Research Paper for "Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum"

Effects of Poverty on Student Learning:
by Jeffrey E. Genauer
Northern New Mexico College

Despite the popular acclaim and best-selling status that Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty has received, many progressive educators have criticized her text on the basis of the deficit-based perspective, conservative values, assimilationist pedagogy, and middle-class bias that it promotes. Yet despite this criticism, developing a more thorough understanding of the differences between oral and literary cultures can help illuminate the real-world tendencies underlying Payne’s observations regarding the differences between poor, middle-class and wealthy cultures. Specific pedagogical strategies that may add more value and relevance to Payne’s framework include teaching that uses folklore, mythology, and heroes, and the Critical Thinking—Conflict Resolution Curriculum. By learning to use practices in the classroom that emphasize culturally relevant teaching, rather than demanding conformity to uniform standards of knowledge and dominant cultural values, educators can best model respect for student diversity and belief in the principle that all students can succeed.

Effects of Poverty on Student Learning:
by Jeffrey E. Genauer

In her best-selling book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, author Ruby K. Payne frames herself – with notable audacity – as "The Leading U.S. Expert on the Mindsets of Poverty, Middle Class and Wealth." A career educator who has served in many roles, including teacher, principal, and administrator, Payne claims that her expertise in class-based “mindsets” emerged naturally over the course of several decades through her direct personal experiences with the various economic strata in America society. From her experience being married to a man who had grown up in situational poverty to her position as the principal of an affluent school in Illinois, Payne was thus compelled to “rethink” much of what she thought she knew about poverty and wealth, in a way that “clarified the differences between and among poverty, middle class and wealth.” Her book is intended to be a guide for anyone who works with “people in poverty,” including educators, social workers, health care providers, and legal services professionals. Payne purports to provide “practical, real-world support and guidance to improve your effectiveness in working with people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Payne claims to articulate, in her own words, an "additive" model of individual and educational achievement, which aims both to identify the strengths and resources already existing in each individual, family, school and community, and to create the analytical framework for cultivating these and additional resources. Her central argument is that different sets of class-based cultural and cognitive norms, values, rules and assumptions regulate the disparate lives of people according to whether they are immersed in poor, middle-class or wealthy backgrounds and environments. Following this, whenever any individual who is primarily familiar with the lifestyle and mindset of one economic class is placed into a cultural environment where the norms, values, rules and assumptions of another class are predominant, then that individual is likely to experience significant mental confusion, emotional upset and social conflict. And in particular, when poor children are placed into the school system (in which Payne believes the cultural norms and "hidden rules" of the middle class are almost universally operative) the high rate of failure they experience is due largely to their lack of familiarity and inability to appropriately engage with the standards and rules of middle-class life. By making the effort to instruct impoverished students in the norms of the middle class, Payne believes, teachers can most effectively raise these disadvantaged youth up to academic speed and provide them with the essential class-based tools and understandings they need to succeed as students in school, as employees at work, and as responsible adults in American society.

Objectively, at least on a surface level, it is difficult to disagree with the notion that Payne's framework possesses some positive degree of practical utility for helping poor students succeed within the context of the stark material divisions and exclusive class-based attitudes that pervade and define mainstream American society. After all, so long as America's educational institutions indeed continue to systematically replicate and demand adherence to the "hidden rules," biases and assumptions of middle-class culture, is it not virtually criminal for teachers to refrain from doing everything in our power to help students figure out how to succeed according to these dominant terms?

And yet, on a deeper level, the substantially worse crime against students is the tendency by educators to authoritatively uphold and reinforce rather than critically question and challenge any unjust or inappropriate cultural norms that are used by our schools in the process of standardizing, evaluating, and competitively ranking student learning and knowledge. Ultimately, Payne does impoverished students a disservice by failing even to acknowledge, much less challenge, the damaging inequities and biases that are built into much of America's mainstream educational and economic systems. For example, although Payne cautiously notes that her observations are based on patterns and that "all patterns have exceptions," she seems to only recognize and articulate those patterns that reinforce her own privileged middle-class world-view. And similarly, she seems to call for action and intervention in changing only those behavioral and cultural patterns which are in disharmony with the hegemonic norms and values of the middle class.

