The Question of Class

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Paul C. Gorski challenges educators to push beyond a one-dimensional understanding of poverty. Rather than examining a so-called "culture of poverty" -- a term used by the very popular Ruby Payne and others who write and speak about poverty at the national level -- Gorski urges educators to question the culture of classist assumptions that infiltrates our classrooms and schools.

For too long, educators' approach to understanding the relationships between poverty, class and education has been framed by studying the behaviors and cultures of poor students and their families. If only we -- in the middle and upper-middle classes -- can understand their culture, why those people don't value education, why those parents don't attend our functions and meetings, why those kids are so unmotivated, perhaps we can "save" some of our economically disadvantaged students from the bleak futures before them. And so we set about studying what Ruby Payne (author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty) and others describe as the "culture of poverty," how poor people see and experience the world, how they relate to food, money, relationships, education and other aspects of life. This, despite that research has shown again and again that no such culture of poverty exists.

It's all too easy, for even the most well-meaning of us, to help perpetuate classism by buying into that mindset, implementing activities and strategies for "working with parents in poverty" or "teaching students in poverty" that, however subtly, suggest we must fix poor people instead of eliminating the inequities that oppress them.

The question, of course, for any educator of privilege committed to educational equity is this: Do we choose to study supposed cultures or mindsets of poverty because doing so doesn't require an examination of our own class-based prejudices? By avoiding that question, we also avoid the messy, painful work of analyzing how classism pervades our classrooms and schools, never moving forward toward an authentic understanding of poverty, class and education.

What does it mean, for example, that high-poverty schools have more teachers teaching outside their areas of certification, larger numbers of teacher vacancies, and fewer experienced teachers than low-poverty schools? That they're more likely to lack full access to computers and the Internet? That they have inadequate facilities and classroom materials? Or that students in high-poverty schools are more likely than their wealthier counterparts to be subjected to overcrowded classrooms, dirty or inoperative bathrooms, less rigorous curricula and encounters with vermin such as rats and cockroaches? Or that these students are more likely to attend schools with serious teacher turnover problems and lower teacher salaries than students at low-poverty schools? And why do Payne and other "experts" so often fail to mention these inequalities?

These inequitable conditions -- or, in Jonathan Kozol's words, these savage inequalities -- have nothing to do with a so-called mindset or culture of poverty, nor with any other supposedly intrinsic or inherent value held by the people they most impact. They're wholly disconnected from any measure of intelligence, eagerness to learn, or effort. Yet they deeply influence learning and inhibit our most underserved students' access to equitable educational opportunity.

The reality gets worse. Children from economically disadvantaged families are more likely than their middle class or wealthy peers to suffer preventable illnesses caused by inadequate healthcare, lack of health insurance and contaminated living spaces. They're more likely to experience hunger and homelessness, to go without meals, without shelter and warmth. They're more likely to live in neighborhoods with unsafe levels of environmental pollutants, to lack safe places to play, safe water to drink, safe air to breathe.

Regardless of whether a child living in poverty wants to learn, regardless of whether she's determined to make the best life for herself, she must first overcome enormous barriers to life's basic needs -- the kinds of needs that middle-class people, including most professional educators, usually take for granted: access to healthcare; sufficient food and lodging; reasonably safe living conditions. Again, none of these conditions speaks to the values or desires of students in poverty, although they may speak to the values of a nation that can afford to eliminate these inequities but chooses not to.

So where do we start? What new understandings are at the heart of the anti-classist solution in our classrooms and schools?

First, whenever somebody refers to education as the great equalizer, we must remember the injustices listed above. We must remember that in almost every conceivable way, the very structure of the U.S. education system denies students in poverty the opportunities and access it affords most other students.

We must recognize, too, that people living in poverty are fully aware of these discrepancies. So when we see hopelessness in some of our students' eyes, when we sense a reluctance to engage, a distrust of our intentions, we must recognize that these reactions arise, if they arise at all, from lifetimes of oppression and not from a failure to value education or from an inherent moral deficiency. In fact, we should recognize the resilience of a community that overcomes such insurmountable odds, such savage inequalities, and, despite its maltreatment by schools and society, continues to push, to strive, to learn and achieve.

Second, we must recognize that students and parents from poverty simply do not have the same access to material resources that their economically advantaged peers -- and that many of us -- take for granted.

This reality was re-clarified for me several months ago while conducting a workshop for teachers at a high-poverty school in Minnesota. When several teachers began complaining that their students' parents were to blame for their kids' low achievement -- that they don't care about education, that they routinely fail to show up for meetings -- I moved into an activity about taking stock of one's resources. Among several prompts in the activity was one to raise your hand if you drove to work today, to which every participant responded by raising her or his hand. Later, when I asked participants to estimate what percentage of their students' families owned a car, a school social worker responded with the exact figure: 11 percent.

