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Responding to Payne’s Response

by Paul Gorski - July 19, 2006

A response to Payne's response. The author states that Ruby Payne’s identification of economic pragmatism as her theoretical lens and her connecting argument that this lens instructs her to focus squarely on the “practical” are telling indicators that largely support his critique of her work.

Ruby Payne’s identification of economic pragmatism as her theoretical lens and her connecting argument that this lens instructs her to focus squarely on the “practical” are telling indicators that largely support my critique of her work. In this identification she plays into one of the great myths of education reform: that large-scale change can happen through small shifts in practice, even if a broken system remains steadily in place. The dangers of this myth are exacerbated in reform efforts meant to address poverty, class, race, and other equity issues. This is particularly true in today’s compassionate conservative sociopolitical context, wherein anti-racism is replaced by Taco Nights and learning about “other” cultures, wherein No Child Left Behind, while ignoring classist inequities in our education system, punishes schools in the poorest communities for an achievement gap that is largely the result of those inequities. All of the minor shifts in practice one can muster mean little if classism and racism continue to pervade our schools and classrooms unchallenged. This, in part, is what constitutes what I describe as Payne’s conservative frame of reference. As long as we focus on the practical without an explicit connection to the context in which we’re practicing, the status quo of classism and racism stay intact.

Moreover, by framing her approach this way Payne slyly dodges the most widespread critique of her work: that it overflows with oppressive and unsupported stereotypes.  Regardless of theoretical lens, attempts to make small shifts in practice will not counteract the classist and racist prejudices that Payne’s work encourages in teachers.

Similarly, Payne responds to my assertion that she fails to address systemic educational inequities by suggesting that her work is about educating teachers on the practicalities of how to address these inequities. This, again, demonstrates a lack of contextual understanding on her part and a sly conservative reframing. Belying her claim, Payne never even mentions class inequities in A Framework for Understanding Poverty. She never mentions funding inequities, inequitable access to experienced and licensed teachers, inequitable access to educational resources like science labs, inequitable access to higher-order thinking pedagogies, or policies and practices like the No Child Left Behind, tracking, high-stakes testing, and the increasing socioeconomic segregation in schools, that disproportionately affect the most economically disadvantaged students. How, exactly, is she speaking to how teachers can address these inequities when she doesn’t even acknowledge that the inequities exist?

Perhaps the most interesting section of Payne’s response is the one regarding deficit theory. In my original essay I argue that her framework is steeped in the deficit perspective. She addresses this in her response by saying that my identification of deficit theory in her work is based solely on the fact that “individual behaviors are examined.” Here, again, is an illustration either of Payne’s misunderstanding of the sociopolitical context of her own work or a purposeful attempt to avoid a popular critique of that work. One identifies deficit theory, not merely by the fact that somebody examines individual behaviors, but instead by determining where somebody identifies the “problem” under consideration. In other words, while Payne’s exploration of the “values” and “mindset” of poverty are classist and racist, her attempt to look for cultural patterns in certain groups does not, in and of itself, constitute deficit theory. What does constitute deficit theory is that she locates the problem of poverty in the behaviors of the people oppressed by it while ignoring the oppression itself. While it may be true that individual behaviors are shaped, at least in part, by one’s environment, the environments in which many economically disadvantaged students, students of color, lesbian and gay students, English language learners, female students, and students with disabilities live and attend school are shaped by racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, linguicism, and other oppressions. To ignore this reality is an act of privilege and complicity with the very inequities Payne ostensibly teaches teachers to “minimize.”

Payne’s final point, in response to my contention that her work is fundamentally conservative and not transformative in nature, is that her work does, indeed, transform. Perhaps I should have specified that her work isn’t progressively transformative, as I actually agree with her statement: “To educate is to transform.” But we have a choice. Do we transform toward equity and justice or toward inequity and injustice? Do we transform toward anti-classim or toward support for the growing economic disparities in the US? Do we transform in ways that distribute privilege and power evenly or in ways that secure our own privilege and power?

If we hope to transform toward equity and justice, toward anti-classism, toward a more equal distribution of privilege and power, we must develop a much deeper and more accurate, and less classist and racist, understanding of poverty than can be found in A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Payne’s other books.

Here are a few sources to get you started. I particularly recommend Poverty and Schooling in the US by Sue Books, which transcends the entirety of A Framework within its first two chapters.

Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage by Ellen Brantlinger, 2003 (Falmer Press)

Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (2nd ed.) by Jeannie Oakes, 2005 (Yale University Press)

Poverty and Schooling in the U.S. by Sue Books, 2004 (Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates)

The Shame of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol, 2006 (Three Rivers Press)

The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Anti-Poverty Policy by Herbert Gans, 1995 (Basic Books)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12605, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:36:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Paul Gorski
    Hamline University
    E-mail Author
    PAUL GORSKI is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Hamline University. He is an active consultant, conducting workshops and guidance to schools and educational organizations committed to equity and diversity. Gorski is actively involved in the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME), serving on its board of directors.
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