More on Ruby Payne…

Last week, in a post about education and poverty, I took a pretty critical look at Ruby Payne, a popular, if misguided, advocate for ‘middle class values’–whatever those are. It turns out that I’m not alone in my criticism. Lee Enterprise’s Jodi Rave offered a critical look in the Gazette today:

And while middle-class educators tend to embrace her teachings, a growing number of others are revolting against her teachings. Her work, they say, promotes stereotypes, lacks research and devalues students of color while ignoring pertinent issues, such as gender, culture and race.

“Ultimately, Payne seems to want students in poverty to assimilate into a system they experience often as oppressive, and she calls on predominantly middle-class teachers to facilitate and enforce this assimilation,” wrote Paul Gorski in the Teachers College Record: The Voice of Scholarship in Education.

Unfortunately, Payne will be coming back to Montana to peddle her soft racism:

Meanwhile, Payne continues to make her rounds on the lively education workshop circuit. Montana’s Elementary Principals Association is sponsoring a full-day workshop in which Payne will share her poverty views with state educators on Jan. 31.

It’s a good think Payne is being asked to share her ‘views’, not her ‘research’. It’d be a short conference if she were to focus on the latter. 

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate. In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


  • I don’t really understand the term ‘middle class teacher’. Does it mean teachers who teach middle class students? Or does it mean teachers who teach at private schools? I suppose that it could mean teachers who are married to someone who makes more than they do. Last time I checked, being a teacher in the state of Montana makes you part of ‘the working poor’, unless you take a very broad view of what ‘middle class’ means.

    In my mind, middle class is too often used to describe anyone who is not ‘dirt poor’ nor ‘filthy rich’.

    “Everyone wants to believe they are middle class… But this eagerness… has led the definition to be stretched like a bungee cord – used to defend/attack/describe everything… Ah yes, there’s a group of people bound to run into each other while house-hunting.” -Dante Chinni, The Christian Science Monitor. 2005.

    OK, this may be OT, but it bothers me that we use the term middle class so freely because it hides the truth about what is really happening in the American economy. The filty rich are getting filthier while more and more people are hovering around poverty. I think that the term ‘middle class’ is often used when ‘working class’ ought to be. There is a good discussion on ‘middle class’ at Wikipedia.

  • I think you are misunderstanding the concept of Payne’s “Understanding Poverty”. As a middle class teacher who teaches in an impoverished urban school, I found Payne’s work to be an insight into a world that I did not understand. I found that after the workshops, I have a better insight in regard to where my students are coming from. Her tests asking if you can survive in a world of poverty, middle-class, or wealth was very eye-opening. Different classes have different value systems. Does that make one a racist to recognize that?

    I don’t believe that Payne is trying to assimilate anyone into the “middle class” lifestyle. She aknowledges that casual register is necessary, but formal register is generally the accepted language in the work world. SHe isn’t inventing the rules, she is telling it the way it is. I think everyone knows that there are different behaviors to be used in the workplace and out with friends. Unfortunately, for my high school students, they believe that the casual is the way it should be. They will not achieve any sort of success that way and after all…aren’t we all here to help the kids succeed?

  • It is a good thing Pogie is not a teacher or we may have a lot of little kids running around thinging about throwing thinks. 🙂

  • Having just read Ruby Payne’s book, and endured an entire day of being force-fed her philosophy by administrators at the school where I work, I acknowledge that I have more in common with those living in poverty than those living in middle class, and absolutely nothing in common with the privileged class–no surprise to public school teachers. I work in a district where about half of our students meet the federal standards for “poor,” yet little in the type-casting “culture of poverty applies to more than a couple of students.
    Both the book and the training provided a handful of useful suggestions, but I fear that this latest bandwagon is getting more attention in some places than is warranted. From someone (Ruby Payne), who acknowledges that poverty is relative, there was a disappointing lack of application to the students we teach- rural or small-town, isolated people, who do not meet the descriptions of any of
    Ruby Payne’s tidy categories. Yes, I have been what Ruby Payne would call “poor,” and I have worked with, and been in the homes of “poor.” I have taught all three of the stereotypical levels she describes, in both inner-city, and rural communities. The “culture of poverty” is far more complex than this latest movement describes.
    This book is worth reading, however, I would caution well-intentioned educators against categorizing families that are as varied as the American culture itself.

