ERIC Identifier: ED475392
Publication Date: 2003-00-00
Author: Corley, Mary Ann
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Poverty, Racism and Literacy. ERIC Digest.
A significant correlation between race and poverty exists, with Black and
Hispanic Americans three times more likely to be impoverished than White
Americans (Proctor and Dalaker 2002). The cycle of poverty and low-literacy
functioning is well documented, as is the achievement gap between White students
and students of color. Race is a persistent factor in employment statistics,
educational attainment, and the acquisition of literacy skills, with
significantly higher unemployment rates and lower educational attainment rates
among Black and Hispanic Americans than among White Americans. The literature on
learner attrition and on resistance to participation in adult literacy programs
suggests that the current delivery system may not be meeting the needs or
expectations of many adults. A small but growing body of literature questions
whether cultural dissonance between instructors and learners is a factor in
learner attrition, and it advocates increasing cultural relevance in literacy
practices. Some of the writings also advocate helping learners move toward
critical reflection and social action. This Digest explores the
poverty-racism-literacy connection, specifically as it relates to adult
literacy, the imperative for culturally relevant practices, and the development
of critical literacy.
ALTERNATIVE DEFINITIONS OF LITERACY
In the prevailing and
traditional definition, literacy is regarded as central to helping people obtain
and retain employment, which is the key to moving them from dependency toward
greater self-sufficiency. This functionalist definition, espoused by many
policymakers, funders, and employers, is based on the assumption that there are
jobs for the poor who are able to improve their literacy skills (Hornbeck and
Salamon 1991). However, the U.S. economy currently does not produce enough jobs
that pay sufficiently well to create pathways out of poverty (Wilson 1996). Job
loss and low wages are unequally distributed across races/ethnicities, with
Blacks and Hispanics more likely to lose employment than Whites and more likely
to be hired for service work than for better-paying jobs (Bureau of Labor
Auerbach (1992) suggests that there exists a "literacy myth" in which
economic mobility is touted as the result of literacy acquisition when, in
reality, race and gender play a greater role in shaping an individual's economic
prospects. Without the availability of jobs that pay a living wage, literacy
education loses its value and appeal. Literacy alone cannot overcome the effects
of class and race on access to educational and employment opportunities (D'Amico
Another perspective cited in the literature with increasing frequency
suggests that literacy is more than the acquisition of reading and writing
skills; it is also a social practice or social currency, and, as such, a key to
social mobility (Gee 1991). Learning the hidden rules and cultural codes of the
dominant culture, according to this perspective, facilitates upward mobility. To
be successful in accessing educational and employment opportunities, members of
minority groups must become bicultural, i.e., they must be able to function both
in the culture of their identity group and in the dominant culture.
Those outside the dominant culture may find that their "different-ness" may
result in unequal and limited access to education and other resources that can
facilitate social or economic progress. They are marginalized in society, and
their cultures, languages, and moral codes frequently dismissed as inferior
social practices, even in school settings (Nieto 1992). Individuals who are
relegated to marginalized social groups, consistently experiencing lack of
privilege and power, often internalize this experience. Internalized oppression,
or believing that the self is somehow "less than" and "less worthy," results in
lowered expectations for life chances.
INSTITUTIONAL RACISM IN EDUCATION
The operative force that
causes certain groups of people to be marginalized in society, to be regarded as
inferior, and to experience unequal and limited access to resources is
institutional racism. Adult literacy education cannot divorce itself from the
defined power relationships that are practiced within social institutions
(Quigley 1997). In education, institutional racism can play out in various ways,
including standardization, tracking, and "hidden curricula."
Standardization implies that a core curriculum exists and that, to be judged
successful, students must demonstrate mastery, at some predefined minimum
acceptable level, of the knowledge and skill sets of the core curriculum.
Because there is no room within this equation for "otherness," standardization
entails injustice and the erasure of difference and diversity (Escobar 1992). In
terms of mastery of the skills within a standardized curriculum and performance
on standardized achievement tests, children of the affluent outperform children
of the poor, and White children generally outperform children of color (Ogbu
Tracking often sorts students on the basis of race and social class, with the
lower tracks predominantly filled by children of color and children from
low-income families. U.S. Department of Education data (cited in Losen and
Orfield 2002) show clear patterns of overrepresentation of minority children in
special education and indicate that African-American students are up to four
times as likely as white students to be identified as mentally retarded or
emotionally disturbed. Recent efforts at detracking are politically charged,
with issues of power and control being played out in struggles over the meaning
of intelligence, ability, and merit (Oakes, Wells, and Jones 1997).
