In the early years of my life as a high school English teacher—during the Reagan years—I began my journey to being a critical educator as naive but sincere. One of the first steps into creating a critical classroom included my confronting students about race and class.
When I asked students (in a school sitting in the rural South and high poverty) who they believed was on Welfare, they echoed Reagan's "Welfare Queen" stereotype (although the population of the school included a significant percentage of rural poor Whites). I then offered them the data, showing that whites were on Welfare at the time in far larger numbers than African Americans. While they tended to argue that wasn't true, despite the data, I also asked them to unpack the more complicated data—African Americans being disproportionately among Welfare recipients when contextualized by racial ratios in the U.S.
This second step led to what was more disturbing for my students—a process I use to this day. I ask students to identify the percentage of Whites in the U.S., and then the percentage of Whites in the world population.
In the 1980s, the approximate ratios were that about 8 in 10 Americans were White with 1 in 10 being African American. Internationally, Whites accounted for a near reversal of those numbers constituting about 1 in 10 people world-wide.
This data disoriented and even angered students. I recall specifically that one African American young lady in my advanced class became so incensed with me after these lessons that she never recovered. Her offense? Growing up in South Carolina at the time, she had lived in a population far more densely populated by African Americans (SC had about 30% African Americans in those years) than the aggregate of the entire country, and she felt my data was some sort of White man's intent to marginalize African Americans.
Stereotypes Endure, Evidence Angers
In a recent Education Week Teacher blog, "Teaching Now," Liana Heitin ("A Payne-ful Discussion," January 4, 2012) highlights the use of Ruby Payne's materials and workshops marketed to schools as credible examinations of poverty, children living in poverty, and effective pedagogy for teaching children living in poverty. Paul Gorski, a leading educator/scholar/activist confronting Payne's materials, and I commented on the blog, prompting a response that deserves consideration:
"I have read Payne's book and have heard most of the arguments against it. So what makes her perspective so popular with some educators? Perhaps, it's because she speaks/writes in a language that makes sense to teachers. Or it could be that what she describes aligns with what many teachers see on a daily basis. And maybe, it's because she provides easy to implement tips and practices that overworked and harried teachers can use in their classrooms.
"Payne does not profess to tackle the myriad obstacles and forces that work against poor kids. She merely gives teachers some tools to reach them. In this, she is clear about her objectives and goals, unlike others who want teachers to tackle societal inequities, as indicated by the earlier comments.
"I believe that most teachers are sincere, dedicated and concerned professionals who are doing the best they can to teach the students in their classrooms. Many just want to teach and engage their students the best they can. Right or wrong, Payne helps them do so."
This comment is disturbing—notably the last sentence conceding no interest in distinguishing between "right or wrong."
Next, let's place this comment in the larger political discourse among the Republican candidates for president during the 2012 campaign. Lauren Victoria Burke exposes a similar pattern among the Republican candidates:
"There are 40 million Americans of African decent in the U.S. and the five GOP presidential candidates know every single one of them. They have 'no habits of working' says one. Blacks are 'brainwashed' says another. With few examples the left doesn’t strongly react and the right either agrees or doesn’t care. The result is a long cowardly silence. Perhaps Govs. Mitt Romney and John Huntsman have it right as they steadfastly avoid the subjects effecting 40 million Americans entirely. Hard to fathom when you realize it’s those two candidates who should perhaps understand bigotry more clearly than the others.
"That former Sen. Santorum brings up Blacks within the context of poverty is old school. Though 10% of whites in the U.S were in poverty in 2010 you’d never know it listening to Republicans running for President. There are 223,553,265 non-Hispanic whites in the U.S., 10% of whom live in poverty. That’s 22,355,326 people. Yet when poverty comes up in GOP political discussion it’s within the context of blacks only. Blacks are the racial punchline in the GOP joke of poverty. Though the U.S. now has more poor people now than at any other time in history and 1 of 7 people living on the financial margins, no GOP candidate has offered a single word of policy on the subject."
Republicans directly—and Democrats by their silence and policies—perform at the political level the exact pattern Payne has used to create her own poverty-in-education market: Speaking to stereotypes under the veil of addressing poverty.
Heitin's blog ends asking questions about using Payne's materials but remains silent about her credibility: "Even if Payne's ideas won't help, is it possible that a frank discussion of the problems she proposes to solve might? Would that kind of conversation be possible—or productive—at your school? Have you read Payne?"
This is where we fail due to stereotypes in education in the same ways we fail in politics because of stereotypes. We must not find ways to work within the corrosive narratives presented by political candidates or self-promoted and indefensible education consultants. Instead, we must address "right or wrong" and be frank about what is wrong and embrace what is right.
