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Individual and Structural Attributions for Poverty and Persistence in Family Literacy Programs: The Resurgence of the Culture of Poverty

by Esther Prins & Kai A. Schafft - 2009

Background/Context: Educational researchers have long sought to understand the factors that enable or constrain persistence in non-formal family literacy and adult education programs. Scholars typically posit three sets of factors influencing persistence: situational (learners' life circumstances), institutional (programmatic factors), and dispositional (learners' personal experiences and attitudes). This body of literature tends to emphasize institutional and dispositional factors such as program quality, learner motivation, and self-efficacy. Situational factors (e.g., lack of childcare), are often considered less influential and/or beyond practitioners control. However, by focusing on individualistic and programmatic factors, scholars and educators risk overlooking the ways social structures and community contexts shape educational participation and achievement, thereby underestimating the chronic socio-economic insecurity experienced by families in poverty.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this article is to analyze how family literacy practitioners utilize individual and/or structural factors in explaining the determinants of adult persistence in family literacy programs and the causes of poverty for adult learners and other community residents.

Research Design: This article is based on a qualitative study of persistence in family literacy programs across urban and rural contexts. The data are drawn from interviews with 30 family literacy professionals at 20 program sites across Pennsylvania, supplemented by interviews with 17 learners in three programs.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The family literacy practitioners in this study tended to attribute learner persistence mainly to individual qualities such as motivation, and often described adult learners in terms consistent with the culture of poverty thesis, specifically, the failure to value education, lack of motivation, and the view that poverty is an intergenerational cycle perpetuated by the habits and traits of the poor. Contrary to culture of poverty stereotypes, family literacy participants characterized themselves as determined individuals who value education and want to make something of themselves. Individual-level explanations characterize the dominant understandings poverty and educational persistence in the U.S., and thus shape practitioner thinking about adult learners' economic circumstances and the reasons they stay in or drop out of adult education. The pervasiveness of the culture of poverty thesis in professional environments and discourses helps explain why dedicated, compassionate practitioners frame persistence and poverty individualistically. This study contributes to a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between individual and structural dimensions of persistence, suggesting how a constellation of poverty-related factors disrupts program participation. We argue that motivation and other personal attributes are socially constructed, geographically distributed, and inextricably linked to structural factors such as the economic exclusion of the poor.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 9, 2009, p. 2280-2310
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15396, Date Accessed: 7/25/2021 8:39:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Esther Prins
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    ESTHER PRINS is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Adult Education Program at Pennsylvania State University, as well as the Co-Director of the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy. Her research examines the social and cultural dimensions of adult and family literacy, with particular attention to the ways that adult education reproduces and/or mitigates gender, racial, class, and cultural inequalities. Her recent publications include "Defining and measuring parenting for educational success: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Parent Education Profile" (American Educational Research Journal, 2008) and "Adult literacy education, gender equity, and empowerment: Insights from a Freirean-inspired literacy programme" (Studies in the Education of Adults, 2008).
  • Kai Schafft
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    KAI A. SCHAFFT is an Assistant Professor of Education in the Department of Education Theory and Policy at Penn State, where he directs the Center on Rural Education and Communities and serves as editor for the Journal of Research in Rural Education. His research interests focus on the relationship between spatial and social inequality, rural poverty and residential mobility of low income families. His recent publications include "Poverty, residential mobility and student transiency within a rural New York school district" (Rural Sociology, 2006) and "The organizational and fiscal implications of transient student populations in urban and rural areas" (with K. Killeen, in the Handbook of research in education finance and policy, Routledge, 2008).
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