Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Response to Tough's Article on Ruby Payne

Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Sunday magazine, has just published “The Class Consciousness Raiser” about Ruby Payne. (The article is in a NYT Magazine special issue on “Inside the Income Gap”.) It is a glowing and uncritical review of Payne’s work, and in many ways an obvious next article for Tough, after his most recent article for the NYT Magazine, “What It Takes to Make a Student.” I see three big points that should be made up front: Payne’s work is an un-nuanced rehash of scholarship 20-30 years old; the immense popularity of her work signals the complete inability of educator preparation to strongly impact future teachers’ (and administrators’) understanding of issues of race and class; Tough’s write-up demonstrates how marginalized foundations scholars are in impacting the discussions around educational policy and, more generally, classroom practices.

Here’s the context: Tough’s previous article highlighted the middle class skill sets necessary for urban youth to become successful. The defining moment for Tough was when he visited a KIPP school and saw such middle class skills being explicitly taught:

Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools
follow a system for classroom behavior invented by Levin and Feinberg called
Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the
speaker with their eyes. When I visited KIPP Academy last month, I was standing
with Levin at the front of a music class of about 60 students, listening to him
talk, when he suddenly interrupted himself and pointed at me. “Do you notice
what he’s doing right now?” he asked the class.
They all called out at once,
Levin’s contention is that Americans of a certain background
learn these methods for taking in information early on and employ them
instinctively. KIPP students, he says, need to be taught the methods explicitly.
And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye
is on you. When a student speaks, every head swivels to watch her. To anyone
raised in the principles of progressive education, the uniformity and discipline
in KIPP classrooms can be off-putting. But the kids I spoke to said they use the
Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because
it works: it helps them to learn. (They may also like the feeling of having
their classmates’ undivided attention when they ask or answer a question.) When
Levin asked the music class to demonstrate the opposite of Slanting — “Give us
the normal school look,” he said — the students, in unison, all started goofing
off, staring into space and slouching. Middle-class Americans know intuitively
that “good behavior” is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students
seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke.

Tough had mentioned Payne in this previous article but not gone into depth. His focus had been on attempting to show that low-income urban youth could be successful, particularly within the context of mandated NCLB requirements. So here he goes into depth on Ruby Payne, the most public advocate with a “theory” behind strategies such as “Slant.”

So let me now get to my three points:
First. Payne’s work is a poor rehash of anthropologists of education and educational theorists such as John Ogbu, Lisa Delpit, and Annette Lareau. Delpit most famously wrote about the seeming divide between African-American and white parenting, teaching, and learning styles (Delpit originally framed it as a Black/White divide and later acknowledged the class issues involved). (Tough, by the way, uses much more recent educational psychological research, which, while strong, still lacks the nuanced understanding of the cultural issues involved.) Whereas such authors (yes, even Ogbu) provided context and nuance to the immense complexity of ethnically and racially diverse youth struggling within school cultures that mirror and reward middle-class patterns of acting and thinking, Payne simply makes the standard “deficit culture” move of stating that the patterns and cultures of the poor (and nonwhite) are the sole responsibility of the poor (and nonwhite). She as such advocates that low-income youth apply a type of “code switching” such that they can fit in and be successful (which is what “Slant” formalizes in the school curriculum). This plays nice to large audiences and our American mantra of individual responsibility, but it ignores and leaves hidden (and thus privileged) a school system that only works for youth who have the requisite SES backgrounds that index a host of qualities (quality teachers, access to test prep, parents who expect college success, etc.) The spotlight, as usual in a deficit approach, points back at the individuals least culpable and least able to change their situation.

Second, I have taught such issues to teachers, principals, and administrators across K-12 education in undergraduate and graduate courses as well as workshops for over a decade. Almost always, my students (just like Payne’s audiences) are shocked to learn about such issues. I, in turn, am shocked by their shock. I came into education through an alternative pathway and as such assume I missed a lot of basic foundational stuff that would have made me a better teacher. Yet these are individuals who have gone through the educator preparation system, taking courses where they should have been exposed to such issues early and often. This lack of impact by educator preparation is atrocious. It signals the marginalized status that such issues have become in lieu of instrumental coursework in methods, instruction, etc.

Third, Tough’s article has a back story (or at least one back story that I am familiar with). I belong to the anthropology of education listserv, where a heated discussion has been ongoing ever since Tough’s “What It Takes” article. In addition to writing letters to the editor (which went unpublished) and compiling resources to refute and expand upon Tough’s claims, several members contacted Tough and initiated a discussion about how he had misstated and misunderstood some of the more important cultural issues at stake. The point I want to make is that Tough, in his most recent article, comes down harshly and disparagingly on the academics who have attacked Payne (and why, I wrote at the beginning of this post, his article is uncritical). This is really frustrating in the sense that a large number of excellent academics could not influence how Tough viewed the issue. And Tough is smart. If top academics can’t make a forceful argument to a top editor at the NYT Magazine over an extended period of time, how can we as foundations scholars expect to do better in an even less nuanced landscape of educator preparation? This is a hard nut to crack. Look at Tough’s disparaging comments:

Payne’s work in the schools has attracted a growing chorus of criticism, mostly
from academia. Although Payne says that her only goal is to help poor students,
her critics claim that her work is in fact an assault on those students. By
teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in “classism”
and racism. Her work is “riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful
stereotypes,” charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State
University, in a paper on Payne’s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at
Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payne’s central text “consists, at
the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address
poverty and education by ‘fixing’ poor people instead of reforming classist
policies and practices.” […] You would think that Payne wouldn’t fret about a
few angry assistant professors whose collective audience is a tiny fraction of
the size of hers. But somehow, like gnats at a backyard barbecue, they drive her
to distraction. Each time a progressive education journal publishes a detailed
Foucauldian critique of her book (which she wrote, don’t forget, in a single
week), Payne feels compelled to write in with a paragraph or two in her own
defense. It doesn’t work, of course; the author invariably blasts back with
another extended volley of withering scorn. In the pages of the Teachers College
Record, the rich blond-haired white lady from Corpus Christi is never going to
come out ahead.

Tough is referring to the following article by Gorski here and Payne’s reply. (I must say that for someone with a PhD, Payne’s response is worse than weak.) Gorski’s article, by the way, is deeply steeped in critical theory, not Foucault. But I guess it is still OK to put down an academic by smearing him with the taint of using Foucault. (Sigh, I guess I’m doomed.) The point, though, is that Tough’s literary trope is of the underdog overcoming the critique of academic ivory tower gnats to achieve and succeed and help teachers better understand why their low income kids are failing and allow said teachers to get excited that, nope, it’s not the teacher’s fault but that darn poor culture getting in the way.

So, to end this overlong post, it is deeply frustrating, on many levels, that what foundations scholars research and teach seems unheeded in education schools, top education writers, and our own colleagues. And those who ultimately get shortchanged are this nation’s youth who need K-12 teachers and administrators to better understand how to fix a broken system.

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