The Classism of Teacher Bashing

Earlier this summer, I attended a dinner in which the other lively and funny guests turned cynical  near the end of the evening when they encouraged me to tell them more about my work. When I explained that I’d be  teaching a graduate education course in a few days, the woman who only a few minutes earlier had been bragging about her son’s work in Europe following graduation from the same very selective college that she’d attended, cut me off when I began talking about working in this course with teachers.

“How many of them are good?”, she asked flippantly.
I’d listened trough the evening as she had talked about her second home, as she’d name- dropped, as she rattled her expensive bracelets and flipped her excellent hair.  But she was funny,  an excellent story teller,  and generally so well-mannered and lovely.
Until we started talking about teachers.

Because our hosts were good friends, I held my tongue.

As far as I know, she had had no contact with public schools since her children had graduated years before. Yet she felt completely entitled to insult the graduate students in my program, and to patronize me.

Corey Robin calls this sort of  classism for what is is in the essay he published this week about the Chicago teacher strike (that was also reposted — and thus generated a different set of comments — on The Answer Sheet).

Apart for conflating the distinctive upper-middle-class people of his hometown with  “people”, it’s an important essay. He writes of the pervasive contempt of teachers in his community:

Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

Meanwhile, as several commenters on the post point out, the Koch brothers and their allies are successfully convincing the working class that teachers are privileged elites who are in it mainly for the benefits.
As I type this, I’m listening to a high level journalist talking on the radio about the “special interest” teacher union that is disinterested in reform, all without addressing a single issue that was contested in the strike.

Rahm Emanuel was sure to get his fit upper-middle class body photographed next to smiling children of color this week in his suit and starched white shirt.  He smiled serenely back at them.

The striking teachers were consistently photographed in t-shirts and baseball caps,  shouting and shaking their fists.

Robin called this classism for what it is.

Let’s be sure that he’s not the only one.

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).

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?

Punishing Parents

From Texas comes this story about a legislator who wants to charge parents who skip parent teacher conferences with a misdemeanor, punishable with fines of up to $500. This strikes me as yet another example of the public propensity to sanction long-outdated school practices while blaming parents (and let’s be clear — this is aimed at poor and working-class parents) for not complying with what’s expected of them.

It doesn’t seem that this proposal will get anywhere, but the story did make me think of other fines we could impose in the interest of developing school practice that reflect the realities of contemporary lives, and especially, that revise ways that schools work with poor and working class families:

So, let’s fine:

  • Employers who don’t routinely let parents have time off — or at least flex time — to go to conferences or to school events. Most kids live in homes in which any and all adults are working. A number of years ago, I read of mills in North Carolina that had worked with the schools to give parents a few hours a month for school-related activities (childless workers could use this time to volunteer in schools). The mills understood that this was in their interest, as they’d assumed that their next generation of workers would come to them with a solid education . (The mills are all closed now and their work outsourced, but that’s another story).
  • Employers who won’t provide meeting space so that the conferences could happen at the workplace. Not all parents have free access to reliable transportation.
  • School districts that won’t fund teacher time for substantive, ongoing communication, because no one really believes that the twenty-minutes-twice-a-year ritual is adequate for any substantive conversation. Teachers need time for regular phone calls, for more frequent meetings, for time to create explanatory materials when homework goes beyond drill and practice, for analyzing and compiling student work so that they can talk with parents about something other than summative grades.
  • School districts that won’t fund time for teachers to do home visits before the school year begins.
  • School districts that don’t provide “family center” space for resources, informal meetings, parent classes, a symbolic welcoming space in the school.
  • Federal policy makers that proclaim parents as partners but don’t provide the resources for communication, meeting, and the inevitable conflict resolution.

Class in Everyday Life

In The Moral Significance of Class, Andrew Sayer writes:

Condescension, deference, shame, guilt, envy, resentment, arrogance, contempt, fear and mistrust, or simply mutual incomprehension and avoidance, typify relations between people of different classes. Some people may be, or want to be, respectful, considerate, and warm to individuals from other classes, but the inequalities themselves are likely to frustrate their attempts by tainting them with suspicions of condescension, disrespect, or unwanted familiarity.

Clearly, more stands in the way of poor and working class kids than their test scores. When peer relationships form along class lines, and when teachers act as representatives of the middle class, can teachers name the implicit tensions, the wariness, the incomprehension for they are? Can teachers become credible to kids from backgrounds very different from their own without first acknowledging the social distances from which teachers and kids view each other across class boundaries?