Reframing Ruby Payne

Jan 08 2012

i want change

I read Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty before our day-long professional development meeting, and like Anita Bohn, writing for Rethinking Schools, I didn’t know whether to laugh at the stupidity or to rage at the offensive stereotyping of people in poverty. For example, a few of Payne’s 18 “hidden rules” for surviving in poverty (p. 38):

  • I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food
  • I know how to get someone out of jail.
  • I know how to get a gun, even if I have a police record.
  • I know how to live without electricity and a phone.

Mostly, I was irritated that I would be required to spend a day listening to comic book scenarios, stereotyped bad guys, and make-believe solutions to real problems. In her Rethinking Schools piece, Anita Bohn remarked, “I am still hard pressed to understand why ideas like this have made Payne the hottest speaker/trainer on poverty on the public school circuit today.”

I’d suggest, simply, that Payne’s appeal for teachers and education reformers is the same as Batman’s mythical superhero storybook appeal: A community faces extraordinary challenges which regular institutions fail to address, and a hero steps forward promising to restore order and harmony for the general good. It’s very simple! Find a villain, characterize the threat by deploying stereotypes that ring true for a worried middle-class person’s biases, and suggest a few self-evident solutions. BAM! BANG! A modern myth.

I voiced my frustrations with the book at our meeting before the presenter arrived when we were doing a brief book talk, jigsaw style. My group was chosen to summarize chapter one. All of the people in my particular group had read the book and found it offensive in various ways. We had a pretty animated discussion, and they asked me to be the spokesman. “I’m speaking for the (otherwise all women) group,” I said, because I am a man, and we are better at public speaking than women. Men have more physical resources with our louder voices, and we have more emotional resources due to our assertiveness. We are also more accustomed to being in charge. We have a culture of leadership, you might say.” I had everyone’s attention, mostly smiling.

Payne builds a case for poverty being about more than just economic need, I said, because she wants teachers to take a measure of responsibility for remedying their condition. She presents us with several case studies of supposedly real people in order to exemplify the problems that poor people face, and along the way she tosses out numerous gross generalizations about what she calls a “culture of poverty” and the moral failures inherent in this entire class of people. As in, “The poor simply see jail as a part of life and not necessarily always bad” (p. 22). Or, “And one of the rules for generational poverty for women is this: you may need to use your body for survival” (p. 24).

It disturbed to me that this so-called training was required as part of our professional development. As far as the hidden rules go, I said, what we really need to think about is whether we want to try to fit kids into a sick society or whether we want to work to make the world a better place for them to live.

Ruby Payne on her website and in her workshop handout, describes the research base for her book:

A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a cognitive study that looks at the thinking or mindsets created by environments. It is a naturalistic inquiry based upon a convenience sample. The inquiry occurred from being involved for 32 years with a neighborhood in generational poverty. This neighborhood comprised 50–70 people (counts changed based upon situation, death, and mobility), mostly white. From that, an in‐depth disciplinary analysis of the research was undertaken to explain the behaviors. It does not qualify as “research” against university standards because it does not have a clean
methodology.

Translation: Ruby Payne made all of this up. It isn’t worth a damn thing, and nobody with any credibility pays any attention to it.

Even with the disclaimer, I cringed when the presenter, who enthusiastically called herself The Billy Graham of Ruby Payne quoted this mind-boggling little hypothetical chain of causality regarding language and cognition as if it was gospel, from Chapter 8, Instruction and Improving Achievement:

If an individual depends upon a random, episodic story structure for memory patterns, lives in an unpredictable environment, and has not developed the ability to plan, then …

If an individual cannot plan, he/she cannot predict:

If an individual cannot predict, he/she cannot identify cause and effect.

If an individual cannot identify cause and effect, he/she cannot identify consequence.

If an individual cannot identify consequence, he/she cannot control impulsivity.

If an individual cannot control impulsivity, he/she has an inclination toward criminal behavior (p.90).

Outrageous! With all of those italicized phrases, I should mention something about what is known as the deficit model. Payne explains (p. 169-176 ) why her approach does not employ a deficit model, even though she says, “When individuals in poverty encounter the middle-class world of work, school, and other institutions, they do not have all the assets necessary to survive in that environment because what is needed there are proactive, abstract, and verbal skills.” She uses the glass half empty/half full metaphor, and calls her “framework for building resources” a way to fill up the glass (p. 173). Even though she calls her approach, The Additive Model, she nonetheless tries to create a rationale for becoming a glass-filler, to implement what Martin Haberman called the Pedagogy of Poverty, which merely preserves the status quo.

Ironic, isn’t it, that “standards-based education reform” applies to curriculum and testing, but not to staff development? “Accountability” is for teachers, I suppose, and not for hired consultants.What we’re seeing is a good example of regulatory capture, in which private interests have hamstrung public institutions with crippling rules, encouraging businesses to contaminate the environment with worthless and even harmful products. Ruby Payne’s framework is a toxic waste.

