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The Best Critiques Of Ruby Payne

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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.

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

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.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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

138 Comments

  1. I work in a Title 1 school, as the school psychologist. I have recently read Ruby Payne’s book, as well as Eric Jensen’s. In reading both texts, I appreciate the time spent on referencing the development of a child living in poverty. Understanding how poverty can affect a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development is important to me in my work. I appreciate that in the text, there are practical ideas, interventions, and approaches to use when working with those who are living in poverty. But just as many critics have said before, I think that using this information as a ‘one size fits all’ tool to understand poverty may be misguided. Just like with any student I work with, I like to understand their background, their individual differences, and what they have experienced in order to provide the best support and interventions that I can, rather than looking at them through the lens of their socioeconomic status. Ruby Payne’s work may highlight many experiences that people living in poverty have; however, it seems like it might be an over generalization and at times, stereotypical.

    In working in such a population, I think that an understanding of the effects of poverty can increase educators ability to provide support and services for families. Poverty is a complex thing that cannot be addressed at just school. I think more awareness, programming, and supports to help address needs for all families.

  2. I just finished reading Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen’s book for a class. I do agree with Payne’s “hidden rules” but I believe Payne’s work should not stand alone. I believe educators need to research the topic of poverty and combine strategies from many researched based resources to improve or support all students not just those in poverty. She did have some good strategies. I really liked the strategies and the research backing of Jensen’s approach. Payne’s work did have research based approaches.

  3. I just finished my course work on Ruby Payne’s book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” Throughout the course of the book, I felt that her observations and insights were spot on. It was as if Payne had visited my school prior to writing this book! Now that I have completed reading the book and have had a chance to internalize the information, I feel that she has made me aware of things that I was probably better of not knowing. Based on the hidden rules of poverty, she explains why students are tardy to class, why their lockers are a mess, why they loose assignments, and why they laugh in your face when you try to discipline them. Does this mean I should excuse these behaviors because they cannot help it because they are poor? I feel like I almost know too much now about my poor students. Her descriptions of their way of life has made me feel even more separated from my students because of the labeling, defining of classes, and “us vs. them” mentality depicted in her book.

    • When first reading Kim’s response, I was with her! I too felt as if Payne was writing about the high school I have taught at for the last 28 years, but I believe that Payne’s writings were helpful to me in better understanding students living in poverty. At no time did I believe that Payne was telling us as educators to excuse behaviors as such as tardies, or losing homework, instead she gave us insight as to why this happens and ideas on how we can handle them. I found much of the book very helpful, and at the same time I believe I am doing much of what she shared to do. The key is building relationships with these kidlets, as well with the families, this is not an issue about pointing fingers at who is to blame and who needs to fix it, this is an issue that needs to be addressed head on with everybody setting goals in a positive direction. It’s not a shocker to know that many parents resist change, as they only know what they know, but if somehow within the school system we can reach at least one student in poverty and give them hope that there is life outside of poverty, then we should cheer from the mountain tops! A former superintendent in our district always used the old adage of, “It takes a village to raise a child”. That is becoming more and more true in our society today, we all need to take ownership of our youth, and guide them in the right direction, it just happens in our district that we have a high percentage that need that assistance. As an educator, I believe after taking this class, that our entire district should be mandated to read Payne’s work and do group discussions on it. Like Kim, we will have some teachers who think this book excuses students in poverty, but my hope would be that a majority of teachers would learn how important it is to build relationships and model what is acceptable in life in general.

    • After reading the information presented in Payne’s book, I too was more aware of the reasoning behind some of my students actions. I feel that we as educators need to have background knowledge of our students, so that we can understand their behaviors/reactions and choices, but not necessarily “excuse” them. I am not in total agreement with Payne’s stereotypes of classes, but I agree that there are “hidden rules” for all of us to recognize and learn if they are needed to succeed.

  4. I just finished reading Ruby Payne’s book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”. I think Payne gives great insights into the different social classes. I think she gets me thinking about the thoughts and behaviors of some of my students. Her description of the hidden rules in the social classes made me really ponder the students that enter my doors everyday. I think it is very important for teachers to learn as much as they can about each of their students. I believe the more you can know about a person the better chances you have trying to make connections with them and teach them new things. I believe we as teachers need to collaborate more and work together more to help all students be successful at school. I am sure all of Payne’s opponents have their good reasons for disagreeing with her, however, she has some great ideas and insights for teachers, administrators, and others. I think the biggest thing I take from all the reading that I have done is teachers, administrators, parents, and the community all need to work together to build a stronger community and, therefore, a stronger individual.