Due to Payne's perpetuation of class bias, which is evident in her continual inclination to uncritically accept middle-class values and assumptions as the normative basis against which all lower-class students should be judged and reformed, she unfortunately fails to develop a framework with the potential to critically illuminate and strategically reverse the causal conditions of the deep-seated generational and increasing situational poverty in America. As progressive educator Paul Gorski asks in response to Payne, "How can we understand poverty and its relationship to education if we ignore the ways in which schools mirror the societal classism that keeps some of our students in poverty?" (2005) Other critics charge Payne with undermining the character and independence of poor students through her insistence on conformity to middle-class values:
An ethical education system does not teach students to think of anything that makes one secure in the middle class as an unquestioned good. Transforming one’s character in order to climb a social ladder should not be necessary and is not a noble thing to do. Other values are available than simply conforming to the middle class. In fact, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that when people without advantage, social position, or opportunity internalize US middle-class values, those very values cause significantly more damage in their lives than they offer new opportunity, partly because by internalizing the views of those who are financially better-off, poor individuals come to blame themselves for their failure to get ahead. (Bomer 2008)

In his critical analysis of Payne's work, Gorski emphasizes three main critiques: (1) Payne’s framework fails to consider class inequities that pervade U.S. schools; (2) Payne draws from a deficit perspective, “which problematizes people in poverty rather than problematizing the ways in which classism is cycled in schools and in the larger society;” and (3) Payne’s values are “fundamentally conservative (as in conserving the status quo), and not transformative, in nature.” (2005) Gorski criticizes Payne's encouragement of teachers to “fix” disadvantaged students by changing their mindset because it focuses on symptoms, rather than on the societal causes of poverty — and because, he explains, it “draws on the most egregious and unsubstantiated stereotypes of socioeconomically disadvantaged people and people of color.” (2005) Adding further support to Gorski, a peer-reviewed research study authored by four prominent educators concurred with this analysis accusing Payne of unprofessional, unscientific classism. "Our critical analysis of Payne's characterizations of people living in poverty indicates that her work represents a classic example of what has been identified as deficit thinking," this study concluded. "We found that her truth claims, offered without any supporting evidence, are contradicted by anthropological, sociological and other research on poverty." (Bomer 2008)

However, despite my strong agreement with this view that Payne's overarching framework is riddled with major biases against the poor and unsubstantiated by the overwhelming bulk of relevant contemporary research on poverty and education, my intention in this research paper is not merely to criticize Payne or to document in exhaustive detail all of the theoretical fallacies, misguided assumptions, misrepresentations, and significant exceptions which detract from the quality and usefulness of her work. On the other hand, contrary to such a limited and negative approach, I instead want to demonstrate how considering and integrating a richer matrix of ideas, evidence and research may add more value and relevance to certain of Payne's specific points and recommendations which I think could be deemed constructive and insightful. In my research, I did find evidence to support certain aspects of Payne's framework, as well as much exposition and analysis from progressive and alternative pedagogical approaches that I believe is valuable in contributing to a much fuller and deeper framework for empowering students to become liberated from the chains and cycles of poverty, without sacrificing their cultural identity and relationships on the altar of middle-class achievement.

One of the aspects of Payne's framework that indeed seems to receive some affirmation from sociological and anthropological research is her distinction between "casual register" (that is, the largely colloquial spoken language used most often by the poor) and "formal register" (the standard language of educated literacy used in academia and professional workplaces). In his classic work on the differences between oral and literary cultures, Walter Ong takes literate scholars of the West to task for their tendency to exhibit unreasonable attitudes of judgmentalism and intellectual superiority in relation to people and cultures centered on oral, pre-literate communication. "Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing," Ong states. (1982) Despite the reality that strict orality now is rare, if it still exists at all – "since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects" – many cultures and subcultures even today are still vigorously holding on to "much of the mindset of primary orality." (1982) From the verbal stream of consciousness and rhythmic style in African American hip-hop culture to the heavily oral tradition that is still commonly practiced in Native American cultures to the high-energy “poetry slams” that have become increasingly popular across U.S. campuses and cities, the oral mode is still present and thriving in America. Although the primacy of the oral word has been circumscribed, marginalized, and suppressed by the dominant codes of America's highly literacy-based and technology-driven mainstream culture, it has never been extinguished. And as Payne correctly notes, economically impoverished youth are far more likely than middle-class or wealthy students to live in and become acculturated by family and community environments where orality – in her words, "casual register" – is the primary form of discourse.

