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Self-Esteem and Failure in School: Analysis and Policy Implications
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Self-Esteem and Failure in School:
Analysis and Policy Implications

Martin V. Covington


The failure to learn can be catastrophic for an individual and eventually staggering in its costs to society. A few statistics may present the broad dimensions of the problem. For example, an estimated 25 percent of the students who enter first grade in the United States each year drop out before high school graduation, and in some ghetto schools 30 percent of the students never complete eighth grade. In California, three out of ten students entering the ninth grade do not graduate from high school. Moreover, among those students who do graduate, average reading proficiency is below the ninth-grade level.

These statistics are shocking enough in themselves. But what is even more sobering is the larger implication of lives blighted, talent unused, and minds wasted. These losses are most clearly manifest in human terms as a paralysis of the will both to learn and to continue to learn as future circumstances change. In effect, a substantial number of our students face an unknown world utterly unprepared. Ultimately it is this failure of will that should concern us most—not solely the failure to read, to write, or to calculate, but the inability to adapt and cope, especially in a society where change is the only constant. For instance, Americans who enter the permanent work force in the year 2010 (those children beginning kindergarten in the next several years) will change careers—not just jobs, but careers—an average of five times before they retire. Without the capacity to learn from such change, and from occa-


sional upheaval, individuals will become crippled, confused, and then eventually overwhelmed by a vastly changed future society in which they will no longer know how to participate. To what extent is the will to learn and the quality of one's academic preparation controlled and influenced by an individual's perceptions of self?

The main burden of this chapter is to summarize the case for a causal link between self-esteem and the widespread failure of students to learn. Assuming that such a case can be made, a second purpose is to identify the conditions of classroom learning and those teacher/student relationships that are thought to promote self-esteem and those believed to inhibit it. The basic reasoning behind this two-step analysis assumes that if low self-esteem interferes with learning—and positive self-esteem promotes learning—then educational failure should be lessened to the extent that we promote those conditions known to enhance self-esteem.

A third and final aim is to consider various recommendations for change in current educational policy and practice. We will place several restrictions on the kind and scope of proposals to be offered here. First, we will limit ourselves to recommendations that follow uniquely from a perspective that focuses on self-esteem. There are various economic and political interpretations of school failure that not only are plausible but also likely contain a portion of the truth (e.g., Bowles and Gintis 1976; Jencks et al. 1972). Our analysis here, however, is limited by the mandate of the task force to a consideration of self-esteem. In effect, we will ask if there is any unique contribution that a perspective focused on selfesteem can make to our understanding of the complex phenomena of learning and failure in schools. Second, we will restrict ourselves to recommendations that are eminently practical and possible to implement within a relatively short time, say, within three to five years. Moreover, there must be a reasonable prospect that such improvements in the educational climate can influence the current generation of students, that their effects will not be delayed until some distant, future time.

But does the "self-esteem perspective" admit to any such possibilities, even in theory? And what is the hope for any practical success, especially given that student indifference, truancy, and poor achievement often go hand in hand with classroom violence, drug dealing in the schoolyard, and various forms of child abuse and exploitation? It seems obvious that academic failure is as much, if not more, the result of the inevitable pressures and risks of growing up as it is the fault of any improper educational policy. Perhaps, after all, schools can do little to reverse the statistics of failure cited earlier. We must also be prepared to


consider that low self-esteem is the result of the accumulation of various social ills and, as a consequence, may itself play little if any role in academic failure. But to abandon the search for esteem-related solutions because divisive factors are operating beyond the control of schools is to admit defeat before exploring all our options. Basically, we will argue that even if schools were drug-free, uncompromised by hatred and fear, and not a dumping ground for the rebellious or the unwanted, certain aspects of schooling would still be a threat to self-esteem and to the will to learn. These dangers—no matter how modest they may be, given the larger circle of threat—are what will drive our recommendations for educational change.

The assumption that self-esteem influences behavior has long been a guiding theme in the social sciences, as has the proposition that increasing a person's feelings of self-worth will promote more constructive, socially valued behaviors. The significance of self as a scientific construct is apparent not only in sociological and educational circles but also in the field of psychotherapy, where a changed self-image and increased self-understanding are often emphasized as major criteria for judging the effectiveness of therapy. Moreover, the presumed importance of perceptions of self and of positive self-change is widely accepted by the lay public, in many quarters as a fundamental article of faith. Whether or not this faith is justified on scientific grounds is a major focus of this chapter.

Before we turn to our review and analysis, we would do well to consider several issues briefly.

Evidence for Causation

The first issue concerns the question of what counts as scientific evidence in favor of the proposition that self-esteem influences, or causes, school achievement. Most empirical studies bearing on this proposition are correlational in nature. As a statistical index, correlation coefficients reflect the strength of an association between two variables, say, between a measure of self-esteem and school test scores. Most correlational studies report a positive association between achievement and indices of self-esteem: as the level of self-esteem increases, so do achievement scores; and as self-esteem decreases, so does achievement.

This simple relationship in itself does not prove causality, however. Certainly, such data establish the plausibility of the argument that selfesteem influences achievement. But other interpretations of this associa-


tion are equally plausible, including the reverse argument that it is high achievement that causes self-confidence and poor performance that spawns self-deprecation. And, of course, both positions could be correct: self-esteem may be both a cause and a result of achievement. Simple correlational analyses by themselves are not especially helpful in disentangling these complex relationships.

The association between self-esteem and school performance may also be spurious, that is, the correspondence may be caused by some third factor—in this instance, perhaps intellectual capacity. Bright students typically hold themselves in higher regard and perform better than do students who are less bright. Thus, self-esteem might be simply a byproduct of ability status and may exert little influence on school performance. To complete the example, it may be differences in ability, not in self-esteem, that cause variations in achievement. Again, simple correlational data do little to further our understanding of the intricate dynamics implied by this example. And, most important, they are not as helpful as other data or procedures in determining if there is any truth in our hypothesis.

Only a true experimental design can provide evidence to prove causality. Evidence of causality involves demonstrating that changes in a dependent variable—say, levels of reading achievement—respond in lawful ways to changes in an independent factor. For us, the independent factor of greatest interest is some index of self-esteem. The tricky part of such experiments is to manipulate artificially the degree of selfesteem (or confidence) experienced by subjects, and to do so in ways that are convincing.

Such manipulations are relatively infrequent in the research literature, but they can be accomplished successfully, as illustrated by the research of Weiner and Sierad (1975). These investigators, working with college subjects classified by high and low levels of self-confidence, administered a drug (actually a placebo) to the subjects immediately before assigning them a learning task. The drug was alleged to interfere with hand-eye coordination. Armed with some explanation for a potentially poor performance other than their own inability, the subjects with low self-confidence were expected to perform better than usual. In contrast, the more self-confident subjects were expected to perform worse than usual, owing to the presumed interference of the drug. These predictions were borne out. This experiment neatly demonstrates the causal influence on performance of cognitions (or thoughts) associated with self-esteem. For all their definitiveness and precision, however, true


experiments typically involve a considerable trade-off, namely, that proof is provided only in the context of highly artificial circumstances, in laboratory settings far removed from the realities of life. Nonetheless, such experiments are important because they help us isolate the basic underlying mechanisms of behavior that might otherwise go undetected if we limited ourselves to simple correlational procedures.

A third technique, multiple-correlation (or prediction) analysis, retains much of the ecological validity lost in the true experimental design. It is also a decided improvement over the simple, two-variable correlational study. Multiple-prediction analysis employs many predictors of school performance, which often include but are not limited to selfesteem variables. Predictor variables might include indices of the quality of study habits or the degree to which anxiety interferes with test taking, as well as measures of the reasons students themselves give for their successes and failures. This analysis allows us to investigate the relative importance of self-esteem variables in school performance, compared to the rival influence of other factors. Moreover, under a multiple-prediction design, data are often gathered for the same students in real-life settings at different times, say, over the course of several classroom tests, allowing a longitudinal perspective. By tracking individuals over time, we can, for example, determine if the factors associated with an initially satisfactory performance are the same as, or different from, those factors associated with later performances.

As for establishing causation, multiple predictors are usually selected in advance of the actual research, on the basis of some theoretical model. These models prescribe the presumed causal pathways that link the various predictors, one with another, and their individual relationship to academic performance. Because it seems natural to speak of causal relationships as pathways of influence, we will use the generic term path analysis to describe these multiple-prediction techniques (Anderson and Evans 1974; Pedhazur 1982).

For all the sophistication of path analysis, proof is still a relative matter. Perhaps it is fairest to say, and for us to remember, that path analysis is not a method for demonstrating causality. Rather, it is a method for comparing observed relationships among variables with those relationships expected if we assume causality. From the perspective of the lay public, such distinctions may be considered unnecessary, if not bordering on sophistry. Nonetheless, such reasoning provides a conservative test for the assumption of causality. Whenever stakes are


high, especially regarding matters of social policy, it is always best to adopt a stringent criterion for what counts as evidence of causation.

