Despite Payne’s counsel, the reality is that in the nation’s bedrooms and churches, bridges across the class divide are increasingly rare: most Americans worship with and marry people who are just like them. In public schools, though, class divisions are a frequent part of daily existence, sometimes within the student body but also, and more significant, between teachers and students.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 brought a new urgency to the issue of poverty in the classroom. For the first time, schools were required not only to report their overall test results but also to calculate the scores for various “subgroups,” including racial minorities, students for whom English is a second language and students whose parents’ income is low enough to qualify them for a free or reduced-price lunch. It soon became impossible to ignore that there was a problem: poor students were scoring well behind their wealthier peers. And schools suddenly had a powerful incentive to try to address that disparity. Even otherwise well-performing schools could be labeled failures if their poor students weren’t catching up.
Payne believes that teachers can’t help their poor students unless they first understand them, and that means understanding the hidden rules of poverty. The second step, Payne says, is to teach poor students explicitly about the hidden rules of the middle class. She emphasizes that the goal should not be to change students’ behavior outside of school: you don’t teach your students never to fight if fighting is an important survival skill in the housing project where they live. But you do tell them that in order to succeed at school or later on in a white-collar job, they need to master certain skills: how to speak in “formal register,” how to restrain themselves from physical retaliation, how to keep a schedule, how to exist in what Payne calls the “abstract world of paper.”
At the Jekyll Island seminar, I met Steve Kipp, a science teacher at Brunswick High with a ponytail and a jumpy, eager energy. He looked as if he might be the kind of guy whom the other teachers would call when they couldn’t get their computers to work right. Kipp sat in the front row, dead center, and at the break he was the first person to come up and ask Payne for advice.
In 10th grade at Brunswick High, Kipp told me later, the advanced students usually take chemistry, and the other students, the ones who are more likely to wind up in technical college, take Kipp’s class, which is called General Physical Science. And each year it’s the same, Kipp said: the rich and middle-class kids are tracked into chemistry, and he gets the kids from poverty. Kipp grew up in the middle class, and in the past, he said, before he read Payne’s book, he would get frustrated by his poor students. They seemed unwilling or unable to learn; they laughed when he tried to mete out discipline. And so he found it hard to keep exerting himself. What was the point in teaching them, he thought, if they weren’t going to make an effort?
But after he immersed himself in Payne’s work, about five years ago, Kipp’s ideas changed. “I realized, these kids aren’t dumb,” he said. “They just haven’t had the enriching experiences that I had growing up.” So he pushes himself harder now to provide more experiments in the classroom, more hands-on learning to help his students develop the same kind of instinctive understanding of nature that he got running around in the woods as a boy.
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.”