Ong proceeds to describe and analyze the typical characteristics of orally based thought and expression, which correspond in a pattern of more or less general agreement with Payne’s observations regarding “casual register.” Oral culture tends to be empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced,” in the manner that skilled orators promote a strong sense of personal and emotional identification with the subjects of their stories. (1982, 45-46) Oral cultures are highly “homeostatic,” or situated in the present moment, featuring an abundance of gestures, facial expression, vocal inflections, and even word meanings that “come continuously out of the present, human, existential setting in which the real, spoken word always occurs.” (1982, 46-47) Oral culture is “situational rather than abstract” and deems real intelligence to be rooted organically in operational contexts (such as knowledge based in real-life experience and skills needed to survive in the natural world) rather than derived from literary contexts (like books or signs), logical and linear reasoning, or conceptual classification. (1982, 48-57) And perhaps most relevant of all for understanding the quandary of poor students situated in middle-class-oriented schools, oral culture tends to very “agonistically toned,” or combative and competitive:
By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle. … Standard in oral societies around the world, reciprocal name-calling has been fitted with a specific name in linguistics: flyting (or fliting) … Enthusiastic description of physical violence often marks oral narrative … When all verbal communication must be given by direct word of mouth, involved in the give-and-take dynamics of sound, interpersonal relations are kept high – both attractions and, even more, antagonisms. (Ong 1982, 43-45)

By framing such characteristics as universal and ordinary features of oral culture, Ong helps to de-stigmatize the difficulties that poor students experience in school. As Payne notes, students acculturated in orality (or casual register) are not inherently less intelligent or academically capable compared to their wealthier peers whose entire childhoods have tended to be immersed in the rigors of literacy. However, due to their primary background in orality, the children of poverty tend to enter school far less equipped with the cognitive attitudes, experience and skills that are essential for the abstract comprehension and self-reflective, mentally disciplined, impulse-denying frame of mind which are virtual prerequisites for success according to the standards of middle-class literate culture and the mainstream schooling system that serves it.

Yet while Payne tends to regard oral culture as functionally inferior, and at best approaches it neutrally as the starting point and stepping stone for teaching poor students to transition toward and internalize the rules of formal register and middle-class lifestyle, Ong is keen to point out the many positive traits and values that oral cultures promote. By doing more to recognize and appreciate these beneficial traits of oral culture (even if some individual students may not readily exhibit them) Payne could do a much better job of “additively” seeing and building upon the constructive resources that poor students bring to school. For example, orally based thought and expression tend to be “related intimately to the unifying, centralizing, interiorizing economy of sound as perceived by human beings.” (Ong 1982) In turn, a sound-dominated verbal framework is more conducive to “aggregative,” harmonizing tendencies than to the analytical, dissecting tendencies which academic discourse often prioritizes. In other words, to the extent that interdisciplinary, holistic, and humanistic organization of knowledge is valued in academic settings, poor students from primarily oral or “casual register” backgrounds may be quite well prepared to flourish. By implementing lesson plans with a mix of activities that enable oral-culture students both to excel according to their organic habits of mind and push them to stretch into the frontiers of literacy, educators can simultaneously honor the unique attributes of orality and teach youth to expand their minds beyond its very real limits. By advocating instructional approaches that utilize both casual and formal register, and by stating that “casual register needs to be recognized as the primary discourse for many students,” Payne displays the importance of sensitivity toward the natural developmental growth and needs of oral-culture students.

Another area where evidence supports Payne is in her assertion that providing students with a positive “role model” is one of the keys to helping them rise out of poverty. However, Ong and some contemporary educators take this idea significantly further by emphasizing the importance of heroes:
Oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Thus the noetic economy of its nature generates outsize figures, that is, heroic figures, not for romantic reasons or reflectively didactic reasons but for much more basic reasons: to organize experience in some sort of permanently memorable form. Colorless personalities cannot suvive oral mnemonics … The same mnemonic or poetic economy enforces itself still where oral settings persist in literate cultures, as in the telling of fairy stories to children. (Ong 1982 69)

Indeed, many educators believe that folklore is an excellent tool for meeting the innate sociological, psychological and developmental needs of all young “language learners.” Elementary school teacher Rita Roth argues that educators need to provide their students with both oral and textual language opportunities for literacy acquisition, and she highlights the use of folklore (in which moral struggles and heroism abound) as an especially valuable instructional strategy. “The fact that folktales grow out of the oral tradition – that they are told and retold, changing slightly with each version and each cultural perspective and, yet, maintaining the same motifs – tells us that they endure because they are enduringly meaningful,” she asserts. (Roth 2006)
Roth’s curriculum invites English Language Learner (ELL) immigrant students to share tales they remember from their first culture, while encouraging native English-speaking students to do the same. For the ELL students who participate in sharing their stories by writing and telling them in their first languages as well as in English, this experience helps them feel “a sense of cultural pride” while overcoming “the sense of estrangement” that they often experience when connections to their first culture are lost in their new setting. Native English speakers also benefit, first by sharing their own stories, and also by expanding their cultural knowledge of foreign languages and cultures. (Roth 2006)