Gaps in Knowledge

Evidence regarding causality in the social sciences is typically incomplete. After all the data have been winnowed, sifted, and analyzed, there will remain inconsistent findings, counterintuitive outcomes, and down-right gaps in our knowledge. It is in this sense that the case for self-esteem as a prerequisite for effective learning is incomplete. But being incomplete is not the same as being implausible. In fact, the case for self-esteem is not only plausible but, some would argue, compelling. Such an opinion is reasonable, even in the face of imperfect evidence. First, the case is strengthened immeasurably by the use of a variety of research methodologies. Whenever different research methods—correlational, observational, clinical, and experimental—lead to similar findings, we can be more secure about the appropriateness of any causal arguments. Second, as already noted, whenever empirical findings conform to theoretical predictions, the validity of one's causal argument is further strengthened. This is especially true when the predictions are basically counterintuitive, that is, when the theory accounts for puzzling phenomena that cannot be as easily explained by alternative models, or when the theory leads us to explore directions that we might otherwise overlook. In both regards, we will find that several psychological theories inspired by notions of self-esteem have considerable heuristic value: they explain much that is otherwise mysterious, and they lead us to ask new, potentially provocative questions.

Various Models of the Self

The case for the centrality of self-esteem will also depend in an important way on how the notion of self is conceptualized. There are, of course, many definitions and approaches to the psychology of self. Some researchers focus on self as a convenient way to catalogue both positive and negative characteristics of the individual (Backman and Secord 1968). Other investigators stress self as an evaluative process (Epstein 1973). Still others emphasize the affective, or emotional, component of self (Rosenberg and Simmons 1973). Additionally, there is a tradition rich in research and clinical application that emphasizes a dis-


tinction between actual-self and ideal-self (Davids and Hainsworth 1967); for instance, numerous studies have revealed discrepancies between actual- and ideal-selves among underachievers, with the actualself falling far short of the ideal (Birney, Burdick, and Teevan 1969). It is this discrepancy that often leads underachievers to punish themselves for failing to attain the perfection they can never reach.

There is no shortage of conceptual models when it comes to describing the relationship between different versions of self and academic performance. Typically, these different models are compatible. Occasionally, however, they represent rival conceptions that are difficult to reconcile. When this happens, they tend to complicate rather than clarify and may cause the public to become impatient and frustrated with what it perceives as "technicalities." Largely for this reason, the field of research on self-concept is seen by some to be in disarray, without a general, unifying theoretical perspective (see Gergen 1971; Wylie 1968, 1974, 1979).

Not all approaches to the concept of self are equally helpful in understanding the processes involved in academic failure and in self-change as a means to improve school achievement (Scheirer and Kraut 1979). Although it is important to recognize the many different and valid approaches to the study of self, it is also important that we do not permit such eclecticism to lead us into chaos. One of our main tasks will be to establish a serviceable, unifying theoretical framework and, in the process, to develop a concept of self that is compatible with the rigors and demands of school life. Fortunately, much of this work has been done for us within the past decade or two. To anticipate briefly, we will view the self, within the context of school, as a monitoring system in which the individual allocates personal resources to achievement tasks, where resources refer to ability, time, effort, and energy level.

A Review

The literature on self-esteem and self-concept is enormous. Few topics in the social sciences and education have sustained interest for so long among both popular and scholarly audiences, or promoted such vast amounts of research and almost unending speculation. However, amid this flood of findings and material, at least one important regularity emerges, one we have already mentioned. A large number of studies over the past seventy-five years have demonstrated a positive association between self-esteem variables and academic achievement. (For


comprehensive reviews, see Purkey 1970; Walberg and Uguroglu 1980; Wylie 1979.) As a group, these studies have sampled students of widely different ages and learning characteristics—from the gifted to the retarded—and have also employed many different measures of self-esteem, as well as a variety of achievement indices, including grade point average, standard achievement test scores, and even performance on teacher-made tests. Thus the generality of this finding is not in dispute. But most of these studies are correlational, and as such are of little more than circumstantial value in making a case for causation or for the direction of any causal relationship.

Apart from their lack of conclusiveness about causation, the most disquieting feature of these studies is the generally low magnitude of association found between self-esteem and achievement. For instance, Hansford and Hattie (1982) reported in their review of twenty studies, representing some forty-eight thousand subjects, that the average correlation between measures of achievement and indices of self-description was. 16. If we assume a causal interpretation of this statistic, only 4 percent of the variation in school achievement is accounted for by variation in self-concept. Likewise, a review by West, Fish, and Stevens (1980) of some three hundred studies revealed correlations ranging between. 11 and. 50, with the average being. 18. Finally, Sandige (1976) added a measure of self-esteem to a multiple-prediction of school achievement that already included factors such as social class and intelligence. The self-esteem measure accounted for only an additional 3 percent of the explained variation in academic performance. This means that most of the variation in achievement we observe in classrooms—97 percent of it, according to Sandige's study—can be explained by influences other than those traditionally associated with the notion of self-concept.

These findings present us with a dilemma. If feelings of self-esteem are so important to achievement, then why is the demonstrated relationship between self-esteem and academic performance so uniformly low? On the face of this evidence alone, would we be better advised to concentrate our limited educational resources on potentially more effective and immediate ways to offset educational failure, such as teaching improved study habits or increasing the amount of time students spend on a task?

The situation is scarcely improved when we consider the research that has attempted to demonstrate experimentally that changes in self-concept lead to improved performance. Here, as we have seen, investigators manipulate levels of self-esteem, on the assumption that


these changes will induce students to perform differently (Aronson and Mettee 1968; Silverman 1964; Stotland and Zander 1958; Webster and Sobieszek 1974). Unfortunately, the results of these studies tend to be somewhat contradictory and the effects of the manipulation are typically short-lived (Steele 1975).

Another source of evidence about the role of self-esteem comes from the appraisal of special compensatory education programs aimed at creating changes in self-concept in order to enhance academic performance. These programs include Head Start for preschoolers, Follow Through in the primary grades, and Upward Bound for high school students. (For a review, see Scheirer and Kraut 1979.) The basic rationale behind many of these programs is that high self-esteem is a necessary condition for achievement (Gray and Klaus 1970). Put in terms of path analysis, self-concept is treated as a mediator that is positioned between instructional variables, on the one hand, and achievement outcomes, on the other, implying that for changes in instruction to influence achievement they must first change the student's self-concept. This reasoning is implicit in what have been identified as student-centered models of achievement (Covington 1985b).

Student-Centered View

A schematic of the student-centered model is presented in Figure 3. 1 (Model A). The arrows imply causality and indicate the presumed direction of causal influence. Some of the relevant studies attempt to encourage environments of trust in the classroom (e.g., Reckless and Dinitz 1972); others provide instructional options that allow students a choice of workload (Jacoby and Covington 1973). Still other researchers have introduced curricula that permit nongraded academic experiences (Lawson 1974). These attempts to encourage learning through self-change have been generally disappointing. Some studies show little or no change in measured self-concept as a result of intervention, even though indices of academic achievement increased (e.g., Grant 1973; Lawson 1974; Stallings and Kaskowitz 1974). In other instances, although changes in measures of self-regard occurred, no parallel changes in achievement were observed (Hunt and Hardt 1969; Logsdon and Ewert 1973). Neither outcome is consistent with the assumption that positive self-regard is a necessary and sufficient precondition for productivity in the schools.


Figure 3.1.
Casual Models of School Achivment

Behavioral View

A second, rival view of the role of self in the achievement process follows from a behavioral perspective. According to this tradition, the concept of self—like notions of motivation, emotion, and other "internal," subjective states—is of little value in understanding the dynamics of learning and performance. Behaviorists neither deny the reality of a subjective inner life nor reject the existence of emotions associated with success (pride) and failure (shame). But they do doubt that such general and diffused states of arousal could in themselves guide and direct human behavior in subtle ways.

Rather, they argue, it is the "external" features of instruction that control those actions traditionally associated with concepts such as motivation and self-esteem. These "motivated" behaviors include choice of learning task and intensity of study effort. According to many behaviorists, the main controlling factor is the schedule of reinforcements that teachers set up, in the form of grades, praise, and other rewards. Although psychologists still debate a number of subtle theoretical issues associated with such concepts as reward and reinforcement, it is nonetheless abundantly clear that on a practical, everyday level we tend to do those things that are rewarding and to avoid what is punishing or


threatening. Other things being equal, students will typically do whatever they must to attain the highest grade possible. Indeed, many observational studies suggest that the teacher's grading policy controls almost everything about the student's academic work, including choice of task, intensity of effort, and duration of involvement in the task (Carter and Doyle 1982; King 1980). This is precisely why grading practices have come under such intense and increasing criticism in recent years. For many students, grades have become more important than learning itself.

