Equity, Diversity and TAG in MMSD — What They are Reading and More

John Rury on Ruby K. Payne

(article being discussed is subscription only)

I’ve previously expressed my thoughts on the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Talented and Gifted plan and equity issues (here, here and Robert Godfrey also posted on this here).  At the January 4, 2010 meetings, the Board of Education received an update on the plan.  From reading this update, things are worse than I had feared.

Among the materials identified as being used for staff development is a book by Ruby K. Payne, whose other work is the subject of the video above.  They are also employing The Cluster Grouping Handbook by Susan Winebrenner and Dina Brulles.  I’d like to offer some relevant quotes:

“The typical pattern in poverty for discipline is to verbally chastise the child, or physically beat the child, then forgive and feed him/her”


The poor simply see jail as a part of life and not necessarily always bad. Local jails provide food and shelter and, as a general rule, are not as violent or dangerous as state incarceration.” (Emphasis added)


“And one of the rules of generational poverty is this: [women] may need to use [their] bod[ies] for survival. After all, that is all that is truly yours. Sex will bring in money and favors. Values are important, but they don’t put food on the table—or bring relief from intense pressure.”  (Emphasis added)


“Also, individuals in poverty are seldom going to call the police, for two reasons: First, the police may be looking for them; second, the police are going to be slow to respond.”  (Emphasis added)

All from Ruby K. Payne, A framework for understanding poverty.

“Throughout life we all seek like-minded people with whom to work and play; we are much more comfortable with people who understand and accept us as we are.”  (Emphasis added)

Susan Winebrenner and Dina Brulles, Cluster Grouping Handbook

“I have repeatedly pointed out that people prefer the company of people like themselves, that this is natural and healthy, and that we should organize our society on this assumption.”  (Emphasis added)


“Assumptions about police bias are especially common among minority groups that have the most to gain from good relations with the police. Blacks, in particular, are convinced of police “racism.” In extreme cases, this belief leads to murderous rampages like that of Brian Nichols with which this report begins. It is not an exaggeration to say that his victims might be alive today if the facts in this report were widely known. In countless less severe cases, a belief in police bias leads to suspicion, resentment, and lack of cooperation, all of which make it harder for the police to do their jobs, and more likely that minorities will suffer from crimes that could have been solved or prevented. How often do assumptions about police—and societal—racism so anger blacks that they go beyond lack of cooperation to crime itself? It is profoundly destructive for minorities to have exaggerated resentments toward the society in which they live.”  (Emphasis added)

Jared Taylor, “Reply to Tim Wise,” and “The Color of Crime.”

The last two quotes — from Jared Taylor — are ringers.  MMSD isn’t using anything from Taylor (that I know of); that’s good because the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled him one of “40 to Watch” and described him as a “courtly presenter of ideas that most would describe as crudely white supremacist.”  That Taylor, Payne, Winebrenner, Brulles all sound so much alike says much about the slippery slope of grouping, racism and classism; that MMSD’s work on TAG has taken us onto this slope is shameful and inexcusable.

Other than vague references to “research and review of support models” reading Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty by Paul D. Slocumb and Ruby K. Payne is the only activity listed under the heading “Support for Underrepresented Populations.  I haven’t had a chance to read this book, but in fairness I should say that from the excerpts I’ve seen, it does contain some good things about the limited utility of standardized tests in identification.  That’s good, but I doubt it outweighs the attitudes and assumptions that are at the core of Payne’s work (a little more on Payne below).

The update also references the TAG Advisory Committee.  A membership list and , agendas, but no minutes have been belatedly posted.  It is clear that by any measure the closed appointment process fell short of the stated goal of  “reflecting [the district’s] demographic make-up.”  I’d like to particularly point out that it is very unlikely that there are any people in poverty or without college degrees represented; 47% of MMSD students are low income, 58% of district families have at least one parent without a college education.   Such gross under-representation in a committee that is supposed to address under-representation is not a good sign.   They can do better and perhaps would have done better if they had reached out beyond “people like themselves.”

That raises another issue with the Advisory Committee.  Of the 33 names listed, 11 work for the district, at least one other has a contractual relationship with MMSD via a grant, 3 others have professional lives associated with Talented and Gifted education.  I don’t think that any TAG or grouping skeptics have been included.  “People like themselves,” not representative of the community.

If TAG in MMSD is live up to the promise of equity,  identification is key (support after identification is also essential).  The sections of the update dealing with identification indicate that little or no progress has been made toward more equitable identification procedures.  We are talking more of the same:  biased achievement tests (MAP, under consideration is yet another inappropriate test, the CogAT tests also under consideration are a mixed bag) and referrals (which research shows are more biased than the tests).  The district needs to move from achievement measures to aptitude assessments and until it has been demonstrated that TAG can be equitable, they need to go slow with labeling and grouping students.  Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak raised some of this at the meeting

There is one small positive sign in a related area.   For years I have asked for demographic breakdowns of students being served by advanced programs and participating in advanced classes.  I’ve been ignored, I’ve been told the data didn’t exist, Ive been told I would be given the data shortly…finally Superintendent Dan Nerad told me that the data on students being served by TAG (part of what I’ve asked for, but not all of it) exists but is of poor quality and would not be released (I guess I could do a Freedom of Information request).  The good news is that one of the proposed Strategic Plan Core Measures is “Advanced Course Participation Rate.”  I have been assured that this and all the student related performance measures (including TAG participation) will be reported with disaggregated demographic breakdowns.  At least then we will have a baseline measure and one that I hope will spur better and more urgent action.

I’ll leave the MMSD issues for now on a positive note and move to a very few words about Ruby Payne

Payne’s work is based on little or no research, perpetuates stereotypes and reinforces  middle class hegemony.  There are many good critiques of Payne, but most are under copyright restrictions.  These and other entries from the blog Education and Class and this from the Journal of Educational Controversy are  good places to start.

So much of the critiques go back to the critique of Great Society Culture of Poverty/Cultural Deficit approaches.  In the wake of the Black Power Movement it became untenable to equate difference with deficits, (as Payne does).  Resurgent pluralism demanded that the strengths of various cultures be recognized and respected.  This is subtle in practice.  Few dispute that schools should give children the tools they need to thrive in a culture dominated by “middle class,” liberal, capitalist norms and mores.  What Payne and other deficit practitioners do is go beyond this by elevating these norms  and mores as superior.  In the process, the liberatory potential of schooling is abandoned.  It should go without saying that this is in conflict with the Cultural Relevance program and other aspects of the Strategic Plan.   Payne, like KIPP, wants to teach poor children to “work hard and be nice” and not how to change the system that produces and reproduces inequality.

I’m going to close with another video discussing Ruby Payne, this one from 14 year-old John Wittle (worth watching).

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under Best Practices, education, Equity, Local News, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Equity, Diversity and TAG in MMSD — What They are Reading and More

  1. An interesting post. In the first video, John Rury says that Ruby Paynes book “does not reflect current research on [education and poverty] this issue.” It would be interesting to see what the current research does show. Also, I wonder how the Ruby Payne book was selected and why. Maybe they are using it to show how pervasive stereo-typing is. I’m not trying to give you more to do TJ, I know you are busy. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

  2. Laura

    I can’t answer why they choose it.

    On poor and Minority students and TAG, Donna Ford is a good place to start (I don’t always agree, but I respect her).

    On the bigger issues, “research” encompasses so much but in terms of teacher development and how to approach the issues, I really like Lisa Delpit, especially Other People’s Children and much by Madison’s own Gloria Ladson-Billings.

    One thing is that good scholarship badly implemented is no improvement and that is always a danger, especially in this area.

    Got to run.

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