  • As a liberal,I believe its important for us to keep some people poor- we need their votes on election day. The best way to discredit anyone who points out the dysfunctional culture of poverty that devastates this country is to scream things like “racism!” and “classism!” (preferably with exclamation point). This will scare white people and they will abandon any attempt to fix poor people and their destructive nature.

  • We should do away with logic and reason while we’re at- there is no longer any reason for such things in this paradise we have come to create.

  • I've been assigned the Ruby Payne book for my alternative certification program. I took her "class" quiz. I can get people out of jail, know how to set a table, and have favorite restaurants in other countries. So what. I plan on taking whatever works for my classroom, regardless of the source. What's more important…what someone thinks, or what works to help students get out of their situation and see a better life for themselves ?

  • I have been reading both positive and negative feedback on Payne's book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I have, in my research, come across two videos that I found very interesting:
    and the second is

    I agree with Payne on much of her writings. I feel that she is being criticized for her good intentions and I also agree that social class should be taken into account while working with students to give them some sort of foundation to start from, otherwise they would have limited background knowledge about certain subjects due to limited exposure and resources. After working with so many children of all abilities, levels and backgrounds, you quickly begin to realize how important knowing about each individual child's home life is. As pointed out in Payne's book a student's behavior is greatly impacted by their lifestyle and what unspoken or hidden rules they grew up with.

  • I work in a low-income school and tend to agree with most of Ruby Payne's writing. She gives insight to why students have some of the behaviors they do and also why some of them tend to speak to teachers as if there were one of their friends or siblings. I think Ruby Payne has the best of intentions in her book, I don't believe she is trying to to set any stereotypes or devalue people of color. The one thing anyone can take away from Ruby Payne's views is that no matter what the behaviors are students will behave in the manner they see everyday at home. Some of these behaviors are not appropriate and we as teachers need to help the students who struggle with this.

  • The underlying assumption that these behaviors are more prevalent among lower-class students is exactly what's wrong about Payne's book. I work in a very diverse school, and see the kind of behaviors she describes cutting across social classes.

    That she relies on anecdotes and personal experience demonstrates the shoddiness of her work, and its basis in nonsense "culture of poverty" ideology.

  • I teach in school district with 70% of our students receiving free or reduced hot lunch. Of that 70%, I would guess that 60% or more are students of generational poverty. I grew up in this town. I know their parents and how they lived. I know which ones come from situational poverty. I think that what Ruby Payne says is right on. This book gave me a lot of insight as to why my students do the things they do, and why their parents do the things they do. I don't think that she is trying to be racist. I agree with the post above, she isn't making the rules, she is telling the way it is. In my opinion, her book is meant for teachers to better understand where their students are coming from so that we, as teachers, can better help them be successful in life. Admit it or not, we operate in a predominately middle class world. Why not teach our students the skills they need to be successful in it?

  • I understand Ruby Payne's middle class to mean people who grew up in middle class homes with middle class value systems. I do not think that it necessarily means that they are middle class. Anyone could be poor and still have grown up in a middle class home with middle class values. This would be her definition of situational poverty. I think the behaviors and values she discusses in her book mainly apply to people from generational poverty.

    • I find the entire underlying assumption that there are "middle class" and "lower class" values to be intellectually bankrupt and entirely lacking researched support.

      Payne is just peddling the same "deficit" theories from the 1960s and 70s that blame poor people for their poverty without examining structural causes.

  • I agree with some of Payne's ideas, but not others. I can understand the idea that kids who enter the "real world" lacking the typical middle class skills will likely not be successful in finding a respectable job. They need to learn the appropriate way to interact with people in more formal settings and how to use proper English. While I can see some of the characteristics that she described of students of poverty in my own students, I don't necessarily agree with the stereotypical way that the information is presented. There are some students from poverty whose parents do value education, and want them to have a better life than they do now. There are also plenty of middle class families who place little to no value on the education their child is receiving at school. The biggest problem I have is the simple, stereotypical way that some of Payne's writing presents the information. If it were as simple as she states, we wouldn't have the problems that we do. Obviously, some kids need a little more TLC than others, and some kids need tough love and some just need a friendly ear. The fact that some kids are disadvantaged doesn't change the fact that they need to be treated as individuals.

