Critiquing “The Culture of Poverty”

Another good article on the limitations of Ruby Payne’s work from Teaching Tolerance, the journal of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One paragraph caught my eye: When teachers in a workshop with the author began complaining about parents not showing up for meetings or conferences, he asked how many of them had driven to work that day. 100% had. He asked them, then, how many of the parents of the students owned cars, so that they could freely come and go. The answer was 11%.

How did we come to have schools in which teachers hadn’t already asked themselves that question, where they assumed, instead, that parents simply didn’t care about education or about their kids when they didn’t come to things that the school had scheduled?

And more importantly, how did we come to live in a society in which the fact that a good number of families simply cannot afford cars is invisible to even well-educated and well-intended people?

More bloggers weigh in on Ruby Payne

More on Ruby Payne from bloggers:

A letter to the author of the NYT time article from Stephanie Jones, who says:

Frankly, it won’t matter if they know how to use the right silverware, substitute their old “ain’t”s for “isn’t”s, or speak with more (middle-class) clarity and in a more (middle-class) elaborated manner when they still find it improbable or impossible to pay the bills at the end of the month even when working two full-time jobs at a low wage. And in the meantime, if students really do learn all the “rules” of class and they still don’t find themselves in an upwardly mobile trajectory, they may end up blaming themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods.

And this, from Confessions of a Keyhole.

A quote:

I think there’s something very telling and tragic about the conjunction of, on the one hand, Payne’s noble New Age (but also modernist) wish to live “a life without institutional constraints” and, on the other hand, her preaching of the importance of lower-class adoption of upper- and middle-class personal stylings (what she calls “the hidden rules”).

And finally, a summary of what some bloggers are saying about the NYT article from the Payne organization blog itself, in which people who’ve never read her work or heard of Payne before reading the article are cited as those representing the “high points of the dialogue, examples in which people are thinking deeply and carefully about the issues at hand”. While they invited more comments and “dialogue” two days ago, they’ve not yet published any. One of those who resonates with Payne says:

Perhaps some discomfort with Payne’s approach also stems from the fact that as a nation we like to think the lines of class are nonexistent, or at least blurred. Defining class with such specificity denies that.

… which suggests, at best, that this “deep and careful thinker” didn’t even get as far as the two paragraphs summarizing the critique of Payne in the NYT article.

I have no problem with a blogger thinking out loud in her posts. But it’s curious that an organization would cite this very quote as being among the “highlights” of the discourse about their work.

Just when you learn which fork to use, they go and change the game.

From today’s newspaper comes this article on the recent booming demand for luxury goods among those at the distant end of growing income gaps. Women who only a few years ago purchased shoes that cost hundreds of dollars are now spending thousands. A quote:

Louis Vuitton this spring pre-sold its limited number of $40,000-plus handbags made up of a patchwork of samples from different spring and summer collections. The bags cost only slightly less than the median household income of $46,326, as reported by the Census Bureau.

And a second quote:

“Whether it’s a handbag, shoe or watch, the price of keeping up has gone up,”

One of the gurus of social class theory, Pierre Bourdieu, says that we’ll never eliminate class differences by simply teaching those at the bottom the rules of the game of those above because those who already enjoy the comfort, deference, and power of life further up the ladder have a vested interest in protecting their positions.

If too many people can figure out how to play by their rules (or, horrors, can begin to afford those $500 handbags), you can just much move the bar a bit further up.

Too many people getting college degrees? Start requiring graduate degrees for even routine jobs. Too many kids now doing as well as your kid in first grade? Start intensifying pressures to learn Japanese and calculus in your kid’s kindergarten. Too many people in off-the-rack clothes in your wine shop now? Find even more obscure vineyards and vintages so that you’re still set apart.

It’s about maintaining distinctions. That’s what Bourdieu says about the significance of different “rules of the game” between classes.

Those who suggest that we can eliminate poverty by teaching kids the “rules” of the middle class are imagining the middle class standing with open arms, just waiting to welcome all of those newcomers who will compete with their kids for college admission, jobs, political power, and privileges that are now theirs alone.

That’s what social class is about: Not just static rules of behavior among different groups, but about the power of some folks to set the rules and then to change them so that others have little hope of ever reaching them.

More from the Ruby Round-up (update)

More on Ruby Payne from Nancy Flanagan of the Teacher Leader Network, with whom I agree that the issues being deliberated in all of this blogging are fundamentally important.

Update: A bit more of a response to Nancy’s thought-provoking post, now that I have a bit more time to write.

First, Ruby Payne isn’t really working “from her gut”. She’s working within a research tradition that, if I’m doing my math on her age right, was likely being taught and deliberated about when she was in teacher education in the late 60’s, early 70’s. This body of work tried to show that a “culture of poverty” was the reason that people were poor and that the solution to poverty was to get people to act better. One of the central — and widely read — books in this tradition was a novel Children of Sanchez, by anthropologist Oscar Lewis. This tradition informed welfare and other social policies (many of you will remember the stereotypes of the welfare queen driving her Cadillac).

