Au­thor’s Views on Poverty Dis­puted

Ma­te­ri­als Used To Guide Teach­ers In Md., Va. Schools

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Ian Shapira

Ac­cord­ing to Ruby K. Payne, a con­sul­tant to school sys­tems lo­cally and na­tion­wide, teach­ers should know a few things about poor peo­ple.

The Texas-based au­thor says in her book “A Frame­work for Un­der­stand­ing Poverty”: Par­ents in poverty typ­i­cally dis­ci­pline chil­dren by beat­ing or ver­bally chastis­ing them; poor moth­ers may turn to sex for money and fa­vors; poor stu­dents laugh when they get in trou­ble at school; and low-in­come par­ents tend to “beat around the bush” dur­ing par­ent-teacher con­fer­ences, in­stead of get­ting to the point.

In the past sev­eral years, at least five school sys­tems in the Wash­ing­ton area have turned to Payne’s lessons, books and work­shops.

But many aca­demics say her works are rid­dled with un­ver­i­fi­able as­ser­tions. At the Amer­i­can Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual con­fer­ence in Chicago last week, pro­fes­sors from the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin de­liv­ered a re­port on Payne that ar­gued that more than 600 of her de­scrip­tions of poverty in “Frame­work” can­not be proved true.

“She claims there is a sin­gle cul­ture of poverty that peo­ple live in. It’s an idea that’s been dis­cred­ited since at least the 1960s,” said re­port co-au­thor Randy Bomer.

It’s un­clear how much pub­lic money has been spent on Payne re­gion­wide. Howard County dis­patched about 300 teach­ers in 2003 to a two-day Payne sem­i­nar and has con­tin­ued to send math and read­ing teach­ers to her for train­ing. Mont­gomery County also has sent teach­ers to Payne work­shops in re­cent years; Prince Ge­orge’s County Su­per­in­ten­dent John E. Deasy dis­trib­uted one of Payne’s books to some of his staff this year; and Fred­er­ick County sent about 250 teach­ers to a multi-day train­ing ses­sion three years ago.

In one case, Prince William County schools re­cently spent more than $320,000 for Payne and her aides to train hun­dreds of staff mem­bers. Now Prince William of­fi­cials are re­con­sid­er­ing the value of Payne’s ad­vice.

The of­fi­cials say Payne is well mean­ing, but they are put off by her blunt gen­er­al­iza­tions about life in poverty and worry about her stand­ing among aca­demics.

“She seems to be al­ways stereo­typ­ing,” Na­tialy Walker, Prince William’s pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment su­per­vi­sor, said dur­ing a staff meet­ing about Payne last month. “If only we could get away from all the la­bels and move be­yond that.”

Still, in their non­stop quest to raise test scores of stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies, schools ev­ery­where are search­ing for ex­per­tise from such con­sul­tants as Payne. The mis­sion has be­come more ur­gent un­der the fed­eral No Child Left Be­hind law

Fred­er­ick’s di­rec­tor of pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment, Ann Hum­mer, said ad­min­is­tra­tors are aware that Payne’s work­shops are con­tro­ver­sial. But she called them re­fresh­ing. “Peo­ple who are in high-needs schools, they were like, ‘Yeah, we see this.’ ”

Payne, 56, said that she speaks to about 40,000 ed­u­ca­tors a year and that she has sold more than 1 mil­lion copies of her self-pub­lished “Frame­work.” She es­ti­mated that she and oth­ers with her com­pany, Aha! Process Inc., have worked with staff from 70 to 80 per­cent of the na­tion’s school dis­tricts over the past decade. She de­clined to re­veal the com­pany’s an­nual rev­enue.

Payne’s back­ers con­tend that teach­ers who can grasp the re­al­i­ties of im­pov­er­ished house­holds — what­ever those might be — are bet­ter po­si­tioned to help stu­dents in those sit­u­a­tions suc­ceed.

Crit­ics say that that approach de­means low-in­come fam­i­lies and that there are bet­ter ways to raise scores — among them, in­ten­si­fy­ing course­work, low­er­ing teacher-stu­dent ra­tios and en­sur­ing that ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers do not leave low-in­come schools for those with wealth­ier stu­dents.

Payne, a for­mer teacher and ad­min­is­tra­tor in Texas and Illi­nois who has worked with low-in­come stu­dents, says her char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of poverty come from her pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence and from spend­ing time with the low-in­come fam­ily of her ex­hus­band.

“I ask the crit­ics this ques­tion: Have you ever taught poor kids? The an­swer ev­ery time is, ‘No,’ ” Payne said. “So how do they know [my de­scrip­tions of poverty] are not true?”

