Thursday, March 06, 2008

Penn State Study: Literacy, Poverty and PWC

According to a recent study by the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at Penn State, "Adult educators have typically tried to improve persistence by changing adult learners’ attitudes (e.g. increasing motivation) or the program itself. However, situational factors and community conditions such as lack of affordable housing and well-paying jobs substantially limit the life chances and educational progress of poor and working-class families. To enhance families’ residential stability and persistence, programs should help participants access housing assistance services, develop a plan with learners to pursue self-study and minimize disruption following a move, work with school teachers to help children adjust after a school change, coordinate with housing advocacy organizations, and advocate for affordable housing and other policies that benefit poor and working-class families."

What does this mean for Prince William County?

Budget cuts in adult education and other services at the local, state and federal levels impact our communities and quality of life.

The Adult Education Department, part of the PWCS K-12 system, serves adult students in need of basic education, much of it beginning at the elementary levels. These are students who want to learn but could not in the traditional system. Many are learning disabled, new English speakers, and poor. They are over the age of eighteen and have not earned a high school diploma. They have families whom they struggle to support through low paying jobs. Their options are limited, and according to this study, so is their housing resulting in constant transition.

In high cost areas of living like PWC, especially in the falling economy, these students have a greater risk of developing serious medical problems and/or of falling into homelessness. PWCS typically has more than 1000 students enrolled in adult education, but services are affected by the allocation of budget monies. Lack of low cost housing and social services contribute to increased risk among this population.

Esther Prins, Assistant Professor and Co-Director Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy and co-author/co-investigator, Kai Schafft write, "This study examined how poverty and residential mobility influence low-income adults’ persistence in family literacy programs in Pennsylvania. Twelve out of 20 program directors reported that learners typically moved at least once a year. In five of these high-mobility programs moving was reported to significantly hinder persistence. Geographic location and the availability of inexpensive and subsidized housing increased mobility. The 17 learners we interviewed moved 78 times in the previous five years, for an average of once per year. One-half of the moves were within15 miles, yet even short distance moves often delayed progress and disrupted program participation. Although residential mobility did not hinder persistence in all programs, it is part of a constellation of poverty-related problems (e.g., poor health, lack of childcare and transportation) that pose challenges for learners to attend classes regularly and meet their educational goals."

Social outcomes of budget cuts in education, housing subsidies, and social services, common community complaints increase: "The house next door has too many people living in it." "No one speaks English anymore." "We have too much crime in our neighborhood." "Our neighbors are constantly moving in and out." "We don't even know who lives in that house."

Intervention and prevention, not punitive measures supported by increased taxes, cure problems like these; yet Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart says, "The biggest winner in the budget is the adult detention center."

Prince William County is attacking the symptom and not the disease, a tactic similar to putting Neosporin and a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches, but a wound that could have been avoided by a pair of work gloves. The Band-Aids only look less expensive than the gloves, but in the long run, the gloves protect and they last longer. But the gloves must be purchased before the bandages are needed.

information courtesy of
Esther Prins
Assistant Professor and Co-Director
Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy ( for the Study of Adult Literacy (
Adult Education Program, Dept. of Learning & Performance Systems Pennsylvania State University
305B Keller Building
University Park, PA 16802
814-865-0128 (fax)
via National Institute for Literacy (NIFL)

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt is neither a spokesperson nor a current contract instructor for Prince William County Public Schools.
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