    • I agree. After reading “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” I enjoyed the information and the beginning of understanding of how our students of poverty live their lives. The book does not claim to be this is the way everyone can be classified. But rather it gives an outline of how to approach the situation of poverty that is experienced in most all schools. I have never experienced living in poverty and the book allowed me to see what some of my students have been going through. Payne did not say that the characteristics of poverty are prescriptive. Her characteristics could be construed as stereotypical if taken in that manner. A very closed minded person would take her work and apply it directly to every individual case. When I was reading through the book I was oblivious to the fact that there were several stereotypes as pointed out by others on this blog. After being reminded that her work is not research based I still believe that I have gained some insight as to understand where students come from, what experiences they bring wiht them tothe classsroom, and why they may behave the way they do.

      • Ryan,

        Thanks for the comments. I think my biggest concern is that, because the work, isn't research-based, it's just stereotypes and assumptions about the lives of the poor. I mean, Payne herself has said that she based some (much?) of her work on her husband's family.

        To ascribe certain characteristics to people who live in generational poverty (the most nebulous demographic concept around) ignores both the complexity of individual lives and the structural causes of poverty in the United States. I think Payne's book makes teachers feel better because a) they can believe the behviors aren't their fault and b) they have something to do.

        It just isn't based in much fact.

        • I thought the book was wonderful. I work in a low-income school and Payne offered such insight to my own situations. I was able to relate to almost all of her "stereotypes." Is it considered a stereotype if all my students and their families fit her descriptions? I understand not all impoverished families are the same, but their hidden rules, behavior, and cognition are different from the middle class and anyone teaching them can see that! We should embrace that Payne is not calling them unintelligent or hopeless, like (unfortunately) many educators do. I have witnessed colleagues giving up on these kids. Her book is a framework to help us get in the right direction through understanding, compassion, and better teaching. And why does there have to be so many facts and scientific research involved? I don't think that matters as much as what she has seen and what she has done, as long as we remember this does not represent everyone. We should feel comfortable reading her book and taking away what we can use. I respect her opinions if they can help our schools. I respect her experiences and her anecdotal data. As a teacher, her observations are much more valuable to me than recorded numbers and percentiles.

  • While reading Payne's book I had a difficult time applying her poverty quiz to the students I teach. My students come from rural Mexico, and while they might be street smart back home in their own ranchos, they certainly aren't street smart here. Poverty does not just exist in inner cities. It's here in rural, agricultural areas as well. I do believe that Payne's book is a good starting point to get teachers thinking and talking about poverty. Many (in my building) teach and assign homework as though our students go home to homes similar to their own, with quiet places to study, and secure places to keep their school materials. I do agree with Payne that our responsibility is to provide our students with language that will help them access higher education and better paying jobs. English is the language of power–speaking it well is the key.

  • There's no question that our countries "structures" have created a lower class however you want to define that lower class. We've built this problem through white supremacy and greed. Racism and greed have been two characteristics of humanity since time began, not just in our country. I believe we are working toward changing these structures, but it is an extremely slow process. Just as feudalism took hundreds of years to fade away, the gap between classes will slowly fade away. I do think Payne's work can be a good start for that. I also think this debate is a healthy step in the right direction. The debate shows Payne's work is flawed, or at least incomplete. She has given many of us hope to a situation that many of us never saw a solution to. Perhaps we can take her work and try to collect data to have even better breakthroughs and innovations to help improve society.

  • My disagreement is that we seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Over the past generation, the gap between the wealthy and poor has grown in this country rather than starting to shrink.

    Payne's book doesn't represent an answer in my mind because it perpetuates old-fashioned ideas that argue people who live in poverty are there because of deficits–in character, motivation, etc. That ideology prevents us from implementing real solutions, like adequate funding of pre-schools, real social welfare programs and health services for poor children.

    If we really want to help poor children succeed, we need to focus on the underlying economic conditions, not fixate on behaviors that are erroneously (and without research) ascribed to social classes.

