stephanie jones

NY Times Magazine article on Ruby Payne

In professional development resources, social class, stephanie jones, teacher education resources on June 15, 2007 at 1:00 pm

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:

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.

  1. […] letter to the author of the NYT time article from Stephanie Jones, who says: Frankly, it won’t matter if they know how to use the right silverware, substitute […]

  2. It gains us absolutely nothing when we pretend that vast numbers of poor are not impoverished because of their own bad habits. My children actually go to an public, urban grade-school and I see the children that come from impoverished backgrounds. They are most typically undisciplined, inarticulate, and prone to solving disagreements through violence. In most cases this is a result of the appallingly negligent parenting that they have received at home.

    The issue of whether this country treats its impoverished in an equitable way (and I believe we do not) is separate and distinct issue from who ends up at the bottom of the pyramid and why. Hard work, discipline, sobriety, and frankly “acting white” will lift just about anyone out of the very bottom ranks of society. We need to treat our poor fairly (by programs of full employment and living wages) but pretending that there are many poor who are poor for a reason (e.g. drunkenness, drug use, shiftlessness, general un-employablity) is not going to improve any ones lot.

  3. Dear parvus,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. We clearly have different perspectives on this issue, but working through some of those might make for some good conversation and/or at least some interesting reading for others.

    1. My (White) child attended a public, urban (predominantly African American) elementary school in East Harlem last year where I found that the typical child was smart, engaging, articulate, and incredibly skillful at conflict resolution. Perhaps instead of talking about individual children’s behaviors we should be looking carefully at the school contexts that produce different kinds of behaviors. I would be very concerned about the structures of a school and the pedagogy within classrooms if the typical child was undisciplined, violent, and seemingly inarticulate. Believe it or not, classroom structures and pedagogical practices can create ways for children to seem “articulate” or otherwise.

    2. Your comment about “appallingly negligent parenting” would lead me to ask, “Have you been in their homes? Have you spent time with their families?” And if the answer is no, I would recommend that you not speak (or make judgment) about what happens inside their homes. This is a stereotypical assumption about poor and working-class families in our society that I would suggest everyone reconsider. Get to really know parents. Get to really know families. Then ask yourself about mainstream “standards” set for being an ideal parent in the United States and the resources (economic, social, political, cultural) necessary to engage in such parenting. Without going into it here, I would also argue that there is certainly “appallingly negligent” parenting going on in middle-class, upper middle-class, and affluent homes where childcare is done by working-class and poor women who know the children in a family better than the parents. Surely these working-class and poor women are assumed to have valuable “parenting” skills, or why would so many people be hiring them to raise their children?

    3. I would suggest that “acting white” does not get to the issue here because social class is not being considered. Perhaps if you had written “acting white and middle-class” I would agree that doing so might allow some children and/or adults to gain access to school practices or entry-level jobs that may (or may not) lead somewhere productive. However, are there really living-wage jobs available for the 36+ million people living in poverty today in the US and the millions more who earn incomes just above the federal poverty level but still do not have the economic stability to provide food, shelter, clothing, and a consistent, predictable daily life for their families? When you are born on “the very bottom ranks of society” it takes far more than “acting white” to experience any upward mobility at all. And the structures of our market-driven capitalistic society where profit margins and enormous executive bonuses are most important ensure that this is the case. They certainly are poor for a reason, but blaming individuals who are living and working in a broader system of economics and class discrimination could not possibly be productive.

    4. Let’ s not pretend that drug and alcohol addiction do not impact all social classes. Working-class and poor people however, unlike their more affluent counterparts, may find themselves without insurance for counseling and rehabilitation, or without an economic safety net provided by family or friends to keep them financially afloat or help with finding a new job while they are battling addiction.

    The tricky part about “class” in America is that we have been taught from a very early age, through various ideological tools, that individuals who work hard enough will prosper in this country. Frankly, this kind of slogan works against group solidarity and for control over the masses by a powerful minority. Therefore, we have been raised to not think about “classes” of people at all but about individual people who seem to magically succeed and/or tragically fail – always attributing such outcomes to the intrinsic value of the person herself. Doesn’t that idea seem fundamentally flawed, not to mention immoral? We have a long way to go before individuals in our country begin thinking about and acting in the best interests of the enormous groups of people prevented from acquiring economic stability – something that would ultimately be in the best interest of us all.

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