  5. I truthfully agree with the remarks and views from the discussions on this blog. After reading the book of Payne and some of her critics, I would say that Payne’s critics have a good point, but it doesn’t mean that her work’s is not valuable at all. Critics say’s that Payne’s work is “discriminating”, “stereotyping”, or that she takes a broad view towards low-income family. I would say that to some extent, it is. I noticed from her book, that she usually used the negative side (violent, lazy etc.) about the poor people stereotype, and/or describe this culture as what the public assume about this low-income way of life. However, I was wondering what would it be like if we flip the other side of the coin? Has she ever experienced what is like of being poor? Or has she ever lived with them? Have she thought that mostly all of them wanted to get out in that situation (not the poor choose to be poor)? I grew up in a poor neighborhood where I witnessed that not all poor people are lazy, violent, irresponsible, or they don’t value education at all. In fact, some of the parents tried by working hard to send their child to school. Nevertheless, the socially accepted stereotype will not provide them with options or they will be given less opportunities to excel, and it will make them get stuck in poverty because circumstances rooted in equity won’t allow them to soar. I have known some of the type of poor students that have graduated with high honors, getting into college and obtaining a decent job in society. How did they do that? Is it want she called out by labeling them as lazy, irresponsible and with no regard valuing education?
    A friend of mine was very poor, but she was the most intelligent student in class. I remember that she only had one notebook for the entire school year, and that she was always asking a paper every time we had a quiz, and her clothes are just washed and worn every day. She graduated as a top student during that year. Later on, I heard she graduated with “cum laude” in college, and she got some job offers from different companies after her graduation. How could she do?
    On the other hand, Payne’s work presents some points that I am not comfortable with because they were shocking to me, I am referring to the “hidden rules”. With this information I helped myself to improve my teaching strategies and deep understanding of my low-income students. Moreover, from her opinion poor people continue to be poor because they choose to stay, that way she might have said this because of what she witnessed from a specific poor family. But she also mentioned that many families in poverty were lacking of resources, quality of education, and getting low quality jobs, exposed to teen pregnancy, etc., which are just a difficult examples of circumstances of barrier in moving out from poverty.
    Every situation has a rationale, Payne’s purpose in explaining the “culture of poverty” is to help teachers understand their poor students so they could identify and look for ways to help them to become successful in life. Thus, we should keep an open mind to accept what would be the best for our students. Additionally, for the critics, wanted to clarify and elaborate more deeply about the real situation in poverty that Payne’s haven’t contemplated. I strongly believe that as educators we would not just focus on one single opinion, but also to work further and collaborate deeply more to prepare our students for success.
    Going back to my previously stated question, how did my poor friend become successful? I would say that as a child she had a strong determination to achieve goals. She believes that poverty is not a hindrance to success. It’s an individual’s strength keeping such a mindset, so we teachers are entitled to find a way to help them, understand them, and guide them to a better way of life.

  6. I believe there is much to be learned from Ruby Payne’s book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” Payne allows the reader to gain an understanding of the many facets of poverty. She then provides research based strategies and suggestions on how to provide positive support. Based on my work with families, I have witnessed many of the socioeconomic behaviors described by Payne. However, I recently returned from teaching children in a poor African village. The hidden rules and attitudes there were very different than those in Payne’s book. We cannot use this book to stereotype and create prejudices. It was written as a “framework” to help guide our understanding about people who face poverty. As an educator I seek to understand the background of each student in my classroom. I am constantly asking, “How can I help this child reach their potential?” Payne’s book is just one of the many tools I can use to better understand my students and help them succeed.

  7. I too recently finished reading Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty book and thought she was right on when she was discussing some of the problems students living in poverty face that many middle class students do not. I try to relate to my students on every level, but in reality I can not. When going throught the check list of what class you belong to I could not fathom my sons (5th grade) knowing any of the items on the list. However, in reality many of my 6th and 7th grade students do know many of the items of the list. This is something that educators need to be aware of and take into consideration each and every day. Knowing your audience is so important in any service career but even more important when it comes to education. Whether it be the languauge, hidden rules, or the ability to relate to parents, knowing your audience is essential in today’s world. Payne’s thoughts on education hit home with me because it seemed like she was describing my school and my students. Her book is worth the read even if you have some differing points. It gets you to think about how you could start each day and what you can to do understand why some of the students behave like they do. Get to know your students by asking them questions about themselves and their family. Get to know your students by telling stories about yourself and your family. Relationships are what they remember and by understanding the framework people in poverty are building around educators can then help create the strongest foundation for their future.