    • Pogie, it seems to me like you're argument leads us back to a somewhat simplified liberal versus conservative debate. I really do like liberal ideas, but they always seem better in theory than in practice. I think your real solutions mentioned above are great, in theory. However I also see some truth in Payne's work. There are issues in poverty that keep people from benefiting, long term, from the real solutions. That's why I like this whole debate. Although the sides seem to be opposite, I hope they'll lead us to a solution that has not been thought of yet. Creative ideas are what change broken or out of date foundations. It's always been that way throughout history. Payne offers an innovative idea. Although it may be flawed and not supported by data, it's a hopeful idea. I don't think people are wrong to be excited by that and supportive of it. Just as I think it would be wrong to abandon more funding for pre-schools, welfare and heath care.

  • While it may appear to some that Payne " '… seems to want students in poverty to assimilate into a system they experience often as oppressive, and she calls on predominantly middle-class teachers to facilitate and enforce this assimilation,' wrote Paul Gorski in the Teachers College Record: The Voice of Scholarship in Education." I do not necessarily buy it.

    I believe Payne makes her position clear when she states, "Poverty occurs in all races and in all countries." Some have implied that she comes from a racist position which I just do not see from reading her work. Is she not correct by implying that society operates on middle class norms?

    Are teachers not generally all from the middle class? I believe Payne is simply saying that we must show understanding, but also insist that our students live up to the middle class expectations that society has implemented. If we want our students to be able to elevate themselves from poverty through education, then we must prepare them for the next step into the middle class. If we do not they will be at a constant disadvantage.

    Here is an example of what I am referring to,

    A poor student goes through school and achieves great academic success, but is never taught how to interview for a job, they will be at a disadvantage.

  • In my opinion Ruby Payne's book suggests that rarely is one person fully responsible for being in poverty but that there are many factors such as structural causes (political, social, and economic) that contribute to the situation and must also be held accountable.

    Ruby in her own words does not claim to be a researcher or a theorist, but has been a teacher who carefully observed families and children in poverty and reflected on what worked in her dealings with them. Drawing upon my own teaching experiences, I believe that there is some merit to her statements about differences.

    I, for one, am pleased that Ruby exposed some of her beliefs for it has caused me to step out of my middle class haven and think. I now have new information to consider when dealing with my impoverished students. If nothing else, I have gained more insight and tolerance for the differences in people.

  • Ruby Payne seems to have generated a lot of controversy. I feel that with Ruby Payne's writings the reader can take what they need and leave whatever information they do not find helpful. What Ruby is doing is allowing the reader to know what it might be like to grow up, live and survive in a culture of poverty. If the reader works with individuals who live in poverty everyday and has never experienced what it would be like to live in poverty than Payne's writings can only help the reader glimpse into that world. Education on cultural differences can only help to bridge the gap which at times can seem unpassable.

  • First, I'm impressed that this disucssion is still going and still being commented on by Pogie even after four years. It points to a deep issue that we have in education. What do we do when our kids don't fit neatly (for whatever reason) into the value system that schools are run on? Do we try to change the kid or try to change the system?

    From my perspective as a teacher that has taught in the inner-city, an upper class suburb, and a mixed income district, it sure seems easier to change the kid, right? The system is just too institutionalized (as I say with my tongue in my cheek).

    I think the answer, for better or worse, is that we have to try to do both. Our students are attending school in a system that is based on middle class (and if you really look at it, middle class in the industrialized period) values according to Payne's framework right now. So, we do have to help our children cope and succeed in this value system, right now. We do have to give them the opportunity to succeed right now. If you think, though, that Payne is saying we must CHANGE the child to FIT, then you didn't read the appendix…which really should be a chapter in the book, not smashed at the back. She describes the additive model, which simply put, is a way of providing ALL children and staff members ways of moving more smoothly within class systems different from their own. It is a way of providing children tools for coping, not changing who they are or who their family is. It is introducing more values systems the children can choose from and teaching them to apply it to the situation they are currently in if they so desire.

    Is Payne's work very general? Yeah, it is. That's why she titles it a FRAMEWORK. It is, not necessarily based on her own research, but what academics call a metastudy of trends that appear in multiple pieces of research. It's not intended to be complete or complex, but a starting point for thinking, addressing "right now" needs, and helping start a conversation by giving it words and definitions to use. It is a first step, in my mind, not the last word on class systems.