So let's begin to ask new questions -- about ourselves: On what assumptions do we base our planning and scheduling for parent-teacher conferences? Do we assume all parents have convenient transportation, that they can afford taxi or bus fare if necessary? Do we take into account that due to a lack of living-wage jobs, many poor people must work two, three, even four jobs just to pay rent and put food on the table? Do we understand that many of these parents don't have paid leave time to attend these events? Do we consider that many parents in poverty can't afford childcare or other services necessary for their attendance?

Third, we must develop anti-classist plans of action, plans that reshape school and classroom practices to counter class inequities and injustices, that put the onus of responsibility for change on us and the system and not on the students and parents so historically underserved by U.S. schools. On an institutional level, this means fighting for systemic reform, insisting on a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities in and out of schools.

On an individual level, it means transforming our consciousness and practice. We can begin implementing many of these changes immediately. We can:

  • assign work requiring computer and Internet access or other costly resources only when we can provide in-school time and materials for such work to be completed;
  • work with our schools to make parent involvement affordable and convenient by providing transportation, on-site childcare and time flexibility;
  • give students from poverty access to the same high-level curricular and pedagogical opportunities and high expectations as their wealthy peers;
  • teach about classism, consumer culture, the dissolution of labor unions, environmental pollution and other injustices disproportionately affecting the poor, preparing new generations of students to make a more equitable world;
  • keep stocks of school supplies, snacks, clothes and other basic necessities handy for students who may need them, but find quiet ways to distribute these resources to avoid singling anyone out;
  • develop curricula that are relevant and meaningful to our students' lives and draw on their experiences and surroundings;
  • fight to get our students into gifted and talented programs and to give them other opportunities usually reserved for economically advantaged students and to keep them from being assigned unjustly to special education;
  • continue to reach out to parents even when we feel they are being unresponsive; this is one way to establish trust;
  • challenge our colleagues when they stigmatize poor students and their parents, reminding them of the inequitable conditions in our schools and classrooms; and
  • challenge ourselves, our biases and prejudices, by educating ourselves about the cycle of poverty and classism in and out of U.S. schools.

Most importantly, we should never, under any circumstance, make an assumption about a student or parent -- about their values or culture or mindset -- based on a single dimension of their identity. There is no more a single culture of poverty than there is a single culture of woman-ness or of African American-ness. And yet, some of us who would be immediately critical of a book or workshop on how to teach to all women or all African Americans -- as if all women or African Americans learn in the same way -- tend to apply such a narrow lens when it comes to economically disadvantaged students. The truth is, the "culture of poverty" is a myth. What does exist is a culture of classism, a culture most devastating to our most underserved students. And this is a culture worth changing.

 

Professional Development
Distribute copies of this essay during an in-service or other professional development setting. Allow participants time to read the essay and then break them into 10 small groups. Ask each group to brainstorm ways to implement one of the 10 ideas Gorski presents. Offer questions to help participants get started: To what extent is this already being done in our school? What do we need to learn to make this happen? With whom would we need to work? What resources would we need? Present findings to the whole group, solicit feedback and create action plans, complete with timelines and assignments.

Comments

Teaching in Intermediate School

Submitted by Anonymous on 19 February 2014 - 12:25pm.

I agree with many things that I have read from both Payne and Gorski. How can that be when they are opposed to each other? I do agree that there cannot be one culture of poverty. I would also agree that no matter what socioeconomic background you come from you can be talented, smart, and capable of doing whatever you set your mind to. I work in a district that has wealthy children, middle class children and poverty children who are homeless. It is a mix but the teachers do not expect any less from the students who are homeless or in poverty than the other students. I agree that there needs to be more opportunities for the children in poverty to counter inequalities within the US Education system. However I did like some of the ideas in Payne's book regarding how to reach out to parents in poverty. I did like the idea of making a video tape to send home.

Teaching

Submitted by Anonymous on 26 August 2013 - 11:51am.

After Reading Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty I also felt a little uncomfortable with some of her generalizations. However, I could ‘see’ many of my students in her descriptions of disadvantaged youth. After redistricting, my school district essentially segregated my elementary building, which hovers around 55% of students receiving free or reduced lunch. The other elementary schools in the district are all 25% or less. My building is staffed with superb, veteran teachers who set high expectations each day for their students. We consistently out-score our district counterparts on the state assessments and recently received our state’s Spotlight Award. We view our students as learners and use best practices each day. Many of the strategies suggested by Eric Jenson in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind and in this article are implemented in my school. We are very proud of our work, but are often frustrated with the lack of support from district, state and federal ‘powers that be’ for families who find themselves in difficult situations. Over the years we have found that we can’t dwell on the outside noise. So like educators all over the country, we show up every day and work extremely hard to show our kids that they are smart, creative, capable children who will grow into productive citizens of the world.

