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In Ruby Payne's startlingly influential book on education, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, she writes:

   Low achievement is closely correlated with lack of resources, and numerous studies have documented the correlation between low socioeconomic status and low achievement. To improve achievement, however, we need to rethink our instruction and our instructional arrangements.

Ok. That sounds reasonable enough, if a little vague and simplistic. It's a great idea - vital, in fact - for teachers to be aware of and able to respond to students with different types of backgrounds.

But Payne's book isn't about developing pedagogical flexibility or adaptability. It's about pathologizing the poor.

Her book is riddled with overstatement and bizarre value judgments. Payne informs her readers that the poor have the television on all the time and never listen to one another. She writes that poor children "may not know any adults worthy of respect." She tells us that poor kids tend to be disorganized because planning and prioritizing are "not taught in poverty."

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Payne's Framework has become a canonical resource in a number of public schools, which use to book and Payne's host of supplementary for-profit services to train their teachers to elevate test scores in low-income schools.

Throughout Payne's book, she makes assertions about what happens "in poverty":

"Poverty tends to address issues in the negative."

Fighting physically is "necessary to survive in poverty."

"The culture of poverty does not provide for success in middle-class because middle-class to a large extent requires self-governance in behavior. To be successful in work and in school requires self-control in behavior."

So.......poor people are violent and uncontrolled. They can't carry on a conversation because they are accustomed to shouting over the blaring t.v. and over one another. They are disorganized and disrespectful.

Well, no wonder the sum total of our educational goals is to get them to pass a standardized test.

That someone wrote something this offensive, ignorant, and untrue about poverty and education doesn't surprise me in the least. That school districts are spending money on it is shocking.

Payne's thesis rests on the dual assumptions that "the culture of poverty" is monolithic and that it is inherently dysfunctional. Neither of these assumptions is true. First of all, poverty isn't a culture, it's a circumstance. This is not to deny that this country has families who have been living in poverty for generations and who have developed certain patterns of behavior or beliefs in response to this fact. But this is not the same thing as having a widespread "culture of poverty." And even if we wanted to discuss it in these misleading and overbroad terms, there is still no single culture of poverty. Poverty is as multicultural as any other socioeconomic class and its boundaries are as fluid.

Her second assumption, that "cultural" poverty is inherently dysfunctional and counterproductive to educational success is just stupid. Is poverty related to lower educational scores? Of course. Poor people have fewer resources, shittier schools, parents who are less able to be involved in their kids' educations (because of work schedules, language barriers, etc), more afterschool jobs, less stability. Of course there are additional educaltional challenges. But not because poor people as a whole are culturally sick.

Payne lumps all poor people together and makes them radically "other" to middle-class norms. Her book often reads like an anthropology essay written by an over-eager but not overly-bright student doing fieldwork for the first time. What is aggressively lacking in Payne's work is any effort to offer a nuanced approach to dealing with students from different backgrounds (and my own experience is that students from materially privileged homes can be just as fucked up and tend to be a LOT less self-disciplined than kids from poorer backgrounds). The plain fact of the matter is that any group of students is going to be diverse in terms of what they need. The only way to deal with this is to attend closely to how they respond to various methods and adjust accordingly. But this requires smaller class sizes and a desire to educate the students, not just to make them proficient at passing exams. It requires giving teachers the resources they need to succeed.

Payne's absolute refusal to see beyond her preconceptions to any kind of nuanced pedagogical notions can be seen in her defensive and nonsensical response to why she doesn't address the matter of race in conjunction with poverty and the problem of teachers unintentionally reproducing or reinscribing racism in the classroom:

   The real issue is that I am white, and there's a huge belief out there that if you're white, you can't talk about poverty and race.

Yeah, lady, THAT'S the problem. Rich white people just don't get enough voice in shaping the public policy in this country.

Originally posted to Feemus on Mon Apr 16, 2007 at 06:10 PM PDT.

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