Poverty and Educational Consultants

In one of its rare attempts to deal with the issue of poverty, the Washington Post takes note of an educational consultant named Ruby Payne who specializes in teaching teachers what to expect from poor kids in a classroom and how to deal with it when they get it.

The Texas-based author says in her book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”: Parents in poverty typically discipline children by beating or verbally chastising them; poor mothers may turn to sex for money and favors; poor students laugh when they get in trouble at school; and low-income parents tend to “beat around the bush” during parent-teacher conferences, instead of getting to the point.

In the past several years, at least five school systems in the Washington area have turned to Payne’s lessons, books and workshops.

At first glance this may look like the kind of stereotypical folderol that’s been spit out for years – decades – by educational “consultants” who cut their teeth on conservative propaganda from the Heritage Foundation and glean most of their “information” from HF “poverty studies” so skewed they have no value outside a right-winger’s head. And that’s the way it’s being taken by her critics.

But many academics say her works are riddled with unverifiable assertions. At the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Chicago last week, professors from the University of Texas at Austin delivered a report on Payne that argued that more than 600 of her descriptions of poverty in “Framework” cannot be proved true.”

She claims there is a single culture of poverty that people live in. It’s an idea that’s been discredited since at least the 1960s,” said report co-author Randy Bomer.

Absolutely true, and it makes Payne dangerous in the same sense that all stereotyping is dangerous.

Still, within the limitations of her set, what she says can be true. I’ve been living and working with (and am myself one of them) poor folks for over 30 years, and I’ve seen what she describes and had to wrestle with it. More importantly, what she’s saying can be helpful to people who don’t know what to expect – which would include a large number of teachers who come from middle-class suburban backgrounds. That’s why schools that use her sometimes improve.

In Prince William, Payne has influenced many educators. Principal Joanne Alvey of Marumsco Hills Elementary — where nearly 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged — credits Payne’s work among many factors that helped her school recently meet the academic standards of No Child Left Behind.

Alvey said she bought some of Payne’s literature for her staff even before school officials sent the teachers for countywide training.

“We talk in Ruby Payne terms all the time. What’s really important is the teacher having a relationship with the children. Children in poverty tend not to work for grades, but they work for the teacher,” Alvey said. “Another thing I discovered is how they address adults. Children of poverty don’t generally know how to do that. We have to teach them that.”

So I’m not going to come down on Payne as hard as you might expect. Her input has some value – but that’s the point that needs to be clearly understood: some value, and it’s limited by the narrow scope of her “framework”.

There are two things missing here that are critically necessary to understanding where poor kids are coming from and how they got to be the way they are: context and breadth.

CONSULTANTS

First, a warning:

Like Payne, I’m going to be dealing in generalizations, and generalizations are always to be taken with a grain of salt. They’re useful but only up to a point. Now, I have no direct knowledge of either Payne or her book. I’m going on the WaPo report exclusively (I left teaching 5 years ago; it’s not clear when Payne began selling her book but it seems like she might not have been around in my time) and applying it to two decades worth of experience working in schools with poor kids and with teachers who came with nothing but ignorance, or worse – with preconceived, stereotypical notions of what to expect – as well as several years when I was a student advocate and acted as a liaison between individual kids, their families, the state welfare system, and the school system. It’s anecdotal but since Payne’s whole business is founded on anecdote, I think it’s fair. Nevertheless, approach with caution.

The first thing that needs to be said is: Beware of consultants.

Consultants in the educational system – in fact, consultants in every single field where I’ve ever had the displeasure of running into them – are selling a product. Like any other product, if they’re going to sell it to enough people to make a profit on it, they have to aim: a) at the LCD, and/or b) at propping up the prejudices of potential customers.

Aiming at the lowest common denominator is almost self-explanatory: you want to reach the widest possible target consumer, so you want to build your presentation around the single problem that affects the largest possible number of them.

Aiming at prejudices may be a little harder to explain because most people haven’t taken marketing courses or worked in advertising, and don’t naturally think in manipulative terms. But one of the most crucial things you learn in Marketing 101 is that there are only two basic kinds of selling strategies.

  1. Selling to the Bias: Your advertising is structured to fit into a potential base customer’s existing belief system. IOW, if you’re selling a new method of losing weight and most of your potential customers believe that leprechauns cause weight loss, you gear your advertising around promising that your product will either eliminate leprechauns or neutralize their power to make you fat. Axiom: “Truth in advertising” is an oxymoron.
  2. Selling Against the Bias: Your advertising is structured to attack a pre-existing belief and replace it with another one. For example, you attack the idea that leprechauns make people fat and promote the idea that the fault lies with spider bites. You can then sell your product as an antidote to spider toxins.

Obviously, the second approach is much, much harder than the first and is generally considered a last resort to be used only when everything else you can think of has failed.

Payne chose an interesting third strategy: split the difference. On the one hand, she’s clearly playing to the prejudices middle-class teachers and school administrators already have about poor kids. On the other, she’s playing against them in a way, by separating out the most basic of the biases – the ones the middle-class doesn’t like to think it has – and attacking them directly with tactics aimed at helping teachers cope.

CONTEXT

In the real world, that model can work but only as long as you’re dealing with the percentage of the population its assumptions fit. Once you’ve got a kid who, say, didn’t come from a noisy home, its value simply vanishes.

Even in the group the model fits, the hard work – the work consultants never want to do – is in learning the context in which the identified behaviour belongs. For instance, here’s the classic example of context:

Perceived Behaviour: Child is listless, can’t focus, can’t pay attention for any length of time, can’t remember lessons from one day to the next, can be irritable and even hostile.