Culture of Poverty

Submitted by Anonymous on 17 August 2013 - 9:42pm.

I agree that there cannot be one culture of poverty. There are so many diverse people throughout the world who are poor. I believe that the children who live within these poor families are creative, talented and curious just as children are within middle class and wealthy families. Without exception all children have greatness within them. While working to close the opportunity gap that exists we need to maintain high expectations for all students so they can thrive.

Understanding Poverty

Submitted by Anonymous on 4 August 2013 - 1:30pm.

In initially reading Ruby Payne's book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty", I was enlightened to see that there are individuals who are attempting to facilitate educators in developing strategies to respond to what she considers 'causes of poverty'. Although I do think that she seeks to help educators understand differences and 'hidden rules' between societal classes, I can understand why she has gained critics. Once I delved into the heated debate on the opposition of Ruby Payne's work, I began to see how her ways of outlining causes of poverty can actually further perpetuate the subjugation of individuals living in poverty. I agree with Paul Gorski's criticisms, in that society should stop focusing on ways to 'fix' individuals in poverty, and start focusing more on why poverty is so prevalent in the first place. Focusing our efforts on eliminating inequalities that prevent individuals in poverty from accessing opportunities that are more accessible to individuals in the middle and wealthy classes appears to be a major problem that impacts poverty. However, regardless of which 'side' one is in favor of, we should collectively focus our efforts toward a common goal in reducing inequities that individuals in poverty are exposed to.

Gorski versus Payne

Submitted by Anonymous on 1 August 2013 - 10:45am.

Gorski accuses Payne of stereotyping "those people" with her theory on the culture of poverty. Of course not every individual living in poverty fits her description. However not all schools fit Gorski's description either. I teach in a school with 77% of students receiving free or reduced lunch. My school has two computer labs, whiteboards in every classroom, and student computers in every classroom. That is substantially more technology than other schools in the district that serve middle class students. We have a lower student/teacher ratio and five more paraeducators than the middle class schools. We have more trade books in our book room and student periodicals subscriptions due to Title one funds. We have more professional development opportunities for teachers and more money for family involvement events. One hundred percent of our teachers are highly qualified in the area they teach in. Our school was recently painted. In short, we have more resources than other schools. I am proud of the work we do to provide the very best education for our students. The discussion regarding the culture of poverty versus the culture of classism is an interesting one. However, the more important discussion should be how to provide the best education for our children.

Gorski verses Payne

Submitted by Anonymous on 14 April 2013 - 8:52pm.

Gorski's essay shares with the reader why the culture of poverty is a myth but the culture of classism is real. We, as a society, have pigeon holed persons of poverty into certain behaviors and actions. Prior to reading Gorski's essay I read Ruby Payne's book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I found the information in her book to be intersting and eye opening. I was fascinated by the hidden rules of povery, middle class and upper class. Being that it was the first reading that I've done on the subject of poverty in school I was quick to agree with her thoughts. However, after reading Gorski's essay I understand his critisim to Payne's research. With that being said, I believe that despite the differences in opinions both Gorski and Payne have a passion to improve the life of persons in poverty. Payne has adopted the additive model which looks at the strengths that persons of povery possess and believes in adding to those strenghts. Gorski looks at the inequalities that persons in poverty are faced with and addresses how we can level the playing field.

Topic of Poverty

Submitted by Anonymous on 26 June 2013 - 8:05am.

In reading Payne's book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Eric Jensen's book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, and now reading articles by Gorski it becomes apparent that all are differing on how they identify poverty. All are essentially trying to aid individuals that have areas of need. All of the books and articles talk about and give practical solutions to help make our schools better. I think we need to focus on what we can do instead of worrying about how we define poverty. I think all individuals have needs in some area of their life that we as educators can seek to support no matter how we define it or explain it. I will take away from all the materials the ways in which help any individual that can benefit from the strategies provided.

Poverty

Submitted by Anonymous on 31 July 2013 - 11:18am.

It is important to understand definitions of poverty as there are many. I don't agree about just thee social classes as suggest in Ruby Payne's book. It is important to learn some hidden rules within these classes,especially lower to middle class, to be socially accepted by societal norms. The real issue is how to desegregate. For centuries this has been prevalent. It is essential to begin in our schools teaching equality for all and enforcing it. Many methods can be incorporated from these readings. There is not just one method or solution.

Agreement

Submitted by Anonymous on 30 May 2013 - 3:51pm.