For Eugene Schwartz, an American educator with extensive experience teaching in Waldorf and Montessori schools, “it is less a question of whether heroes are needed for a child’s healthy development than which heroes are going to be espoused; it is not whether stories will be presented in school but rather which stories will be heard.” (1999) Schwartz describes an elementary and middle school curriculum in which fairy tales, legends, and heroes are fully integrated and emphasized:
In the first two grades, the story content of fairy tales and legends underlies all of the subjects that the children study. In third and fourth grade, great stress is placed on the mythological dimension of ancient cultures and on the legendary human beings who stood halfway between the gods and humanity, that is, the heroes. As Waldorf students grow older, sagas and myths lay the foundation for the study of history as a separate subject, which begins formally in the fifth grade. The Waldorf schools’ approach to history teaching in the middle grades is based on the premise that the need for heroes in the growing child is as natural and healthy as the need for mother’s milk in the developing infant. Experience has convinced us that children can penetrate the zeitgeist of a civilization most thoroughly by reexperiencing the deeds and sufferings of that culture’s champions.

The importance of this insight – and the danger of Payne’s culturally assimilationist framework,
which substitutes middle-class “role models” in the place of authentically inspiring heroes – becomes apparent through the context of the many poor students (usually of color) who are never presented in school with relevant heroes and champions from within their own culture. African American educator Ladson-Billings emphasizes that one feature of culturally relevant (as opposed to assimilationist) teaching is the need to “honor and respect the students’ home culture.” (1994) In language that could apply directly to Payne’s framework, Ladson-Billings excoriates the reality that “the typical experience in the schools is a denigration” of African American culture:
Indeed, there is a denial of its very existence. The language that students bring with them is seen to be deficient – a corruption of English. The familial organizations are considered pathological. And the historical, cultural, and scientific contributions of African Americans are ignored or rendered trivial. (1994)

To remedy this, Ladson-Billings conducts teacher education workshops in which she asks participants to imagine the United States without the legacy of African Americans, an exercise that tends to yield appreciation – for example – for the rich musical heritage provided by blues, jazz, and gospel, and for the moral conscience that was heightened on a national level by the civil rights movement. The purpose of this activity is to remind teachers of African American children to keep – “in the forefront of their minds” – the knowledge that they are teaching people “who are heirs to a great tradition of art, music, dance, science, invention, oratory, and so on.” (Ladson-Billings 1994) When teachers fail to remember and model this appreciation, and do not give students access to authentic culture heroes with whom they can personally identify, they may very well perpetuate a brand of toxic (albeit unintentional) racism, which negates the exemplary and instructionally valuable dimensions of students’ home culture. Such denial of authentic cultural identity is likely one of the factors contributing to the high rates of alienation, frustration, violence, and dropping out experienced by poor students (of color) in America’s middle-class-biased schools.

Finally, I want to focus attention on two powerful alternative frameworks for addressing violence, behavioral disruptions, and conflict in the classrooms. First, Schwartz articulates a Waldorf-inspired conflict resolution strategy that draws out the “healing power” of the heroic myth. He tells the story of visiting a 4th-grade public school classroom in New York City, in which the teacher was forced to abandon her lesson plan that day “for a while, to deal with an argument that had arisen between two girls involving jealousy and cliquishness, and which had led to acrimonious insults.” (1999) After witnessing an attempt to resolve the conflict that might have been derived straight from Payne’s framework – the teacher set up a flip chart, asked two students to moderate, asked the fighting girls to give their versions of what had happened, asked other students to describe better behaviors in such a situation, and recorded these ideas and suggestions on the flip chart – it became clear to Schwartz that “by this time of year (late December) such discussions were not new among the children, and they had not proved terribly effective.” The overall dynamic he sensed was children who had been trained to intellectualize their emotions in order to “control” them but whose real feelings were still lurking under the surface, “ready to erupt as soon as the discussion ended and the flip chart was put away.”

Noting that Waldorf teachers see such argumentative tendencies, and even vindictiveness, as “a natural part of fourth-grade behavior,” Schwartz persuaded the teacher and principal during a break in class to allow him to try the Waldorf philosophy’s preferred alternative strategy for conflict resolution:

We tell a story in which the antagonists are given a mythical dimension. That tends to objectify the experience. In fact, in fourth grade we tell many Norse myths, in part because the Norse gods are the most argumentative and aggressive gods in world mythology – that and their liveliness provide an accurate reflection of the fourth-grader’s own nature. We don’t say very much directly to the children involved, but let them digest the story and see the effect of their behavior as though it were happening to someone else. It might take a few weeks, or a few months, or sometimes a few years, but eventually it works. (1999)