Hidden curricula in schooling materials are well documented (Beyer and Apple
1998). The term refers to unstated norms, values, and beliefs that are
transmitted to students through underlying rules that structure the routines and
social interactions in the educational setting (Giroux 1983). Recent content
analyses in adult literacy education by Quigley and Holsinger (1993) and Sandlin
(2000) have addressed this concept. In analyzing the content of textbooks
commonly used by adult literacy programs, Quigley and Holsinger (1993) found
that cultural reproduction of sexism, racism, and socioeconomic stereotypes is
an everyday "hidden" presence that abounds in the popular literacy reading
TEACHING CRITICAL LITERACY
If a primary purpose of literacy
education is to eliminate poverty, then literacy programs and practices must be
redesigned to fit various conceptions of poverty and its causes (Shannon 1998).
Literacy must be viewed as a social issue that is linked to class, gender, and
race oppression, and it must be linked to efforts that redress social inequities
(Auerbach 1993). Some educators and researchers espouse the notion of critical
literacy, the practice of helping learners make sense of what they are learning
by grounding it in the context of their daily lives and reflecting on their
individual experiences, with an eye toward social action. Central to critical
literacy is an understanding of how "official knowledge" is constructed.
Knowledge construction is the means by which individuals and societies determine
what is real and true (Howard 1999). Knowledge is never neutral. It is
constructed by those who hold power in social institutions, including education
(Apple 1993). As such, dominant groups do not hold "perspectives"; they hold
"truth" (Howard 1999).
Critical literacy questions the status quo, including the myth of education
as the "great equalizer." It challenges inequality and makes clear the
connection between knowledge and power (Aronowitz and Giroux 1993). It
encourages critical reflection of individual experiences and calls for social
analysis and social change (Auerbach 1992). Adult educators can teach critical
literacy by (1) connecting learning to learners' lived experiences; (2) helping
learners question theory relative to their own cultural experience; (3) giving
voice to learners and creating forums in which they can tell their stories
(Sheared 1994); (4) helping learners view knowledge as something that they can
produce; and (5) giving learners the tools to critique frames of reference,
ideas, information, and patterns of privilege and develop critical consciousness
(Freire and Macedo 1987).
Dialogue between teacher and learner is important in helping learners see the
links among literacy, context, and meaning. Shore (1998) cautions that the
process of literacy as social practice is not a reflection of learners'
experience unless networks of power are examined. Through critical literacy,
learners come to understand not only how education affects work, but also how
racism and socioeconomic status determine the jobs that are available and to
whom (D'Amico 1999).
Following are practices that literacy
providers can employ to ensure that their programs are culturally relevant and
to encourage learners to move toward critical reflection. These are not the only
possible changes, but they represent a start if literacy programs are to become
more culturally relevant.
"Think through whiteness" and what it means to be a member of the dominant
culture (Frankenberg 1993; Shore 1998)
Acknowledge that marginalized groups have cultures, languages, and moral codes
that are viable social practices (Nieto 1992)
Recognize that literacy represents a set of practices that can provide the
conditions through which people can be empowered or disempowered (Aronowitz and
Question whether the classroom environment, curricula, and curricular materials
reflect learners' histories, cultures, languages, and experiences
Construct and maintain supportive learning environments, acknowledging and
accepting diverse perspectives offered by learners and emphasizing multiple
Provide learners with opportunities to clarify their own attitudes and values,
encouraging them to take a stance on issues
Ensure that instructional methods and processes center on shared power and
responsibility between teacher and learners (Johnson-Bailey and Cervero 1996;
Question the ways in which texts have been constructed, considering the purpose
of the texts and the motives of the authors; explore alternative readings,
considering what has been included and what has been left out
Have the "courage to teach" antiracist and anticlassist curricula
Provide professional development for instructors to help them explore issues of
poverty, racism, cultural dominance, power, and internalized oppression
These practices will not become institutionalized quickly or easily. Teaching
in a culturally relevant way requires commitment to change at every level within
the literacy education program, from the administration to the classroom. All of
the following will be included in and affected by the change process: the
learning environment, instructional methods and processes, curricular materials,
classroom norms, teachers' and learners' values and assumptions, teachers'
expectations of learners, and criteria for evaluation. The changes must be as
deep as the assumptions that maintain the status quo. In initiating these
changes, literacy programs can encourage learners from marginalized communities
to counter the effects of internalized oppression and to view themselves as
members of the larger society. Perhaps, then, the prevailing definition will
become literacy as social action.
Mary Ann Corley is Principal Research Analyst at American Institutes for
Research, Washington, DC.
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