Monday, September 29, 2014

Ruby Payne and Deficit Thinking

First in a series

School districts including mine are looking for ways to combat low achievement among our poorer students. This problem is so intractable that anyone offering wisdom and advice, who appears to have done some serious study on the issue, will be grasped by teachers and administrators for whatever wisdom is available. For ten years, Ruby Payne has been a major voice in guiding teachers and school districts through waters inhabited by poor people.

Ruby Payne’s seminal book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”, endeavors to provide educators with strategies for teaching children from poor families. 

But something happens when you try to do that. You take a snapshot of a classroom and you analyze what you see; you figure out what needs to be done to rearrange what is seen in that picture, and you advise people to do those things. But when you try to effect change based on a snapshot, you get it wrong. You get it so wrong that you do damage to kids, families, schools, and communities. 

Just as politicians are taught not to accept the premise of a question, we can't accept the premise of that snapshot. We have to examine it.

On the surface, it’s pretty simple, even if it seems impossible to solve: middle-class and wealthy kids do better on state standardized tests. They must be better equipped for classroom learning than their poor classmates. So let’s fix those poorer kids, make them better. Surely that is part of our job.

However, scholars, educators and public education activists have been attacking Payne’s work for years. There is a term that brings together the opposition to her framework: deficit thinking.

"Deficit thinking is a pseudoscience founded on racial and class bias. It “blames the victim” for school failure instead of examining how schools are structured to prevent poor students and students of color from learning”  -Richard Valencia, Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking

It is important to focus a bright spotlight on deficit thinking now. On a national level, we are seeing an education movement toward learning that is pushed by standards and enforced by testing. This is not a trend; it is a tsunami. It has crashed over public education and left in its wake a horrific disaster.

In my next few posts I’ll try to make sense of America’s attitudes toward poverty and education -- a big subject about which Ruby Payne’s analysis is possibly the most popular, and most wrongheaded.

I'm going to try to tackle these topics:
  •  What is the national narrative about poor students and schools today? Why is the push toward more accountability in schools adversely affecting poor students, when part of its goal was to make sure no child was left behind?
  • What is Ruby Payne saying?
  • What is Deficit Thinking, and how does it respond to Payne’s work?
  • What’s the solution?

I have been collecting articles and research on both deficit thinking and Ruby Payne’s work. These are some of the sources I have found so far:

Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty by RANDY BOMER University of Texas at Austin JOEL E. DWORIN University of Texas at El Paso LAURA MAY Georgia State University PEGGY SEMINGSON
University of Texas at Arlington

Assistant Professor, Integrative Studies
George Mason University

That is the result of my first few passes through search engines. If you know of good resources on either deficit thinking, Ruby Payne, or the impact of high-stakes testing on disadvantaged communities, email me or leave a comment here.

Part Two


  1. This is a great intro Lisa - KEEP GOING!!!

    1. Keep the pressure on me. Send me messages like, "How's that article coming?"

    2. Lisa, Thanks for taking on this topic. I totally agree and have built workshops aligned with strengths based models and use Paul Gorski's text Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty.

    3. One of my goals is to take this topic and re-cast it for non-scholars. God knows I have enough trouble reading Gorski's "Unlearning Deficit Ideology and the Scornful Gaze"

    4. Good piee, glad to see more critical analysis of her damaging work.

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