A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne

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A Framework for Understanding Ruby Payne

Winter 2006

By Anita Bohn

For Ruby K. Payne, founder and CEO of the for
-
profit
consulting and publishing company called aha! Process Inc.
in Highlands, Texas, poverty is big business. Since 1996,
Payne and her assistants have b
een conducting 200
seminars a year training as many as 25,000 teachers and
school administrators to work with children from poverty,
making her the single biggest influence on teachers'
understanding of children from poverty in the United States.

I first
heard the name Ruby Payne from teachers and school administrators about eight years ago
when interviewing a school district about professional development opportunities in multicultural
education in their district. Several teachers and an administrator tol
d me Payne had been brought to
town to conduct workshops for the teachers and that the district had bought each participant a copy
of her book
A Framework for Understanding Poverty
. Over the next few years I heard references like
this over and over again,
not only in my home state of Illinois, but from teachers and administrators
around the country.

Initially, I had trouble finding out much about Payne's work, apart from these word
-
of
-
mouth
testimonials. My university library, a good one with substantial h
oldings, had no books by Ruby
Payne, nor did the consortium of university libraries to which it belonged. When I typed the name
"Ruby Payne" into a Google search, though, I hit a jackpot of sorts: Google reported thousands of
hits. School districts across
the nation and even in Australia and New Zealand announced upcoming
aha! Process workshops for teachers, or reported on workshops recently conducted in their districts.

How had someone so widely hailed in the public schools as an expert on poverty been ig
nored by
national research institutes, higher education, and all the major, published authorities on the subject
of poverty? It took several months of investigating print and media sources on Payne, interviewing
participants and trainers of her workshops,
and participating in two initial training sessions before I
finally was able to shed some light on the phenomenon called Ruby Payne.

The Framework

Payne's principal message is that poverty is not simply a monetary condition. She describes it to her
audie
nces as a culture with particular rules, values, and knowledge transmitted from one generation
to the next that inform people how to live their lives successfully


how to build and keep
relationships, how to get one's needs met, how to entertain and be en
tertained, and more. Payne
asserts that children growing up in a culture of poverty do not succeed because they have been
taught the "hidden rules of poverty," but not the hidden rules of being middle class.

Likewise, Payne claims, public school teachers
who are predominately from the middle class do not
understand or relate to their students from poverty because they don't appreciate the hidden and
essential rules for survival in poverty. Payne sees her educational mission as opening channels of
communica
tion, making explicit the hidden rules of class at all levels, and encouraging teachers to
teach children of poverty the rules of middle class.

In
A Framework for Understanding Poverty
, Payne asks her readers, as she asks her audiences, to
take her "Could

you survive?" quizzes. Here are a few examples of what Payne considers the
essential knowledge of the lower class:



I know how to get someone out of jail.




Illustration: Katherine Streeter



I know how to physically fight and defend myself physically.



I know how to get a gun, even if I ha
ve a police record.



I know how to entertain a group of friends with my personality and my stories.

A few hidden rules from the middle class are:



I know how to hire a private attorney to handle a criminal or civil matter.



I know how to reserve a table a
t a restaurant.



I know how to set and decorate a table with flowers, place mats, and napkins.



I know how to evaluate and purchase appropriate medical, life, disability, homeowners,
auto, and personal property insurance.

On my first read
-
through of the "
rules" I didn't know whether to laugh at the sheer stupidity of some of
them or to rage at the offensive stereotyping of people in poverty and the thinly veiled bigotry
reflected in others. I am still hard pressed to understand why ideas like this have mad
e Payne the
hottest speaker/trainer on poverty on the public school circuit today. One thing is certain, though:
Ruby Payne has flown under the radar far too long. It's time for teachers and administrators to take a
critical look at her immensely popular m
essage.

Troubling Features

Payne and the company she owns, aha! Process Inc., self
-
publish her books. That means her
research does not have to be verifiable, reproducible, valid, or reliable in order to get published.
Payne's promotional materials talk a
bout her valuable "case studies," but you quickly learn from
reading her books and attending her workshops that there is nothing more substantive than a few
random anecdotes about children and families she claims to have encountered over the years. These
a
necdotes become even less credible when they are parroted by one of her minions, who are
available to present to your group for somewhat lower rates than Payne herself. I attended one such
workshop led by an underling, and found the speaker's presentation
sprinkled with stories that
generally began "Ruby talks about this one girl..." or "Ruby has this one family who...." Whatever this
is, it is not research.

