A Fresh Perspective on Teaching Children in Poverty
Before we dive in, pause for a moment and consider your current understanding of children in poverty. Reflect on your experiences and existing beliefs. What ideas have you internalized from your training? As educators or administrators, our attitudes significantly influence our approaches and expectations. This article encourages you to reassess your understanding as we critically explore Ruby Payne’s ‘Framework for Understanding Poverty.’
Educational landscapes are always in flux, with innovative theories and practices constantly shaping our understanding and approach toward teaching. One of these influential concepts has been Ruby Payne’s ‘Framework for Understanding Poverty.’ Touted as an essential tool for educators, this professional development program aims to foster a better understanding of students from low-income backgrounds. Payne’s training hinges on the idea that different socioeconomic classes have distinct worldviews and behaviors, and that educators can help bridge this gap by guiding students from low-income families to adopt middle-class norms. The underlying assertion is that this shift can pave the way for these students’ academic success.
The three pillars explored here – individual understanding and behavioral shifts, institutional barriers, and community influences – are key to critically appraising Ruby Payne’s ‘Framework for Understanding Poverty.’ By engaging with these pillars, we can foster a more comprehensive understanding of poverty’s intricate dynamics in the realm of education.
Pillar 1: Individual Understanding and Behavioral Shifts:
Ruby Payne’s ‘Framework for Understanding Poverty’ has significantly influenced educational landscapes. Payne’s training postulates that different socioeconomic classes have unique worldviews and behaviors. By guiding students from low-income families to adopt middle-class norms, Payne asserts that the academic success of these students can be improved.
However, this premise has been challenged by scholars for promoting ‘deficit thinking’ – a perspective attributing the academic struggles of low-income and minority students to personal deficits while neglecting systemic issues.
Pillar 2: Institutional Barriers:
Payne’s model can inadvertently lead educators to maintain low expectations of their low-income students, stemming from detrimental stereotypes. There’s a risk that an overemphasis on conforming to middle-class norms could be harmful to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Furthermore, Payne’s generalizations about behavior and values across different socioeconomic classes, termed as “truths” lack a rigorous scholarly basis. The implications of these claims highlight the importance of critically examining institutional practices and seeking more nuanced understanding of poverty and its impact on education.
Pillar 3: Community Influences:
The real-world implications of Payne’s training are evident in many schools. For instance, a specific elementary school embraced Payne’s model to enhance the academic performance of its low-income students. They wrote their School Improvement Plans with the objective of changing low-income students to adopt the norms of middle-class students, with the ultimate goal that they would then be able to succeed academically. Their strategy involved assigning each staff member a student identified as ‘poor,’ and mentoring them on aspects where Payne suggests they differ from middle-class students. The effectiveness of this approach was monitored via surveys, shedding light on the progress—or lack thereof.
Edstar Analytics was brought on board to guide the school’s data-driven School Improvement Plan. Their role was to evaluate this strategy, assessing whether the surveys were indeed reflective of genuine progress and helping the school steer its initiative towards a more effective route. What we found might surprise you:
Despite minority students making up only 23% of the school, they constituted a whopping 72% of the students selected for mentorship, with two-thirds being males. Intriguingly, around 75% of these mentored students were already academically successful before the mentorship initiative began.
This revelation left the school’s principal and the School Improvement Team flabbergasted. They had not previously analyzed this data, partly due to their belief, reinforced by Payne’s training, that students living in poverty were inherently less likely to succeed academically.
When asked how the mentees were selected, the team admitted that in the absence of access to free lunch lists, they resorted to a less-than-ideal method – observing which students rode buses carrying the most minority students, under the assumption that these buses were likely servicing lower-income neighborhoods.
However, the team’s willingness to accept these findings and reassess their approach was commendable. Recognizing the need for a shift in mindset, the principal enlisted our help to survey the staff’s beliefs.
The survey results were enlightening:
- 89% agreed that students need family support to succeed in rigorous courses.
- 43% believed that income inherently affects student achievement.
- 39% thought that if most students on a school bus are minorities, the bus probably services a low-income neighborhood.
- 62% felt that even if low-income students master a subject’s content, they shouldn’t be given rigorous work due to potential stressors in their lives.
- 72% viewed teacher expectation as the most critical factor in student success.
- 49% relied on their professional judgment over standardized scores when determining a student’s likelihood of success.
- 92% depended more on their observations of students than standardized scores when recommending courses.
- 20% believed that every child in rigorous courses has past achievement scores to support their success.
- 21% thought that every student in remediation and/or the lower track scored low on their standardized tests.
- 33% felt that the current system of tracking in their school was good and fair.
- 32% attributed the low enrollment of minority students in advanced classes to a lack of parental support.
Over the next year, we partnered with the school to foster a data-informed culture. The principal’s biggest revelation was that students living in poverty could be as academically successful as their peers and that many minority students came from high-income families. As we continued our journey together, it became clear that moving away from stereotypical views and embracing a more comprehensive, data-driven approach was the key to unlocking every student’s potential.
This case study underscores the pervasive community influences on educational outcomes and the critical need for a data-informed approach to understand and address the complexities of poverty.
Conclusion: A Shift in Perspective
The journey with this particular school highlighted the importance of moving away from stereotypes and embracing a data-driven approach to fully recognize every student’s potential. Challenging widely held beliefs and fostering a data-informed culture proved crucial in redefining the school’s perspective on poverty and education.
Research on the Impact
This premise of this view of poverty, however, has been challenged by scholars. A potent critique by Bomer, Dworin, May, and Semingson titled, “Miseducating teachers about the poor: A critical analysis of Ruby Payne’s claims about poverty” (2008), probes the foundational tenets of Payne’s training.
The authors argue that Payne’s model endorses ‘deficit thinking’—attributing the academic struggles of low-income and minority students to their personal deficits and overlooking larger systemic issues. They express concern that Payne’s training might inadvertently lead educators to harbor detrimental stereotypes and maintain low expectations of their low-income students. Furthermore, they caution that an overemphasis on conforming to middle-class norms could be harmful to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Ruby Payne’s ‘Framework for Understanding Poverty’ is built around a series of “truth” statements, generalizations that aim to characterize behavior and values across different socioeconomic classes. For example, one such statement suggests that individuals in poverty focus primarily on the present, valuing relationships and entertainment over planning for the future. Middle-class individuals, on the other hand, are said to place emphasis on self-sufficiency, planning for the future, and achieving work and education goals. Wealthy individuals, according to Payne’s framework, are primarily concerned with social connections, legacy, and financial security.
These “truths” while presented as broad generalizations, are used as a lens through which teachers are encouraged to understand and interact with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds in the classroom setting. However, it’s important to note that these statements are not backed by extensive empirical research, nor does Payne provide specific references or citations to justify these categorizations. This lack of rigorous scholarly basis for the “truth” statements raises questions about their validity and their potential for perpetuating stereotypes or simplifications about poverty and socioeconomic status. It’s crucial for educators and policymakers to critically examine these claims, consider their potential implications, and seek out more nuanced and evidence-based understandings of poverty and its impact on education.
The reverberations of Payne’s training can be seen in the real world. For instance, a specific elementary school embraced Payne’s training in their quest to improve the academic performance of low-income students.