For good or ill, grading policies control the quality and amount of student achievement to a remarkable degree, and so do a host of other instructional factors, including the amount of time spent studying, the quality of study (Rohwer 1984), and the quality and timing of feedback concerning performance. With respect to feedback, numerous demonstrations support the claim that a fundamental component of effective instruction is the degree to which learners have a clear picture of what is expected of them, as well as clear information about their progress toward these goals. (A review can be found in Doyle 1983.) For instance, students who do not receive information about how well or how poorly they are doing may subsequently perform less well than if they have been given consistently negative feedback (Butler and Nisan 1986).

From this perspective, it is unnecessary to introduce concepts such as "self" to explain the difference between good, poor, and mediocre performers in school. The essence of the behavioral model is that if and when positive changes in self-concept occur, they are most likely the result of successful performance rather than its cause, and that in turn such changes will exert little influence on the quality of future performance. In effect, the notion of self is simply an unnecessary explanatory complication. This view is depicted in Figure 3.1 (Model B). Interestingly, we would find it difficult to refute this rather stark proposition using the literature generated from the student-centered model.

Interactive View

The interactive model combines elements of both the behavioral and the student-centered views. It is portrayed in Figure 3.1 (Model C). Moving from left to right, we see that an increase in academic skills—say, learning to diagram sentences—triggers gains simultaneously both in self-esteem (as in the student-centered model) and in achievement (as in the behavioral model) and that enhanced self-esteem in turn favors


further academic improvements. In short, by improving the student's scholastic skills we initiate a recursive, upward cycle of emotionally driven successes—hence the term interactive .

But can we ever expect to demonstrate such complex pathways empirically, especially in light of previous failures under the far simpler student-centered model? The answer is yes, albeit a cautious affirmation. But what has changed? The interactive model itself is not a recent introduction; actually, in one form or another, it has long been implicated in arguments favoring the view that self-esteem affects achievement. What has changed, however, is the greater precision with which this model is now being evaluated and the increased number of variables being considered by researchers. Above all, we are now beginning to conceptualize the notion of self in new ways. A novel, unifying view of self as applied to educational achievement is rapidly emerging, born out of recent advances in attribution theory, research on fear-of-failure dynamics, and self-defensive motivation. We now turn to these developments.

Puzzles Involving Self-Esteem

Until recently, self-esteem has been too poorly defined and imperfectly measured to provide much assistance in understanding the causes of academic success and failure. Many definitions of self-esteem can be reduced to statements about how individuals perceive themselves along various value-laden dimensions including good and bad, worthy and unworthy. Although these labels are a powerful part of our selfhood, they are not always related to achievement in any direct or obvious way. For example, we know that some people who hold themselves in low esteem are nonetheless highly creative members of society (Ghiselin 1955). It is as if these individuals are trying to convince themselves that they are acceptable by achieving in extraordinary ways (Coopersmith 1967). But can the absence of self-esteem really stimulate true competency, let alone greatness?

And there are other questions and puzzles. First, if high self-esteem favors achievement, and if noteworthy accomplishments increase esteem even more, then why should there be so little relationship between a sense of personal satisfaction in school and grade point average? One might assume that if high grades are a potential source of status and prestige—which they clearly are—then an outstanding academic record should lead to feelings of pride and worthiness; but apparently this is not always the case. Second, why do many students with low self-esteem


perform at their best when the odds against succeeding are at their worst? Shouldn't a hopeless cause make them feel even more inadequate? Third, why should failure—which is known to elicit shame, guilt, and lowered self-esteem—actually mobilize some students to greater effort? Fourth, if success is so attractive and sought-after, then why should students with low self-esteem frequently reject success when it occurs? Fifth, if high self-regard is the product of numerous, accumulated past successes—as we generally assume—then why should some students' sense of confidence be devastated after only one failure? Shouldn't past successes count for something, compared to a single failure? Once again, these examples illustrate that the relationship between self-esteem and performance is complex and at times counterintuitive. When it comes to self-esteem, more is not always better where performance is concerned; and less is not always a liability.

Can we integrate these contrary observations into the simple models represented by the student-centered and the behavioral approaches? The answer is no. We can decipher these puzzles only in the context of an expanded version of the interactive model and in light of an alternative conception of self. One of the most fruitful ways to think about self as an instrument of achievement is to consider it as a complex set of personal resources. Those psychological resources most important to accomplishment include self-perception of ability, beliefs about the nature of the achievement process, and personal estimates of time and energy level. Notice that these are not actual resources objectively defined, say, by scores on standardized intelligence tests or physical indices of metabolic rate. Rather, they make up the subjective reality of each individual: one's sense of competency, personal aspirations, intentions, and desires.

Accumulated research over the past two decades indicates that such perceived resources are decisive in determining the quality of academic performance. These perceptions often enter into the process of achievement in the form of causal attributions (Weiner 1972, 1974, 1979). Most simply put, how individuals explain their successes and failures controls much of their achievement. The main perceived causes of achievement are said to be ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty (Heider 1958). For example, individuals who ascribe their successes to their own ability are likely to undertake similar tasks in the future because they anticipate doing well. In contrast, individuals will be less likely to try again if they believe their past successes were caused by external factors such as luck or chance, or if they believe that they are


Figure 3.2.
Revised Interactive Model
Source: Adapted from material found in Weiner 1985.

powerless to succeed again owing to insufficient ability. These perceived causes are thought to control not only the choice of the task undertaken and the quality of persistence but also the individual's emotional reactions to success (pride) and to failure (shame). Some observers argue persuasively that these self-referent attributions (or cognitions) and the emotions associated with them constitute a central part of self and selfconsciousness (Brown and Weiner 1984; Kelley 1971; Weiner 1985; Weiner, Russell, and Lerman 1978, 1979). If we accept this view, the interactive model makes considerable sense, especially if it is recast in the slightly elaborated form presented in Figure 3.2.

This model suggests that students who interpret a disappointing performance as the result of insufficient ability are likely to suffer shame (low ability® shame) as well as to experience lowered expectations for future success (low ability ® pessimism). Pessimism about the future may result because ability is perceived—at least by older students—; as an internal, stable factor that is fixed by nature and also because ability is seen as the preemptive, overriding cause of achievement (Harari and Covington 1981; Weiner et al. 1971). In other words, if you are not smart, you can do only so well. In contrast, individuals who interpret the same failure as caused by insufficient or improper effort react with feelings of guilt, an emotion known to mobilize future effort (low effort® guilt® improved performance). By this reckoning, guilt is an effort-linked emotion (Covington and Omelich 1984a). And, because level of effort is seen as modifiable, expectations for future success remain high (Weiner et al. 1972; Weiner and Kukla 1970; Weiner and Potepan 1970). It is interesting to note that these attributional dynamics apply in essen-


tially the same ways to a variety of learners, including the retarded and the learning disabled as well as students within the superior range of intelligence. (For a review, see Covington 1987.)

The psychological drama portrayed in Figure 3.2 involves a complex serial linkage: past performance® self-ascription of causes® affect/ expectations ® future performance. This temporal sequence not only is interactive but is recursive as well. The process repeats itself from one achievement event to another, and for this reason its effects are also cumulative.

This model is appealing because it places notions of self, with both cognitive and emotional aspects, on a common footing with classroom achievement events, largely through the unifying principles of attribution theory. It also allows us to account for at least two of the puzzles mentioned above. First, it is not so much the occurrence of failure—even successful people occasionally fail—or the frequency of failure that disrupts future performance. Rather, the meaning the individual attaches to failure is the critical element. For those who see failure as the result of improper effort, failure presents a challenge. But for those who interpret it as evidence of inability or a lack of worth, it can be devastating. Depending on its meaning, then, failure can mobilize some students to greater effort and drive others to despair. Second, this attributional interpretation also helps us understand why some students reject success even though they may have desperately sought it. If success is seen as caused by forces beyond one's control, then it is meaningless; in addition, a student who embraces it may be expected to succeed in the future—something that he or she may doubt is possible.

Researchers have focused considerable attention on testing the general model portrayed in Figure 3.2 and on verifying the many implied causal pathways. Although some linkages have been investigated more intensively than others, the resulting literature generally supports the causal interpretations we have provided here. (For a comprehensive review, see Covington, in press.) Let us now briefly consider these confirming data, organized around the main self-referent resources of ability and effort.

Perceptions of Ability

Of the various self-perceived causes of achievement, ability is seen as the most significant influence on academic performance. For instance, of all the traditional dimensions of self-concept, the one that bears the highest consistent relationship to achievement is perception of one's


ability. As part of the same meta-analysis cited earlier, Hansford and Hattie (1982) reported an average correlation of.42 between various achievement measures and self-perception of ability scales. In contrast, as already noted, the average composite correlations for other, more generalized measures of self, including feelings of worthiness and selfsentiment, was.16.