  8. I get so frustrated when someone doesn’t agree with a stance that other people take and they use the discrimination card. With the passage of NCLB over a decade ago, the federal government created a new category of students (economically disadvantaged) whose test scores would be monitored by the US Department of Education officials. This law is to ensure that the improvement of poor children’s test scores are a major concern/priority of every public school. Ruby Payne may not have all the answers, but she provides useful strategies to be used. While I do agree with some of Ruby Payne’ suggestions and strategies, it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ mold. I have taught elementary school for the last 13 years and have had quite a range of students, from the poorest of the poor to upper class. As a middle class person myself, it was eye-opening as I read certain parts of the book. I do remember thinking that I had no desire to be part of the wealthy class after taking the quiz. If that’s how I felt, then I wouldn’t be surprised if people of poverty felt the same way if they took the middle class quiz. I think Ruby Payne has brought to light some major issues that teachers need to be aware of. I also think teachers need to look at the needs of each individual student and be flexible their immediate needs. Ruby Payne’s framework can be just one tool in our tool box, not the bible of teaching all students.

  9. I am a middle school, special education teacher in suburban, white bread Iowa. Poverty is not an overwhelming issue here. Many of my specific students suffer in poverty, while the rest of the student population does not. I found Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty realistic and comprehensive. I understand the opposition to her philosophies, but don’t necessarily agree with them. Understanding students and families in poverty is one of the only ways I can connect to them, because I know what they need from me to survive and be successful. This goes for parents as well as students. As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to implement strategies, access resources, and create a culture of diversity and tolerance in my classroom. I wish Payne would include more of this work using her extensive research.

    I have read critiques about Payne calling poverty a culture, when critics believe she is just using stereotyping as a part of her work. I don’t believe this is stereotyping, as I believe it is the framework of a culture. Culture is made unique by their beliefs about relationships, religion, language, value of education, customs, foods, family structure, etc. All of these components are found to be similar and consistent in areas of poverty, no matter the region of the world. Therefore, Payne calling poverty a culture is appropriate and the use of the term stereotype inaccurate.

  10. Currently I am enrolled in a course which utilizes Ruby Payne’s, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” book. Although this course finds her book of value to understanding those living in poverty, it also poses one important question, “do her critics have merit”? As with anyone who poses a theory or philosophy (especially in education) there will be many critics and naysayers, but that does not mean the person does not have valid points of interest. Personally, I feel that her work has helped me to understand different class structures that I deal with on a daily basis. Her findings have aided me in understanding the differing needs of those students and how it can affect their education. I feel that I have benefited from her ideas and many of my colleagues could as well. She sheds light on issues that are often ignored by educators and the education system. I once worked for a district that believes that “all students could learn regardless of their socio-economic status and/or home life.” I found myself falling into the trap of this mindset as well. Although I still believe all students can learn Ruby Payne’s findings have helped me to understand the differences between the classes, how they live, and ultimately how it can affect all details of their life.

  11. Payne does make points that are very stereotypical of people in poverty. However, she does bring up many points that I had not yet thought of in my very few years of teaching. She brings up important issues students in poverty may face but does make it seem like a blanket statement of those in poverty. I have also read work by Eric Jensen. Both authors made points that I feel have increased my awareness of those in poverty. They may not both agree, but both have some important comments and strategies to help work with those in poverty. These blogs are also very useful in finding additional insight into those struggling in poverty. I am excited to use the new information and strategies in the upcoming school year!

  12. To say that teachers who follow the works of Ruby Payne are assuming the ‘blame the victim mentality’ is bold. Teachers are seeking to understand how to help ALL children become active and successful participants in inclusive settings. While Payne’s work may be interpreted as a product of classism and racism, a true educator understands the dangers of over-generalizing any claims an author makes. A true educator thinks critically about the claims set forth by a variety of perspectives. After doing so, I don’t view Payne as a villain. Instead, I appreciate her efforts in helping educators to understand the role class diversity may play inside of the classroom. Would her claims be stronger and more convincing with further supporting evidence and research? Absolutely, quantitative data works to strengthen qualitative data. Yet other than state test scores, standardized testing, and other assessments, how can we prove her claims don’t have merit? There is obviously a deficit in our own education system. Standardized testing has proven that children living in poverty are not performing as well as students of other socio-economic classes. I am certainly not a fan of these high-stakes threats imposed on our education system; however, I can also see the impact of poverty in my own everyday classroom practices. So, what can we do about it? We must understand why this may be happening. Payne provides an interesting perspective to help educators understand why and how we can help INCLUDE students of poverty rather than EXCLUDE them. To say that I am blaming the victim is inaccurate. Rather, I am trying to help the strengthen the abilities of the victim to rise up and become the victor.

