kitchen table math, the sequel: palisadesk on Ruby Payne & poverty

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

palisadesk on Ruby Payne & poverty

I wanted to get this comment from palisadesk up front:

I found Ruby Payne’s Framework book and articles to be worthy of discussion and very thought provoking, but also to be taken with a large dose of sodium chloride. Two egregious errors that infuse her work are overgeneralizing and reifying abstractions. She speaks of “children in poverty” and “people in poverty” as if poverty is a singular entity with clearly defined boundaries and a shared ecosystem. This is simply not the case.

There’s a big difference between, say, multi-generational urban poverty and the poverty of new immigrant families. There’s a big difference between rural poverty and urban poverty – even a big difference between the way the rural poor in agricultural communities see the world, and the way the non-urban poor in mountainous or northern communities view things. “Poverty” looks different in these varying situations, too.

Her over-simplistic characterization of a “culture of poverty” can be insidious. She has some important insights, but her overgeneralizing weakens their power and does indeed lead to the kind of stereotyping she deplores.

The viewpoints she represents as characteristic of "poverty" are amalgams at best. Even in an urban, low-income school community, we see “subcultures” where there is a strong future-time orientation, an emphasis on effort and achievement, minimal reliance on physical force to settle disagreements, etc. Different cultures exist within the larger group which Payne characterizes as “people in poverty.” Poverty is not a place, and it is (thankfully) often a temporary condition for families.

I had many insights while reading her book, and so am disappointed I can’t heartily recommend it because it goes well beyond available data and tends to perpetuate generalizations about groups of people. Her point about resources available to kids is extremely well-taken, however. I was in one school where the classrooms had no books, pencils, paper – nothing. The library was a joke (nothing new since 1954). Sure, we could teach kids how to read by writing words on the (battered and cracked) chalkboard, and photocopying stories from the public library, but really, nothing the teacher could do would compensate for the fact that there was NO way for the students to practice the skills taught and their environment – including their school environment – militated against it. There are schools like this in every large metropolitan area, I’m willing to bet. Schools where rats scurry around and buckets catch rainwater from leaking ceilings.

It doesn’t need to be an either/or situation – the precision teaching motto, “do both” is good advice here. We should endeavor both to provide the needed supports outside of school (medical care, decent housing, recreational opportunities etc.) for children and also concentrate on what we offer them in school in terms of solid instruction that will help them determine their own destiny. As things stand, schooling tends to widen the gap, rather than narrow it. We have not really come to grips with this.

My understanding of the situation is that our schools are widening the gap. True of black and, I assume, Hispanic children compared to white peers; true of white children compared to their peers in Europe and Asia.

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