Actually, perceptions of ability bear a much more precise relationship to performance than is reflected in these simple correlations. For example, Covington and Omelich (1979a) conducted a path-analytic study to test all the sequential links in Figure 3.2 simultaneously. Selfperception of ability was the only attributional factor that linked the entire model, starting with self-cognitions and ending with actual test performance (ability perceptions ® emotions ® performance). Those students who ascribed an earlier failure to lack of ability experienced shame, which in turn inhibited subsequent performance. As to other aspects of the model, attributing one's performance to one's ability has been demonstrated to mediate pride in success (Covington and Omelich 1979c), shame and anxiety in failure (Covington and Omelich 1979b, 1981), and future expectations for success (Weiner, Nierenberg, and Goldstein 1976).

The importance of ability to students as a source of status and prestige is unrivaled even by the virtues of hard work. Students prefer to attribute their achievements to brilliance, not to effort (Brown and Weiner 1984). Moreover, ability is the most significant contributor to feelings of self-regard among students (Brown and Weiner 1984, Experiment I; Covington and Omelich 1984a). It seems fair to say that perceptions of ability profoundly influence virtually all aspects of the achievement process as it unfolds in the classroom.

Perceptions of Effort

Student perceptions of the intensity and effort put into study have also proven to be powerful determinants of the quality of future achievement. For example, one group of studies indicates that the more students study in a losing cause, the less sanguine they are about succeeding in the future (Fontaine 1974; McMahan 1973; Rosenbaum 1972; Valle 1974; Weiner et al. 1971). And we know that in turn subjective estimates of future success are highly influential in controlling actual performance (high expectations ® improved performance) (Covington and Omelich 1979a, 1984b, 1984d). Also, intense effort increases pride in success (Brown and Weiner 1984; Covington and Omelich 1979c,


1981; Weiner et al. 1971), and pride in turn is known to influence future performance in a favorable direction (Covington and Omelich 1984b).

Other studies have helped to disentangle the relationship between attributions of ability and effort and their respective emotional components (Covington and Omelich 1984a). Failures that are attributed to inability elicit shame and humiliation, whereas explanations that focus on lack of effort trigger feelings of guilt. Conversely, trying hard reduces feelings of guilt. Yet, at the same time, failing despite intense effort implies lack of ability, which, we have noted, leads to shame (high effort® low ability ® shame). Herein lies a cruel dilemma for many students. To try hard and fail anyway leads to shame and feelings of worthlessness (through a link with perception of ability); but not trying leads to feelings of guilt (Covington, Spratt, and Omelich 1980). In short, many students are caught between two rival sources of self-esteem—competency versus hard work—and they must sacrifice one to aggrandize the other.

Self-Worth Theory

One other significant theoretical development regarding the nature of self rivals in importance the attributional formulations just described. It involves the motivational aspects of self-process. Most simply put, motivational theorists are concerned with the question of why, rather than how, students learn. The reasons individuals learn are as important to the quality of achievement as are the attributions of cause these individuals make, and, in an important sense, motives actually determine the character and form of the attributions.

The evidence is steadily mounting that one main, even preeminent, reason that students achieve in school is to protect a sense of worth, especially in competitive situations. The self-worth theory of achievement motivation (Covington 1984a, in press; Covington and Beery 1976) holds that academic achievement is best understood in terms of students attempting to maintain a positive image of their own ability, especially when risking failure. This proposition is based on two widely held assumptions: first, that our society generally tends to equate the ability to achieve with human value (Gardner 1961); and second, that selfaggrandizement is a primary motivator of human behavior (Epstein 1973). In effect, whenever possible, individuals will act to maximize success, which reflects well on their ability, and to avoid failure, which casts doubts on their competency.


Given the extraordinary value accorded ability as a source of status, protecting one's sense of competency is of the highest priority—sometimes even a higher priority than achievement itself. For example, individuals may handicap themselves by striving for unattainable goals that invite failure—but such a failure would not reflect significantly on their ability, because almost no one could be expected to succeed. A variety of strategies for avoiding failure have been identified and experimentally documented by Birney, Burdick, and Teevan (1969) and by others (e.g., Berglas and Jones 1978; Sigall and Gould 1977). These strategies include academic cheating, as well as setting goals so easily attained that no risk of failure is involved. Another popular strategy involves procrastination. Handicapping themselves by studying only at the last moment, procrastinators can hardly be blamed for failure; and if they should do well, they will appear highly able, because they have succeeded with so little effort.

These strategies are often employed even though they eventually lead to the very failures that students are attempting to avoid. But at least the individual can obscure the cause of the failures for a time. When little or no effort is expended, estimates of one's ability remain uncertain, since a low level of effort is a sufficient explanation for failure (Kelley 1971). Consider the underachievers. By not trying, these students provide no information about their actual ability and as a result experience relatively little shame when they fail (Bricklin and Bricklin 1967). Moreover, through failure, underachievers can punish their parents, who often expect them to perform in near-perfect ways.

The central, activating principle behind such self-defeating tactics is that effort represents a potential threat to the student's sense of worth and self-esteem, because a combination of intense effort and failure implies lack of ability (Kun and Weiner 1973). This general line of reasoning leads to insights of special relevance regarding the causes of educational failure and the role played by self-process factors. For instance, according to the self-worth position, inadequate effort and indifference to learning are not always the products of insufficient motivation. Such behavior can in fact be highly motivated, but for the wrong reasons. Students who express apathy may be attempting to avoid failure; if they do fail, at least they can avoid the implications—that they lack ability and hence are unworthy. Moreover, by assuming that a struggle for selfregard is at the center of achievement dynamics, we are able to account for the remainder of the puzzles mentioned earlier.

First, the fact that a sense of personal satisfaction in school and grade


Figure 3.3
Stages of Academic Achievement


point average are not necessarily correlated is now understandable. Some students, especially those we will later characterize as overstrivers, may accomplish extraordinary feats, but, again, for the wrong reasons (Beery 1975). These students are driven to succeed simply to avoid failure. But their successes, no matter how extraordinary, are unlikely to provide much satisfaction, for these students must prove themselves over and over against increasingly difficult odds. Such individuals demonstrate that high grade point average is no guarantee of personal fulfillment.

Second, fear-driven successes of the kind just described rarely convince individuals that they are worthy. It may appear that overstrivers possess great self-confidence, as a result of an unbroken string of successes. But given their underlying self-doubt, it may take only a few failures to convince them of what they have suspected all along: that they are really not bright enough to be worthy.

Third, what about the puzzling fact that some students with low selfesteem perform better when they know they will fail because the odds are heavily against them (Feather 1961, 1963; Karabenick and Youssef 1968; Sarason 1961)? Simply put, these students have been "allowed" to fail and now have the freedom to work up to their capacities; that is, failure will not necessarily reflect on their ability, because the task is impossible for almost everyone. Under the circumstances, effort is no longer a threat. Moreover, these failures provide positive benefits: we all admire the individual who struggles stoically and courageously for a worthy purpose against overwhelming odds.

Interactive View Revisited

This rapport among the cognitive, motivational, and affective aspects of self-process provides a broader, more complete appreciation of the achievement dynamic in schools. This perspective is best portrayed through one final elaboration on the interactive model, as shown in Figure 3.3. This second-generation model allows us to specify the temporal dimensions of the achievement process in far more detail.

The most common achievement event in schools, test taking, involves a time-ordered cycle with several stages. In the first stage, following the announcement of an upcoming test, students assess the likelihood of succeeding or failing. This complex judgment depends on the joint consideration of many factors, including one's past experience with similar tests and how realistic one's grade goals are. Of particular importance is the student's subjective estimate of resources. As already mentioned,


these resources include the individual's perception of his or her own ability, typically reflected as a pattern of academic strengths and weaknesses; the amount of effort the individual plans to expend; and the actual time available for preparation.

In the second stage, students begin preparing for the test, a task that may involve a few minutes, a few hours, or perhaps even weeks. According to our interactive perspective, this preparation takes place in the context of various feelings, cognitions, and expectations regarding the wisdom or the futility of studying. For those individuals who judge their ability to be sufficient, the task represents a challenge; for those who believe they are inadequate to the task, school work becomes a threat. Individuals in this latter group are likely to engage in some of the defensive behaviors already described (e.g., procrastination) as a way of hedging their bets for a disaster that is now all the more likely.

In the test-taking stage, failure-oriented students experience tension, unpleasant physical arousal, and worry, all of which distract them and interfere with test performance. In the final, feedback stage, students react with various global emotions, including happiness or disappointment, depending on whether they judged their performance as a success or a failure, respectively. Other, more specific, emotions, such as pride or relief in the case of success, or shame and guilt in the event of failure, are also elicited. As we have seen, these emotions depend largely on the particular causes to which one attributes success or failure (Weiner 1985).

