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Teaching Self-Esteem Undermines Students' Academic Achievement

Self-control, not self-esteem, leads to success, researchers have found. Indeed, teaching self-esteem actually harms students' achievement and work ethic. "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."

A year ago, The Washington Post reported on 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 belatedly “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.

While visiting my mother in 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.

Due to inflated self-esteem, "More students say they’re gifted in writing ability" than in the past, “yet test scores show writing ability has gone down since the 1960s," says psychologist Jean Twenge. "And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 – a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students’ self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period."

Achievement is sometimes inversely related to self-esteem. "American students, for example, took first place in self-judged mathematical ability in a comparative study of eight countries, but last place in actual mathematical competency. Korean students, in contrast, ranked themselves last in self-judged mathematical skills and took first place in actual mathematical performance."

Government officials who associate self-esteem with better performance have gotten causation backwards. It is better performance that eventually leads to higher self-esteem, not higher self-esteem that causes better performance. As law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds has noted, government officials' misunderstanding of causation may also help explain government policies that contributed to the housing bubble, and government officials' misguided desire to send everyone (no matter how bored or disinterested in academics) to college (a policy that leads to many students dropping out of college after incurring large amounts of debt, or costing taxpayers a bundle for subsidized college tuition).