This is quite an interesting article about a touchy subject: class, how different classes of people tend to behave in certain ways and, most controversially, how the behavior of low-income people often makes/keeps them poor. There are powerful implications for schools, esp. those serving low-income children:
In public schools, though, class divisions are a frequent part of daily existence, sometimes within the student body but also, and more significant, between teachers and students.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 brought a new urgency to the issue of poverty in the classroom. For the first time, schools were required not only to report their overall test results but also to calculate the scores for various “subgroups,” including racial minorities, students for whom English is a second language and students whose parents’ income is low enough to qualify them for a free or reduced-price lunch. It soon became impossible to ignore that there was a problem: poor students were scoring well behind their wealthier peers. And schools suddenly had a powerful incentive to try to address that disparity. Even otherwise well-performing schools could be labeled failures if their poor students weren’t catching up.
Payne believes that teachers can’t help their poor students unless they first understand them, and that means understanding the hidden rules of poverty. The second step, Payne says, is to teach poor students explicitly about the hidden rules of the middle class. She emphasizes that the goal should not be to change students’ behavior outside of school: you don’t teach your students never to fight if fighting is an important survival skill in the housing project where they live. But you do tell them that in order to succeed at school or later on in a white-collar job, they need to master certain skills: how to speak in “formal register,” how to restrain themselves from physical retaliation, how to keep a schedule, how to exist in what Payne calls the “abstract world of paper.”
At the Jekyll Island seminar, I met Steve Kipp, a science teacher at Brunswick High with a ponytail and a jumpy, eager energy. He looked as if he might be the kind of guy whom the other teachers would call when they couldn’t get their computers to work right. Kipp sat in the front row, dead center, and at the break he was the first person to come up and ask Payne for advice.
In 10th grade at Brunswick High, Kipp told me later, the advanced students usually take chemistry, and the other students, the ones who are more likely to wind up in technical college, take Kipp’s class, which is called General Physical Science. And each year it’s the same, Kipp said: the rich and middle-class kids are tracked into chemistry, and he gets the kids from poverty. Kipp grew up in the middle class, and in the past, he said, before he read Payne’s book, he would get frustrated by his poor students. They seemed unwilling or unable to learn; they laughed when he tried to mete out discipline. And so he found it hard to keep exerting himself. What was the point in teaching them, he thought, if they weren’t going to make an effort?
But after he immersed himself in Payne’s work, about five years ago, Kipp’s ideas changed. “I realized, these kids aren’t dumb,” he said. “They just haven’t had the enriching experiences that I had growing up.” So he pushes himself harder now to provide more experiments in the classroom, more hands-on learning to help his students develop the same kind of instinctive understanding of nature that he got running around in the woods as a boy.
Not surprisingly, her work has driven the political correctness police into a tizzy:
Payne’s work in the schools has attracted a growing chorus of criticism, mostly from academia. Although Payne says that her only goal is to help poor students, her critics claim that her work is in fact an assault on those students. By teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in “classism” and racism. Her work is “riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful stereotypes,” charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, in a paper on Payne’s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payne’s central text “consists, at the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address poverty and education by ‘fixing’ poor people instead of reforming classist policies and practices.” (“LeftyHenry,” a recent poster on a political blog, was less subtle in his criticism; he called Payne “the Hitler of American academics.”)
Payne’s critics seem less aggrieved by what she includes in her analysis than by what they say she has left out: an acknowledgment that the American economy and American schools systematically discriminate against poor people. In this way, Payne finds herself in the middle of one of the central debates about poverty today. On one side are those, like Payne, who believe that poor people share certain habits and behaviors that help keep them in poverty. Recognizing and changing those behaviors, Payne and those who share her views believe, will help poor people to succeed. On the other side are those like Payne’s critics, who think that the game is so thoroughly fixed that most poor people can’t succeed no matter what they do. To them, locating any of the causes of persistent poverty among poor people themselves is, in effect, blaming the victim.
Academics in the latter group can’t stand Payne. And academics in the former group find it hard to defend her. There are plenty of sociologists, psychologists and economists who have reached conclusions similar to Payne’s: poor parents are more inclined to use corporal punishment; poor students are more eager to work hard in a teacher’s class when they feel a personal relationship with a teacher; poor homes are more often chaotic and loud. The problem is Payne’s methodology, or rather her lack of one. She does have a Ph.D. in social policy, and her book does have a few pages of footnotes. Her seminars include occasional references to popular scholarly works of sociology and history, like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.” But clearly, Payne’s preferred unit of research is the anecdote. Her talks are nothing like university lectures. They’re a blend of cracker-barrel wisdom, Tony Robbins-style motivational speaking and a Chris Rock comedy routine. And that means that among academics in good standing, saying something nice about Ruby Payne is a good way to invite the disapproval of your peers.
Of course there are many ways in which poor and/or minority citizens are discriminated against in this country, but it's hard to think of anything more destructive and debilitating than to teach someone that they are victims and are not in control of their fate.
The schools that have been most successful educating low-income, minority students all get this and make a HUGE effort -- it's enormously difficult -- to build a culture that instills in their students the values of hard work, persistence, being nice, etc.
To be clear, however, I'm not advocating that school districts pay Payne a whole lot of money to come preach what should be obvious...
The Class-Consciousness Raiser
By the time Ruby Payne sat down for lunch, she had been at it for three hours straight, standing alone behind a lectern on a wide stage in a cavernous convention hall, parked between two American flags, instructing an audience of 1,400 Georgians in the hidden rules of class. No notes, no warm-up act, just Ruby, with her Midwestern-by-way-of-East-Texas drawl and her crisp white shirt, her pinstriped business suit and bright red lipstick and blow-dried blond hair, a wireless microphone hooked around her right ear. She had already explained why rich people don’t eat casseroles, why poor people hang their pictures high up on the wall, why middle-class people pretend to like people they can’t stand. She had gone through the difference between generational poverty and situational poverty and the difference between new money and old money, and she had done a riff on how middle-class people are so self-satisfied that they think everyone wants to be middle class.