As America becomes increasingly diverse, many school districts are experiencing changes in their traditional student populations. When districts have significant increases in the number of students of color and/or students in poverty, they often try to increase the cultural competence of their teaching and administrative staff. And that means that many of them turn to Dr. Ruby Payne. Dr. Payne’s seminal book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, has sold over a million copies and has resulted in many regarding her as an expert on poverty.

Many academics (and others) have expressed grave concerns about Payne’s work, however. For example, here is an excerpt from a 2006 article in Teachers College Record by Dr. Paul Gorski (now an Assistant Professor at George Mason University):

A casual flip-through of A Framework uncovers dozens of deficit-laden statements. According to Payne (2001), people in poverty are bad parents: “The typical pattern in poverty for discipline is to verbally chastise the child, or physically beat the child, then forgive and feed him/her” (p. 37). They are also criminals:  “Also, individuals in poverty are seldom going to call the police, for two reasons: First the police may be looking for them. . . . ” (pp. 37-38). They are disloyal: “Allegiances may change overnight; favoritism is a way of life” (p. 74). They are violent and “on the streets”: “If students in poverty don’t know how to fight physically, they are going to be in danger on the streets” (p. 100). And, according to Payne, people in poverty are unmotivated addicts: “And for some, alcoholism, laziness, lack of motivation, drug addition, etc., in effect make the choices for the individual” (p. 148). Although research indicates some differences in child discipline practices and levels of day-to-day physical violence between economically deprived communities and middle or upper class communities, the fact remains that most people in poverty are responsible, hard working, drug and alcohol free, and not “on the streets” (a phrase that may also cycle the stereotype that all poor people live in urban communities, when many live in rural communities). These people – the average, hard working, employed, drug free people in poverty – are largely invisible in A Framework and Payne’s other books.

And here’s an excerpt from another 2006 article in Teachers College Record, this one by Drs. Jennifer Ng, Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, and John Rury, Professor at DePaul University:

[In Payne's] descriptive scenarios, the poor are generally depicted as having a weak work ethic, little sense of internal discipline or future orientation, and leading lives characterized to one extent or another by disorder and violence. In making these characterizations, Payne seems to be unaware of the many studies dating from the late 1960s that challenged the culture of poverty thesis, in many instances directly testing the extent to which traits such as these were more prevalent among the poor than other groups. By and large, these studies found that such characteristics were not more likely to be evident in poor individuals or households. Indeed, people in poverty valued work, saving money, behaving properly, maintaining stable families, and a number of other “middle-class” attributes as much as their counterparts in higher social and economic strata. These results, moreover, held across groups with experiences of differing duration in poverty and across racial and ethnic lines (Roach & Gursslin, 1967; Irelan, Moles, & O’Shea, 1969; Coward, Feagin, & Williams, 1974; Davidson & Gaitz, 1974; Abell & Lyon, 1979; Carmon, 1985; Jones & Luo, 1999). . . . Most educators . . . are unfamiliar with the extensive research literature on poverty and its effects on children, and if Payne’s citations seem to support their own views about the poor, they would hardly be in a position to challenge the interpretation of research that Payne offers. If they are predisposed to believing that the poor are lazy and impulsive as well as unreliable and temperamental, they are more likely to agree with Payne’s analysis than to question it. In short, Payne may be popular simply because she echoes commonplace assumptions about why some individuals appear to succeed in American society while others do not.

And here’s what may be the only criticism of a famous educational consultant by a 14–year-old:

Is this how schools should be spending their scarce professional development time and monies?

So, like my post yesterday about Dr. Willard Daggett, the information gathered for this post raises some important questions.

First, should districts be spending their monies on a consultant whose work has been accused of being riddled with hundreds of unproven assertions? Whose emphasis on students’ need to change is allegedly so reductionist that it basically ignores the school, neighborhood, societal, political, and other contextual factors that influence the life success of students in poverty? 

If the poor are poor simply because they do not know how to behave as if they were not poor, then the middle class and the wealthy should not be taxed to provide public assistance, public health, public schooling, or a public sphere in which the poor might participate. According to such a perspective, neither structural inequality, nor public policy, nor barriers to good jobs, nor lack of money cause the plight of the poor; they just don't have the right story structure, or tone of voice, or register, or cognitive strategies. (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008)

Who self-describes her foundational work as “the findings of a 30-year longitudinal case study of one neighborhood of poverty” when that actually means that “her expertise on poverty resulted primarily from being married for over 30 years to her husband, Frank, who grew up in ‘situational’ (or temporary) poverty, but lived for several years with others who were in ‘generational’ (or long-term) poverty” (Gorski, 2006; Payne, 1995)? Whose seminal book was admittedly inspired by financial "spirit guides" and written in a single week so that she might “fulfill her dream of ‘a life without financial constraints?’" (Bohn, 2007; Tough, 2007).

Second, are most districts that hire Dr. Payne aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against her work? And, third, even if so, should districts’ professional development work involve a consultant/speaker that’s this controversial, no matter how famous or widespread her message is?

This is important, not trivial, stuff. As Bomer et al. (2008) note:

It is well-established . . . that teacher beliefs have an impact on the ways they teach and on their students’ learning (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996; Nespor, 1987). Since teachers do make decisions and plans on the basis of their beliefs or conceptualizations of their students, students' daily lives are strongly affected by the influences on their teachers' thinking. We have demonstrated through our analysis that teachers may be misinformed by Payne's claims. Poverty in Payne's work is marked only as a negative, only as a divergence from a middle-class norm, and students who are "of poverty" need to be fixed. This way of regarding the children of poor parents has predictable and undesirable consequences in US education (Brophy & Good, 1974; Rist, 1970; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). As a consequence of low teacher expectations, poor students are more likely to be in lower tracks or lower ability groups (Ansalone, 2001, 2003; Connor & Boskin, 2001; Gamoran & Berends, 1987; Oakes, 1985), and their educational experience is more often dominated by rote drill and practice (Anyon, 1980, 1997; Dudley-Marling & Paugh, 2005; Moll, 1988; Moll & Ruiz, 2002; Valenzuela, 1999).

How accountable should we be holding outside consultants (and the people who hire them)?