Class consciousness

If white, middle-class teachers understand class differences, they can connect with their low-income, minority students and offer them the chance to learn the values and habits necessary for social mobility. That’s the promise of Ruby Payne, an author and lecturer who’s become wildly popular with teachers. But Payne’s work is condemned by some academics, writes Paul Tough in New York Times Magazine. Critics say she stereotypes the poor, assumes middle-class values are superior and “blames the victim” for poverty.

By teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in “classism” and racism. Her work is “riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful stereotypes,” charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, in a paper on Payne’s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payne’s central text “consists, at the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address poverty and education by ‘fixing’ poor people instead of reforming classist policies and practices.” (“LeftyHenry,” a recent poster on a political blog, was less subtle in his criticism; he called Payne “the Hitler of American academics.”)

Critics are mad that Payne doesn’t acknowledge that “the American economy and American schools systematically discriminate against poor people,” Tough writes. Well, I suppose poor people could wait for society to change in their favor. It might be a long wait, however.

Payne clearly believes that low-income students can choose their futures.

“What I’ve learned to say to kids is this: ‘You know, I respect you so much that you can handle this situation. I don’t know that I could. But if you don’t want to live that way the rest of your life, then I can give you the tools that will help you do things differently. It’s your choice. I can’t change your situation right now, but I can certainly give you the tools to help you change.’ And I think that’s the gift we bring. It’s a huge gift.”

I can’t imagine teaching if I believed students couldn’t do better than the lives to which they were born. If they’re doomed — barring a social revolution — why bother?

About Joanne


  1. Michael Fay says:

    June 10, 2007

    The question that appears to be asked in the NEW YORK TIMES
    SUNDAY MAGAZINE essay is whether we, the collective American
    citizenry, can not afford to teach students from all levels
    of society in a positive matter? If the methodolgy offered by
    Ruby Payne helps teachers, educator,and management line supervisors
    understand how to lead groups then the philosophy needs to be added
    to theory of teaching school age children as well in the work
    place. American society is at a cross roads with the debate on Ms.
    Payne’s methods is excellent training on how to bring out the
    public forum on perceived economic/social class differential values.
    Class differential peceptions in public debate in the classroom or
    work place can not be ignored for the future of a multiple face
    American society.

    Michael Fay,
    College Station, Tx.

  2. But many teachers think that they can help create the social revolution. Moreover, if they think that they are doing just that, it follows then that what they are doing is more important than phonics or multiplication tables.

  3. As if education itself is not about “fixing” people with its implicit assumption that literacy is superior to illiteracy. How dare they educate those happy ignorant masses!

    As a member of the middle class, someone PLEASE “fix” me and teach me upper class values. Stereotype me away and get me earning $7 million a year.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    There are minimum daily requirements in all classes. Teach readin’ writin, and rithmatic before you teach entitlement, victimhood and envy. A little patriotism wouldn’t hurt.

  5. The people who make these assertions have socialist aspirations for our nation. You should see that blog where LeftyHenry made the comment referenced in the article. Then, take a peek at LeftyHenry’s own blog, which advocates for Maoist Communism as an ideal.

    They absolutely do not care about the poor. Rather than providing them with the skills to improve their economic circumstances, they prefer letting them rot in the ghetto so they can be used as an object lesson in “everything that’s wrong with Capitalism.”

  6. Nancy Flanagan says:

    Ruby Payne gives teachers some simple tools to understand why some parents don’t show up for conferences, say, or send in their book orders. She explains why some parents defend their children in spite of irrefutable evidence of their wrong-doing, or spend money on the “wrong” things. In spite of what some of the critical theorists and academics charge, I don’t believe her work is all that different from many mainstream sociologists in terms of categorizing behaviors and habits by class. Her work is also very accessible to teachers, who tend to run their classrooms through a lens of some pretty middle-class values. She points out that there are “hidden rules” and expectations for behavior, and learning to behave in a certain way at school is often the best way to get along, and learn–so teachers may have to acclimate kids to ways of thinking and acting, in order to get some work done. Not terribly sophisticated, but a lot of teachers find it useful in communicating with students and families.

    I am always curious about the loathing directed at Payne from academia, especially those who haven’t read her stuff, or attended a workshop. True, she doesn’t address the root causes of poverty or critique social policy–she just tells why a family that doesn’t have milk money might
    spend $40 on a Halloween costume, so teachers can stop clucking about it, and get busy on multiplication tables.

