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. Kim Richardson June 20, 2013 / 3:50 am

    I have read Payne’s book for a course, and her ideas were something that my school district offered some professional development on about a decade ago. I find some of the controversy to be unmerited. If taken as a general guidelines, which is how I receive them, her ideas offer some great insight into behaviors, cognitive abilities, and needs of our students living in poverty. Will these be true across the board for every student? Of course not. They are generalizations of characteristics that Payne has seen a good deal of evidence of (as I believe most educators can agree with). Payne is trying to expose the variety of reasons for the circumstances our students come from and live in, and to offer tangible suggestions for closing some of the gaps–relationally, educationally, emotionally, even through physical resources that we can offer through school districts. It’s meant for good. I found her most useful tools to be that of explaining the hidden rules of the different socio-economic levels. Again, are these true in every single circumstance/person living in poverty/middle class/wealth? No, but overall, the trend exists. It provided for me some really valuable insight into the disparities between students in my school and district. If you take the information and apply it to your teaching situation, it can have tremendous benefit for understanding your students, building those strong relationships, and fine-tuning your teaching to meet the needs of your students on every level.

    • janevangalen June 25, 2013 / 5:32 am

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for commenting, though I’m thinking that you didn’t first read any of the posts here about Ruby Payne? I wonder that because you haven’t addressed any of the critiques. You’ve just stated your opinion that the critique is unmerited, based on what you see day-to-day in school. Teachers do that here every now and then — I’m thinking that it’s a class assignment of some kind, to respond to a critique of Payne somehow, even if it’s just to write an unrelated comment on someone’s blog?

      You write, without any evidence, “the trend exists”. How is that different from someone saying “she confirms some stereotypes I have of my students, so I know that she must be true in spite of how many other educators find her work so badly misinformed.” ?

      I mean that as a serious question, not as snark.

      But the other thing that happens when teachers come here to comment is that they almost never engage in actual conversation. They just drop their comments (again, I assume, to fulfill a course assignment). That’s disappointing.

    • A LOBAN April 9, 2014 / 9:18 am

      I have just completed reading Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” for a graduate class that I am taking. A lot of what I read made sense if I thought about my own personal experiences with my students. Payne’s critics say that she blames the students and their parents and that the patterns and cultures of the poor are the sole responsibility of the poor. Also, that she is reinforcing and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. It is these personalized stories and scenarios that helped me understand what my students living in poverty are facing daily. Payne advocates that low-income students be taught how to “code switch” so that they can fit in and be successful. Schools and businesses operate from middle-class norms and we use the hidden rules of middle class. I agree with Payne that for our students to be successful, we must understand their hidden rules and teach them the rules that will make them successful at school and at work. However, I do not believe that it is as simple as she tries to make it. As educators, we must take the time to develop relationships with our students and figure out what will work to help them be successful in our class and beyond.

      • janevangalen April 9, 2014 / 9:27 am

        Thanks for commenting. I’ll ask you as I do so may others who post here. What convinces you that Payne, and not the many many other writers who criticize her, is right about who your students are? I hope that you do get credit for your class for posting here, but it is challenging that people come here to say “I believe Payne” without ever explaining why, other than that she fits what you already see through your own eyes. Thoughts?

  2. Samson Heaton August 21, 2013 / 1:41 pm

    I think that Payne’s critics do have some merit. They point out that she often generalizes and that her research could be viewed as based on stereotypes. Some claim she doesn’t receive proper critical analysis of her work because the educational field too readily accepts her ideas. Others have said because her books are self-published and have not undergone the rigorous reviews usually required of professional academics that her findings are unsubstantiated. Payne and Gorski both advocate for teachers to enact more social change, but I think this can be somewhat difficult for educators to have a large social/community impact (aside from that on their students) because of some areas and communities that have anti-union sentiments. Teachers can’t do it all themselves; they need community support. Overall I enjoyed Payne’s book, but felt that her hidden rules weren’t always what I have witnessed or experienced. However they provide some good thinking/discussion points. Rather than focus on Payne’s possible shortcomings, I think her work and concepts can be combined with proven strategies to aid all teachers. I do not think that any of us have ever come across a student who fit perfectly into Payne’s categories, but her framework provides a good starting point, rather than a focal point, for quality teaching.

  3. Joanna December 29, 2013 / 10:24 pm

    I saw a presentation about 8 years ago by one of Ruby Payne’s employees. I have also just finished reading her book. I really liked what she had to say and I felt like it made sense and gave me a better understanding of my students and what they are going through. People living in poverty definitely have a different outlook that those living in middle class. I feel that what Payne says does help educators. There are so many educators that can not relate to their students. They have no idea what they are going through or where they are coming from. I feel Payne does a good job of opening our eyes to their struggles.
    I also believe that Payne’s critics do have some merit. It feels like Payne is blaming the victim and that they will never change or be able to end this cycle of living in poverty. Many people that live in poverty or grew up in poverty are able to be successful in a middle class world.

    • janevangalen January 2, 2014 / 7:15 am

      Thanks for commenting, Joanna. From my own teaching and now working with teachers, I’m always just so surprised to hear that teachers need to read a 25 year old book by someone who has never met their students to better understand what the children they see each day are going through. Why on earth wouldn’t teachers just listen to their students and their families or people in the community?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s