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. Melinda Says:

    After reading many different comments that support Payne’s anecdotal observations and conclusions as well as those who criticize it, I am compelled to post a comment myself. As I read Payne’s book A FRAMEWORK FOR UNDERSTANDING POVERTY, I too encountered many things I have observed myself to be true in behaviors of some of the adolescents whom I teach. One of the things that most struck me in the early reading was the checklist of things someone living in a culture of poverty would know and things someone living in a culture of wealth would know. I found that, coming from a middle class culture, I could check a few things in each of those lists–and all things in the middle class list. I’m guessing that would be true for most of us from middle class.

    I did not read Payne’s work as belittling those living in poverty, but as illuminating some of the behaviors that may arise from that culture that affect successful classroom performance in a middle class based school system. In fact, I interpreted her work as saying we in the middle class often MISinterpret a lack of experience with what we take for granted as low intelligence or low motivation or laziness or whatever other negative label you want to place on it. I am a reasonably intelligent educator who has been pretty successful in my life; yet, I have no doubt I would be viewed as ignorant at best if I were suddenly thrust into the world of the wealthy. The lifestyles, the choices, the opportunities, the “required” knowledge, the innate understandings are things that are so far off my radar that it would be like moving to a foreign land with no preparation. Certainly, I could LEARN how to function there–just as Payne reiterates those moving from a culture of poverty can LEARN to be successful in a middle class society.

    One of the underlying issues is that just as success as viewed from the culture of the wealthy is different than success in my world, so is success from the culture of poverty viewed differently. That does not mean my view is wrong or that either of the other views is wrong, simply that they are different; and to expect someone from one culture to find success in another WITHOUT instruction designed to help with that transition is ludicrous.

    One of the big criticisms of Payne’s work is that it is not scientifically based and backed with numerical data. I would agree that much of it is not, that it is anecdotal and experiential. That does not make it any less true. We have developed into a world that places a greater value on scientific data than empirical evidence. Knowing all the scientific data about a flower does not explain its beauty; knowing the scientific data about a skunk does not explain our visceral reaction to its stench. And the beauty or stench level differs from person to person. Much of what Payne describes is not stereotype but statistics that have been accepted from other sources. It is a data-based fact that more people from low socioeconomic backgrounds are incarcerated than from other economic backgrounds. It a a data-based fact that more people from cultures of poverty have single parent homes, sub-standard housing, poor nutrition, and less success in school. Does Payne (or anyone) assert it is ONLY those in poverty who experience these things? NO. Does Payne (or anyone) assert it is ALL those in poverty who experience those things? NO.

    I found that many of the suggestions for helping those arriving in my classroom from a culture of poverty (which I do believe exists) are echoed by both Payne’s supporters and detractors. (i.e. see Jensen’s TEACHING WITH POVERTY IN MIND or Gorski’s “The Myth of the Culture of Poverty”). I also find that many of these suggestions will benefit ALL of my students, as there are “dysfunctions” in many of their lives no matter what socioeconomic class they come from, and, as Payne makes clear, it is a complex and complicated blend of characteristics that impedes one’s ability to be successful. The supports she identifies are crucial to all people, and her work certainly rang true for me while offering concrete strategies that can only help every student entering my classroom.

    • janevangalen Says:

      Thanks for commenting Melinda. One of the questions that critics raise is whether she’s drawing enough distinction between “culture” and “life circumstances”. To speak of culture is to speak of deeply ingrained system of beliefs, values, orientations that are hard to change. That’s very different from just not yet having had the opportunity to learn how other people live. Lack of food is not a cultural trait.

      Substandard housing and poor nutrition is not part of a “culture of poverty”. It’s part of living in poor neighborhoods or rural areas that don’t have decent food stores or about having no choice but to live in rental housing that landlords won’t maintain or being on waiting lists for years for affordable housing (as my relatives have been).

      I’m glad that you’re finding success in your class because of what you’ve learned from her.

      I do wonder, though, why, for someone who has been writing and running workshops as long as she has, she herself provides very very little evidence that teachers who follow what she recommends are more successful.

      Sure, there are things that science can’t answer. But it would be pretty easy over 20 years to do at least some actual studies of whether kids in schools where teachers have been trained by our friend Ruby actually do do better and are more conversant with middle class lifestyles. The very minimal research she posts on her website would not pass muster in a basic research methods class, and there’s strikingly little of it there.

      I ask a sincere question: Why do you think that she can’t provide the most basic evidence that teachers are more effective after working with her ideas and that their students are better off? We can still argue beauty and its opposites. of course. And we can also talk about things like the effects of water and light on that flower you mention. We can easily do both, and should.

      Why do you think that she’s not doing any of the latter, given that she claims to be a researcher? Why can’t she provide any evidence the poor kids are better off in schools where teachers have done her training and read her books?

  2. Monica Says:

    I believe Payne’s work forces us to look at our students in poverty and our own belief and value systems. I do not believe that all students who live in poverty have the same value and belief systems. It appears to be too stereotypical. Individuals from other socio-economic classes have many and diverse value and belief systems.


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