I still have numerous conversations with educators about the work of Ruby Payne. These conversations started about ten years ago, and they continue as if no time has passed at all. While I am surprised at the weight her work still carries, I am also sensitive to the fact that many educators are introduced to her through “Professional Development” opportunities at their schools as “The” authority on issues of poverty. Such an introduction, or “orientation,” toward poverty and schools is often very influential indeed.
Recently a teacher-colleague wrote a thoughtful email message that included an example of a family-based scenario from R.P.’s most in/famous book. The scenario was used as an example, in this email, to show me that R.P. was writing from the perspective of family members – not, as I was claiming, from her own classist perspective.
I respect this colleague a great deal, so I won’t share any more about the correspondence, but I will share my response to her here:
I know that you – and many, many others – do think about some important things from R.P.’s book. And I am glad that “poverty” has become a common topic of discussion in schools as a result of her book and professional development offerings. I would never take that away from you – the important thinking and self-work you have done in concert with her writings. And I am so grateful that you – and so many others – are thoughtful and contemplative and turn your thinking into valuable practice in the classroom.
It’s funny – the example that you use from her book strikes me as another example of how her unbridled assumptions about people and circumstances perpetuates negative stereotypes throughout the book. I realize you were using this example as one that shows some value, which reminds me, too, that we are simply reading this book from very different perspectives. This happens with all texts – the meaning we make is particular to the kind of meaning available to us based on all the funds of knowledge we bring to a reading.
Here is one reason, as a researcher and scholar, that these scenarios are so bothersome for me: they are fictional. If R.P. interviewed folks, had focus groups, did home or school observations, and used that “data” to create scenarios such as these, that would be one step in the right direction. In other words, if her work were research-based, we would be having a very different discussion. But it’s not, and she hasn’t – they are fictional portraits created out of her (from my perspective) naive and stereotypical images of people in her mind. This makes it so much worse for me. And even if she has attempted to write the scenario from a character’s perspective rather than her own, the use of derogatory names and negative stereotypes within those fictional scenarios is not productive – in fact, it’s only hurtful.
Everything in education has to be “research-based” now, except for the way we think and talk about working-class and poor children and families. R.P.’s book is often held up as “research” but it absolutely is not. There are scholars who have been conducting incredible research for decades about working-class and poor kids and families and what schools can do to make sure they succeed. Their solutions are complex – R.P.’s are simple (and don’t hold true based on decades of research). That’s the best way I know how to explain why her non-research-based book has been taken up by districts across the country. She writes about poverty in ways that people already “assume” exists – so it’s more palatable for folks to read and believe. And she offers very simple solutions that don’t get to the heart of how things such as classism and pro-poverty policies operate.
I truly appreciate you writing to me about this, and I would welcome the opportunity to talk more in person. I respect you a great deal, even from just one week of getting to know you, and look forward to getting together very soon!