The available evidence suggests that as a student moves from one stage to another, psychological events within each stage are elicited by prior events and, in turn, act as triggers for successive events. Consider just one strand. The belief that one is able (stage 1) acts to discourage defensive thoughts and actions during study (stage 2) that would otherwise interfere with performance (feeling competent® reduced defensiveness ® good performance). A number of studies using path analysis have also "mapped" other potential linkages based on Figure 3.3, establishing a complex network of cause-and-effect relationships that form the microscopic structure of academic achievement. (For reviews, see Covington, in press; Covington and Omelich 1988a; Covington, Omelich, and Schwarzer 1986.)

Types of Students

One of the most important conclusions to be drawn from this research is that the same achievement dynamics do not apply to all in-


dividuals. Several different types of students have been identified by researchers. These differences depend largely on whether a student is success-oriented, failure-avoiding, or some combination of these two tendencies (Atkinson 1957, 1964; Atkinson and Feather 1966). Successoriented students learn for reasons that include the intrinsic value of satisfying curiosity, learning for its own sake, and the mastery of one's environment. In contrast, as already noted, failure-avoiding individuals leam for precisely that reason—to avoid failure or at least the implications of failure.

Other students reflect different combinations of these approach and avoidance tendencies (Covington and Omelich 1988b). Consider the overstriver, who shows strong tendencies for both approach and avoidance. In terms of self-worth, such students attempt to succeed in order to avoid failure. For this reason, learning becomes a highly conflicted process, although it usually ends in success. Because of the stress and conflict, these students enter the anticipation stage of our model in Figure 3.3 with heightened anxiety. But because they possess excellent study strategies, anxiety acts to mobilize their resources, as reflected in meticulous, often compulsive, overpreparation. As tensions mount during the test-taking phase, however, anxiety may interfere with the recall of the well-rehearsed information. Such negative arousal also tends to disrupt higher-level thinking processes temporarily (Covington 1967). The failing student who complains, "I knew the material cold before the exam," is most likely an overstriver (Covington and Omelich 1987).

Those who experience a relative absence of both hope and fear have been characterized as failure-accepting (Covington and Omelich 1985). These students appear to have given up on the pursuit of academic rewards and have resigned themselves to academic failure as a way of life. In terms of Figure 3.3, these students are marked by desultory, indifferent study patterns and by a relative absence of achievement affect. They express little pride in their successes, but neither do they express much shame in the event of failure. As a result, these students perform poorly because they lack both the proper study skills and the motivation to apply themselves, which is reflected by their general lack of emotional arousal.

Success-oriented students are of special interest to us, because the factors included in Figure 3.3 do a relatively poor job of predicting variations in their test performances. Whatever factors describe the unique psychology of success-oriented individuals, they are apparently not well represented in this portrayal of the achievement process. Even the ability perceptions of this group are only marginally related to achievement.


The most likely explanation is that this model typifies classroom learning in a predominantly competitive mode. In competition, the goal is to win by outperforming others, thereby enhancing one's ability status. The goal of learning becomes a secondary objective. Those students who have linked their sense of worth and self-esteem to the competitive learning game are well described by this model. They include overstrivers, failure-avoiding, and failure-accepting students. But for success-oriented individuals, a competitive model clearly misses the mark. These individuals are more likely to pursue learning not out of any need to gain power or prestige, but to satisfy intrinsic goals and interests. Such students will tend to perform well in any achievement context, no matter what the stakes or incentives, because they are confident and comfortable with themselves and with their own thought processes. Obviously, this is not true of those students who operate out of self-doubt and fear of publicly disclosing their incompetence. It is this latter group that is at special risk when confronting competitive learning goals.

These observations raise the prospect that lack of involvement in school, indifference to learning, and apathy—to the extent that such behaviors reflect misguided attempts to protect a sense of self-esteem—may be ameliorated by changing the goals of achievement from winning out over others to learning. We will consider this possibility later as we offer recommendations.

Repeated Failures

Recently, researchers have become interested in the dynamics of achievement as they unfold over several study/test/feedback cycles. Such a perspective requires that we expand the model portrayed in Figure 3.3 in a cyclical fashion, through time. The dynamics of achievement change from one test to another, depending largely on whether the individual's initial performance was judged a success or a failure (Covington and Omelich 1988a). In the case of an initial failure, levels of anxiety are elevated throughout the second study/test cycle. There is an increased willingness to externalize blame (i.e., to create excuses for failure) and to indulge in defensive study patterns. Students may also lower their estimates of their own ability, a change that is greatest among failure-avoiding and failure-accepting students (Covington and Omelich 1981). As perceived ability status decreases, estimates of the importance of ability as a causal factor in success increase. This combination places failure-prone students in a kind of double jeopardy.


Learned Helplessness

These findings provide us with unique insights into the phenomenon of learned helplessness, which has been described as a state of inaction and depression arising from a realization that one's efforts are ineffectual in attaining one's goals (Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale 1978). Learned helplessness was originally observed in animals. Seligman, Maier, and Geer (1968) subjected dogs to electrical shock from which there was no escape. Subsequently, these dogs were provided with a way to avoid the shock by learning a simple response. Under normal circumstances, this escape response would have been learned in only a few trials. But many of the punished dogs never did learn it. This ineptitude was thought to be the result of losing a sense of power over events, a loss incurred during the original punishment phase. It is tempting to seek an analogy among those students who give up, having learned that no matter how hard they try or what they do, they cannot succeed (Dweck 1975; Diener and Dweck 1978; Dweck and Bush 1976). From a selfworth perspective, such helplessness represents the final phase in the process of demoralization that characterizes many failure-accepting students. This interpretation is supported by the results of a study by Schwarzer, Jerusalem, and Schwarzer (1983) in which high school students were tracked over a two-year period. Among many of those students whose grades progressively deteriorated, there was a concomitant increase in feeling helpless to alter events and a decrease in anxiety, reflecting resignation.

Instructional Context

These self-process dynamics must be considered in the larger context of the teacher/student relationship. The evidence just reviewed underscores the central role of perception of ability in the dynamics of competitive achievement. Students value ability and a sense of competency more than they value the virtues of hard work. There is an equally persuasive literature, however, suggesting that teachers value student effort. Teachers reason that although not all students can be equally bright, everyone can at least try. Students who are perceived as having tried hard are rewarded more in success and punished less in failure than are those who do not try (Eswara 1972; Rest et al. 1973; Weiner 1972, 1974; Weiner and Kukla 1970). Teachers further assume that they can manipulate student effort by dispensing and withholding rewards in the form of praise or reprimand.


But if teachers systematically reinforce an achievement pattern that favors student effort, why do so many students fail to respond? The answer lies in a conflict of teacher/student values. Teachers reward success that is achieved through intense effort, whereas for many students expending such effort poses a threat, especially when they are risking failure. If students try hard and fail anyway, the explanation for failure inevitably becomes inability. It is for this reason that effort has been described as a "double-edged sword" (Covington 1984a). This point was confirmed by an experiment (Covington and Omelich 1979b) in which college students indicated the degree of shame they believed they would experience after failing a test for which they had either studied a great deal or studied very little. Excuses for the failure were also available. In the case where little effort had been exerted, the excuse was that the student had been ill. In the case where the effort had been great, the mitigating explanation for the failure was that the teacher had emphasized materials insufficiently studied by the student. As expected, students experienced the most shame after having studied hard and the least after having studied little. When the excuses were considered, feelings of shame diminished, no matter how much effort had been expended.

In this experiment, the same students also adopted the role of teacher and were asked to reprimand hypothetical students under the same failure conditions. As "teachers," the subjects now punished most the very failures that elicited the least shame from students (i.e., low effort). Conversely, they rewarded most the circumstance that led to the greatest degree of student shame (i.e., high effort). Ironically, the condition that led to both minimal teacher punishment and maximal relief for students was a low level of effort combined with an excuse. In effect, despite the best efforts of teachers, students are encouraged by self-worth dynamics to try, or at least appear to try, but with excuses readily available. Obviously, this formula is ill suited to the pursuit of personal excellence. Teachers and students alike are apparently caught in a mismatch of values that sets in motion potential conflict, disharmony, and inferior levels of academic achievement, a situation for which neither party is necessarily to blame.

A simple reinforcement (behavioral) view of classroom achievement would presume that because teachers value and reward effort, students would soon internalize a work ethic. We now know that, at least among older students, questions of self-esteem confound these expectations. For junior high and senior high school students, a teacher's reinforce-


ment of effort may lead to less rather than to more student involvement (Harari and Covington 1981). In contrast, data collected with young children, starting in the early primary grades, indicate that these youngsters behave in ways consistent with reinforcement principles (Blumenfeld et al. 1981). For young children, a sense of worth appears to depend less on ability status and more on trying hard, behaving oneself, and complying with authority. They respond with greater effort when rewarded by teachers and are quick to try harder after being reprimanded. Here we see a match, not a mismatch, between teacher and student values.

