Education Letter to the Editor

Questioning a Speaker’s Knowledge of Poverty

June 06, 2006 2 min read

To the Editor:

In your May 3, 2006, In Perspective story, “Payne’s Pursuit,” you feature the work of Ruby K. Payne, a popular author and speaker on the subject of poverty and its effects on children and their educational success. Ms. Payne’s influence on public education is portrayed quite favorably, and extant criticisms of her work are mentioned only briefly. We believe these criticisms warrant closer attention, however, and raise the following questions: What constitutes Ms. Payne’s expertise on poverty? And what is the research base supporting her framework for understanding this phenomenon?

The article describes Ms. Payne’s workshops as “loose constructions of facts, theories, practical guidance, and anecdotes.” Like earlier proponents of the culture-of-poverty thesis, she depicts poor people as having a distinctly weak work ethic, little sense of internal discipline or future orientation, and as leading lives dominated by disorder and violence. Yet Ms. Payne neglects to mention or engage a large body of scholarship that challenges this thesis and concludes such deficiencies are not specific to poor individuals and their families.

Ms. Payne seems to speak authoritatively on the issue of poverty, but neither her own work nor the supporting research papers on her Web site have been subject to scholarly peer review and assessment. To the extent that researchers adhere to common standards of scholarly rigor, Ms. Payne has little credibility with which to claim expert status.

According to your article, teachers who attend Ms. Payne’s workshops report that “her insights make sense out of their own experience.” Given the relatively limited direct contact most educators have with children in poverty, though, the fact that Ms. Payne’s characterization resonates with their preconceptions is hardly surprising. To our knowledge, the “32-year case study” informing Ms. Payne’s expertise has never been subjected to methodological scrutiny or published.

Moreover, Ms. Payne says she chooses to focus on how poor individuals can learn to live differently instead of examining larger social and economic questions like discrimination, segregation, deindustrialization, or unequal funding. Given the extensive body of research on poverty, the effectiveness of her strategy, intent on moving poor children one at a time into the middle class without challenging the larger social structure, is highly questionable.

Ms. Payne’s understanding of poverty is pleasingly simple and prescriptive, but her “expert” insights and recommendations should remain contested. We wish Education Week had reported these serious limitations of Ms. Payne’s work in greater detail, so that your readers could have been more accurately informed.

Bruce Baker

Jennifer Ng

John Rury

School of Education

University of Kansas

Lawrence, Kan.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Questioning a Speaker’s Knowledge of Poverty