Every now and then, someone will take a critical potshot at
Ruby Payne, whose “Framework for Understanding Poverty” and interactive professional
development workshops are enormously popular
with schools trying to engender
“cultural competence”—which might be loosely defined as the ability of
middle-class teachers to understand and deal effectively with children of
poverty and their families.
Payne takes considerable heat from those who see her work as supported by shabby and unscholarly research. She’s been accused of blindly accepting reproduction of the hidden principles of classism in the (dysfunctional) education system; her training has been characterized as perpetuating a deficit model, where children of poverty need to recognize and absorb the hidden rules of middle-class values and schooling in order to learn and succeed.
I’ve sat through a couple of Ruby Payne trainings, and I didn’t get that impression—her material is mostly about re-framing teacher thinking (including the injection of some compassion), and an assortment of strategies that many teachers I know find helpful. Some of Ruby’s tips may be grating or simplistic—but I have never heard Ruby Payne suggest that the only way to save inner city kids from certain doom is to remove them from their homes and put them in a boarding school.
Tom Friedman, now the respected oracle on educating in the
flat world, wrote a near-potboiler op-ed in the NY Times, about the new SEED charter
boarding school in Baltimore, and the recent drawing held to determine which 80
lucky sixth graders will move into the SEED dormitories come fall, leaving more
than 200 unfortunate lottery losers stuck with their lousy schools,
neighborhoods and family life. Friedman portrays the scene as something like the
last airlift out of
Friedman even describes illiterate, crack-addled parents requesting help from the SEED staff in filling out application forms—suggesting this is proof that even parents in the worst circumstances know best about their children’s educational needs. You have to wonder—is hoping to have your child selected for a full ride in boarding school a better strategy than, say, volunteering in your child’s school library, or attending parent-teacher conferences?
There is a subtle conflation of pathos and judgment here, about who is best positioned or able to help disadvantaged children reach their full potential. This is not a critique of either boarding schools or charter schools, both of which are viable and useful choices, with great potential in providing a quality education to all children.
My first thought, however, in reading the piece, was of the Indian School era, a century ago, where tribal children were placed in boarding schools, away from their homes and families, to “civilize” them. Some of them acclimated well, adopting European cultural norms. Others eventually returned to their homes, miserable and belonging to no group.
Is this how we “save” kids in urban schools—one at a time, taking them away from their neighborhoods, and only if their lucky number is drawn? Many of the comments on Friedman’s piece centered on how to fund more programs like the SEED school. If this is the answer to crumbling social structures and failing schools, then the ideal of democratic equality demands we provide an education like this for every family who wants it—the upfront investment would be paid back in human productivity and social capital.
I don’t believe this is the One Great Solution to
dysfunctional urban schools, however. It’s dramatic and makes for good copy,
but even Friedman muses that there’s “something wrong” with a random drawing to
rescue children, if that’s what it amounts to. And who are “we” anyway, to be deciding
what’s best for other people's children, in
More than 100 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, told the story of John, who found himself stranded between Jim Crow, his educational achievement in a white-dominated world, and the good people who raised him to better himself. Du Bois’ tale did not end well. It’s depressing to think we haven’t got a better story to tell today.