Briefly, then, let's consider what is wrong with Payne's materials and her stereotype-driven promotion of deficit views of children in poverty, poverty, and teaching those children:
• Ng and Rury (2009) have examined Payne's extensive and profitable status within America's education system—implementing her workshops and materials in over three-fourths of districts across the U.S. and creating huge profits for her self-published books and self-promoted programs. In short, the "popularity" of Payne can be traced to marketing, not scholarship or credibility (see extensive scholarship rebuking Payne's claims, her credentials, and the deficit views of poverty she promotes , ). Payne's success is primarily marketing and taking advantage of a perceived bureaucratic need—but it is not evidence of credibility.
• As the commenter at the blog cited above notes, and as Ng and Rory detail, Payne is popular, but that cannot justify her materials or her messages. The why is where we should be concerned, and a significant reason why is beneath why Gingrich's mischaracterization of children living in poverty and their families as well as Reagan's "Welfare Queen" smear works: Many Americans, including educators, have come to believe in a "middle class ideal" that has normalized whiteness and rugged individualism as realities and the unspoken "right" the blog commenter suggests doesn't matter. The meritocracy myth has grounded American belief in each individual, suggesting that all success and all failure lie within each person and not within cultural inequity and social dynamics that have created a widening equity gap in the U.S. and stymied over two-thirds of Americans to remain in the relative social class of their births. [Note that the commenter on the blog post justifies embracing Payne with "what she describes aligns with what many teachers see on a daily basis." This sentiment was mirrored as I sat in a workshop given by Randy Bomer challenging Payne's materials, and afterward, the first person to support Payne and confront Bomer was a teacher who had come from poverty herself and personified the powerful impact stereotypes can have in the face of evidence.]
• Gorski; Bomer, et al.; Kohn; and Haberman (among many other scholars of race, class, and education) have carefully detailed that the "culture of poverty" and "pedagogy of poverty" (both of which are central to Payne's work) are stereotypes and corrosive, ideologies imposed on the world as opposed to generalizations drawn from evidence. [For example, people living in poverty are associated popularly with crime, but the complicated truth is that people all along the spectrum of classes are involved with crime, but those in poverty suffer the most punitive consequences from that crime and then have their connection with crimes disproportionately identified in the wider public. Consider the consequence suffered by Rush Limbaugh's addiction to prescription medications or the inequitable penalities suffered for cocaine versus crack possession and use.]
American politics in the hands of the affluent have reduced democracy to protecting the privileged while demonizing those people (and children) living in poverty. In that context, our schools have been reduced to mechanisms of the social status quo—where we label and sort children by the conditions of their lives (not of their making) in order to enculturate them into a consumer culture that creates a 1%-99% dichotomy and often to criminalize their lives.
And here the reality becomes complex. If we accept those parameters as "right" (or justifiable), then Payne's workshops and materials are a perversion of effective, but that must change.
Payne's materials—like the racist and classist comments among presidential candidates—cannot be excused or tolerated in any context.
"The Rich Get Richer, While the Poor Get Worksheets”
Haberman (1991) identifies the assumptions behind the "pedagogy of poverty" more than twenty years ago:
"There are essentially four syllogisms that undergird the pedagogy of poverty. Their 'logic' runs something like this.
"1. Teaching is what teachers do. Learning is what students do. Therefore, students and teachers are engaged in different activities.
"2. Teachers are in charge and responsible. Students are those who still need to develop appropriate behavior. Therefore, when students follow teachers' directions, appropriate behavior is being taught and learned.
"3. Students represent a wide range of individual differences. Many students have handicapping conditions and lead debilitating home lives. Therefore, ranking of some sort is inevitable; some students will end up at the bottom of the class while others will finish at the top.
"4. Basic skills are a prerequisite for learning and living. Students are not necessarily interested in basic skills. Therefore, directive pedagogy." (p. 291)
And Haberman concludes:
“[T]he pedagogy of poverty does not work [(p. 291), and]...the pedagogy of poverty is not a professional methodology at all. It is not supported by research, by theory, or by the best practice of superior urban teachers. It is actually certain ritualistic acts that, much like the ceremonies performed by religious functionaries, have come to be conducted for their intrinsic value rather than to foster learning." (p. 292)
Kohn (2011, April 27) recognizes that Haberman’s criticism of the pedagogy of poverty found little traction, and “[t]he result is that ‘certain children’ are left farther and farther behind. The rich get richer, while the poor get worksheets.” As well, Kohn notes that the enduring commitment to deficit views of poverty, to ideologies focusing on outcomes and ignoring causation, and to mechanistic and bureaucratic policies insures only a widening of the equity gap as reflected in the narrow achievement gap (even when outliers succeed in raising some test scores for some students by teaching strictly to the tests):
"Unfortunately, that result is often at the expense of real learning, the sort that more privileged students enjoy, because the tests measure what matters least. Thus, it’s possible for the accountability movement to simultaneously narrow the test-score gap and widen the learning gap [emphasis in original]."
