Beware outside consultants? – Part 2, Ruby Payne

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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.

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