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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.

124 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.

  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.

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