In 2012, presidential candidates are gaining traction with racist and classist claims that have no basis in evidence while education entrepreneurs are successfully marketing the "pedagogy of poverty" at the expense of school budgets and children's lives. And for these I am willing to invoke the language debased by current education reformers and state there is no excuse for these stereotypes or their utility in political careers, for personal gain, or for perpetuating the anti-democratic accountability movement currently dismantling public education.
"It’s exhausting, being on the lookout for all of the Trojan horses that are being wheeled into our schoolrooms these days," admits Doug Noon—Trojan horses such as Payne's programs, Teach for America, and Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schemes—and we could say the same about the political landscape. But lookout we must, along with exposing, confronting, and creating new landscapes in our schools and our society.
 Scholarship challenging Payne accessible electronically:
Bohn, A. (2006, Winter). A framework for understanding Ruby Payne. Rethinking Schools, 21(2). http://www.rethinkingschools.org/...
Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1). Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://www.wce.wwu.edu/...
Gorski, P. (2008). Peddling poverty for profit: Elements of oppression in Ruby Payne's Framework. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(1), 130-148. http://www.edchange.org/...
———. (2006, Winter). Savage unrealities: Classism and racism around Ruby Payne's Framework. Rethinking Schools, 21(2). http://www.edchange.org/...
———. (2008, April). The myth of the “Culture of Poverty.” Educational Leadership, 65(7), 32-36. http://www.ascd.org/...
Haberman, M. (1991, December). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan. 290-294. Retrieved 13 July 2011 from https:/www.ithaca.edu...
Kohn, A. (2011, April 27). Poor teaching for poor children. . .in the name of reform. Education Week. Retrieved 13 July 2011 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/...
Howley, C. B., Howley, A. A., Howley, C. W., & Howley, M. D. (2006). Saving the children of the poor in rural schools. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, California. Available at http://www.eric.ed.gov:80/...
Ng, J., & Rury, J. (2009, Winter). Problematizing Payne and understanding poverty: An analysis with data from the 2000 census. Journal of Educational Controversy, 4(1). http://www.wce.wwu.edu/...
 Print scholarship challenging Payne [see all here Debunking Ruby Payne's Framework of Poverty]:
Bomer, R., Dworin, J. E., May, L., & Semingson, P. (2008). Miseducating teachers about the poor: A critical analysis of Ruby Payne's claims about poverty. Teachers College Record, 110(11).
Bomer, R., Dworin, J. E., May, L., & Semingson, P. (2009, June 3). What’s wrong with a deficit perspective? Teachers College Record.
Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009, May). Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children. Language Arts, 86(5), 362-370.
Dworin, J. E., & Bomer, R. (2008, January). What we all (supposedly) know about the poor: A critical discourse analysis of Ruby Payne’s “Framework.” English Education, 40(2), 101-121.
Gorski, P. (2006a, February 9). The Classist underpinnings of Ruby Payne’s Framework. Teachers College Record.
Ng, J., & Rury, J. (2006, July 20). Responding to Payne’s response. Teachers College Record.Ng, J. C., & Rury, J. L. (2006, July 18). Poverty and education: A critical analysis of the Ruby Payne phenomenon. Teachers College Record.
Osei-Kofi, N. (2005). Pathologizing the poor: A framework for understanding Ruby Payne's work. Equity & Excellence in Education, (38), 367–375.
Sato, M., & Lensmire, T. J. (2009, January). Poverty and Payne: Supporting teachers to work with children of poverty. Phi Delta Kappan, 9(5), 365-370.
Smiley, A. D. Becoming teachers: The Payne effect. Multicultural Perspectives.
Starnes, B. A. (2008, June). On lilacs, tap-dancing, and children of poverty. Phi Delta Kappan. 779-780.
Valencia, R. R. (2010). Dismantlingcontemporary deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. New York: Routledge.
Weiderspan, J. P., & Danziger, S. K. (2009). Review: A framework for understanding poverty. Social Work, 54(4), 376.