The problem is that the research didn’t hold up. No one could really find common cultural practices between poor people in rural areas, in cities, in small towns, across ethnic groups. People started looking very closely for instances of generational poverty (in Ruby’s words) and actually didn’t find very much of it (and where it did occur, economic conditions were often such that even the best dressed, verbal, going-to-bed-early, reformed poor people couldn’t have found work. I saw this when I taught in Southern Appalachia where there was literally no flat land on which to build factories, the soil was about 2 cm deep so agriculture was a problem, and the coal was all owned by people up on the East Coast who decided when and how to mine it).

In other places, people born poor are likely to move up and down into and out of poverty depending on such things as the kinds of jobs that open in their areas, the extent to which the minimum wage is keeping up with inflation (or not, as lately), the depth of debt that they accrue for things like medical bills. Katherine Newman has done really beautiful, accessible work on the economic trajectories of people who begin their work lives in fast food restaurants and the ways that some move up, some stay in essentially the same place, and some fall back. She of course found some people who couldn’t get their acts together (I saw similar people in grad school, fully supported by their wealthy parents), but that was not the main story of how people fared.

So when Ruby Payne comes out 30 years later essentially repeating the “Culture of Poverty” line of thought, and supporting it with what seem to be pretty serious stereoypes of hard-drinking, loud-shouting, jail serving poor people (just as the Welfare Queen was used in the 70’s) it does raise questions. Does she have some new evidence that those who walked away from that line of thinking long ago missed? Did she simply draw on what “research” was familiar to her when she whipped out Frameworks in week, because she hadn’t kept up with what was going on in that conversation, even to the extent of reading debates in newspapers and magazines about whether a “culture of poverty” exists ? Those are fair questions.

But she’s not working from her “gut”. She’s seeing the world through a particular scholarly framework. And that framework doesn’t just say that there are “differences” (you eat cheez whiz, I eat brie). The framework says that we would not have poverty if everyone would stay out of jail and eat brie.

Second, I think that we could use some more shades of grey when talking about how universities and schools contribute to professional knowledge. I think that pretty much everyone understands that when research comes out of universities, it’s going to be translated and transformed multiple times to make sense for informing practice, and there is a long tradition of “consultants” and staff developers taking on the work of that translation, often building tidy little businesses as they go. Rick Stiggins in assessment comes to mind. I don’t know all of their names, but a whole cadre of consultants marched around the country doing workshops on cooperative learning after the original work of Slavin, the Johnson brothers, Elizabeth Cohen. There are scores of people out there doing classroom management workshops and math workshops and literacy workshops, most of them grounded at least at some level on current research on kids and learning. Academics get that that’s how it works.

And most of these people are visible and active in professional organizations. They write for professional publications. They go to conferences to hear what other people are saying about things. There are others doing the same work, so that they need to stay current and relevant. Pretty much none of them are saying the exact same things that they were saying 10 years ago (and, as far as I know, none of them are also selling coffee mugs and t shirts).

And then, the normal cycle would be that researchers would come back into schools to study (often, now, in collaborations with teachers, or teachers would do the action research themselves) how things were going in actual classroom practice.

But Payne seems to be operating pretty much outside of any other professional conversations — even to the point of publishing her books herself. That’s pretty unprecedented.

And third, critical scholars are often out there in schools themselves, not sitting back writing articles that they hope will spark the revolution. I think of Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant, Jo Beth Allen, Stephanie Jones (who writes brilliantly for scholarly audiences and also published a brilliant book with Heinemann, so that it would be accessible for teachers), Deborah Meier, Mike Rose, Carole Edelsky, all the folks who I mentioned in my last post who have often developed their practices to demonstrate how wrong “culture of poverty” theories were.

Many more of us invest pretty heavily in teaching in teacher education when we might otherwise be cranking out articles, and when districts clamor to hire the people we teach, and those teachers come back to fill our grad classes, we can sense that we’re probably doing something valuable in the work of teaching kids well.
So our objections to Payne really aren’t based on our cluelessness; nor is it based on the belief that poor folks should just sit around waiting until the intellectuals figure out how to write their way into social change.

Finally (phew!), I completely agree that we should be listening to teachers. And. We really haven’t talked about social class enough in teacher ed or in staff development. That’s the soap box I’ve been on now for a number of years. And there’s no question that teachers had a lot of questions about kids that they couldn’t understand. So when someone came along with what seemed to be answers to those questions, it of course was valuable and meaningful. The same thing would have happened if teachers had been grappling for years with how to teach music and a funny, witty woman came along with great stories “from her gut” about kids and music. People would have been all over that.

But I can’t imagine that person then being written up in the NTY as “the” expert on music education, and those who raised questions about her being dismissed as angry, jealous, self-interested, or worse. That’s just not how professional knowledge develops in any other part of the work of teaching.

So why are we settling for that in the work of figuring out how schools can help to address the problems of poverty?

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).