State governments in Maryland and Virginia are looking into a psychological reason for school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and violent crime: Some Marylanders and Virginians don't have very high opinions of themselves.

The issue is self-esteem, and both states have task forces studying how to raise it among their citizens.

Good self-esteem, the theory goes, can help a person overcome life's obstacles. Those with poor self-esteem are more likely to turn to self-destructive behavior when they fail.

Members of the state committees said they believe the task of defining self-esteem, analyzing it and promoting it has fallen to them because the family and society at large are failing to pass values on to the next generation that will help them lead happy, successful lives.

"Who else is going to do it?" asked Del. Roland D. Ealey (D-Richmond), chairman of the Virginia task force, part of the Joint Subcommittee Study on School Drop Out and Ways to Promote Self-Esteem Among Youth and Adults. "The family is falling apart."

Virginia has spent $17,850 in the past three years to study self-esteem, with a focus on how to reduce the number of school dropouts.

About 17,000 students in Virginia drop out of school each year, according to the subcommittee. Nearly 80 percent of those in some state prisons are dropouts.

The task force initially came up with 200 recommendations for raising Virginians' self-esteem; that number has been cut back to 30. A final report will be issued later.

Ealey said the state will host a national conference on self-esteem in Richmond in October.

Ealey said the task force recommendations include: "Take time to praise others when they do a good job."

"Share good news to enhance others' ability to achieve."

"Don't be too critical."

Maryland's 23-member, all-volunteer Task Force on Self-Esteem met for the first time in May. Appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the group includes Cabinet secretaries and school officials, a former Baltimore newscaster and a criminal lawyer who defends drug dealers. Its executive director is a professor of human growth and development at the University of Maryland, appropriately named Charles Flatter.

The Maryland group's main goal is to promote self-esteem among young people, and it is trying to collect and make available information on all existing programs in the state that are working to improve self-esteem. It also will try to improve the self-esteem of state employees.

To kick off that part of the program, Maryland Personnel Secretary Hilda Ford announced in July that she was directing 80,000 of the state's employees to smile when they do their jobs, something she said they did not do often enough.

"Without us, the democracy wouldn't work," she said, referring to state employees. She has begun a "Yes We Can" campaign, aimed at getting employees to improve the way they serve the state's residents.

Buttons, notepads and 2,400 posters with the "smile" or "listen" theme are being passed out in state offices.

The campaign "is kind of like a celebration of compassion," said Greg Gibson, spokesman for the Personnel Department. "There's no real training program; it's just to get people to think twice about how they treat people."

He said employees who deal directly with the public "are bombarded with negative energy," and although "we can't totally revamp someone's attitudes, this is just to remind them the reason they're here is to help people."

Using state government to deal with self-esteem leaves some skeptical.

"I think they're looking for the quick answer," said Virginia Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who said that reducing class size is one obvious way to try to get students to do better in school, although a costly one. "I think we have to face the music. It's very costly, but it's not as costly as putting people in jail."

Alan Rosenthal, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and an expert on state governments, said those governments may have to get more from their state institutions. "The limits have become broader and broader," he said. "We want whatever we can get out of them."

"Matters like self-esteem and soft, mushy matters, stuff not measurable and concrete, are often very important," he said. "If there are ways for the political system to promote people feeling better about themselves, it's worthwhile."

Nevertheless, he said, laughing, "there is something 'pokable' " about the self-esteem groups.

The roots of the programs in Maryland and Virginia come from the California Legislature and its Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, which was satirized frequently in the past few years by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and late-night television comedians.

In January, three years after state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) sponsored the bill to create the task force, the group issued a 144-page report that was reviewed by many one-time critics as academic and surprisingly in line with traditional thinking on the subject.

After extensive testimony and months of deliberations around the state, the task force defined self-esteem as "appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others."

It made some modest recommendations, such as training teachers how to teach self-esteem and offering free classes on how to be good parents.

By the time the report was issued, California's experiment had become a phenomenon, said those who have followed it. Similiar task forces sprung up in Michigan, New Mexico, Missouri and Florida, and national self-esteem conventions were held.

"This is a movement, it's something that's going on," said Ruta Aldridge, associate director of the task force until its office closed last month. "Our goal was to inform California of self-esteem . . . . We did that by virtue of our visibility."

Despite the jabs and the vast scope of the problems they are trying to address, task force participants remain optimistic about their task.

"Maybe we're treating the problem medically, technically and professionally," said Susan White-Bowden, chairwoman of Maryland's task force, "but are we treating the person?"Staff researcher Chris Andersen contributed to this report from Richmond.