The New York Times gives poverty player a pass
Ruby Payne's reign as avatar of social class consciousness in America continues, or so a recent article in the New York Times Magazine would have one believe.
Payne is CEO of aha!Process, Inc., a multimillion dollar corporation that offers workshops to educators based on the "culture of poverty" premise. Payne's thesis and the validity of her "research" on poverty were critically examined in the Winter 2006/2007 issue of Rethinking Schools; those critiques are referenced in the June 10, 2007, New York Times Magazine article.
The Times article, written by editor Paul Tough, chronicles a day in the life of Payne as she presents her popular teachers' workshop on A Framework for Understanding Poverty to 1,400 employees of the Glynn County (Ga.) Board of Education, which closed school for the day and bused its teachers and administrators to hear Payne reveal the hidden rules of class. The Times article also offers readers a glimpse into Payne's private life and the circumstances and inspirations that led to her multimillion dollar enterprise. Tough's uncritical five-page infomercial for Payne's consulting company spotlights her already lucrative business in a publicity spread for which most companies would kill. It also dismisses Payne's critics as "a few angry assistant professors" who hound her "like gnats at a backyard barbecue."
Here are just a few ideas about poverty, social class, and valid research that were fit to print in the Times article:
When the head-shaking and tongue-clucking that these ideas provoke fade away, two baffling questions still want answers:
1) Why is her message so popular with school districts and so many of the teachers who attend her seminars?
A second answer to the question of Payne's popularity seems to be that few alternatives exist in the world of continuing professional development for teachers that directly address poverty and education. Payne and her staff are about the only people riding the staff development circuit offering advice to schools and administrators on the topic of social class and school success. Even though the one-shot teachers' workshop approach has been lamented for years in the professional literature for its lack of coherence and continuity and for failing to appreciate the complexity of teachers' work, it is also evident that teachers still receive most of their official staff development through some form of quick-fix inservices. Payne's popularity underscores the fact that many teachers and school administrators truly want to know how to help children from poverty succeed, but no one else is stepping into the void with ideas about how to do this. When School Improvement Days roll around, school administrators desperate for affordable answers about working with low-income children and families turn to Payne's framework with astonishing regularity. Google "School Improvement Plan" + "Ruby Payne" for a glimpse of the school districts across the nation in whose school improvement plans Payne's framework plays a central role.
2) Why is the New York Times so comfortable with Payne's views on class issues in public education?
Instead of calling upon these dire statistics on class mobility, the Times Magazine reporter spends his time commenting on Payne's "bright red lipstick and blow-dried blond hair," and drolly describing the "spirit guides" who inspired her to write A Framework for Understanding Poverty in one week and figure out how to market it so she might fulfill her dream of "a life without financial constraints." By article's end, Tough pens, with sardonic journalistic detachment, enough unflattering glimpses of Payne that readers may suspect he personally is not convinced by Payne's thesis; unfortunately, if this is true, he does not appear concerned enough to challenge it.
As for Payne, she finds Tough's article trancendent. She has posted the article on her own aha!Process company webpage, with a gushing note of praise flowered with rich adjectives such as "balanced," "credible," and "compelling." "[T]his article merits taking a few moments to read it in its entirety," Payne tells readers.
The New York Times is arguably the most respected and influential newspaper in the world. It had a golden opportunity but let its readers down by refusing to look beneath the surface of the Ruby Payne phenomenon. They could have but did not connect Payne's basic theories about class mobility to their own investigative journalism unmasking the economic and political manipulations that have seriously decreased social mobility and are squeezing out the middle class. They could have but did not connect Payne's status quo theories about why poor kids aren't as successful in school to her strong support for the No Child Left Behind sanctions that have become her and many other corporations' bread-and-butter.
One of the astonishing successes of the conservative attack on public education is the tacit support it has received from liberals and neoliberals such as those found among the New York Times readership. The Times' failure to make the consequences of the conservative education agenda transparent has allowed its readers to slip into bed with the conservative right on public education reform. Tough's amused journalistic drive-by does nothing to help readers understand that marketplace solutions will not fix the crisis in education — that it is, in fact, a crisis that marketplace mechanisms have created.
Newspapers across the nation have had a field day splashing the news of "poor performing schools" across their front pages. The time is past due for newspapers like the New York Times to turn their investigative talents toward revealing the underlying political goal of the accountability juggernaut rolling over the nation's schools — the privatization of education — and to explain what this would mean not only to the millions of children and families in poverty, but to our nation as a whole.
There is an urgent need for coverage of the ample, scientifically-based research data about the disastrous effects of NCLB, connecting the dots to show us how, when education is moved out of the public sector and into the private sector, it only intensifies the rigidity in a class system. The public needs a chance to hear the voices of the students, families, and teachers in the trenches who have seen firsthand what happens when profit motives trump social objectives, when the lack of transparency in a system encourages corruption, when people no longer have any control or oversight over what constitutes knowledge and education for their children, and when civil liberties do not have to be protected. It is time for a democratic free press to turn up the lights on the real crisis in public education and show Americans how the current education reform movement is actually an attack on the very premises of democracy and the public good.
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