    But it is my deepest hope that we really try to make substatial changes in the day to day operation of schools, the way unions look at teacher schedules and contact time, the way we address scope and sequence, and the way we provide for ALL our children to succeed in an America that is becoming less and less industrialized. Teaching children and teachers to cope within a system is definetly not fixing that system for anyone involved.

  • I agree with Payne! I also teach in a poverty stricken area. I see what she is talking about on a daily basis. I am also middle class. This book gave me an insight about a life I cannot comprehend. I am deeply saddened to hear that people think that Payne is a racist. This is why no teacher will say anything about the large elephant in the room to help these kids. They are afraid of being called a racist.

  • What is the "elephant" in the room to which you refer?

    Payne's outdated notions of a "culture of poverty" aren't a solution for the problems of poverty; they are part of the reason we've failed as a nation to address them.

  • I wonder if some critics have actually read Payne’s entire book. Many accuse her of using the deficit model to explain/solve poverty. On the contrary, she points out the downsides of using the deficit model and directs us to use the additive model when considering poverty.
    Also, we all know her theories are not scientifically researched based, but she doesn’t claim that they are. She based much of her ideas on real-life experience which she very clearly states. I believe there is value in having real-life experiences. That she was immersed in poverty for a prolonged period of time makes her credible on some level.
    Her descriptions may not perfectly describe all people in poverty or all people in middle-class or all people in wealth, but again, she says that her book is based on patterns and there are always exceptions.
    I believe her insights are valuable and worth considering, keeping in mind that her ultimate goal is to help educators effectively teach all students and yes, to help them to be successful in a middle-class nation, because we ARE in a middle class nation.
    For the insights she shares, I am thankful. Her theories have helped me to thoughtfully consider my students’ home lives, their strengths and their struggles. I have learned to better appreciate my students as individuals.

    • I’m not sure we are still in a middle class nation, but I sort of agree with you in regards to the value of her work. Ruby Payne is sharing what she has learned about human patterns of thinking and behaving as she experienced them during her time working with children of poverty. As a counselor, much of what I do is identifying patterns and helping students understand how these patterns help or hinder their quality of living. I think this is where it started fro Ruby Payne. Her critics look at her work as perpetuating the “culture of poverty” myth, the foundation for deficit theory programming. I think a quick review of the book would leave you thinking that she supports deficit theory-nothing could be further from the truth. Her whole approach is based on identifying the resources available for the individual, and then using these resources to create more resources.

  • I read the book, “A framework for Understanding Poverty” by Ruby Payne for a class and have heard of her in the social work field.  I have problems with her generalizing by using the word “all” and categorizing people into classes even though this happens in our nation.  What is considered “middle class”?  Is it being employed making a certain amount of money, assets one has, determined by morales and values, same class as previous generation, or what choices one makes in life?  I was told by a person early in life that one can be poor but can be clean.  You can have little but treasure what you have.  I think it would have been better if Payne would not have imposed the idea of the word “All” because I think this word causes many objections and thus becomes a more complex issue.  I had mix thoughts and feelings as I read her book which put my brain on overload.  I decided to keep it on a simple level “developing an awareness” and thinking of it as “food for thought”.

  • Over and over again I like to think about these problems. As a matter of fact it was not even yesterday that I was thinking about this very situation. Frankly, what is the answer though?

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  • I agree with some of what Payne presents and some not. During my readings on the subject, I did watch a “clip” where Payne said it takes 3 generations to move out of poverty. She reports that the first generation works hard, very hard. The next generation completes high school and the third generation completes college. For me, this was an aha moment as it hit home. She continued by saying that the generation to first complete college typically become teachers (educators)…again aha! This analogy is my story in regard to poverty and education. My grandparents came here from Italy and worked hard, very hard! Their children, not all, but some completed high school (they had a lot of children…16 to be exact). The next generation (me) completed college, not all but some and I am one of the college graduates and I am an educator….I think she presents many ideas that I can agree with and it made me think about some things, especially some of my students. Overall, it has been very interesting and thought provoking. Often, the more experiences one has, the greater the knowledge and ability to make connections. Unfortunately, the ability to have experiences often requires currency.