I totally agree with the thoughts and observations of "Anonymous" from April of this year. I too was impressed and intrigued by Ruby Payne's views and possible solutions when dealing with families in poverty. However, once I read Gorski's views and his perception of Payne, I had a more broad view of things. As stated by "Anonymous", I feel both authors have a strong desire to improve the lives of families in poverty. A combination of viewpoints would be beneficial for families, students, educators and the general public.

Gorski vs. Payne

Submitted by Anonymous on 18 April 2013 - 9:59am.

I completely agree. I too read Payne's book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, and then read Gorski's essays. When I first read Payne's book, I agreed with her findings. I found it easy to agree with her findings after working with students of poverty at two schools. The culture of poverty that Payne descibes is a rather accurate picture when compared to my expereinces. However, after reading several of Gorski's articles, I found myself surprised at the difference. I feel that Payne helps to give insight into what many people of poverty experience, but not all. Many of her findings could be considered stereotypicaly. Gorski on the other hand, looks at how to level the playing field and what needs to be done to eliminate inequalities. Finally, I agree that both Payne and Gorski are working to bring attention to the issue of poverty. Therefore, both have merit and are worth reading.

Agree with all, focus needed

Submitted by Anonymous on 21 July 2013 - 10:06pm.

After reading Ruby Payne's book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty", Eric Jensen's book "Teaching with Poverty in Mind" and several of Gorski's articles it seems painfully obvious that all have good things to offer. What I struggle with is the petty finger pointing and trivial differences that cause Gorski to stray from his initial goal of helping understand and improve the situations for those in poverty. Attacking someone else who is attempting to do the same thing is not making a difference with his movement. Ruby Payne's work is not holding him back from making a difference. I would hope if he was truly engaged in making a difference with his views he would focus on them and not stray to attack another author. It reminds me of the politicians... Democrats and Republicans that lose focus on the task at hand and fight one another due to their allegiances rather than their initial intents. Let's find a common ground and work together!!! - Respectfully submitted by Educator Holly Derr

Agreed

Submitted by Anonymous on 29 August 2013 - 10:10pm.

I also have been reading both of these books and at first I was very impressed by Payne, but then I read Jensen's book at more from Gorski. I think that writers who look into poverty in education are doing a great job of bringing to light what schools are working to overcome. I wish that each writer could walk in the shoes of each other so that they could see the view point of one another. That might help them to understand why they say and place blame where they do. I do agree that all cases of poverty and economic disadvantage are all different just like we as people are all different. There are some common strands, but each family has its story. I feel we need to begin at the beginning to make any change that will stick. In the meantime, we need to provide support for our kids and be mindful of the obstacles that some families have. We need to remember why we do what we do...for the kids.
Jody S

Payne's work

Submitted by Anonymous on 16 May 2013 - 10:20am.

When I initially read Ruby Payne's book, I felt that it was informative, however, as I began dissecting it more thoroughly, I feel that it is one of the most racist and classist books I have ever read. I feel that there were many assumptions made and the largest grievance, in my opinion, is the ideology that being poor is inherently bad and that everyone should desire to "move up". I am slowly becoming more and more aware of the desparity between the wealthy and the poor... if I have to choose, I will remain poor! I feel that while we should always strive to better ourselves, assuming that because of race or social status that the quality of life that you have is positive or negative should not occur. I work with many refugee families who have come from extreme poverty and yet now, having an "american" life struggle to find happiness in the endless rat race existence of paying rent, heat, electricity, transportation issues etc... the simple lives that were led before, although extremely poor, were much happier than the endless cycle of never having a job that pays you enough to have these modern conveniences that we have in a first world country.

Payne and Gorski

Submitted by Anonymous on 10 July 2013 - 11:32am.

I feel the same way. Our American rat race really prevents people from ever believing they have "achieved" or "succeeded." We always want more and more; never happy with what we have. These rules don't seem to apply to those living in poverty because they are living more day-to-day. I, for one, would like to be able to live a more day-to-day existence!
Payne provides a very broad, societal view of poverty from the perspective of a wealthy or middle class person.
Eric Jensen's book "Teaching with poverty in mind" provides educators with concrete examples of how to support our students in poverty, not to look down on them or assume they want to leave their current situations.

Payne vs Gorski

Submitted by Anonymous on 22 April 2014 - 8:09pm.

After reading information provided from both Payne and Gorski, It is easy to see that both individuals are very passionate about informing others about individuals living in poverty. Both Payne and Gorski provide helpful information for individuals working with those living in poverty. I think that they both have merit, however, I do believe some information provided by Payne may be somewhat stereotypical. We, as educators know that you always have exceptions to the rules, which is why all education should be individualized to best meet the needs of our students. These authors have allowed me to better understand those living in poverty and will help to better shape my teaching in order to reach all parties involved.