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The Best Critiques Of Ruby Payne


Ruby Payne is a popular consultant to school districts around the United States and, perhaps, the world. I have major concerns about her “deficit” view of low-income students and their families — it smacks of a “blaming the victim” mentality.

I’ve written extensively about the concept of “blame,” and you might be interested in The Best Resources For Helping Students (& The Rest Of Us) Learn The Concept Of Not Blaming Others.

I thought it might also be important, though, to create a “The Best…” list specifically related to Ms. Payne. Her popularity is a fact (you can read this fawning New York Times Magazine article about her to confirm that statement).

There have been some good critiques written about her, though there have also been ones that are not particularly accessible and written in “academic-ese” and others which I think have been overly ideological. Here’s a comment I left on Scott McLeod’s blog a few years ago during a conversation about Payne:

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.

One of the things I try to do in this blog and in my books is to offer practical strategies for teachers to use instead of getting sucked into “blaming the victim.”

But there have been some good accessible critiques written, and I thought I’d share a few of what I think are the best ones:

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty by Paul Gorski at Educational Leadership.

A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne by Anita Bohn at Rethinking Schools.

Savage Unrealities by Paul Gorski at Rethinking Schools.

Revisiting Ruby Payne by Anita Bohn at Rethinking Schools.

Poverty and Payne: Supporting Teachers to Work with Children of Poverty is by Mistilina Sato and Timothy J. Lensmir.

Shifting from Deficit to Generative Practices: Addressing Impoverished and All Students is by Paul Thomas. And thanks to Paul for helping me find some of the articles on this list.

The Corrosive Power of Stereotypes in Politics and Education is also by Paul Thomas.

Return of the Deficit is by Curt Dudley-Marling.

Questioning Payne is a good piece from Teaching Tolerance.

More resources can be found at Debunking Ruby Payne’s Framework of Poverty.

The Payne of Confronting Stereotypes about Poverty as Educators is by Paul Thomas.

Questioning Payne is from Teaching Tolerance.

Feedback and/or Additional suggestions are always welcome.

If you found this post useful, you might want to consider subscribing to this blog for free.

You might also want to explore the over 800 other “The Best…” lists I’ve compiled.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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


  1. I have read Payne’s work regarding her frame work on poverty. Many sources site her work as being racist, classist and miseducating people about those living in poverty. I can see where the language used and examples given can make for uncomfortable talking points as they seem to target specific minority groups (even if she doesn’t come out and directly name them), but I do like that it opens up the conversation. In reading her work I can’t help but wonder if race and poverty are so interwoven through the generations that we have come to a point where differentiation of the two matters is nearly impossible. Is Payne’s work racist or is it troublesome for us to read because minorities have been in poverty for so long that culture versus socioeconomic status line has become blurred? Clearly our society is in an ugly place right now but it has been running in the undercurrent for decades, even centuries if you will. Can we advance minorities without first addressing poverty, specifically generational poverty caused by racial biases? These are the talking points stirred in me by her work. Honest thoughts and opinions are more than welcome.

  2. I have been a teacher for 23 years and have taught many, many children living in poverty. I’ve always known these children were from impoverished backgrounds but I hate to admit I didn’t really understand what to do about it. I’ve just read two books – one by Ruby Payne and one by Eric Jensen. Both were centered around understanding poverty and what teachers can do to fairly and adequately teach all their students. I don’t necessarily agree with everything I read in the books, but I’ve also been reading online articles from Teaching Tolerance and others. The thing I take away from this is whether you agree with Payne or not, Jensen or not, Gorski or not, TT or not — at least this experience has helped me as an educator to understand my students more. The school I work in hovers around 80% Free and Reduced Lunch, so clearly poverty is well represented. Teachers need to talk about this, need to get help with strategies and need professional development. We have significant needs in our classrooms, behavior problems, mental health problems and need as much support as possible. Please keep this dialogue going. Teachers need help!!!

  3. I recently read Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach. I feel she makes valid points in terms of the importance of a support system for all students. We should not over-generalize or make a blanket statement in terms of all children living in poverty, middle class, or wealthy; however, there are common trends for each class regardless of race, sex, etc. When children of all different social classes, do not have support systems at home, it is our responsibility as educators to help close that gap and provide the support needed.

  4. While completing a class about the effects of poverty on children, I was required to read “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” and “Teaching With Poverty in Mind”. I found the two books had a common theme of the importance of relationships with students. As another person commented, this is an effective strategy for ALL children. I found Payne’s book to be an interesting read, however I did not find many strategies that I could take into my classroom and use right away. Jensen’s book seemed to have more strategies I could implement right away to help my students.
    I also agree with other people who commented that each situation is different no matter what class you fall into.
    I do think Payne has started conversations about poverty. The pages about casual register and formal register were interesting to ponder. I certainly am considering things I was not considering as an educator before reading these two resources. The conversation and the research continues….

  5. I recently read A Framework for Understanding Poverty revised edition. It was an interesting read. I disagree with many of Payne’s conclusions; however, there is value in having a discussion about poverty and education. The book at times seems to be out of touch with reality as it does not tackle the relationships of race, gender, class, and culture in its analysis. I was particularly dismayed that the cover of the book states that is was created for educators, employers, policymakers, and service providers yet it does not offer any meaningful tools to assist individuals working with students living in poverty.

  6. I like Ruby Payne’s book on Understanding the Framework of Poverty, because it provided some true insight on the world of poverty and gave some good strategies to use when teaching students living in poverty.

    Growing up I was raised in a middle-class community that was surrounded by poverty. It was not until I had my student teaching experience on a Indian Reservation 30 minutes from my hometown that I actually experienced some of the differences of poverty. After my student teaching experience, I began teaching full-time in that same community, because I felt it was one of the most rewarding careers that I enjoyed doing. Ruby Payne not only provided me a starting point in my teaching career but a way to relate to some of the issues of working with poverty.

