Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Inflicting Good on the Poor: As Research-Based as We Wanna Be

For years, MMSD staff have advocated for their proposals and programming choices by arguing that they are research-based data driven best practices. At times, I have wondered whether the research selected has undergone critical review. That is, do the people selecting the research stop to ask whether the research is methodologically sound with verifiable results, much less whether it was conducted on populations or under conditions that are comparable to the Madison public school district.

I've also wondered at an understanding of research that ignores entire bodies of data or work that falls outside of the narrow educational research paradigm. (Prime examples of the latter case include the district's unwillingness to consider the considerable body of research on how children learn to read that is carried out by cognitive psychologists, linguists, and communicative disorder researchers. But that's another post.)

My questions about the level of critical review of the work selected to inform programmatic choices reached new levels this week, after TJ Mertz raised serious questions in his AMPS blog about the only resource identified by name in the TAG Plan update's section on including underrepresented populations.

At the top of page 4, the update states:  
Support for underrepresented populations: Research and review of support models for students from underrepresented populations is on-going. District staff (high school teachers and resource teachers) are conducting a book study of Removing the Mask  by Ruby Payne. 
So what's the big deal? For starters, Ruby Payne is an interesting choice for a district that embraces research-based best practices. Simply put, she does not conduct research
herself, cites little work that is more recent than the late 1960s - 1980s range (thereby missing a lot of the advances of the past 3 decades), and mis-appropriates the research that she does cite. 

Much of her work is self-published through the Aha!Process business that she heads, and which has become quite a cottage industry peddling its (unreviewed) books to districts who contract with her or one of her employees for in-service training. I note that one of the key areas of specialization for Ms. Payne and her associates is in-service training for school districts that are under the gun to improve student achievement while confronting growing issues of poverty and inequality within the classroom. (Sound familiar?)

A quick Google Search turns up several critiques of the Ruby Payne industry, but this one caught my eye: Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne's Claims about Poverty by Randy Bomer, Joel E. Dworin, Laura May & Peggy Semingson — 2008. Based on a qualitative analysis of the content basis of Payne's teacher education in-service training program, the authors conclude that

"...her truth claims, offered without any supporting evidence, are contradicted by anthropological, sociological and other research on poverty. We have demonstrated through our analysis that teachers may be misinformed by Payne's claims. As a consequence of low teacher expectations, poor students are more likely to be in lower tracks or lower ability groups and their educational experience is more often dominated by rote drill and practice." (emphasis added)
This does not bode well for serious or successful efforts to identify gifted and talented students among the full spectrum of the Madison district's student population.

At a minimum, the assertions of her work should be openly discussed and debated if her works are to shape district practice, starting with her beliefs about how people end up in poverty and/or stay there. (I note that these beliefs are completely counter to the materials that the superintendent presented to us when he first arrived, re. board understanding of poverty as a factor in student achievement.)

Her article, "Understanding and Working with Students and Adults from Poverty" embodies many of her central themes, which are repeated in her study guide and other materials. Particularly telling are the insulting and stereotyping statements that she promotes about lower class, middle class, and upper class cultures. Indeed, why would we both er if she is correct that "To move from poverty to middle class or middle class to wealth, an individual must give up relationships for achievement."

Certainly, I have to ask what practice would be dictated if MMSD accepts her bold and unstudied assertions about conflict resolution, for example:

Generational Poverty:
Physical fighting is how conflict
is resolved. If you only know
casual register, you do not have
the words to negotiate a
resolution. Respect is accorded
to those who can physically
defend themselves.

Middle Class:
Fighting is done verbally.
Physical fighting is viewed
with distaste.

Upper class:
Fighting is done through social
inclusion or exclusion and
through lawyers.

I cannot speak for others on the board, but I would hope that we would all be profoundly uncomfortable with the logical conclusions that would flow from such overly-broad and under-documented understandings about poverty. I do believe that we need to inquire about this choice of materials and question how this resource was selected and where it will lead us if we embrace the models that are likely to emerge from its tenets