Normal Response: Kid has ADD. Prescribe ritalin.

Actual Root Cause: S/he’s hungry all the time.

It would astound you how often this misdiagnosis – or one just like it – occurs. Behaviour, particularly a child’s behaviour, often arises from a context we leave out of our equation because we’re unaware of it. Just as bad – maybe worse because they’re even more common – are the ones we’re aware of but don’t understand.

There are pressures on financially-strapped families that people who’ve never experienced them can’t or won’t evaluate. There are consequences to constant hunger, incessant re-location, and an atmosphere of never-ending insecurity that go largely unrecognized. Payne has taken a behaviourist’s approach: deal with the symptoms because you can’t do anything about the cause. That approach will work within the limitations of “friendly context”, but if the unknown context is “unfriendly” (doesn’t fit the model), it isn’t going to get you very far. IOW, if the kid is acting out or turning away because s/he’s always hungry, that behaviour isn’t going to change until s/he’s eating regularly no matter what you do.

BREADTH

The narrower the context considered, the less valuable the advice. Marketers, even or maybe especially self-marketers like Payne, use the LCD as a base for obvious reasons but the LCD may not be C enough.

Look at it in numbers. Suppose you can identify a range of 25 possible contexts within which the client pool of 100 families fits. The most common context (the one with the largest number of families in it) contains 15 clients, the second most common contains 8 clients, and the remaining 23 split the rest of the families at an average of less than 3 families per context. Well, you’ve identified the LCD but it only contains 15% of the client pool while 85% is outside in a mish-mosh of interdependent contexts only marginally related to the dominant characteristics of the LCD pool.

That’s what happens when you start dealing with human beings instead of machines. They don’t necessarily break down into a neat Bell curve with a solid majority smack dab in the middle. There are too many individualized contexts involved and they create too many crucial variables for a single LCD approach to affect successfully.

But if you’re a business, you can’t afford to sell yourself on the basis of individualized services: you’d have to charge way more than you could expect any financially-strapped school to be able to pay.

So you don’t. You do what Payne did and concentrate on the LCD, selling your service as something applicable to the dominant pool. In order to do that, you then have to develop stereotypes that fit your supposed model and try to convince your customers that their clients mostly fit neatly into it and will be helped by it. Since it does fit a healthy 15% of the total client pool, the customers will, in fact, see some improvement. But it will only – or primarily – be in the small portion of families inside the dominant pool with marginal improvements in those families belonging in subordinate pools but who share some characteristics with the dominant.

And that’s what we’re seeing here. Unfortunately, the fate of all these “educational consultants” is short-lived. Eventually the service they provide will, of necessity, fail when it begins to be applied – as it will have to be – to families who don’t fit the model.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this process play out in the last 30 years. Payne is only the latest entrepreneur to find a niche to exploit in education. There have been dozens before her and there will be dozens after her and none of them will have any lasting effect because NO approach that is based on an LCD model and stereotypes can have a lasting positive effect on the majority of a school’s population.

Unfortunately, it can have a lasting negative effect. What happens is that the stereotypes developed by a businesswoman like Payne for sale to schools become a sort of template ever after in which the signs and techniques the schools bought from her become short-hand markers that will tend to label kids in a certain way and result in a treatment modality utterly unsuited for their actual condition.

Victor Martin, the county’s supervisor of multicultural education, is trying to determine what to do with Payne’s materials. As he led administrators last month in a discussion of her work, Martin wondered aloud about Payne’s “hidden rules” of poverty.

He took issue with one conclusion in the “Framework” book: “The noise level is high (the TV is always on and everyone may talk at once).”

“As a person that comes from poverty myself, I look at these ‘hidden rules’,” Martin said. He paused. “The noise level in my home wasn’t high. My dad worked shift work, and if he was sleeping and if you had TV on — there [would be] no entertainment.”

Martin asked: “How is that information being filtered? Like, ‘Well, that child is loud because he’s poor’?”

The “filter” he’s talking about is the way in which the stereotypes will cling long past their usefulness and will consistently result in the misidentification of a student’s real issues in favor of the easier short-hand of labeling.

And that’s too bad because poverty in CorporateBushAmerica is on the rise. More and more families are being trapped by low-wage jobs in a high-wage-directed economy.

According to the Census Bureau, nearly 37 million Americans — 12.6 percent of the population — were living in poverty in 2005. That means that four years into an economic expansion, the percentage of Americans defined as poor was higher than at the bottom of the last recession in late 2001, when it was 11.7 percent. But that’s not the worst of it. Recently, the bureau released 12 alternative measures of poverty, and all but one are higher than the official rate.

The alternative that hews most closely to the measurement criteria recommended by the National Academy of Sciences yields a 2005 poverty rate of 14.1 percent. That works out to 41.3 million poor Americans, 4.4 million more than were officially counted. Those higher figures indicate that millions of needy Americans are not getting government services linked to official poverty levels.

Which was, of course, the whole point when setting the census criteria. The Bush Admin wants to downplay the poverty it has created with its corporate-friendly policies and then cut the amount of money it sends to the educational system. There will be more poor kids in the school system and fewer resources to help them, which is why a Payne looks worth exploring to school administrations desperate for answers that don’t cost too much.

But using Payne – and the other consultants who will follow her – is like grasping at a floating straw when you’re drowning. It’ll give you the illusion for a little while that you’re doing something to improve your situation, but in the end, you’re going to go under just the same.

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