Instead of Ruby Payne …

June 12, 2007

The Ruby Payne discussion continues today with this comprehensive post from Dan Butin on the Education Policy Blog, one of the few bloggers over the past few days that actually critiques Payne. Steve grapples with how poverty might be eliminated, but misreads those who acknowledge structural dimensions of poverty as believing that the poor themselves can’t change without being “lifted up” by the “power elite” (which is sort of like saying that anyone who believes that women still face sexism also believes that women won’t get anywhere until men “lift them up”).

I also read this article yesterday, in which a number of educators critique Payne’s work in their districts.

This article mentioned that one district spent more than $320,000 dollars on Payne training. Reading this reminded me of the unfortunate comments on the blogs that I read yesterday that suggested that the only real choices available to teachers of poor children are to embrace Payne’s “theories” or to become mired in the critique of overly-intellectual, self-interested, out-of-touch academics.

That got me thinking of just a few of the many other ways that this district might have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. And had they done any of these things, they could have been pretty confident that they were drawing upon carefully-researched, effective practices (most of them developed in collaboration with academics). I’m including here only links that are readily available on the web (I’m not one to take copyright lightly). There are many more resources on any of these practices in journals, in library catalogs, and via ERIC, just as there are many other effective practices with poor kids beyond this short list.

  • Home visits, so that teachers can form relationships with parents and kids directly, without Payne positioning herself as the cultural broker between them.
  • Smaller classes so that teachers can get to know kids better without relying on Payne to explain what they’re really like.
  • Supporting teachers in developing deep, inquiry-based curriculum, as Deborah Meier did at Central Park East.
  • Support innovative and creative uses of technology in schools for poor kid so that you’d see more of the literacy learning that is evident in Sara Kajder’s classrooms.
  • Educate poor kids in partnership with their parents, not as adversaries of families, as Comer schools are designed to do.
  • Invest deeply in the arts for low-income kids, as Shirley Brice Heath recommends, because in the arts, kids learn “motivation, persistence, critical analysis, and planning”, and the sense that they have a point of view that matters.
  • Have a full-time person coordinating community partnerships, as BF Day School did in Seattle, because having such a person brought multiple new resources to the homeless kids attending the school, the teachers, and the families.
  • Ensure that low-income kids are being educated within new media, as are the kids in the City Voices, City Visions program, who are learning a tremendous amount about history and literature and literacy along the way.

Those are just a few of the things that schools looking to better serve low-income students might do.

And what do all of these programs have in common? They bring the best of what we know about teaching, learning, and schooling to low-income kids.

And they do these things without first teaching teachers that people are poor because poor families engage in bizarre and destructive child-rearing practices (even if the workshop leaders do insist that they’re not stereotyping when they speak of the drugs, the alcohol, the beatings, the inability to plan or to engage in such basic cognitive skills as predicting cause and effect).

10 Responses to “Instead of Ruby Payne …”


  1. [...] for teachers), Deborah Meier, Mike Rose, Carole Edelsky, all the folks who I mentioned in my last post  who have often developed their practices to demonstrate how wrong “culture of poverty” [...]

  2. Richard Says:

    I have read this and other blogs attempting to diminish the work of Ruby Payne and I have yet to read one that comments by showing knowledge of what she actually says. One of the main contentions is that she stereotypes. Well, lets logic through this. If we study psychiatry, we will learn about life styles in the form of stereotypes. We learn patterns of only children, middle children, deaf children, people who survive rape, tragedy. We learn about patterns common to the aging process, puberty, high levels of intelligence, low levels of intelligence, and many more aspects of people. As students in college and later in training, we learn the patterns of gifted children, children with autism, privileged families, and so on. And now we have Ruby Payne who has most successfully shed light on patterns that affect and effect students from poverty and what some results of those patterns mean to a classroom and we say don’t stereotype? Could it be that we are just simply uncomfortable with what is possibly true for many people (not all of course). The irony is that the more I read articles that claim her work is damaging the more I understand her work as complete. My interest is intense since I did grow up in poverty and the research does define my experience and many others I have known through out the years. She has not sold over a million copies of her book by accident. She has not made herself an authority on poverty. Her readers have done that. All the mentions to other web sites for assistance in the classroom are wonderful. How strange that Ruby Payne’s company has much similar information plus the understanding of the people we serve. Why is that considered a bad thing?

