Does higher self-esteem lead to higher academic achievement?

Natalie Monroe, a Philadelphia high-school teacher, was recently disciplined when comments posted on her blog about her students came to light. Without using names, Monroe complained about her students’ laziness and lack of motivation. From the vitriol in her comments to the points she made, her postings have struck a chord and raised a question that we will pose as: “Does higher self-esteem lead to higher academic achievement?”

Confidence vs. self-centeredness

You might be surprised to learn that many teachers have noticed a trend in student behavior that combines overconfidence with underachievement. For instance, from 1982 through 2007, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University conducted a study of over 16,000 college students. Participants in the study completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. In the first year of the study, 1982, the number of students with above-average scores in narcissism was less than half. By 2006, that number had grown to two-thirds, causing Twenge and her fellow researchers to conclude that the self-esteem movement that began in the 1980s caused this increase in narcissism.

The great equalizer

Historically, educators assumed that self-esteem would be an equalizer that would ensure academic achievement for all students regardless of race, background or economic level. Professionals in the education field believed that if children had self-esteem, there would be less crime, drug abuse and teen pregnancy. It was a theory that got a lot of support initially; however, by the late 1980s, researchers were reporting mixed results in their efforts to prove that self-esteem was the solution to academic achievement.

The results are in

More arguments against this self-esteem theory came to light in February 2011, when the Brown Center Report on American Education posted the 2010 results from its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). American students showed improvements from previous years, yet they still scored average in reading and scientific literacy and below average in mathematical literacy.

Who’s to blame?

Monroe’s blog posts relate her frustrations in trying to maintain academic standards in the face of student and parental backlash. In her opinion, teachers must teach and motivate students without getting the support they need from parents, and one of her main points is that teachers alone can’t be responsible for student learning. Monroe doesn’t just put the blame on students and their parents, though. During an evaluation, Monroe’s administrators received poor marks from her for their tendency to treat students and their parents like customers who must be pleased at all costs.

As summarized in A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education, Part 1, by Thomas H. Benton; the work of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa bolster Monroe’s arguments in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Arum and Roksa found that almost half of undergraduates showed no improvement in thinking and reasoning skills in their first two years of college and that 36 percent of students showed no progress in their four years of college.

Arum and Roksa cite several factors affecting the general lack of improvement in college students’ skills. These include the fact that universities need to maintain high student enrollment because the larger your student body, the more money your college gets in tuition. If students gravitate toward schools and classes with lenient grading policies then those schools and instructors who stick to higher standards lose out. The need for tuition dollars also spurs the recruiting of students who are less prepared to enter college.

Therefore, rather than limiting enrollment to those with the top SAT scores, more schools register students who may need remediation and tutoring, leaving it up to the teachers to fill in the gaps. Another factor that impacts classroom standards is the use of your evaluations of teachers. A teacher’s commitment to rigor is easily compromised when employment and tenure are on the line. This compromise is most keenly felt by the adjunct or part-time instructors who have no job security at all.

When it comes to selling retail it makes sense to operate from the saying that the customer is always right. But, when the stakes are your future, schools treating you like customers may be a practice fraught with peril.

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