Interestingly, young students also value ability. But for these children the level of effort expended has not yet become a cue for inability, so effort is not threatening. To the contrary, in the early primary years ability status is seen as depending on the amount of effort expended. Exerting an effort indicates ability, or, as one first-grader put it, "Smart students study, stupid ones don't" (Harari and Covington 1981). Young children also view ability as something that increases through effort (Nicholls 1978; Stipek 1981); to quote a second-grader, "If you try hard, your brain will get bigger" (Harari and Covington 1981). In short, young children view ability as modifiable, in the same sense that trying hard and behaving oneself are under personal control. The belief that ability can be perfected and increased through experience and hard work has been described as an "incremental" view of intelligence (Dweck and Bempechat 1983). This notion may be contrasted to an "entity," or fixed, view of intelligence that is often held by older students and adults. Research suggests that an incremental belief is associated with optimism about future success and with a willingness to try harder after an initial failure.

The Competitive Classroom

Conceiving of self as a resource to be managed has proven important to our understanding of the psychological dynamics of school achievement. This concept neatly combines cognitive, motivational, and emotional dimensions of human experience in ways that allow us to predict achievement outcomes with some accuracy. It also helps to account for a number of otherwise inexplicable student behaviors, including the longstanding observation that the same failure can goad some students to greater action and yet demoralize others, and the fact that despite the attractiveness of success, some students reject teachers' praise even


though they may deserve it. At times, lack of a sense of worth is a more powerful stimulant to achievement than self-confidence is, and, depending on its source, a sense of self-esteem may not always promote the continued will to learn. Clearly, the relationship between self-process and academic performance is complex, indirect, and often counterintuitive. Yet despite these complexities, at the heart of the achievement process we find a struggle that, when reduced to its essence, reflects the need to establish and maintain feelings of worth and dignity.

What aspects of school life are likely responsible for this struggle, for the quality of student coping, and for the pervasive, often destructive need to enhance one's ability status? Does something inherent in the process of learning itself create this kind of vulnerability? No, not likely. The available evidence is quite clear on this point. By all accounts, the act of learning is a natural, adaptive event. Rather, the culprit is the institutionalizing of learning, as reflected in the incentive systems under which students learn. The basic problem is the indiscriminate and often excessive use of competition as a means to motivate students to achieve (Gardner 1961; Kohn 1986). Competitive incentives tie feelings of worth to how well one performs relative to others. But winning in competition with others is a counterproductive reason for achieving. More specifically, if shame in failure and pride in success depend largely on students' perceptions of their own ability, then students will continue to learn for only as long as they can aggrandize ability. This reason for learning is eventually self-defeating, because it destroys any intrinsic interest in achievement. In effect, when failure begins to threaten one's sense of competency, one is likely to withdraw from learning.

Few teachers deliberately set out to induce competition in their classrooms. Instead, most recognize the destructive nature of competition as a goad to learning and attempt to discourage it (Covington and Beery 1976). Yet, despite teacher efforts, most classrooms reflect competitive dynamics to one degree or another (Ames and Archer 1987). Competition appears to be almost inevitable, generated in part by a minority of students who define their worth in competitive ways. Thus it is not enough simply to oppose classroom competition in the abstract. Rather, teachers must actively restructure classroom learning incentives to encourage other, more beneficial, reasons for learning. We will discuss this point later in more detail.

In the meantime, let us briefly summarize the large body of research concerning the nature of competition in schools and how it appears to compromise the will to learn. The dynamics of classroom learning have


been likened to a complex game (Alschuler 1969, 1973). Like all games, the classroom learning game has several formal properties. First, there is the scoring system by which players (students) receive points (rewards). Second, there are obstacles to gaining points and a variety of ways to lose them. Third, there is the issue of who makes the rules and enforces them. This responsibility primarily falls to the teacher. In competitively oriented classrooms, the scoring system elicits a power struggle in which students compete among themselves for a fixed, inevitably insufficient supply of rewards, so that the likelihood of a given student achieving success is reduced by the presence of other students competing for the same success. The reader will recognize this situation as a zero-sum game: when one player wins, others must lose. These dynamics are typically induced by "grading on the curve," by grouping students according to ability, or by calling public attention to the successes of some and the defeats of others. Under these circumstances, the implicit goal becomes "winning," that is, outperforming fellow students, rather than learning (Ames 1978; Deutsch 1979). One can hope to win only by gaining superiority over others. Yet for most students, given the scarcity and unequal division of rewards, the only option becomes avoiding failure, or at least avoiding the implications of failure (a sense of incompetence).

Research conducted over the past decade provides a glimpse of the specific microdynamics involved in competitive, failure-prone classrooms. The basic finding, and the central dynamic from which all negative consequences flow, is that competition causes students to focus on ability as the dominant causal agent. In competition, causal explanations for one's successes and failures become strongly associated with one's sense of either high or low ability, respectively (Ames 1978; Ames, Ames, and Felker 1979). These attributional patterns are all the more devastating because competition also promotes a belief in ability as fixed or immutable (i.e., the entity theory). This added dimension creates a sense of hopelessness, because nothing in the situation is within the power of the failing student to correct. Conversely, the perceived importance of effort in success and the virtues of hard work are downgraded under competitive conditions (Ames and Ames 1981). Finally, ascribing success to good luck is a common reaction (Ames 1981). In effect, for many students, success in competition merits only faint self-praise, because they believe success is caused by forces beyond their control.

This combination of factors provides all the elements necessary to


promote learned helplessness. Moreover, the attributional patterns aroused by competitive goals are almost exactly the same as those singled out by researchers to describe failure-avoiding students (Weiner et al. 1971). Given this accumulation of evidence, we can conclude that attempts to motivate students through competition, far from increasing productivity, are likely to destroy the will to learn for many students. And what of those who appear to do well in the competitive game? For many of the most successful competitors, the rewards of success are compromised by feelings of guilt for having denied others a chance to succeed (Kohn 1986).

But these self-defeating attributional patterns are not the only negative consequences of competitive goal-setting. Competitive goals can also stimulate a divisive, misplaced pride in success. Under competitive conditions, youngsters who win are likely to see themselves as smarter than their companions and, as a result, to believe themselves more deserving (Ames, Ames, and Felker 1979). Conversely, for the losers, the self-punishment that follows failure in competition is especially devastating. These students believe that failure is their fault, even when their "failing" performance may be judged by others as perfectly adequate. Finally, under competitive circumstances, success does little to compensate for past failures (Ames and Ames 1981). Success is often viewed as the result of good luck; thus success does little to foster confidence in one's resources or to enhance the resolve to try harder next time.

From a self-worth perspective, educational failure and the paralysis of the will to learn arise whenever the individual's sense of worth becomes equated with the ability to achieve competitively. This linkage is strengthened by competitive learning environments, which magnify the importance of ability and tend to limit the supply of meaningful rewards. Without sufficient incentives for success, many—if not most—students must struggle to avoid failure and its accompanying sense of worthlessness.


We can now consider various ways to affect the causes of educational failure, at least those causes that stand indicted through our analysis, which has focused on self-worth. Here we enter the arena of advocacy, involving the promulgation of social policy on the broadest scale. Our analysis points to the structure of classroom learning and the educational goals implied by a given incentive system as the factors that


largely control the quality and durability of student learning. If the implicit goal of competition is to outperform others, then perhaps the frequency of academic failures caused by competition—and even the meaning of failure—can be changed by altering the goals of the learning game, from being competitive to being individualized and cooperative. But from our perspective, what guidelines should be followed for reshaping the learning game? Four broad suggestions emerge from our review.

First, we need to increase the number of meaningful rewards available to students, so that all can approach success without consigning some to the burdensome and self-defeating task of simply avoiding failure. We must break the scarcity cycle that dominates the competitive learning game. This can best be achieved by redefining the meaning of success and failure in terms of individual striving. Success must come to depend on the individual exceeding his or her own aspirations, so that failure becomes a matter of falling short of one's own goals, not falling short as a person. In this context, we might expect that it would be tempting to set one's goals so low that success is virtually assured. But the research literature suggests that this does not typically happen. When students are not competing directly with one another, they usually set moderate learning goals slightly beyond their current level of performance (Lewin et al. 1944).

Second, any shift in the meaning of success and failure must be accompanied by a reemphasis on effort as the preferred means to success and on lack of involvement as the likely explanation for failure. This focus on effort should allow alternative explanations for failure, such as improper planning or unrealistic expectations, rather than assuming that lack of success means lack of ability.

Third, we must arrange school incentive systems so that self-praise (pride) and self-criticism (shame) come to depend not simply on success or failure, respectively, but rather on how hard or how little the student has tried. To fall short of reasonable but challenging goals need not be a disgrace if one has honestly tried; conversely, pride in even the most noteworthy accomplishment can easily be misplaced if success results from mere brilliance.

Fourth, we must promote an incremental view of ability. The belief that intelligence is an ever-increasing, expanding process is likely to counteract pessimism about the future and to promote effort as the highest classroom value.