Many thanks to Paul Gorski for his critical perspective on issues of poverty and social class in education.

Note: this post was slightly edited from an earlier version.

6 responses so far

  1. I wish several year ago we’d been able to time travel and arrive at the same point. I’d love to have heard this there. My own summary of a chapter, or behavior in my group at the least years ago stopped the “book club” format.
    It’s a haul from here down the next steps in the deficit model.

    I will always remember my Principal, then, assuming a voice with a southern accent and proceeding to act out some of the points you noted above including a particularly enlightening piece on dumpster diving and gettin’ free food. Meanwhile we were expected to accept these characterizations as fact.

    Yes, Ruby Payne made it all up.

    And somehow THAT was used to justify “explicit” academic rigor, or so we were told, being mandated out to us. What followed for us were Power Standards, Marzano and a mile high insistence on the consultant of the week program. As literature, literacy and our math fell to pieces.
    Since the format of your meeting sounds identical I am assuming we did , in fact, thinking about it time travel-I think my school went through this 7 years ago.

  2. What a disaster, eh? Like a runaway train.

  3. Doug, I am interested (although you may not necessarily want to share) what your consultant’s reaction was to your group’s book talk perspective. I read this post with interest as I am now in a school where poverty is a real issue – and it may be not long before perspectives like you describe as presented to the staff. I’m reasonably confident that we as a school and even as a department have a reasonably balanced view on social justice issues. Generalisations as described by Payne overlook some many factors caused by society in general – not helpful in education where we need to look at each individual kid and cater as best we can for their personal learning needs. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Graham. You know, things are always a little more involved than what is shared in a blog post. The discussion portion of our day happened in the morning, before the consultant arrived. She missed a connecting flight trying to get to Alaska the evening before the meeting, and she couldn’t make it until we were half-through the session. So we all spent the AM portion getting familiar with the material. Not a bad use of time, as it turned out.

    Going in, I wanted to have a chance to present an alternate perspective, but I didn’t want to argue with the consultant. Since, earlier, we’d had the chance to share our views, nobody seemed to feel a need to disagree while she was going through her presentation. Later on, one person said to me, “She had no idea who she was talking to.” I suppose. I’m guessing that she was prepared for criticisms, though, since the materials she provided specifically denied that they stereotype people or rely on a deficit model. Even though that’s exactly what they were doing.

  5. I, too, have been presented with the works of Payne, Bohn, and Marzano: flavors of the month. And like them, I recognize that poverty is crippling to the education of our students. But poverty is simply a symptom. If a man has a tumor in his brain that negatively affects his vision, would we demand that the eye doctor restore his sight? No, he needs a neurologist to treat the cause of the problem, not an eye doctor scrambling to correct what he cannot affect. Likewise, if a tsunami pummeled the shores of a country for two hundred years, would we expect a small group of highly trained, well educated life guards to resolve all the problems created by the tsunami? Our students arrive to us with the symptoms of poverty. We, highly trained and well educated professionals, with all the motivation we can muster, are not equipped to undo a culture of poverty. I cannot be in every student’s home with a hot meal and a warm bed, with clear restrictions and guidelines for safety and wellbeing. I’m not there to lead by example nor to impart the value of education. I can teach an outstanding lesson, but if my student has been up all night with a crying, sick or hungry baby, or adults practicing prostitution in the next room, or gunshots flying outside the window, or threats to join a gang or be a victim, chances are my lesson won’t have any impact. This is bigger than cancer and will require a bigger solution than good lesson planning.

  6. You might remember when we first became bloggily acquainted with one another five or six years back, as I ranted and raved through issues I was witnessing and experiencing as a teacher in Oz. Most of the fumes and flames shooting from my ears were the result of having to endure gross stereotyping of all sorts including this gospel about poverty pushed on the staff by my then principal. To her, Ruby Payne was omniscient in all things, and was speaking directly to her (and therefore us) about how to understand our students’ families, parents, and home lives.

    Listening to teachers fan her fire during professional development/staff meetings would make me physically ill, though several colleagues admitted to “siding” with the principal/Ruby Payne because of the ~very real threat~ they feared when it came to their teacher evaluations. For one exercise, the principal told us to “look at the parents’ shoes, see if they’re some expensive brand name advertised by famous black basketball players. Then remember that they’d rather wear status than give their children healthy food or a computer.” Yes, we were to return to our next PD meeting citing an example that we’d seen “out in the real world.”

    Wow. Just…..wow.

    I quit. Thankfully I’ve been gainfully employed elsewhere in the Emerald City, but I cringe, knowing 1) she’s not the only principal buying this crap, 2) Ruby Payne isn’t the only snake-oil salesman selling it and 3) one district isn’t alone in having to endure *this* as professional development, exposing new-to-service teachers to bias they might either blindly believe or feel forced to parrot.