Blogging Ruby Payne

Paul Tough’s article in yesterday’s NYT on Ruby Payne is, as expected, stirring up conversation among bloggers:

American Ministers in Bolivia find her fascinating.

Commenters on this blog from an Episcopal minister include someone who says that Payne’s perceptions of poor kids in schools ring true, based on prison work he’s done with poor people, and others who suggest that critics of Payne are motivated simply by self-interest — they need poor people to rant about, so they criticize those who would end poverty.

Also resorting to “refute by suggesting insidious motives” are commenters on Joanne Jacobs’ blog. Jacobs herself dismisses critics of Payne as being “mad” (as if they were having a tantrum, rather than articulating very serious reservations about the things that Payne teaches about poor people), taking the one-paragaph summary of the academic criticism in the lengthy article as the entire story of what people find so troubling about her work.

Paul’s “gut” tells him that Payne’s right.

Cleo, a teacher of poor children in the south, is told otherwise by her gut.

Only the commenters on this blog questioned some things that Payne attributes to poor people as puzzling “stereotypes”.

But a number of bloggers simply quote at length from the article, seemingly in deference to Payne’s authority.

At least two thing strike me about this discussion:

1. While there are scores of books, articles, consultants, local experts, state-level experts, textbooks, AV materials, websites or college courses on pretty much any other element of public education, Ruby Payne is pretty much the only person out there talking about class and education in staff development work.


Just one.

So, she’s not getting much challenge from within the field, as she would if she were working in any other area of classroom practice. Very few people are so immune from challenge in the field of education.

2. In these times of “research-based practice”, there is no evidence that poor kids taught by teachers who’ve gone through Payne’s training are better off.


Certainly not from Payne herself, not from the staff development people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on her books and dvd’s, not from the research community.

She’s in thousands and thousands of schools.

And there is no research to support her work.

On the one hand, Payne’s popularity suggests that a lot of teachers really do want to know more about how to best reach poor kids. And the research community, the staff development world, and teacher education are all very late to the game.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine a literacy consultant becoming this popular if she had based her work on her husband’s family’s literacy practices and on something that she read in a book on the psychology of business. Say what you will about the limitations of educational research, but Payne is honestly in a category of her own in being granted this much credibility with so little to support her work beyond her personal experiences with family members that she found puzzling.

What is it about the subject of class, that this has come to be?

22 thoughts on “Blogging Ruby Payne

  1. Rosita July 10, 2011 / 9:41 am

    I agree with you that there are misrepresentations about poverty in her book. For example, another assignment for the class I’m taking is re-writing a favorite story in casual register because supposedly that’s the language that people in poverty speak. However, in reading her example of the story of Cinderella in casual register, I cannot relate at all to it. I have worked with people in poverty for the past 16 years, and no one I know talks that way! It could be an interesting assignment. There are aspects of what she says that I see in the families I work with, for example, the emphasis on relationships and the need for strong role models. But again I realize that this does not represent the entire population of people in generational poverty.
    I also agree with you that popularity doesn’t make her work true, and unfortunately many districts only use her resources when dealing with the issue of poverty. I find it fascinating that so many school districts gravitate toward her training and embrace it so whole-heartedly. Why is that? Is she telling us what we want to hear? Is it a quick-fix solution for a huge problem? I’m not sure, but I hope and pray that “educators, employers, policymakers, and service providers” (at whom the book is aimed) can truly get to a place where people in poverty are respected and their needs can be met.

  2. Eileen August 7, 2011 / 11:52 am

    I too am taking a course in which Payne’s book was required reading. I was very uncomfortable reading her book and many of the assignments that required me to analyze my work or school’s practice based on her hidden rules have been very arduous for me to complete givent that I don’t buy into her hidden rules. Class and classism definitely should be areas educators examine as they improve their practice and work to create schools in which all children can be successful. I would find an approach that leads educators in an examination of privilege and how hidden policies and institutionalized practices support privilege to be a more eye opening and effective process. The aha moments that were missing for me were those moments that lead to a realization about the “hidden” benefits of privilege in our current educational systems and how we as teachers can become allies to those who are not served by those systems and create change. While I am sure Payne is well-meaning, I find her work and her popularity concerning.

  3. Laura July 14, 2012 / 12:36 pm

    I feel as if I learned a lot from reading Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”. As a teacher and graduate student I think it is refreshing to read something not based as much in research but instead in personal experience. I find some of the best teaching advice I have ever gotten was from experience not research. I think Payne wants readers to understand that poverty is not simply a lack of financial resources. I think she tries to make her reader aware that living in poverty can mean a much greater gap than a financial gap. I do not think she is being classist or racist- I did not look at her hidden rules as being absolutes but instead just gaining some different perspective. It took me a long time to read her book because it kept making me think about students I have had in the past and how I could maybe be a better teacher to them if I had the opportunity to teach them again. I appreciate that her text made me reflect so much. I think as teacher any information you can get to help you better understand who your students are and what they believe in and care about is going to make you a better teacher for them. Payne gave me more perspective on what the students I teach who live in poverty see and experience every day and I think that will help me be a better teacher.

    • janevangalen July 17, 2012 / 4:38 am

      Hi Laura, I agree about the value of personal experience. I have learned so much from teacher books and from talking with teachers who’ve taught under different circumstances.

      Can you help me to understand where you see in her book that she’s claiming to write from personal experience? For example, when she writes about language uses, she’s quoting research that she claims explains the language challenges of poor kids. But that very author she cites is saying something very different. She’s not using her personal experience here. She’s misreading an important piece of research to fit her own theories. And for 25 years people have been calling her on that, and she’s never changed a word.

      Don’t all good teachers continue to learn from their experiences over time?

      Can you help me to understand why you’d trust someone who did not herself grow up in poverty to teach you about that experience if experience is what is so valuable to you?

      Can you help me to understand why so many people who did grow up in poverty are appalled at what she writes about people like them because it so distorts their experiences?

      Yes, we all need to keep working to get better at working with our students.

      But the question remains: Why trust Payne, rather than others who write about poverty (many from their own experiences) in very different ways?

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