Beware of Ruby Payne

December 31, 2008

Dangerously Irrelevant Blogger Scott McLeod is writing a series of posts under the theme “Beware of Educational Consultants”.  Featured in this series on consultants about whom districts should be cautious is Ruby Payne, infamous consultant on the educational needs of poor children.  His post nicely summarizes some of the published criticism of Payne’s work.

McLeod asks, reasonably:

First, should districts be spending their monies on a consultant whose work has been accused of being riddled with hundreds of unproven assertions? …  Are most districts that hire Dr. Payne aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against her work? And, third, even if so, should districts’ professional development work involve a consultant/speaker that’s this controversial, no matter how famous or widespread her message is?

Don’t miss Scott’s inclusion of a  You Tube critique of Payne posted by a 14 year old reader.  If a 14 year old gets it, why don’t more district staff development offices?

And don’t miss the comments.

(And I’m honestly ready to move on from the “people who criticize Payne’s work are just Ivory Tower Academics living without any clue about what really goes on in schools for poor kids” rebuttals.  Honestly, don’t you folks have anything better than unfounded personal criticism to answer the research?  For the record, I’ve taught in rural southern Appalachia, in the urban south, in the working class Midwest and I was appalled by what I saw in  my very first skim through Payne’s book because it was so clearly  poorly researched. )

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20 Responses to “Beware of Ruby Payne”

  1. Anne Says:

    Hello. I have just finished reading Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty and like Sam stated above, found it to be very informative and interesting. Her suggestions for understanding and teaching all children are note worthy and ones that I will consider for use in my classroom. I am concerned, however that some of the research isn’t backed up. I would like to hear about teachers that have used her ideas and hear their comments and/or suggestions for improvement. I feel like Payne has some valid information but putting it to use is something I would like to see done.

    • janevangalen Says:

      Hi Anne,

      Check out Ruby Payne’s website — she’d been doing this work for so many years, so I’d think that she’d have lots lots of stories there about how her work plays out in schools. Why do you think it’s not really there?

  2. Michelle Says:

    After reading Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, I must agree that I believe the book is a framework, not an all-inclusive guide. I think that Payne makes some interesting points and gives people unacquainted with poverty an inside look into some of the challenges that people in poverty face. However, I believe Payne’s view of poverty is too general and too simplistic.

    I think the economic backgrounds of people are more diverse than the three categories which Payne describes in her book. I think the characteristics of each economic class do not exist exclusively in one class. Thus, I believe that people would be naïve to accept that people living in poverty possess all of the characteristics described throughout her text. Similarly, I believe that it is naïve to accept that these characteristics do not exist among people in the middle class or wealthy. For example, in Chapter one of her text, Payne describes detailed scenarios of families living in poverty. Although many of these scenarios highlight some of the daily struggles of people living in poverty, it can be argued that these scenarios encourage the adoption of negative stereotypes that are persistent among the culture.

    I believe that there are more than three economic classifications and that Payne’s hidden rules among classes overlap more often than her book leads us to believe. I do not believe that individual viewpoints are as simplistic as the chart (p.42 &43) that she presents in Chapter three of her text. For example, I know many students living in poverty in my school with aspirations of attaining higher education after graduation. I know students of poverty who are more respectful, courteous, and cooperative than wealthy students who feel entitled to an education and treat educators as their employees, showing a great lack of respect for authority.

    Students from my district come from very diverse economic backgrounds—from living in government sponsored housing to living in million dollar mansions. Yet, if one took Payne’s definitions of “poverty,” the “middle-class,” and the “wealthy” literally, it would be very difficult for students from these diverse backgrounds to interact and work together. However, many of our students contradict Payne’s broad generalizations. We have “wealthy” students from single parent households and students from “poverty” from two parent households. We have parents of “middle-class” children who are incarcerated. We have students from “wealthy” backgrounds who have been suspended from school for using foul language or being disrespectful towards staff. We have students from poverty enrolled in Advanced Placement coursework and wealthy students who are struggling to pass their classes. There is no doubt that students in each of Payne’s economic classes possess many of the characteristics that she describes. My point is that it is rare to find a student whose values exist entirely within one economic class. For many students, I believe that some of their values overlap and are similar to those of students in other economic classes.

    I believe an individual’s values, beliefs, and attitudes are influenced by their individual experiences in their daily lives. I further believe that life events can change an individual’s beliefs, regardless of their economic class. Thus, even a “wealthy” child with absent parents will have a longing for attention and emotional support and will seek out needs that are not being met at home.

    Researchers would further argue that Payne provides no concrete evidence to support her conclusions. They are merely observations and insights. Although they may offer a glimpse into the world of poverty, I think that Payne’s insights must be presented cautiously in a manner that emphasizes that these characteristics are not always present among people living in poverty. Teachers need to be empowered to believe that they have the ability to form meaningful relationships with students and that all students are capable of achieving.

  3. steele Says:

    After reading Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, I felt much more knowledgeable about poverty and empowered to help my students. I have been an educator for about ten years. Currently, I am a school counselor in rural Appalacia, working with many students in poverty. There were many times while reading the text that I thought of a situation that I had experienced or a student with whom I had worked. I was able to relate to what Payne was describing. It gave me a better understanding though. I felt that I was getting to know my students and recognizing the reasons behind some of their behaviors. As I read through these comments, as well as comments on other blogs, I realized that there is merit to Payne’s critics also. My opinion is that both sides of this debate make valid points. I do agree that the book seemed to be put together quickly without a lot of research. I do not believe that Payne is stereotyping, but acknowledging reality. There are different economic levels and “hidden rules” for each. I will use Payne’s text as a guide and reference for working with my students, but I will also give consideration to other theories as well.

    • janevangalen Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Steele. I began my teaching career in rural Appalachia, in Eastern Kentucky. None of my kids had running water, and few had parents who were literate.

      And I still believe that Ruby Payne misses huge parts of their lives. It’s just not possible — especially without research — to generalize from the neighborhood in Indiana where her husband’s family lived (what she bases this book on) to every other poor child in the country where lives are very different.

      Stereotypes can ring true because they always carry some element of truth. But just as with stereotypes of women as being more ditzy than men, Payne is missing many many layers of complicated lives, and pretending to be a “Scholar” means that people don’t always question what she may be missing.

      I’d be curious to know what you think about why, in spite of some pretty solid research-based criticism of some of her core ideas, she hasn’t revised her book at all in decades. One explanation is that she’s making so much money telling this story, she’d risk losing some of her audience if she conceded now that she was wrong about some things. That’s a good business strategy, but it’s not at all what honest researchers in education do.


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