One of the intended consequences of the federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was to force public schools in the U.S. to disclose and then address differences among demographics of students. Two of the key demographics targeted were race and socioeconomic status.

While the outcome of this part of NCLB was not a surprise—exposing significant and persistent “gaps” correlated strongly with poverty and so-called racial minorities—there were unintended consequences, including the creation of the achievement gap market.

NCLB mandated that districts and schools not only report disaggregated data on race, gender, and socioeconomic categories, but also document how those gaps and demographics of students were being addressed in order to close the gap.

Within just a few years, then, Ruby Payne boosted her own career by monetizing how to address the poverty gap in education, as detailed by Ng and Rury in 2009:

Measures of Payne’s influence are remarkable to consider.  Her aforementioned [self-published] book[, A Framework for Understanding Poverty,] has sold over one million copies and been translated into other languages such as Spanish since its publication in 2005.  Payne has also launched a speaking career by conducting professional development workshops in 38 American states and internationally.  She trains approximately 40,000 educators a year and reports having worked with 70 to 80 percent of the nation’s districts over the last decade with the assistance of her staff and consultants (Shapira, 2007).

However, while Payne provided a product that met the demands of the market created by NCLB, scholars of poverty, race, and education eventually exposed significant problems with Payne’s book and workshops:

While Payne’s popularity cannot be disputed, her work has generated great controversy and criticism.  For example, questions have been raised about the methodological validity of her work and subsequent self­-proclaimed “expertise” (Baker, Ng & Rury, 2006).  Others have criticized the deficiency­-oriented nature of her views on poor people that results not only in blaming the victim for being poor in the first place, but also blaming the victim for not exercising the power to alleviate his/her poor condition (Bohn, 2006; Osei­Kofi, 2005; Gorski, 2006a & 2006b).  Reviews of Payne’s published materials also indicate her inaccurate characterization of existing social science research and reliance upon stereotypes that poor people are disproportionately more immoral, lazy, and promiscuous than middle­-class or wealthy individuals (Ng & Rury, 2006).  And lastly, a careful analysis of the 607 “truth claims” she makes in her text reveals that the majority of her assertions actually contradict the findings of empirical work in fields such as education, anthropology, and sociology (Bomer, Dorin, May & Semingson, 2008). (Ng & Rury, 2009)

While scholarship continued to grow debunking Payne as an authority on poverty and education, Adrienne van der Valk reported on the Payne debate, and enduring career funded by K-12 education, in 2016:

Writer and educator Ruby Payne has been offering strategies for teaching students in poverty for almost 20 years. Since 1996, when she founded her business, aha! Process, to train educators on “the critical role schools can play in helping children and teens exit poverty,” Payne and her affiliates have, according to her website, “trained hundreds of thousands of professionals.” Her self-published book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. Chances are, if you’re a K-12 educator who has received professional development on working with students in poverty, the training was associated with Ruby Payne.

It has now been several years more than a decade since a number of scholars warned that Payne has no credible expertise in poverty, and more disturbingly, that Payne’s central claims perpetuate stereotypes, deficit thinking, and victim-blaming, as van der Valk details:

In our conversations with scholars, educators and other stakeholders, five main criticisms of Payne’s K-12 materials emerged:

  1. They focus on individual interventions and ignore the systems that cause, worsen and perpetuate poverty.
  2. They overgeneralize about people living in poverty and rely upon stereotypes.
  3. They focus on perceived weaknesses (or deficits) of children and families living in poverty.
  4. They are theoretically ungrounded and offer little evidence that they work.
  5. aha! Process workshops—and their price tags—capitalize on the needs of children in poverty.

The ability of Payne to grow her business absent credible expertise or even valid products can also be seen in her newest branding, an Emotional Poverty Workshop offered in February 2020.

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Using the belief systems in Payne’s work as well as the belief systems of the education administration and faculty who choose Payne and continue to support her work, it would be easy to blame those school personnel and Payne herself for the Payne phenomenon. But that would be as misguided as Payne’s books and workshops themselves.

The problem here is systemic—reducing a foundational public institution to the whims of the free market. If the system within which Payne is thriving were a different system, we could imagine school personnel and even Payne herself behaving differently.

The systemic problem is distinctly American since it involves the false either/or beliefs in the U.S. concerning socialism (as a reductive and misused term for “publicly funded”) and capitalism. While many in the U.S. claim the country is more devoted to democracy than its economic system, a strong case can be made that the U.S. is capitalism first if not working toward capitalism exclusively.

Public discourse and policy tend to represent anything publicly funded as inefficient, corrupt, and/or failing. Think the narratives around public schools throughout at least the last 170 years.

To understand better how the market necessarily fails education, please consider the road and highway system in the U.S. Roads and highways are primarily publicly funded, and even when roads are funded directly by the users (toll roads), many motorists dislike that version of transportation, and toll roads often fail, then converted into public roads.

Fully publicly funded and well maintained roads and highways are an excellent example of the systemic problem driving the Payne phenomenon. Publicly funded and the market are not antagonistic systems that any public must choose between, but potentially symbiotic forces that allow each system to function better together than in isolation.

Publicly funded roads and highways are essential to the market economy in the U.S., facilitating worker mobility and the near ubiquity of goods and services across the country. As the market thrives, as well, tax dollars are generated at higher and stronger rates, providing even more and better roads and highways.

Symbiotic.

Many in the U.S., notably political leadership, fail to recognize or acknowledge that symbiotic relationship, speaking instead idealistically about the market and demonizing about publicly funded. Public education, then, in some ways like the medical field, is forced into a hybrid system that feeds and depends on the market.

The problem, however, is a bit more complicated than simply blaming the market. In education, the failure of the hybrid nature of education funding (mostly public) and education spending (participating in the market, some of which is created or fueled by public policy) is in part bureaucracy, a failure found in both public institutions and private business.

Payne’s poverty prosperity was made possible by policy in NCLB but also because funds were earmarked and set to a deadline (spend it or lose it) within an accountability system that demanded that districts and schools document that the achievement gap was being addressed. This process occurred far too often (and occurs far too often still) in a purely administrative way.

NCLB also created administrative positions and duties; some people were charged (among dozens of other responsibilities) with complying with NCLB. Those education personnel likely did not have the expertise to evaluate the “who” and “how” of complying with NCLB achievement gap mandates, but was charged with making whatever could fulfill the mandate happen.

While NCLB has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the legacy of NCLB remains, a hyper-focus on the achievement gap that sustains the race and poverty market in education consulting and materials.

Public education would better serve students and democracy as well as the economy if it were removed from the market (similar to arguments being made about the health care system now) so that bureaucracy is replaced by professionalism and expertise (education decisions made based on research and experience, not policy mandates driven by accountability) and all education materials and professional development are completely funded by public dollars but also created exclusively within the public education system (not purchased from private vendors).

The Payne phenomenon and mistake would never have occurred and would not be lingering if race and poverty experts were employed throughout education and if all necessary materials and professional development were provided by those experts within the education system. The quality of this process would be much higher and the outcomes would likely be far more substantial.

Education, educators, and students are being mis-served by Payne and others who continue to monetize poverty, racism, and inequity, but this problem is likely a symptom of a much larger disease, the hybrid nature of public education funding and depending on a free market that is too often free of credibility or scholarly oversight.

The U.S. needs and deserves a robust and autonomous public education system free of bureaucracy and outside the market that invariably fails education and our students.