An­other con­sul­tant, Glenn E. Singleton, based in San Fran­cisco, con­tends that race in­flu­ences achieve­ment more than poverty. Singleton, who is black, coaches teach­ers on cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity.

“Why is Ruby Payne pop­u­lar?” he asked. “It’s a safe place to go. When you’ve de­ter­mined kids are poor, there’s noth­ing you as a teacher can do about that. When you deal with race, it’s about how we per­pet­u­ate racism and how that gets in the way of higher stu­dent per­for­mance.”

Payne said she doesn’t fo­cus on race in part be­cause of her skin color. “The real is­sue is that I am white, and there’s a huge be­lief out there that if you’re white, you can’t talk about poverty and race,” she said.

To es­tab­lish Payne’s cre­den­tials, her com­pany has con­ducted re­search that at­tempts to show that the au­thor-con­sul­tant has helped boost scores on state stan­dard­ized ex­ams. The study, draw­ing on data from five states, found that 63 per- cent of the stu­dents in classes with “high fi­delity” to Payne’s tenets had greater growth on their math exam scores over a two-year pe­riod than stu­dents who were in “low-fi­delity” classes. On read­ing ex­ams, 78 per­cent of stu­dents in Payne-in­flu­enced classes had greater growth.

Crit­ics say th­ese find­ings have not been re­viewed by in­de­pen­dent ex­perts.

In Prince William, Payne has in­flu­enced many ed­u­ca­tors. Prin­ci­pal Joanne Alvey of Marum­sco Hills El­e­men­tary — where nearly 70 per­cent of stu­dents­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged — cred­its Payne’s work among many fac­tors that helped her school re­cently meet the aca­demic stan­dards of No Child Left Be­hind.

Alvey said she bought some of Payne’s lit­er­a­ture for her staff even be­fore school of­fi­cials sent the teach­ers for countywide train­ing.

“We talk in Ruby Payne terms all the time. What’s re­ally im­por­tant is the teacher hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with the chil­dren. Chil­dren in poverty tend not to work for grades, but they work for the teacher,” Alvey said. “An­other thing I dis­cov­ered is how they ad­dress adults. Chil­dren of poverty don’t gen­er­ally know how to do that. We have to teach them that.”

Rita E. Goss, prin­ci­pal of Dum­fries El­e­men­tary, where about 65 per­cent of stu­dents are eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged, said Payne’s work has helped her and her staff un­der­stand what goes on in low-in­come homes and why some stu­dents mis­be­have in class.

“She talks in her book about gen­er­a­tional poverty, like back­ground noise and the TV al­ways be­ing on, how it’s al­ways im­por­tant to show their per­son­al­ity and to en­ter­tain and tell sto­ries,” Goss said. “You may as­sume that kids have cer­tain knowl­edge of the rules and how to adapt to [school] but, in fact, they re­ally don’t.”

But de­bate about Payne is grow­ing in Prince William. “I don’t know the last time Ruby Payne stepped out­side the Ruby Payne at­mos­phere,” said Pam Bum­stead, a sev­enth-grade lan­guage arts teacher at Po­tomac Mid­dle School. “We have kids whose par­ents are al­co­holics, kids whose par­ents are in jail and kids whose par­ents who live in McMan­sions, and those three dif­fer­ent kids can come to school with the same prob­lems.”

Vic­tor Martin, the county’s su­per­vi­sor of mul­ti­cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion, is try­ing to de­ter­mine what to do with Payne’s ma­te­ri­als. As he led ad­min­is­tra­tors last month in a dis- cus­sion of her work, Martin won­dered aloud about Payne’s “hid­den rules” of poverty.

He took is­sue with one con­clu­sion in the “Frame­work” book: “The noise level is high (the TV is al­ways on and ev­ery­one may talk at once).”

“As a per­son that comes from poverty my­self, I look at th­ese ‘hid­den rules’,” Martin said. “The noise level in my home wasn’t high. My dad worked shift work, and if he was sleep­ing and if you had TV on — there [would be] no en­ter­tain­ment.”

Martin asked: “How is that in­for­ma­tion be­ing fil­tered? Like, ‘Well, that child is loud be­cause he’s poor’?”

Ruby K. Payne teaches about how poverty af­fects learn­ing.


Prince William County teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors meet to dis­cuss Payne’s works af­ter ques­tions were raised about the au­thor’s gen­er­al­iza­tions about life in poverty. Some say they worry about her stand­ing among aca­demics, some of whom say her works are rid­dled with un­ver­i­fi­able as­ser­tions.

Vic­tor Martin, Prince William’s su­per­vi­sor of mul­ti­cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion, is try­ing to de­ter­mine what to do with Payne’s ma­te­ri­als. He ques­tions the au­thor’s con­clu­sions and won­ders about how her in­for­ma­tion is fil­tered.

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