Author's Poverty Views Disputed Yet Utilized

Prince William County teachers and administrators meet to discuss Payne's works after questions were raised about the author's generalizations about life in poverty. Some say they worry about her standing among academics, some of whom say her works are riddled with unverifiable assertions.
Prince William County teachers and administrators meet to discuss Payne's works after questions were raised about the author's generalizations about life in poverty. Some say they worry about her standing among academics, some of whom say her works are riddled with unverifiable assertions. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

According to Ruby K. Payne, a consultant to school systems locally and nationwide, teachers should know a few things about poor people.

The Texas-based author says in her book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty": Parents in poverty typically discipline children by beating or verbally chastising them; poor mothers may turn to sex for money and favors; poor students laugh when they get in trouble at school; and low-income parents tend to "beat around the bush" during parent-teacher conferences, instead of getting to the point.

In the past several years, at least five school systems in the Washington area have turned to Payne's lessons, books and workshops.

But many academics say her works are riddled with unverifiable assertions. At the American Educational Research Association's annual conference in Chicago last week, professors from the University of Texas at Austin delivered a report on Payne that argued that more than 600 of her descriptions of poverty in "Framework" cannot be proved true.

"She claims there is a single culture of poverty that people live in. It's an idea that's been discredited since at least the 1960s," said report co-author Randy Bomer.

It's unclear how much public money has been spent on Payne regionwide. Howard County dispatched about 300 teachers in 2003 to a two-day Payne seminar and has continued to send math and reading teachers to her for training. Montgomery County also has sent teachers to Payne workshops in recent years; Prince George's County Superintendent John E. Deasy distributed one of Payne's books to some of his staff this year; and Frederick County sent about 250 teachers to a multi-day training session three years ago.

In one case, Prince William County schools recently spent more than $320,000 for Payne and her aides to train hundreds of staff members. Now Prince William officials are reconsidering the value of Payne's advice.

The officials say Payne is well meaning, but they are put off by her blunt generalizations about life in poverty and worry about her standing among academics.

"She seems to be always stereotyping," Natialy Walker, Prince William's professional development supervisor, said during a staff meeting about Payne last month. "If only we could get away from all the labels and move beyond that."

Still, in their nonstop quest to raise test scores of students from low-income families, schools everywhere are searching for expertise from such consultants as Payne. The mission has become more urgent under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Frederick's director of professional development, Ann Hummer, said administrators are aware that Payne's workshops are controversial. But she called them refreshing. "People who are in high-needs schools, they were like, 'Yeah, we see this.' "

Payne, 56, said that she speaks to about 40,000 educators a year and that she has sold more than 1 million copies of her self-published "Framework." She estimated that she and others with her company, Aha! Process Inc., have worked with staff from 70 to 80 percent of the nation's school districts over the past decade. She declined to reveal the company's annual revenue.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company