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Ruby Payne Discussion


Alice Mercer alerted me to a lively discussion going on about educational consultant Ruby Payne over at the Dangerously Irrelevant blog.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m pretty critical of Ms. Payne’s “deficit” approach to low-income students.

You might find it interesting to visit the conversation going on at Scott McLeod’s blog. For what it’s worth, here’s the comment I left there:

I’m coming to this conversation late (it IS Christmas break, after all!), but as a longtime critic of Ruby Payne (and an admirer of Paul Gorski for being an even earlier and far more insightful critic than me) it’s certainly an engaging one.

I’m also coming to it after a nineteen year community organizing career that has preceded my newer career (five years and counting) as a teacher in Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school.

I agree that the most effective long-term strategy for dealing with many of the problems facing low-income communities (and the children who live in them) is to organize for better housing, employment, health, etc.). I would also add that schools and their staff should work as partners with parents and other local neighborhood institutions to push for those changes.

At the same time, though, I don’t necessarily believe that this kind of strategy is the only avenue to pursue, just as I don’t believe that most teachers are attracted to Ruby Payne’s deficit model because it’s “comfortable.”

I believe that there is much that can be done day-and-day-out in the classroom by teachers. And that many of these teachers are desperate to learn any kind of instructional strategies and classroom management tactics that they can apply effectively to respond to the many challenging situations that can be found in inner-city schools.

Saul Alinsky, the father of modern-day community organizing and the founder of the organization that I worked for during my organizing career, once said, “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.”

I believe that those of us who are critics of Ruby Payne need to do a far better job of offering constructive alternatives that teachers can use today and tomorrow — right in their classroom — if we want more to see the fallacies of Payne’s approach.

Larry Ferlazzo

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry,
    Thanks for the link to this discussion. It’s really sad that so many people continue to blame the victims. I can do many things in my classroom to support my students, but I can’t do it all. I know everyone is probably sick of the expression “It takes a village to raise a child”, but it’s so true. It is a partnership. I agree with you. Perhaps the leaders of the village need to redirect some of that bailout money elsewhere-health care, housing, education etc.

  2. Over the years of my teaching career (8 and counting) I’ve been told by more than a few colleagues that I absolutely should read Ruby Payne. I’m all for learning about ways that will improve my practice, however, before purchasing her book, I decided to see what was out there on the web.

    There was much I didn’t like and I came away really feeling like Payne may be causing more harm than good. I agree with you that we do need to come up with something that will counter-balance the influence she has had.

    Over my 8 years of teaching at the same middle school is the same troubled urban district, I have seen many well-meaning teachers leave. Their thought when they walk through the doors does come from a mostly white middle class (mostly liberal) background in that they feel they are their to “save the children.” These teachers are quickly disillusioned because they honestly believe that the students should respond to their well-intentioned approaches.

    This is the thing that I absolutely know for sure as a white teacher teaching in a highly diverse school. My students expect me to respect them and to treat them with dignity. They expect that if I say something that I will follow through and they know that while I may be “tough,” I care about them and their success deeply.

  3. I just read Ruby Payne’s book, Understanding Poverty. I noticed she classifies people into behavior groups based on income. She assumes that people in certain income brackets will behave and learn certain ways based on their environment and a need to survive in that setting. I think some of the characteristics in her hidden rules among classes are very true, but she seems to assume every individual within that income brakcet will learn and behave the same way. My problem with her book is that she is sterotyping. She is assuming that if you’re poor, then this is how you will behave and learn. But I have met students who are poor and rich whose behavior do not fall into her hidden rules among classes.

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