Instead of Ruby Payne …

The Ruby Payne discussion continues today with this comprehensive post from Dan Butin on the Education Policy Blog, one of the few bloggers over the past few days that actually critiques Payne. Steve grapples with how poverty might be eliminated, but misreads those who acknowledge structural dimensions of poverty as believing that the poor themselves can’t change without being “lifted up” by the “power elite” (which is sort of like saying that anyone who believes that women still face sexism also believes that women won’t get anywhere until men “lift them up”).

I also read this article yesterday, in which a number of educators critique Payne’s work in their districts.

This article mentioned that one district spent more than $320,000 dollars on Payne training. Reading this reminded me of the unfortunate comments on the blogs that I read yesterday that suggested that the only real choices available to teachers of poor children are to embrace Payne’s “theories” or to become mired in the critique of overly-intellectual, self-interested, out-of-touch academics.

That got me thinking of just a few of the many other ways that this district might have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. And had they done any of these things, they could have been pretty confident that they were drawing upon carefully-researched, effective practices (most of them developed in collaboration with academics). I’m including here only links that are readily available on the web (I’m not one to take copyright lightly). There are many more resources on any of these practices in journals, in library catalogs, and via ERIC, just as there are many other effective practices with poor kids beyond this short list.

  • Home visits, so that teachers can form relationships with parents and kids directly, without Payne positioning herself as the cultural broker between them.
  • Smaller classes so that teachers can get to know kids better without relying on Payne to explain what they’re really like.
  • Supporting teachers in developing deep, inquiry-based curriculum, as Deborah Meier did at Central Park East.
  • Support innovative and creative uses of technology in schools for poor kid so that you’d see more of the literacy learning that is evident in Sara Kajder’s classrooms.
  • Educate poor kids in partnership with their parents, not as adversaries of families, as Comer schools are designed to do.
  • Invest deeply in the arts for low-income kids, as Shirley Brice Heath recommends, because in the arts, kids learn “motivation, persistence, critical analysis, and planning”, and the sense that they have a point of view that matters.
  • Have a full-time person coordinating community partnerships, as BF Day School did in Seattle, because having such a person brought multiple new resources to the homeless kids attending the school, the teachers, and the families.
  • Ensure that low-income kids are being educated within new media, as are the kids in the City Voices, City Visions program, who are learning a tremendous amount about history and literature and literacy along the way.

Those are just a few of the things that schools looking to better serve low-income students might do.

And what do all of these programs have in common? They bring the best of what we know about teaching, learning, and schooling to low-income kids.

And they do these things without first teaching teachers that people are poor because poor families engage in bizarre and destructive child-rearing practices (even if the workshop leaders do insist that they’re not stereotyping when they speak of the drugs, the alcohol, the beatings, the inability to plan or to engage in such basic cognitive skills as predicting cause and effect).

12 thoughts on “Instead of Ruby Payne …

  1. Steve Olson June 13, 2007 / 10:23 am

    Thanks for the mention and thanks for stopping by.

    I guess maybe I need to listen more. I’ve never heard a proponent of structural poverty say that the poor are also perpetuating the cycle through damaging beliefs and actions and that they must be part of the solution.

    I have lived in near poverty, have been surrounded by poverty, and have family members in intergenerational poverty. Speaking from experience, most of those that I’ve met don’t believe that they have anything to do with the cycle. Much like an alcoholic and his family members who deny the elephant in the living room while it’s in plain sight to outsiders.

    I don’t know how we will make any progress until people accept their own role, especially young men. They are doing a lot of damage.

  2. janevangalen June 13, 2007 / 3:03 pm

    Hello, Steve,

    Thanks for commenting. It’s too rare to have opportunity for ongoing conversation among people who aren’t in full agreement about everything.

    Our backgrounds sound pretty similar.

    After college (I put myself through on grants and loans and multiple jobs), I began my teaching career in a school that served kids who lived in apartments above the stores in a small business district nearby. Then, I taught back in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. None of the parents of my kids were literate and none had indoor plumbing. From there, I went to a large urban school district. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a kid whose parents had gone to college. I teach in college now — mostly students who are the first in their families to go to college.

    In the examples of good things going on in schools that I included in this post, poor kids are doing pretty amazing work. They’re showing up, working hard, collaborating in teams, producing sophisticated projects. I’m not sure what other examples of personal responsibility we might look for, but maybe, one of the reasons that you haven’t heard folks who talk about structural inequalities also talk also about personal responsibility is because we sort of just take it for granted among most poor people.

    Are there poor people who are jerks? You bet. But that’s an entirely different argument than saying that we have poverty in this country because that many people won’t stop being jerks.

    (And don’t get me started on the middle-class and wealthy people who, were it not for their inheritance, would have been kicked to the curb years ago).


    In all of those examples in my post, teachers and their administrators took responsibility for figuring out different ways to teach when the first things that they tried didn’t work. Unlike the science teacher highlighted in the article about Ruby Payne, they didn’t excuse themselves from that responsibility because they assumed that the problem was just that the poor kids were “dumb”.

    In each of those examples, someone (sometimes someone wrote a grant, sometimes there were private donors, sometimes teachers did things on their own) took responsibility for providing poor kids something close to the resources that middle-class kids can just take for granted. They had to do this because the public in this country won’t take responsibility for funding schools for poor kids at the same levels as schools for middle-class kids.

    And those examples that I gave are more likely to “stick” in those schools if someone would finally take responsibility for figuring out how to get excellent teachers to come — and then to stay — to schools for poor kids, because right now, the most experienced teachers are mostly somewhere else and poor kids get the least experienced and least qualified. This really isn’t rocket science, but no one is taking responsibility for solving the problem.

    So sure. I’ll say what you want to hear: Personal responsibility is really important. For everybody involved in the lives of poor kids.

    And when responsible and capable kids do show up at schools in their poor neighborhoods, they should at least have books to read, they should have computers, they should have bathrooms that work, they should expect qualified teachers and guidance counselors, they should have no more kids in their classes than the most educated parents would tolerate for their kid, they should be respected for who they are.

    But they likely won’t have any of those things.

    And those things are all parts of the problem of structural inequality.

    And when we see what poor kids are capable of when at least a few of things are in place (as in those examples in my post), how can we keep spending so much money to hire someone to talk about where poor people hang their pictures or how someone’s brother-in-law blew their paycheck over the weekend?

    Why couldn’t we just spend that money on books and art supplies and computers and salaries and support for teachers who could use those things in very imaginative ways?


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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s