"Warm fuzzies" are giving way to more focus on basic skills
Richard Lee Colvin Los Angeles Times

Just when you think the animals are finally in control of the zoo, something happens to cause you to believe we really won't be overrun with psychobabble.

At Loren Miller Elementary School in Los Angeles, a school struggling to raise test scores that are barely in double digits, children last year spent part of each day working on their self-esteem.

In daily "I Love Me" lessons, they completed the phrase "I am ..." with words such as beautiful, lovable, re-spectable, kind or gifted. Then they memorized the sentences to make them sink in.

No more. The daily "I Love Me" lessons will soon be replaced by rapid-fire drills and constant testing of kids' skills.

With the pressure to raise test scores building nationally, schools are rethinking their decades-long love affair with self-esteem.

Self-esteem, which burst into the national consciousness in the late 1980s with help from a California task force, has long endured attacks from cultural conservatives. What's new to-day is that the criticism is being heard from deans at such education bastions as Columbia University's Teacher's College and in prestigious venues such as the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

"The false belief in self-esteem as a force for social good can be not just potentially but actually harmful" wrote Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Robyn M. Dawes in that publication in October.

Having high self-esteem certainly feels good, psychologists say. But, contrary to intuition, it doesn't necessarily pay off in greater academic achievement, less drug abuse, less crime or much of anything else. Or, if it does pay off, 10,000 or more research studies have yet to find proof. With researchers growing increasingly negative about being positive, a switch from tenderness to tough love is in vogue now among social commentators, politicians and educators.

Fretting about students' feelings has become an unhealthy classroom obsession, researchers declare in academic journals and elsewhere. Better, they say, to spend more time on something children can justly be proud of--acing algebra or becoming a super speller.

"There's nothing that boosts self-concept more than being able to do something--it doesn't matter if it's reading or something on the monkey bars your brother can't do," said Robert J. Stevens, a professor of educational psychology at Penn State University.

That is the lesson teachers at Bessemer School in Pueblo, Cob., learned this year. Teachers there were stunned a year ago when only 12 percent of their fourth-graders were reading at grade level.

Out went the three hours they spent weekly on counseling and self-esteem classes. In came more attention to the basics. Up went test scores. Last fall, 64 percent of the students passed. And self-esteem soared.

"Because the scores are better, kids feel better about themselves," said fourth-grade teacher Rhonda Holcomb.

For decades schools have embraced the idea that it worked the other way around. Unless the classroom was cozy and thick with "warm fuzzies" students wouldn't even try. That led to a variety of policies aimed at protecting children's feelings.

It also led to grade inflation, an emphasis on group work rather than individual effort, the elimination of valedictorians and even the dearth of spelling bees, critics say.

"There may have been a time when we should have given more attention to children's self-esteem, but the pendulum has swung way too far in the opposite direction," said Janine Bempechat of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of "Against the Odds," a book about how to raise student achievement among "at-risk" youths.

Now, more psychologists, such as Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, are declaring the self-esteem movement a fraud.

"It's time for people who have been claiming that improved self-esteem will improve performance to put up or shut up," said Baumeister, who has been studying self-esteem for two decades. Last year, Baumeister, with co-author Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, published the results of a new study that questions one of the most basic arguments of self-esteem advocates --that having good self-esteem makes a person kinder to others.

The study gave its test subjects the opportunity to blast faceless foes they felt had wronged them with a dose of high-decibel noise. The study concluded that there was no relationship whatsoever between individuals' views of themselves and their treatment of others.

All of this has forced the proponents of self-esteem into an uncomfortable and unfamiliar posture--defensiveness.

"There are a lot of programs out there that are crap and that are calling themselves 'self-esteem,' "said J. D. Hawkins, a school counselor in Normal, IL ,who is the incoming president of the National Association of Self-Esteem.

Bad programs focus on telling kids they should feel good although they "cannot read, write or spell or act in socially and morally responsible ways," according to an article on the association's Web site.

Hawkins argues that Baumeister and other critics confuse self-esteem with egotism, which is not the same thing. Rather, he said, healthy self-esteem "comes from being personally and socially responsible."

Concern about how students feel is in no danger of disappearing from campuses because it serves too many purposes, said John P. Hewitt, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In his book, "The Myth of Self-Esteem," he wrote that it fits in with the culture's growing emphasis on feelings and on everyone's right to happiness. Everything from country and western songs to advice columns in farming magazines tout its value. And besides, singing songs in praise of oneself and playing games can be entertaining too. But the use of praise in classrooms also is tricky and very often over-used, researchers said.

Sandra Graham, an education pro-fessor at the University of California, Los Angeles, ,said false praise can actually undermine students' confidence. Rather than making them feel good, they get the message that their teacher doesn't expect very much. In many classrooms, Graham said, "it's just scripted that if the low achiever does anything, you praise them."

With the spread of those and other concerns about the value of programs pushing self-esteem, some experts now say it's time for a return to traditional notions of child-rearing.

Bempechat, the Harvard author, urges parents to "let children" suffer through tough assignments to teach them the value of good old-fashioned hard work.

More and more schools are developing programs aimed at "character" rather than self-esteem. The new programs often take a tougher line.

"We believe that guilt and shame are good things," said Michael Josephson, who heads the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, which sponsors a widely used Character Counts program.