    Now, ten years later, I am taking on class on Ruby Payne’s book and I am still learning new information that I missed ten years earlier. I have found that I agree that some of her findings may be a bit extreme, but that is the nice part of the world we live in, you take the information that you want and disregard the rest.

    There are lots of other good resources available for working with students in poverty, Ruby Payne was merely another one of those resources that I found very beneficial to my teachings.

  7. The title of Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty is just that a framework something to build upon. It is not the “holy grail” of what poverty is but a way of looking at it through the eyes of a highly educated professional. Her case studies are surreal in that they seem as if imagined but are so commonly true in many of the lives of those who are impoverished. What I’m take from this book and the class I’m reading it for is simply that as an educator I can read all the materials in the world concerning the reasons why poverty exist. In addition, as how it affects the lives of everyone involved but at the end of the day, the most important way I can change the cycle of poverty in the children I teach is by being the most well prepared teacher I can be for the students I teach.

  8. After perusing A Framework for Understanding: Poverty – A Cognitive Approach, I felt that I have learned a number of strategies in dealing with at-risk students in poverty settings. My school has 100% breakfast and lunch, and the demographic is mostly white with African-American, Hispanic and Asian as well. My school has the mostly white demographic which is different from the book and counteracts the stereotype that African Americans are the root of problems and poverty. Also, I found that it is not particularly true that students and people in general cannot move from one class to another, fit into the new surroundings and embrace them as their own. I have seen many instances where that has happened from adults to young students. I particularly found the Hidden Rules to be most beneficial because they provided me with scenarios and ways to deal with them. In all, this is a wonderful tool for a hands-on approach to tackling some of the issues that face our high school community.

  9. I just read Payne’s book. I found Payne’s book to be very informative. I think Payne does a nice job of adressing the importance of nurturing adult relationships, relational learning, and student-driven inquiry. I think Payne helps the reader / educator, understand the tendencies that are associated with children of poverty. Payne identifies strategies that teachers can use to better understand how to work with children of poverty. She explains the tools and resources necessary so that both teachers and their students will experience success in the classroom. Payne’s critics argue that Payne’s over simplified generalizations lead the reader to think that Payne relies on stereotypes. I disagree. Payne’s expertise is not in social justice. The complexity of poverty does not allow Payne to address all the issues associated with poverty.

  10. After reading Ruby Payne’s book on understanding poverty I do believe she is approaching this in an empathetic, but factual way. I do think poverty is so deep-rooted and there is so much that goes with it. I do believe the first step is educating yourself on the topic and then approaching all situations with a heart of empathy and passion for people in a variety of situations. I think critiques of Payne’s work aren’t taking into consideration that this is a person trying to educate herself on the topic of poverty. She is trying to educate all of us in a way that we can approach situations in our schools and with our students through a different lens. I feel in my heart that this is one of the bigger battles to overcome when it comes to working with families in poverty in school settings. Not everyone has it in them to approach situations with a heart of empathy and I think Payne’s research is a good start on truly understanding how different social classes can be and the way they view different areas of life. I am thankful there are enough people that are passionate about this topic so I can further my knowledge on such a sensitive, but important topic that is affecting our future generations.

  11. Thank you for your list of resources for best critiques on Ruby Payne’s work. Questioning Payne by Teaching Tolerance was especially helpful to me. It was interesting to read Payne’s perspective and responses to the critics. I think we can all agree understanding and teaching children living in poverty is a complex topic. It is evident from the criticism of Payne’s work that more research is needed. To tackle poverty, support is needed not only from educators, but support from communities and government. As an educator, reading Payne’s work is my first step in understanding poverty, seeking knowledge is vital. It is important for educators to understand different cultures and to be accepting of these differences. As an educator, I need to recognize a child’s strength, no matter what socioeconomic status, race, culture, or disability, and teach that child academic and social skills to help them strive to obtain the highest level that they can achieve.

  12. I hate to jump on the criticism train for Ruby Payne. It is clear that she has reviewed and conducted research in the areas of poverty and how it impacts children in many areas of life. I thought that her text “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” was eye-opening. I work in a rural school with a high percentage of students on free or reduced lunch and I could picture them having some of the conversations or scenarios described throughout Payne’s text. Educators need information and professional development in the area of poverty and how to create an environment conducive to learning for all students. Ruby Payne seeks to do that. She provides the quizzes so that readers can self-reflect on the differences between social and economic classes. She provides information so that educators can better understand priorities in different cultures and families, and gives examples so that readers can better understand the information and concepts. I am happy that I read Payne’s text and although I don’t necessarily agree with every page of her book, I did find it interesting and a new perspective that I was interested in reading.

  13. I believe that working with children in poverty there is no right answer on how to help. Each student comes from a different background, some students in poverty have parents who are very supportive of education and the school whereas others do not communicate with the school and don’t motivate students to attend. I completely agree with your statement above, I believe that Payne has some great ideas that teachers and school stakeholders can certainly use to better understand where their students from poverty are coming from, especially if the teacher is from a middle or upper class socioeconomic status. I would certainly explore Payne’s suggestions on assisting these students. She is not the only individual who has published books or researched this population, meaning that there are many resources teachers and school stakeholders can rely on in order to help with students from lower income families be successful in the classroom setting, and their own personal life. I think the importance is that teachers use these resource, and try to understand poverty and impact it has on the educational world. I don’t think everything Payne says is gold, it may not work with all students, it may not work with any students, but fully understanding that she is not the end all be all with this research is just the beginning and knowing where to turn to better educate yourself to help students is just the start of a better future for all kids involved, even students coming from poverty.

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