Paul Tough, one of my favorite journalists, was recently led astray and wrote a piece on the work of Ruby Payne. With presidential candidate John Edwards on the cover, the entire issue was devoted to economic inequities, and is worth taking a quick look: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/magazine/.
Payne is very popular among teachers and principals largely, I would argue, because she does two things: 1) talks openly about poverty and education, and 2) offers a straight-forward and simple solution to a complex social issue that manifests itself in local classrooms every day. I applaud her popularity on the first account, and I deplore it on the second. Additionally, the book was written in one week about Payne’s experience with her husband’s family, and without engaging the extensive research available on social class, poverty, and education. I have written a letter to Paul Tough expressing some of my views:
June 13, 2007
Dear Paul Tough,
Greetings from a fan of at least four years. I love your pieces in the Times Magazine and sometimes have my students read them for class discussion. Your piece on Ruby Payne, however, has left me wondering what temporarily led you astray. With your experiences in writing about working-class folks and the real social issues faced by people in a complexly stratified world, I am surprised that someone offering a quick fix to the problems of poverty and education by teaching students the “rules” of class was able to sustain your interest much less be worthy of such exceptional publicity.
Payne’s work does not challenge the classism that exists everywhere in our society but is most felt and experienced in schools every day, and she certainly doesn’t engage with the possibility that in a market-driven economy where enormous bonuses and greed rule the day that there will always, always, be workers on the bottom of the heap. Frankly, it won’t matter if they know how to use the right silverware, substitute their old “ain’t”s for “isn’t”s, or speak with more (middle-class) clarity and in a more (middle-class) elaborated manner when they still find it improbable or impossible to pay the bills at the end of the month even when working two full-time jobs at a low wage. And in the meantime, if students really do learn all the “rules” of class and they still don’t find themselves in an upwardly mobile trajectory, they may end up blaming themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods. This couldn’t possibly be productive in a society where working folks need to depend on one another so much just to survive.
I am from a poor family, was a first-generation college student, and am now a relatively young professor at Teachers College, Columbia University (maybe one of the “angry assistant professors” referred to in the Payne piece). I know enough about education, class, language, and literacy to teach graduate students, teachers, and children, but I know much more about the painful, disjointed, and incredibly challenging journey of class mobility. The series on social class in the Times two summers ago did a fabulous job of making the complicated nature of class and mobility apparent, and when such complexities are stripped away and simple solutions are proposed to problems, we may find ourselves on the fast road to blaming the victim – again – who doesn’t seem to just follow the rules.
I humbly offer the title of my book, Girls, Social Class, and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference (Heinemann, 2006) only because I have tremendous respect for you, and a number of teachers and professors have said that they find it to be an inspiring alternative to Ruby Payne’s Framework book. It is far from perfect and I do not claim to have solutions, but I have at least attempted to work through the enduring tensions that teachers, students, and families face when kids from working-class and poor homes go to school. At the same time I continue to focus on pedagogy, social justice, and a powerful education in the best interest of those who are born already on the lower rungs of the social class ladder.
Keep up the great work. I still love it and will continue to be a fan.