    She’s also made a lot of money with her workshops, and garnered a lot of positive attention in practitioner world (which is a completely different place from research world). I’ve been through one of her trainings, and heard/read none of the supposedly hateful racist, classist things embedded in her materials. I think a lot of the angst comes from those who would place research and critical theory well above “things that work” in the educational hierarchy.

  7. There’s an old saying that “Anyone who isn’t a leftist before age 30 has no heart. And anyone who *is* a leftist after age 30 has no head.” (Often attributed to Churchill but may have been Clemenceau)

    In America today, we have leftists who have neither heart nor head.

  8. ucladavid says:

    Any poor kid can do well in school if the parents teach that an education is important and back that up by making sure that their kid behaves and does the work.

    I have just finished my 4th year of teaching and I have taught the honors kids down to the sheltered kids. Yes I come from a middle class background. All kids could pass my class and any of their other classes, but many of these kids CHOOSE not to do the work for a variety of reasons. When I call home and tell the parents that their kid is failing or misbehaving, but the kid’s behavior or work doesn’t change, it is bad parenting and not money.

    True, many of these kids come from a single parent home and the parents have to work long hours, but those are just excuses. I came from a single parent household and no one was home when I got home. However, if I didn’t have my homework done when my mom got home, my mom was not too pleased. If I came home with bad grades, my mom was not too pleased and I got punished for that.

    Thus, money is just an excuse and it is a case of bad parenting.

  9. Don’t be quite so quick to judge, ucladavid.

    The parental bell curve means that there are some parents at one end who’ll steamroll over any obstacle to getting their kid a good education. At the other end you’ve got people whose parenting instincts are much less apparent. In between you’ve got a lot of parents who’d make a choice for their kids if only they could. But with a public education system that’s inherently unresponsive and at the mercy of political forces which have their own agenda that choice is often, usually, not possible.

    What do you think is propelling the school choice and home schooling movements?

  10. This is a fascinating topic and the posts here are excellent.

    Just wanted to say thanks.

  11. Andrew H. says:

    I don’t care much for white middle-class values.
    What about middle 20th century Asian immigrant values?

  12. Twill00 says:

    Wow, great point, Andrew H.

    Someone ought to put together a flowchart for kids that demonstrates, if you follow *this* set of values, here are the likely effects. If you follow *this* set of values, here are the likely results. And so on.

    Maybe put together a board game that shows how your life might go, based upon your choices.

  13. Overeducated says:

    There are rare academics who are able to reach the broad public with what might be termed ‘popularization’ of academic thought. (If popular means talking to the the populace, that’s a good thing.) These individuals sometimes hit a public nerve and achieve celebrity and even wealth, breaking a class rule of academe, “thou shalt not strut thyself in the marketplace amongst the common trades.” Professional jealousy and intellectually pecking rivals into submission is a popular pastime of professors, browse the Chronicle of Higher Education or troll the AAUP censure list and see. This only comes as a suprise to non-academics who have no acquaintance with the higher education biz.

  14. As a middle aged women from middle America who completed a Master’s Degree in Special Education late in life, I found Ms. Payne’s philosophy on point with my students in Chicago. Would I pay for her workshop? No. Knowing that parents who live within the economic definition of poverty practice corporal punishment, and that students who live in poverty need a personal relationship in order to succeed in school and also that students who live in poverty live in chaotic environments helps me relate to my students rather than judge them. I can only tell the public that I adore my students. Their parents cannot believe that this old lady is thrilled to have their child as her student (old ladies get away with lots of love). Anyway to help me connect with my students is welcome. Reaching them anyway I can is my goal. It might not work with every student but it gives me the option of being aware of their needs. If the poverty “issue” does not help me connect, I move on and try another route.

    Thank you Ms. Payne.
    from a teacher in Chicago

  15. Hello Joanne,
    We noticed your thoughtful dialog on Ruby Payne and the article about her in The New York Times. We have linked your blog to ours. Stop by sometime and join our discussion!


  1. […] resorting to “refute by suggesting insidious motives” are commenters on Joanne Jacobs’ blog. Jacobs herself dismisses critics of Payne as being “mad” (as if they were having a […]

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