Returning soon to the 4th-grade classroom, Schwartz related the Norse tale of Loki’s jealousy toward Baldur, without expressing any link to the earlier conflict or even looking at the two girl antagonists, but rather speaking to the whole class, who “proved to be a quiet, attentive, and completely involved audience.” Later, he even received some unsolicited written feedback from one of the antagonistic girls, who had summarized the story in her own words, and concluded: “I think the story was nice and it had a good morale: Should not be jealous enough to kill! You are a great teacher!” By seeing and relaying the hero from the child’s perspective, the Waldorf teacher thus aims to guide the children to connect their own lives and ambitions with that of the hero. As students transition into puberty and adolescence, their teacher (who may teach the same students for up to eight years) casts aside the mythological heroes and begins emphasizing biography – “tales of flesh-and-blood figures whose lives can be documented, who lived and struggled and died bearing physical bodies as tangible as the bodies the pubescent students are themselves taking on.” In this way, the teacher fosters knowledge “so that it unfolds as idealism in adolescence, rather than jaded disillusionment,” which undoubtedly is one of the greatest challenges facing teachers today. (Schwartz 1999)

Meanwhile, Roberta and Warren Heydenberk advocate the radically different yet also powerful strategy of linking critical thinking to conflict resolution, known as “integrative thinking” or the Conflict Resolution—Critical Thinking Curriculum (CR-CT). In this approach, students are taught to use a “win-win” approach, in which they create a synthesis that integrates both perspectives when they are confronted with conflicting ideas:

The positive interdependence nurtured in the integrative thinking environment helps students find the valid points in two perspectives and the joint benefit in any solution. Students’ thinking evolves from dichotomous or simply analytical (who is right, who is wrong) to integrative thinking that incorporates a larger perspective and a more creative conceptualization. (Heydenberk 2000)

Through the integrative thinking strategy, conflict becomes an opportunity for growth and learning rather than just a threat demanding discipline or suppression. This can frequently lead to a substantive transformation in the cognitive skills and social attitudes of students:

Given a chance to first learn the steps of problem-solving, students become skilled and develop positive dispositions toward problem-solving on their own. As their social and problem-solving skills improve, students’ academic performance and pro-social attachments are strengthened, too. (Heydenberk 2000)

The Heydenberks present numerous specific instructional activities that are designed to build student skills in active listening, questioning for clarity, mapping understanding, creative and critical thinking, brainstorming, conflict-positive communication, cooperative learning, and creating integrative solutions. When this approach is implemented systematically throughout a school, the whole school environment tends to dramatically improve. Students feel healthier and safer, academic performance improves, disruptive behavior declines, cooperation and morale increase, and a school climate conducive to learning is created.

In conclusion, although I believe that Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a dangerous and misleading text due to the unassuming, unconscious ways in which it devalues the primary cultures of poor students and adds force to the potentially harmful middle-class bias in schools, she does raise certain important points and provocative ideas to which progressive and alternative educators must critically and meaningfully respond. These include her insight into the differences between casual and formal register, as well as her recognition of the need to develop the role models and other positive resources of students, but also extend to some of the specific educational strategies that she encourages teachers to use – such as teaching positive self-talk, implementing support systems for students in schools, using metaphor stories, and using graphic organizers. However, I believe such strategies are always best grounded in lesson plans and role modeling that embody high levels of culturally relevant teaching for a school’s diverse student populations, rather than insisting that all students conform to uniform middle-class cultural standards. For the process of developing such a culturally relevant framework for understanding and reversing poverty, which ideally would include the promotion of culturally relevant heroes and a curriculum that emphasizes integrative thinking, the work of Ladson-Billings shines out as essential reading. Culturally relevant teaching, she argues, “uses student culture … in order to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture.” (1994) Specifically, it is a pedagogy “that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” (1994) And above all, it means encouraging a “community of learners” by “helping the students work against the norm of competitive individualism,” [emphasis added] through practices such as encouraging students to learn collaboratively and demonstrating personal connectedness and caring for each and every individual student. Although Payne may be said to use some culturally relevant techniques as isolated components of her framework, because she does not structure her framework as a whole in reference to the goal of maximizing the use of culturally relevant teaching, her pedagogy ultimately must be criticized and rejected for its assimilationist stance, which “homogenizes students into one American identity” and “encourages achievement as a means to escape community.” (Ladson-Billings 1994) Therefore, if I was Ruby Payne’s PhD advisor, I would not allow her to pass unless she could demonstrate the ability to again rethink her framework by arriving at a new, deeper understanding of poverty which models genuine respect for all cultures, appreciation for student diversity, and support for culturally relevant conceptions of knowledge.

Works Cited and Bibliography

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