None of these objectives is furthered in a competitive model. Indeed,


the goal of competition—learning as a means to enhance one's ability status—is directly antithetical to the spirit and substance of these four guidelines. Therefore, we must seek out and encourage alternative achievement goals. One such goal involves satisfying one's curiosity and propagating a sense of wonder. Another is that of helping others or, more broadly stated, committing oneself to solving society's problems (Nicholls 1987). A third alternative goal is mastery or self-improvement, that is, becoming the best that one can be. Recent research suggests that it is these goals, and not those concerned with besting others for the sake of personal aggrandizement, that are associated with greater satisfaction in school, better grades, and the intention to attend college (Nicholls, Patashnick, and Nolen 1985).

Equity Systems

These self-enhancing goals are most likely to be promoted by incentive systems that have been described collectively as equity structures (Covington 1984a). Equity structures are intended to provide all students with equally attractive incentives to pursue the goal of learning. This implies that one of the major responsibilities of schools should be to equalize student motivation—to encourage learning goals within the reach of each individual. This equality of opportunity, so to speak, will not lead to equal outcomes, however. By encouraging all students to do their best, we will doubtless increase the average level of performance, that is, reduce the frequency of academic failures. Yet we may also increase the diversity of performance; less able students will do better, but then so will brighter students. This must be what is meant when educators refer to the goal of schools as encouraging "excellence through diversity." But can such excellence be sustained when differences in talent and ability become even more obvious, given that all students are maximally motivated? Put in a less abstract, more compelling form:

But what of the student who discovers he has relatively few, if any, strong points or finds to his dismay that his particular "strengths" are no greater than the "weaknesses" exhibited by the student across the aisle? Can he avoid unfavorable comparisons and content himself with working within his reach, knowing all the while that he is foreclosed from prestigious occupations and status in adulthood owing to his limited gifts? (Covington and Beery, 1976, 146)

In the search for answers to these difficult questions, equity structures appear to hold some promise. One type of equity paradigm in-


volves cooperative learning. Under this arrangement, several individuals are rewarded based on their performance as a group; when one student achieves his or her goal, then all those with whom the individual is cooperating achieve their goals as well (Slavin 1978, 1983, 1984). A second type of equity paradigm features individual incentives. Here, any number of individuals can be successful by reaching or surpassing the prevailing standards of excellence. These standards can be established by either the student or the teacher, or by a joint agreement. One example of student self-regulated learning is contingency contracting (Homme 1970), in which students set their own learning goals in consultation with a teacher and specify what work is to be done, when it is due, and the payoffs that are expected at completion. In contrast, teacher-regulated standards apply when the teacher requires that a certain level of proficiency be demonstrated before students can proceed to the next learning step. The most common form of teacher-controlled incentives is mastery learning, or outcome-based education (Block 1977, 1984; Bloom 1976; Spady 1982). Mastery learning is based on the philosophy that most students can learn basic subject matter if they are provided clear criteria as to what counts as mastery (e.g., 90 percent correct on each of three spelling tests) and have sufficient time to attain these standards through extra study and practice, should they initially fail to master the material. In these cases, if competition is involved at all, it is redefined in terms of overcoming one's own limitations rather than perceiving others as the main obstacle to success.

A surprisingly large body of literature on equity structures has developed, with references now running into the hundreds, if not thousands. (For reviews, see Ames 1984; Ames and Ames 1984; Block and Burns 1976; Burns 1987; Johnson and Ruskin 1977; Kulik, Kulik, and Cohen 1979; and Slavin 1987.) This evidence includes both well-controlled, laboratory-based studies and experimental field studies whose purpose is to validate the basic laboratory findings in naturally occurring classroom settings. A third kind of evidence comes from demonstration studies that make little pretense at formal research; their purpose is simply to illustrate that equity paradigms work, rather than explaining why or how they work. To these applied ends, the typical evaluation involves anecdotal case studies, staff reviews, and informal teacher observations.

Although we still have much to discover about institutionalized learning incentives, most research suggests that equity paradigms tend to promote the four instructional guidelines proposed earlier. For example, individual mastery incentives have been shown to encourage ele-


mentary school children to perceive effort as the major cause of school performance, while minimizing the presumed role of luck (Ames and Ames 1981). They also minimize the perceived importance of ability in success. This has been demonstrated both among children (Ames, Ames, and Felker 1979) and among college-level students (Covington and Omelich 1984c). Interestingly, self-estimates of ability, which predominate as predictors of academic performance in competitive circumstances, no longer do so under conditions of mastery learning (Covington 1985a; Covington and Omelich 1984c).

As to the other guidelines, equity structures also appear to promote a linkage between pride and effort accompanying success, while minimizing the association between pride and perception of ability (Ames and Ames 1981). Likewise, emotions associated with failure, such as guilt and remorse, come to result more from a feeling that one has not tried hard enough or in the right ways. These latter findings seem to reflect the fact that equity structures provide well-defined standards of performance. They make clear what is expected of students, whereas under a competitive arrangement standards of excellence are more elusive, because they depend on the relative performance of others.

In summary, it is clear that different incentive systems draw out different reasons for learning, for good or ill, and that these reasons influence not only the quality of student performance but also the student's willingness to continue to learn. Yet, within the broad outline of the existing evidence, our perspective prompts additional questions. For instance, if we make rewards more plentiful, will the increased number cheapen their incentive value? The available evidence, limited as it is, suggests that under equity approaches the value of rewards comes to depend more on the degree of risk involved in succeeding and less on how many other students are also rewarded (Covington 1984a). Even with this reassurance, it is also clear that for some students competitiveness is a way of life. We all know individuals who will try to turn any achievement situation, no matter how playful or spontaneous, into a competitive game. How should we deal with such youngsters? By increasing the number of available rewards, will we undercut the very reason that many of these competitively oriented students do so well? Also, is it possible that by increasing rewards we may actually create among some students exaggerated or false estimates of their abilities?

Although we cannot fully answer these questions now, they appear to be the right questions to ask when considering larger issues of educational policy. Moreover, these inquiries arise out of a solid, scientific


understanding of the nature of academic failure. This understanding leads us to urge that a recommendation to promote more equity structures in schools should be seriously considered.

Strategic Thinking

A second, interlocking recommendation also flows from our perspective focusing on self-worth. It involves the need to encourage self-management skills among students. Equity paradigms provide considerable freedom for students to set their own learning goals and to decide how best to achieve them. But students are often unprepared for such freedom. For many youngsters, the prospect of independent action creates anxiety. Failure-prone students need autonomy the most, but they are the least prepared to take advantage of it. To them, success is an unexpected event, caused—they believe—by luck or by chance; as a result, success is something they may be unable to accept, let alone plan for. These students not only need to alter their reasons for learning but also need systematic instruction in the thinking and planning skills implied by the concept of self as a resource to be managed.

Central to the concept of self as a resource is the notion of strategic thinking (Covington 1985c, 1986). Strategic thinking refers to the overall process of planning a course of action to achieve a desired goal. It involves an awareness of one's pattern of cognitive skills, including both strengths and weaknesses; the ability to reflect on the quality and progress of one's work; and the capacity to recognize when one has learned something well enough or when one needs to study more. Strategic thinking also involves a sensitivity to changes in the nature of the study task, for example, recognizing when learning strategies that worked well in the past are no longer appropriate or have even become counter-productive. In the context of academic achievement, strategic thinking involves managing personal resources in an orchestrated attack on a problem—preparing for an upcoming test, developing a term project, or coordinating a team of other students toward a common purpose.

Strategic thinking bridges the cognitive, self-worth, and motivational domains described earlier in at least three ways. First, if students can analyze a learning task, discover the reasons why some tasks are easy and others difficult, and develop a plan of action for solving problems, then explanations other than lack of ability are possible in the event of failure. These strategy-oriented interpretations rob failure of its noxious, shame-evoking implication for ability status. This is especially true


for the most threatening kinds of failure, those in which students tried hard and failed anyway. Research done by McNabb (1986) provides crucial evidence on this point. When students are given strategy messages (e.g., "to solve problems like these, you will have to use good methods"), as compared to simply telling them to try harder, they become more involved with the task, enjoy their work more, persist longer, and increase their expectations for future success. McNabb's conclusion, consistent with self-worth formulations, is that strategy messages provide insecure students with plausible explanations, not linked to ability, for their performances, thus freeing them to work harder. Similar findings by other investigators lend further credence to this interpretation (Anderson and Jennings 1980).

