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.
Payne's backers contend that teachers who can grasp the realities of impoverished households -- whatever those might be -- are better positioned to help students in those situations succeed.
Critics say that that approach demeans low-income families and that there are better ways to raise scores -- among them, intensifying coursework, lowering teacher-student ratios and ensuring that experienced teachers do not leave low-income schools for those with wealthier students.
Payne, a former teacher and administrator in Texas and Illinois who has worked with low-income students, says her characterizations of poverty come from her professional experience and from spending time with the low-income family of her ex-husband.
"I ask the critics this question: Have you ever taught poor kids? The answer every time is, 'No,' " Payne said. "So how do they know [my descriptions of poverty] are not true?"
Another consultant, Glenn E. Singleton, based in San Francisco, contends that race influences achievement more than poverty. Singleton, who is black, coaches teachers on cultural sensitivity.
"Why is Ruby Payne popular?" he asked. "It's a safe place to go. When you've determined kids are poor, there's nothing you as a teacher can do about that. When you deal with race, it's about how we perpetuate racism and how that gets in the way of higher student performance."
Payne said she doesn't focus on race in part because of her skin color. "The real issue is that I am white, and there's a huge belief out there that if you're white, you can't talk about poverty and race," she said.
To establish Payne's credentials, her company has conducted research that attempts to show that the author-consultant has helped boost scores on state standardized exams. The study, drawing on data from five states, found that 63 percent of the students in classes with "high fidelity" to Payne's tenets had greater growth on their math exam scores over a two-year period than students who were in "low-fidelity" classes. On reading exams, 78 percent of students in Payne-influenced classes had greater growth.
Critics say these findings have not been reviewed by independent experts.
In Prince William, Payne has influenced many educators. Principal Joanne Alvey of Marumsco Hills Elementary -- where nearly 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged -- credits Payne's work among many factors that helped her school recently meet the academic standards of No Child Left Behind.
Alvey said she bought some of Payne's literature for her staff even before school officials sent the teachers for countywide training.
"We talk in Ruby Payne terms all the time. What's really important is the teacher having a relationship with the children. Children in poverty tend not to work for grades, but they work for the teacher," Alvey said. "Another thing I discovered is how they address adults. Children of poverty don't generally know how to do that. We have to teach them that."
Rita E. Goss, principal of Dumfries Elementary, where about 65 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, said Payne's work has helped her and her staff understand what goes on in low-income homes and why some students misbehave in class.
"She talks in her book about generational poverty, like background noise and the TV always being on, how it's always important to show their personality and to entertain and tell stories," Goss said. "You may assume that kids have certain knowledge of the rules and how to adapt to [school] but, in fact, they really don't."
But debate about Payne is growing in Prince William. "I don't know the last time Ruby Payne stepped outside the Ruby Payne atmosphere," said Pam Bumstead, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Potomac Middle School. "We have kids whose parents are alcoholics, kids whose parents are in jail and kids whose parents who live in McMansions, and those three different kids can come to school with the same problems."
Victor Martin, the county's supervisor of multicultural education, is trying to determine what to do with Payne's materials. As he led administrators last month in a discussion of her work, Martin wondered aloud about Payne's "hidden rules" of poverty.
He took issue with one conclusion in the "Framework" book: "The noise level is high (the TV is always on and everyone may talk at once)."
"As a person that comes from poverty myself, I look at these 'hidden rules'," Martin said. He paused. "The noise level in my home wasn't high. My dad worked shift work, and if he was sleeping and if you had TV on -- there [would be] no entertainment."
Martin asked: "How is that information being filtered? Like, 'Well, that child is loud because he's poor'?"