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Education guru Ruby Payne: Is she wrong about kids in poverty, or misunderstood?

Ruby Payne is an author, speaker, and career educator.
Ruby Payne is an author, speaker, and career educator.
Published Jul. 13, 2015

ORLANDO — The principal was beside herself. A parent took $200 she had been given to buy clothes for her children and spent it on a DVD player.

So Ruby Payne, then a trainer in the school's Texas district, described how she once saw a Picasso hanging in a rich person's home.

"I asked the principal, 'If somebody gave you a $1.4 million Picasso, what would you do with it?' " she told a group of educators years later in Orlando. "You'd sell it."

Many in the audience nodded in agreement. "I've lived this long without a Picasso," she added. "I'll bet I can live some more."

Payne has been doing this for decades, using stories — in this case, a story within a story — to make the point that the rich are different. And so, by the way, are the poor.

There's no crime, she said, in articulating these realities as a way of confronting the cultural gap that separates middle-class teachers from children's hardscrabble communities. Such understanding helps students succeed in school and better their chances of escaping poverty, she argued.

There's just one problem: A vocal group of people say there is something wrong with Payne's message. Their ranks include authors, professors, activists and a retired educator who filed a complaint about Hillsborough County with the federal government.

Books have been written, forums organized and blogs built to tear down Payne's work, prompting some districts to shy away because of the controversy. Yet her writings continue to surface in teacher training programs.

The criticism in a nutshell: Payne provides intellectual shortcuts, a fast-food lunch of sociology that reinforces one of the most dangerous behaviors in public education — teachers looking down on their students.

• • •

The group of future Payne trainers who gathered in June at the Disney World Swan Resort came from Kentucky and Colorado, Texas and Louisiana, most sent by public school districts. It's not cheap to learn about poverty: Payne's aha! Process Inc. advertises $1,299 for lifetime certification.

Participants had workbook editions of A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne's seminal 1995 work, in front of them. Other materials were displayed on a merchandise table outside.

Between anecdotes, Payne broke down the lecturing style trainers should use when talking to educators back home. Point, story, example. Watch the eyes in your audience to gauge interest. Keep the stories believable.

And, very important: Instead of just contrasting middle-class values with those of poverty, add a third level — wealth — to avoid appearing judgmental.

She speaks very little about race, often describing rural white families and American Indians when she does.

Critics say that's code.

"She goes with the unobvious to make the obvious points," said Saba Baptiste, education chair of the Tampa NAACP. Baptiste's biggest complaint is that Payne's theories come from personal experience, not research.

Even without specifying race, Payne's lectures are loaded with generalizations.

"They got paid on Friday; on Monday, they were broke," she said, describing her late husband's relatives, who were white and Cherokee. "They hadn't paid their rent, and they hadn't paid their car. And they were making more money than I was, and I couldn't understand."

Her stories of wealth also draw from experiences with her husband, who built a prosperous career as a Chicago bond trader.

But it's the poverty stories that hit home with her audience.

"Poverty is painful, and one of the ways you spend your money is on entertainment," she said.

She asked how many in the room had students who get free lunch but bring money to school for candy. "They can't pay for the field trip, but they have a brand new pair of Nikes."

Heads nodded.

Another Payne adage: "One of the biggest fears you have in generational poverty is that your children will get too educated. Because when children get too educated, what do they do? They leave."

With that, she rattled off colloquialisms — one for each ethnic group, starting with "too big for his britches" in white parlance and ending with the Native American slur, "apple … which means 'red on the outside and white on the inside.' "

• • •

Education professors have written papers decrying the "Payne effect," saying it sets teachers up to feel separate from and superior to their students. Some call it the "deficit model."

Payne and her devotees say her work does no such thing.

Vanessa Stuart, a principal in Texas, said Payne helped her understand the low-income apartment community she serves. Kids there settle scores with their fists, she said — a common poverty practice, according to Payne's book.

"They are fighting for survival," Stuart said. "I have told them, 'I understand that.' " Then she instructed them in the other ways they could work things out in school.

"That's not devaluing, but giving them coping strategies. There is one set of rules for one place and one set of rules for another place. That doesn't mean one is right and one is wrong."

Caleb York, a principal in Kentucky, said while it's easy to find stereotypes in Payne's work, "for me as an educator, and definitely as an administrator, you have to look at the benefits."

"Is there generalization? Yes, there is. For me, that person is going to do it anyway, so this educates them. They see the kids. Then they ask, 'What's my next step to help them?' This provides tools for them to do that."

• • •

While Payne's critics exist in many places, Hillsborough County is clearly a hotbed.

University of South Florida anthropologist Susan Greenbaum devoted a chapter in her book, Blaming the Poor, to Payne. She posted this blistering online review of Payne's Hidden Rules of Class at Work: "This book is designed to alleviate the poverty of the author at the expense of children."

As far back as 2009, community leaders have spoken out against Payne, whose company was paid tens of thousands of dollars by the Hillsborough district between 2006 and 2008.

Around 2010, the district stopped offering Payne's training, largely because of the backlash. Representatives for the Hillsborough and Pinellas districts said they hold their own trainings, using various sources.

Hillsborough discourages anything that stereotypes people, opting for materials that are researched-based and get results, said Tricia McManus, director of leadership development.

"We have to look at every child as an individual," she said. "Nothing that I learn about poverty is going to help me learn how to make a child love school."

But there is no official ban on Payne's materials at the schools.

Her Framework book is cited several times in the 2013-14 school improvement plan for Sanderlin IB World School in Pinellas as a tool to help black students and students who are disabled, and to help teachers use an "adult" voice.

Brewster Technical Center in Hillsborough trained teachers in Payne's methods in 2013. At Pasco's Hudson Middle School, according to the 2014-15 school plan, the staff "regularly utilizes the work of Ruby Payne as they discuss students' cultures and cultivate relationships between students and instructional staff."

Aware of her continued influence, community leaders in Hills­borough invited Payne to a forum in 2014. Baptiste, the education chair of the Tampa NAACP, shared a series of polite emails the two exchanged.

But Payne never came. She said the NAACP would not pay her expenses and harbored "almost a vendetta" against her.

The Rev. Russell Meyer, who works with area civil rights groups, said he was not surprised the teachers in Orlando liked Payne's message. "They don't have to change anything that they think or believe or do," he said.

It's a recurring theme in the critiques.

"She offers simple and simplistic solutions to complex problems," University of Minnesota professors Mistilina Sato and Timothy Lensmire wrote in 2009. "She allows white educators to think of themselves as normal and even saviors of poor pathological children and their parents."

In the face of societal inequalities, they wrote, "Payne comforts us with her soothing repetitions of centuries-old stereotypes of the poor. We can then get on with being white and privileged and free from responsibility for the well-being of our neighbors and fellow citizens."

It's nothing Payne hasn't heard and rebutted many times

"They criticize the book because they say, 'You don't say anything in the book about racism, sexism or the larger economic structures,' " she told her Orlando audience.

"And I don't. It's not that I don't think they're there. But when I wrote the book, I wrote the book for teachers. Do you follow me? I wasn't writing it to do a treatise on poverty."

After the session, she said this about stereotypes: "Everybody's brain sorts in patterns, anyway. So, you can have informed or uninformed patterns. People stereotype. It is a natural response to the environment."

She also downplayed assertions that, through her corporations and book sales, poverty has made her rich. These days, she said, it's easy to access her work online for free.

"Really," she said, "if I wanted to sell my company, I couldn't."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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