  13. After reading and digesting A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne, I do believe there is value in what Ruby has to say about those living in poverty. While all of the information might not be applicable to everyone’s situation, poverty is not an easy topic to take on and I believe she has done a nice job presenting her material. I believe that the part many people don’t appreciate with Payne, is the approach that she has chosen to present her information. She doesn’t sugar coat or worry about offending others, she presents her information as she sees it through research and experiences. As a teacher, you are required to go to professional development workshops to enhance teaching skills. Not everything you hear at these workshops are ideas you can take back and use. Just like with Payne’s book, you take the ideas that are relevant and apply to you and use them. I teach in a rural school with very little diversity and about 50% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. This was may first exposure to any type of training on those living in poverty, the hidden rules, and what behaviors might be seen in the classroom by those living in poverty. The book left me with many “A ha” moments where I thought of students I have had and wished I had known this information when working with them. I know there were situations I could have handled more empathetically had I been exposed to the information presented in the book.

  14. I agree with so many of the comments posted. I know that when it comes to the issue of poverty there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to ending it. I’ve read a lot of comments from people that are against Ruby Payne, stating that she stereotypes the different classes, but I feel that she is just trying to make people think about what’s going on in our world. I appreciated her book along with Eric Jensen’s book. They both opened my eyes to the situations my students are living in. I feel like I have a better understanding of poverty after reading both of these books and I’m hoping I can be a positive role model to all of my students in the future. The best thing we can do is to keep an open mind and support all of our students no matter what situations they are going through.

  15. I took a graduate class on “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” and found a lot of useful strategies that I can implement into my classroom. I found the registers and hidden rules to be most helpful in understanding how children living in poverty make decisions, think, and act. It also brought the importance of teaching children the “normed” rules and expectations of school and society to my attention. Payne’s book made me realize how we mainstream our schools to fit the middle class model thus making school more difficult for families living in poverty. I think school need to do a better job making accommodations for these families to help their children become successful students. However, I did think Payne made a lot of negative stereotypes about families living in poverty. I also wonder where Payne came up with the questions for the “can you survive living in…” quiz, the generalizations are very negative. I was highly disappointed with his view point and generalization of individuals living in poverty. Overall, this book will help me to become a better teacher to students in my class living in poverty.

  16. I, too, am finishing the coursework for the class, In the Face of Poverty. Although I do not agree with everything that Ruby Payne writes in her book, I found it valuable. I never truly understood the culture of poverty. From my middle class perspective, I did not understand the different values that different classes of people hold and follow. As a special education teacher in a small, rural, Pennsylvania school, I have witnessed students and their families living in poverty. It is heartbreaking when students speak to me about their living situations. Some of my students live in generational poverty. In fact, I could easily believe that the diagram of Jolyn’s family on page 75 is modeled after that of one of my students. I found the information on role models and relationships very helpful. However, when I read the conclusion, I became distressed. Payne writes that it is not the role of the educator to save the individual but rather to offer support and opportunities. As a veteran teacher of 30 years, this goes against my own personal philosophy. I do believe in the “Starfish Story” that a person can make a difference and save individuals. I also do not fully agree that if given a choice, people in poverty would choose to continue to remain there. This may be true for some individuals, but I know from personal experience that some students who live in poverty want a better life for themselves and their future families.

  17. I agree with parts of Payne’s “hidden Rules.” I, however, in my own classroom do not see the poverty aspect of my students. What I see are individuals who are in need of guidance, leadership and instruction. As a classroom teacher in an at-risk school I deal with the poverty student on a daily basis and strongly feel that teachers identify and try to meet the needs of all students. However, those that are not directly involved with families in poverty tend to wear blinders or turn their backs to the issues related by Payne in her book. This is the area that I feel needs to be addressed so that more awareness is brought forth for those in poverty.

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