Doug Noon On Ruby Payne

Reframing Ruby Payne

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
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.

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