Second, like equity procedures, strategic skill training has also been shown to enhance both academic problem solving and the will to learn. Much of the evidence comes from a twenty-year program of research concerning the nature and facilitation of problem-solving ability (Covington 1985c; Olton and Crutchfield 1969). The central focus of this work was the development and evaluation of the Productive Thinking Program, a course in learning to think for upper elementary and junior high school students (Covington et al. 1974). This semester-long program is designed to strengthen a broad set of strategic skills involved in effective resource management and problem formulation, including the ability to choose among various solution strategies in a timely fashion and to remain sensitive to gaps and inconsistencies in available knowledge. The results of some twenty evaluation studies using this program indicate a number of motivational benefits. (See Covington 1986 for a review.) Instruction in strategic thinking increases the likelihood that students will choose to work on challenging yet reasonable tasks for which success is uncertain but not improbable (Olton and Crutchfield 1969). Also, trained students are less likely than untrained students to abandon their own judgments simply because they differ from the majority of peer-group opinion (Allen and Levine 1967).

A number of other school-based curricula that promote general problem-solving skills also appear to have considerable potential for furthering motivational objectives. These include the Purdue Creative Thinking Program (Feldhusen, Treffinger, and Bahlke 1970; Feldhusen, Speedie, and Treffinger 1971) and the Philosophy for Children Program (Lipman 1976, 1985). Other promising curricular approaches focus more specifically on building self-esteem by providing students with


practice in setting personally meaningful goals, evaluating their competencies objectively, and accepting and understanding their feelings (Canfield 1986; Reasoner 1986).

Third, many cognitive researchers today view ability as created and enhanced through the strategic self-management of one's problem-solving resources, a process that can compensate for the sense that one lacks ability (Resnick 1987). This compensatory nature of ability allocation doubtless forms the basis for the belief that ability is an incremental, ever-expanding process. Individuals who hold such an incremental view are more likely to focus on the learning task at hand, are less preoccupied with school performance as a test of their worth, and display greater intrinsic involvement in learning. The available evidence suggests that strategic skill training also enhances this belief. Drawing on research with the Productive Thinking Program, we note that trained students show a greater appreciation for the fact that making mistakes is a natural, even necessary, part of problem solving and that students increase their capacity to learn through such a trial-and-error process (Covington 1967).

Overall, the accumulated weight of evidence suggests that all those attributes we have associated with self as a resource—namely, one's characteristic explanations for success and failure, one's repertoire of thinking skills, and one's beliefs about the nature and function of ability—can be modified through direct instruction and that such instruction can lead to achievement gains as well as to an increased willingness to use one's mind in a productive fashion.

For all their promise and demonstrated effectiveness, however, school-based efforts to teach students how to think rather than what to think are still relatively rare, despite repeated calls over the years for the development of process-oriented curricula (Aschner and Bish 1965; Fair and Shaftel 1967; Olton and Crutchfield 1969; Torrance 1965). There are several reasons for this lag. First, several unanswered conceptual questions hamper efforts to develop new, more far-reaching generations of strategic skill intervention. Chief among these issues is the largely unknown character of the relationship between skill instruction and cognitive development. More particularly, which general thinking skills should be taught, and at what point in a child's life, in order to promote mature, adultlike thinking in later years? If it is true that only long-term, comprehensive cognitive instruction will help reduce massive educational failure, then the staging and timing of such instruction becomes


critical. But at present we know relatively little about the early precursors of later, adultlike thinking and planning. (See Friedman, Scholnick, and Cocking 1986 for a review.)

Second, there is considerable resistance to strategic skill instruction within the schools. Human information processing as a topic is as yet only imperfectly understood by scientists, and as a result it remains even more of a mystery to teachers, who would be expected to implement the goals of strategic thinking. Nevertheless, as implied by our review, we know at least enough to start. Ultimately, we must introduce widespread, intensive teacher training and preservice instruction in how to teach thinking skills and promote the independence of thought that we all cherish as adult learners. The most difficult part of teacher training will be to translate definitions of thinking skills, which often appear to be little more than abstract platitudes (e.g., "look at problems in new ways"), into forms that are readily useful in a variety of specific content areas such as biology, English composition, chemistry, and history.


These twin recommendations, which involve altering the prevailing reasons for learning and encouraging directly the capacity for strategic thinking, may at first appear unduly modest, given the massive, unparalleled problems facing schools today. It is axiomatic that big problems require big solutions. But these proposals require no major dislocation of responsibility for educating our young—educators still remain in control. Nor is an unprecedented infusion of federal or state funds called for. Any appearance of modesty may be a result of our initial promise to limit recommendations to those that are practicable and those that might have relatively immediate impact.

But appearances can be deceptive. Actually, what we have proposed here is exceedingly immodest and highly ambitious. The real value of the self-esteem perspective is not that it will necessarily overturn our national priorities or even successfully challenge the natural reluctance of our citizens to commit more tax dollars to yet another urgent problem. The concept of self-esteem carries with it no inherent economic or political imperatives. But it does contribute something unique to any debate concerning the public good. It challenges us to be more fully human. In addition to being an object of scientific investigation, as well as an explanation for behavior, self-esteem is above all a metaphor, a symbol that can ignite visions of what we as a people might become.


Perhaps only for the sake of self-esteem would we be willing to carry out policy recommendations that seriously question two of our most cherished beliefs: the cult of achievement and the myth of competition.

The Cult of Achievement

To most Americans, achievement is everything; it is our badge, our national identity. As a people, we are known for our ability to get the job done, and done on time. We have always been more committed to the product than comfortable with the process, and when productivity suffers we become uneasy and troubled. But there is much more to educational achievement than a test score, a course grade, or a report card. As virtues, effort and accomplishment will flourish only to the extent that we consider the reasons that students strive. This is the essential message of the self-esteem perspective. When we fail to consider motives and feelings, individuals may strive successfully, but for the wrong reasons—with the consequence that the benefits of these successes are illusory. In effect, the continued will to learn depends more on why one learns in the first place than on what one learns or even on how well one learns it. We must first set right the matter of motives, or the reasons for learning, and then achievement will follow and likely thrive. But if we concentrate on academic failure as anything more than a symptom, then in the end both achievement and self-esteem will suffer. This reality is hard for Americans to accept, given our impatience with such intangibles as feelings and emotions and our vague discomfort with process. Herein lies the first challenge to those who would promote a self-esteem perspective as the basis for educational policy making.

The Myth of Competition

The second challenge concerns the uniquely American commitment to competition and its corollary that competition is the best, if not the only, remaining way to ensure at least a minimum level of competence among millions of apparently shiftless, unmotivated, and dispirited students. This beguiling but mistaken belief is enormously powerful because of its intuitive appeal to reason. After all, if a competitive edge has sustained America's unprecedented economic prosperity over the years, could not the same formula work in our schools? The answer, as we have seen, is probably not. The essential point is that encouraging individuals to outperform one another—or other nations—however valu-


able such a strategy might be from an economic perspective, is counterproductive when it comes to the goal of maximizing learning for all individuals. Competition in school forces too many players (students) to focus on simply avoiding failure. As a result, performance suffers, giving the lie to arguments that competition motivates individuals to do their best. Moreover, as we have seen, achievement under competitive adversity, far from building character, as some claim, actually destroys self-confidence and encourages cheating, sabotage, and cynicism.

But even if all the damning research evidence on competition were widely acknowledged, one fundamental reason for maintaining a competitive climate in schools remains. This reason has little to do with the immediate purposes of schooling but rather with the economic and social realities that there are too many students aspiring for too few prestigious, high-paying jobs. Some orderly way must be found to distribute individuals across the work force, given that some jobs are more attractive, lucrative, and more highly sought after than others. By using schools as a sorting and screening device, we have created such a mechanism. Adult occupational status depends heavily on the grades received by students throughout their academic careers (Deutsch 1979). In effect, the better a student's grades, the more likely he or she is to be picked out for further schooling; and it is higher education that forms the gateway to prestigious occupations. For this reason, schools are held hostage in the battle for future economic security and prestige. As Campbell observes, "The whole frantic, irrational scramble to beat others is essential for the kind of institutions that our schools are . . . [namely,] bargain-basement personnel screening agencies for business and government" (1974, 145–147).

A number of alternative proposals for how to allocate talent across the existing range of jobs have been suggested over the years and need to be taken more seriously. (For reviews, see Deutsch 1979; Wolff 1969.) As a group, these proposals require a reconsideration of the basic competitive mentality that has long dominated the American scene. Herein lies the second challenge to the self-esteem perspective.

Finally, there remains the question implied from the outset: Can we really hope to improve future educational prospects, given the overwhelming problems that assail our children from so many quarters? To be candid, there is probably little hope, unless school-based changes occur in coordination with other reforms that address wider concerns such as drug dependency, crime, violence, and abuse. In this, we can learn from action research in the area of public health (Hamburg 1986). Sus-


tained health benefits are most likely to result when the target group—say, school-aged children in a particular community—is immersed in a circle of positive, interlocking influences in the form of parental health education programs, church-based outreach groups, and community service organizations. Only by harnessing a number of preventive and promotion strategies in pursuit of a single goal will we have much reason for optimism about solving the many chronic and costly social problems that threaten the well-being of our citizens. And, in the last analysis, perhaps the most unifying and worthy goal is the promotion of feelings of individual and collective esteem.



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