  3. Michele Says:

    I don’t believe that programs mentioned in the blog are counter to Ruby Payne’s framework, in fact, the programs are in line with the change she believes are necessary for improved student achievement. Payne’s observations are intended cause educators to broaden their thinking with regards to students in poverty and then take the kinds of actions outlined in this post.

    • janevangalen Says:

      Hello Michele. I’d love to hear more about how you see these things align with Payne. For example, teachers I’ve worked with who believe many of the stereotypes about poor people that Payne writes about are very reluctant to even consider the idea of home visits because they assume that the neighborhoods and homes of most of the children they teach are unsafe. Yet after home visits, they come back really surprised that their their stereotypes were pretty much off the mark.

      Similarly, the highly intellectual school work that Deborah Meier did would seem not to be something that would be supported by teachers who have been told that poor children don’t have a future orientation, or have dysfunctional language usage, or don’t value school.

      I know too, that it’s really hard to argue that poor kids should have rich access to technology in schools because they are “so far behind in the basics”. I think that even in districts that have paid Payne’s company thousands of dollars for training, you’ll be pretty hard pressed to find kids doing rich work in media production like some of the examples I’ve posted here.

      Can you give me examples of students who really raised the academic rigor of their teaching (because they realized that they’d been underestimating the children) and became much more innovative in partnering with families after the Payne training?

      I honestly think that some examples of the richer, more rigorous teaching that teachers are doing after Payne training would be really good for this conversation, and I’m always disappointed that I can ‘t find any even on Payne’s own website and the many people who have commented on this blog really haven’t offered any examples, either, other than saying that they now understand poor kids better.

      But I want to know that the kids do now have access to some of the rich opportunities to learn that teachers in this post offer their kids. Can you help me to find those examples?

      • Michele Says:

        In “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” Payne stresses the importance of developing meaningful relationships with students and their families. Home visits, smaller class sizes, and partnerships with parents are all examples of ways to develop those meaningful relationships. Payne advocates helping families get whatever resources thus supporting academic success for the children. The example of BF Day School’s Community Partnerships Coordinator would be an excellent way to connect families with necessary resources.
        Further, Ruby Payne states “Being in poverty is rarely about a lack of intelligence or ability” so a program such as Deborah Meier’s that facilitates higher level thinking is also in line with Payne’s assertions about children in poverty.
        As for the use of technology, Ruby Payne specifically mentions Accelerated Reader, an online individualized reading comprehension program, as a resource. I know in our district, students have daily access to technology. We use a variety of programs for differentiating instruction in literacy and math, supporting learning across the curriculum, and preparing students for technology in the real world.
        Payne in fact, does not say that children in poverty have “dysfunctional language usage.” She recognizes the language of children in poverty as a casual register of English. Payne wants educators to realize this register is not an indication of “dysfunction” or lack of intelligence but simply the manner of speaking the child uses at home. However, she accurately points out this is not the language used in textbooks or generally by teachers when they teach. So as educators, we need to directly teach children how and when to use the formal register. She advocates the benefits of encouraging children to use both registers and encourages teachers to give students opportunities to use the casual register in academics.
        In short, I restate my position that the programs mentioned in this blog are in line with Ruby Payne’s recommendations.

    • Carol M Says:

      I hadn’t thought of Ruby Payne’s work in terms of it using stereotypes but in all reality that is what it is. I agree with Richard in that it is a pattern and that is one way we learn. Also, I agree with Michele that if learning about children of poverty will help improve student achievement I am all for it no matter how it is approached. I would like to see research in more areas of the country to get a larger view of how poverty is dealt with in other areas with a regional perspective.

      • janevangalen Says:

        Hi Carol,

        Thanks for the comment. I, too, really believe that teachers who understand more about the lives of children in poverty they’ll be more effective teachers. But I can’t support it “no matter how it’s approached”, anymore than I’d support someone who spent time just watching a small number of girls within her husband’s family ( and Payne is clear – all her conclusions are from that one family and their neighborhood, and based just on informal interaction with them, not actual research) and then started teaching that all girls are weak in math, or all girls flirt to get what they want, or all girls are emotional so shouldn’t be pushed too hard, we’d be outraged.

        So why instead to we just take her word for it, that we are learning about children of poverty when we learn from her?

        Lots of the links here are examples of how teachers are doing great work with kids living in poverty in different regions of the country. What caught you eye among these?


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