like a 300-pound bully. My cousin Gigi, who teaches special education in the state, says that self-esteem teachers are some of the angriest people around. Yet millions of tax dollars have been spent on such “self-esteem” teachers.