Reflecting on Ruby

“Internationally recognized” speaker Ruby Payne recently visited us in Richmond as part of the central Virginia’s Region 1 Superintendent’s Series. Payne writes and speaks about poverty issues in education.

Before I attended the event, I read an article by one of her most vocal critics, Paul Gorski. His work joins more in strong critique of Payne. While this is the article I read first by Gorski this one sums up some of Gorski’s points without specifically attacking Payne in a slightly less academic parlance.

What did I hope to gain from attending her talk? I had hoped to learn more about what we, as educators, can do for economically underprivileged students. This is built upon a set of assumptions that kids in poverty could use some type of help in an academic setting, and our schools are equipped to help.

Payne addressed the fact from the start that if we “Googled” her name, we might have found some “critics” out there about her. I can admit she was an entertaining speaker; she injected humor in a lot of what she presented, which as far as presentations go, kept the audience engaged. She spoke about her own personal experiences talking to those from poverty and those from wealth. This personal side of her experience, I think, helped establish her credibility. And her discussion of the hidden knowledge behind poverty and wealth were thought-provoking.

But in the end, I missed what we might do about it. What she did accomplish is to get us to think about how money affects our lives, the lives of the rich, and the lives of the poor. Both the wealthy and the poor were painted as “outsiders” from a norm of the “middle class.”

Gorski calls for a number of things for us to do:

  • Eliminate the perpetuation of systems and structures that oppress the impoverished;
  • demystify policies and practices — by refusing to adopt neoliberalist education;
  • acknowledge the interconnectedness of poverty, classism, racism, sexism, linguicism, ableism, and other forms of oppression;
  • demand equitable access to high-quality education for all students;
  • prepare teachers and administrators to fix classist structures, policies, and practices instead of the people oppressed by them.

The last one is pretty significant. Gorski’s point is that Payne is part of the problem, instead of the solution. His point of not “fixing people” I thought was interesting. Payne’s solution, could be summarized by helping individuals through education and relationships.

Gorski’s claim is that she bases her approach on stereotypes instead of research of any rigor.

But all of that is pretty high-level… for a more practical list, he suggests:

  • make parental involvement affordable and convenient;
  • assign work requiring computer and internet only when it’s available in school;
  • give economically disadvantaged students access to the same curricular opportunities as their wealthier peers (he’s likely here referencing opportunities activities within a school that may require parental transportation, or fees to participate);
  • teach about the issues facing citizens in poverty (classism, consumer culture, imperialism, etc.);
  • keep stocks of supplies, snacks, clothes, and other necessities handy for students who need them;
  • fight to keep poor students from being assigned unjustly to special education;
  • eliminate ability grouping and other practices that often, in the name of differentiation or efficiency, mirror inequities in access and opportunity by replication stratification;
  • challenge our colleagues whey they demonize poor students and their parents; and
  • challenge ourselves, our biases, and prejudices by educating ourselves…

The last one seems especially appropriate. I think hearing Payne didn’t, for me, reveal the myriad criticisms that have been brought against her framework. I was bothered, however, how she seemed to promote the “middle class” as superior to those in poverty and in wealth. But I did miss a list of actionable things to do, as Gorski provides us. What hearing Payne did, however, was have me look at these issues in new light; it required me to consider Gorski’s counterpoint, and to consider the issue in a more significant way than I have in the past.

To be fair, I have not read her book that gets criticized by Gorski and others. The comments on Amazon are interesting for the variety of views on her book.

This video will give you an idea of what her talk was like.

Gorski ends an earlier 2005 paper thusly (emphasis mine):

As child poverty in the U.S. continues to rise; as our government continues to cut programs for people in poverty; as conservative educational policy continues to gut public schools, particularly in poor areas, the need to understand the relationship between poverty and education grows increasingly urgent. An authentic framework for understanding this relationship must challenge us to think systemically. It must prepare us to be change agents, dedicated to rooting classism out of our classrooms, schools, and society, and not, as Payne’s work prepares us to do, to be maintainers of the status quo, at thousands and thousands of dollars per workshop.

For me, I know it will take more time than I’ve spent thus far to both research and think about these issues. But on the surface, the research-based approach called for by Gorski seems to be the better exercise. And what’s for sure, there’s much work to be done. And it will take dedicated leaders to become those change agents.

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