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Senior Correspondent

The media recently reported “new” research findings to the effect that rewards often backfire and self-esteem is not the wonderful, uplifting personal attribute once thought. As a result, schools are rethinking their teaching and classroom management philosophies.

Wrong again! Research showing that rewards often backfire and revealing the dark side of self-esteem has been available for quite some time. Furthermore, the Internet permits anyone who is interested to access this information. This supposedly “new” stuff simply illustrates the disconnect between research and practice in American education. More directly put, educational methodology is more driven by fad than fact. In effect, the classroom is in many ways a laboratory within which experiments are conducted using children as guinea pigs.

Was objective research done to verify the efficacy of the so-called “Open Classroom” before that particular philosophy captured America’s schools in the early 1970s? No. Somebody sold an idea to a bunch of education bureaucrats and millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money was wasted as a consequence. How about Outcome-Based Education? Again, the research done to validate that particular flop was of the sort my experimental methods professor would have used to illustrate sloppy research methods. And again, millions of dollars, etcetera. That’s been pretty much the story of American education “reform” for forty years.

For almost two decades, research done by people like Roy Baumeister of Florida State University has shown, as conclusively as social science research is capable of showing, that high self-esteem is associated with antisocial behavior. Think, for example, bullying. It appears that the higher one’s self-regard, the lower his regard for others. People with high self-regard believe themselves to be entitled. What they want, they believe they deserve to have. Because they deserve what they want, the ends justify the means. Think, for example, Bernie Madoff.

The functional attribute is one that went “out” with the rest of the bathwater in the 1960s: humility and modesty. People who are humble pay attention to you. They try to figure out, in any situation, what they can do to help you and make you feel comfortable. It’s about you, not the Almighty Them. On the other side of the equation, people who possess high self-esteem want people to pay attention to and do things for them. In fact, they tend to get upset if people don’t pay them attention and cater to them. Furthermore, the folks in question are often malcontents who are never satisfied with any degree of catering.

Concerning rewards, it has been known for quite some time that rewards often depress achievement levels. Likewise, people with high self-esteem tend to perform below their level of ability. Why? Because they believe that anything they do is worthy of merit; therefore, they do the minimum, if that.

A recent conversation with a Navy commander illustrates the point. He told me that he deals “all the time” with young recruits who believe that they should be rewarded for whatever they do, whenever they do it, even if they do nothing more than what is minimally expected of them. They have acquired this very entitled, uncooperative attitude from their parents and the schools they attended. Their parents can be forgiven. They were simply doing what Parents’ Magazine and other publications and talking heads told them to do. Educators, on the other hand, should have had the wherewithal to ask the fundamental question: Is there compelling evidence that giving rewards for adequate or even improved performance actually improves academic achievement over the long haul?

Concerning classroom behavior, rewards often backfire. Give a child who is aggressive during free play a reward for not being aggressive for ten minutes and he is very likely to turn right around and be aggressive. He realizes, intuitively, that the only reason he is being singled out for a reward is precisely BECAUSE he is aggressive; therefore, to keep the rewards coming he must continue to aggress.

If school reform fads had paid off, then today’s achievement levels would be higher and classroom behavior would be better than they were in the 1960s. The opposite is the case. The taxpayer is slowly catching on, evidenced by a growing revolt against public education’s never-ending cry for more money. Accountability can be a painful thing.

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