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How schools approach poverty – what is true, what is supported by research, and what works

January 25, 2012

In recent years the work of Ruby Payne, found in A Framework for Understanding Poverty, a popular text among teachers has come under considerable criticism from scholars. Debunking Ruby Payne’s Framework of Poverty a blog created in May of 2011 is hosted by ten such scholars. Liana Heitin, writing in the January 5, 2012 edition of Education Week: Teacher, in her Teaching Now, editorial blog entitled “A Payne-ful Discussion,” wonders if it is possible to have a discussion about the issue of teaching kids in poverty in spite of the controversy surrounding Payne’s work. Comments on the blog include responses from Paul Gorski and P. L. Thomas, both critics of Payne’s.  The work of Gorski, Thomas and other scholars from the “Debunking” blog are compelling and convincing to this contributor.

There is a long-standing controversy regarding Payne’s work, particularly regarding whether the “Framework for Poverty” unjustly stereotypes students and fuels a “deficit perspective”.  Yet it is held in high regard by many educational practitioners. The result is day-to-day decisions of these practitioners become de facto policy based upon a body of work lacking in rigorous scholarship and evidence. Due to the overwhelming influence of Payne’s work, bringing educational practitioners’ views of poverty into line with current scholarship will require considerable unlearning and retraining in the United States. The work of Gorski, Thomas and other scholars from the “Debunking” blog is a hub for proponents of this current work into serving students in poverty.

Key questions:

1.   How does your school identify students in need, including those in poverty, and make plans to support them?

2.   Do school staff believe that all students, even those considered “at-risk”, are capable of high achievement?  How do staff and school leadership design their organization and curriculum to support all students’ academic achievement?

3.   What is the language employed: in conversations, both formal and informal; in school documents such as IEPs; and in professional development?  Does that language reflect a focus on student deficits or student strengths?

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