Teachers, Ruby Payne, and Moving the Conversation Forward

January 5, 2009

I wrote last week about Scott McLeod’s post on Dangerously Irrelevant about the large number of districts hiring Ruby Payne to speak to issues of childhood poverty in spite of how little evidence there is for most of her claims.

There was a lively discussion in the comments on Scott’s post, and Alice Mercer, one of the women chiming in there, has continued the conversation on the In Practice blog with the first of what she promises will be a series of posts  on “Why not ‘cure’ poverty instead”.

The conversation threatens to degenerate into camps of “theorists/ practitioners”, as if those lines are completely clean.

But perhaps, in these ongoing discussions,  there’s the chance to move beyond the unfortunate assumption in too much of this discussion that people who critique Payne for ignoring the deeper structural causes of poverty somehow expect teachers to solve problems of poverty themselves or to simply suspend further work in classrooms until all children come to school well fed, toting their photos from Disney World, and dreaming of Harvard.

So, perhaps some of the teachers, scholars, parents, staff people, and the idly curious who read Education and Class could head over there to  join the conversation.

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12 Responses to “Teachers, Ruby Payne, and Moving the Conversation Forward”

  1. Shana Opdenberg Says:

    Many criticize Payne’s anecdotal research, but much of what she offers has merit if we can get beyond her methodology. There is not one solution to the issues lower socioeconomic status students face. There is a benefit to students who learn to use formal register. It’s one way of breaking through social barriers. Payne makes a good point, and while it is not completely based in academic study, it is valid and useful. It doesn’t mean we should ignore larger issues faced by those in poverty. Payne also encourages mentoring. What could be better than capitalizing on the time and influence teachers have with their students? Hopefully time spent speaking in schools will focus on developing meaningful relationships with students.

    • janevangalen Says:

      Hello Shana. The problem is that in education and social sciences, we cannot trust the conclusions if we don’t trust the methodologies. We would not trust a doctor who, after having dinner a few times with in-laws who weren’t feeling well, then wrote a text about the specific reasons and remedies for complex illnesses. The methodology of just watching for short time just isn’t enough, but that’s exactly what Payne did — she just watched her in-laws.

      Sure, all children learn in school to speak more formally than they do at home. All children learn that. Many southern young people learn to drop some of their accents as they enter the workworld in other places, and kids from Boston learn to drop some words from their vocabulary if they go to school or work in other places. Payne has no basis for concluding that what poor kids learn is any different. Payne did not invent the term “formal register” – a linguist doing extensive research did, and his study really has nothing to do the kinds of things Payne talks about. She just borrowed the term to sound scientific, and uses the term in very different ways than the person who first used it.

      What you seem to be saying is that you conclude that she’s valid based on some personal judgment about her work, not any standards of research. If she’d written a novel without claiming to be doing scientific work, that would be fine. But she’s claiming to be basing her work on research to give it more credibility. That’s dishonest or worse.

  2. Lola Blond Says:

    From a classroom teacher’s perspective, I can say that Ruby Payne makes us think and nod in agreement because we have had students from poverty and we are looking for help. Does she use scientific facts to back up her work? No. However, teaching is not always factual and that is why many teachers can relate to her stories and experiences. The bottom line is that we all want to help students who live in poverty as much as we can. Some critics believe that she has led stereotypes of the poor, but we all know students who fit those stereotypes. Hard to ignore. Teachers are looking for ways to help these children with an already “full plate” of daily duties and protocols to follow. Can teachers fix living conditions, healthcare issues, housing problems, etc? No. But we teach these students everyday and need help.

    • janevangalen Says:

      Lola, thanks for commenting. I taught in the mountains of rural Appalachia, in an urban district in the midwest and am urban district in the south. Many teachers like me who also taught poor children are pretty astounded that she misses so much about the lives of the kids we’ve deeply cared about. I can find lots of examples to fit the stereotypes out there in the news right now that teachers don’t work very hard or don’t really care about kids’ learning, but finding those doesn’t tell me anything about the very complicated work of teachers. Stereotypes are so powerful partly because they do have some kernel of truth.

      There’s a big difference between “scientific facts” and just plain making some things up like she does about language.

      You obviously care about the kids that you teach, so let’s all commit to continuing to learn about how to best teach them. Ruby Payne hasn’t made that commitment. She’s saying the exact same things that she’s been saying for decades, even after she promised a few years ago to now develop more research to justify her work. But she hasn’t done that. We can do better than telling the very same stories for years and years and years, can’t we?


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