Payne's books and lectures present a superficial and insulting picture of children and families in
poverty. Poor people, according to Payne, are scofflaws perpetually looking for a fight or some other
good time when they are not busy milking the system. The "case studies" that I personally heard
referred to in her workshops made her audiences laugh and
cluck their tongues, and bordered on
bigotry. Payne's books primarily are sold to those who hire her or one of her representatives to
conduct seminars. That turns out to be a requirement of Payne's contract when she signs up with a
school district: that th
ey purchase one of her books for every participant


a very convenient and
lucrative arrangement. In fact, many of the books themselves


especially the main
Framework

book


are virtually useless without the accompanying seminar. They are more like workbo
oks with the
answers missing, or a collection of overhead transparencies meant to be filled in with the speaker's
remarks.

Payne directly targets one of the largest, hungriest markets for quick fixes in public education: the
ubiquitous and mandated inserv
ices organized and offered in every school district in the nation.
Payne charges real money for her services


$300 per individual registrant on her public tours, and
upwards of $3000 for three
-
day contract workshops with school districts, plus the require
d textbook
purchases. Her secrets to working with children of poverty are making her a very rich woman while
the school districts that hire her are districts with high poverty rates and in need of workable
solutions.

Downright Dangerous Message

The self
-
promoting nature of Payne's practices is not really what makes her ideas so harmful, though.
It's what teachers are learning in the workshops that worries me. One teacher told me after an
aha!Process workshop that something she learned in Payne's seminar w
as "poor people can't think
abstractly." Consider the curricular decisions that might be made by a teacher who takes away that
understanding of her students from a Ruby Payne workshop.

Payne offers teachers and administrators something very seductive: sim
ple and comfortable
solutions to complex school problems. Payne's facile answers allow teachers and administrators to
place the blame for low
-
income children's lack of academic success entirely outside the schools.

The real danger of Payne's ideology is t
hat it effectively prevents social change. It makes us believe
that we can reduce the problem of poverty without needing to make any changes in society or in our
own lives. We just need to teach them a different set of rules to live by. As every social sci
entist
knows, social beliefs shape social policy; if our beliefs about poverty were different, our social and
public policies about poverty would be different. If we believed that racism and oppression accounted
for a good deal of poverty, there would be a

greater emphasis on social rights and social
responsibility, on economic opportunity programs, on progressive rather than regressive taxation, on
the right to living wages with retirement benefits, and on access to good education and health care.

Are The
re Any Valuable Ideas?

Ruby Payne's popularity attests to the urgent need for answers to the questions and concerns of
teachers and administrators who sincerely want to help children from lower socioeconomic status
achieve educational equity. We know that

the learning, academic achievement, and social
development of students who are in poverty can be affected positively or negatively by the attitudes
of teachers and administrators. Payne's intention of helping teachers and administrators become
aware and a
ppreciate the circumstances of people who seem unfamiliar to them is an honorable one;
the problem is, as that intention is realized, it is riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful
stereotypes.

Payne places a good deal of emphasis on the fact that ch
ildren in poverty would benefit from more
explicit instructional strategies to help them understand and think about ideas presented in class


strategies like graphic organizers and multiple approaches to learning about a concept. There is
some truth to th
is premise. But well
-
established research has demonstrated that
all

children benefit
from the strategies she suggests in her workshops. Payne is not wrong to promote them, but she did
not invent them and deserves neither the credit nor the financial remune
ration she receives for
suggesting common instructional practices to help low
-
income children.

What Do We Need to Know?

Instead of allowing ourselves to be misled about a culture of poverty, we need to critically examine
the culture of denial that has be
come institutionalized in our society and has caused the study of
poverty in the last 20 years to be more concerned with promoting a theory of individual culpability
than with addressing institutionalized inequities. We need to understand that the poor the
mselves are
not the problem; the problem is the fact that the poor do not have realistic opportunities to escape
from poverty.

The real answers aren't easy ones. They require us to work at all levels within the system and
outside of it as advocates and ch
ange agents for children and families. We need to work
collaboratively with organizations and political movements that fight for systemic improvement of the
lives of children and families in poverty and strive to ensure people's basic human rights to adequ
ate
food, housing, medical care, decent education, and an equal opportunity to succeed.

There are teachers who celebrate small successes with significant numbers of children from poverty
every day, against enormous odds. They remind us that existing answe
rs are not secrets we need
pay big bucks to learn. Their answers are free: It takes hard work and unwavering dedication. It takes
committed teachers and administrators willing to set high expectations and offer engaging curricula
that make strong personal
connections for their students. It takes schools where students are not just
prepared to take and pass standardized tests, but where they are taught how to play a conscious,
active role in society, how to recognize and combat racism and other institutional
ized inequities, and
how to work in pursuit of the dream of social and global justice.

Anita Perna Bohn (
apbohn@ilstu.edu
) is an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

Winter 2006