Constructing critical literacy in English language education policy – Global perspectives


The focus in this chapter is on how critical literacy is represented in policy ensembles - “collections of related policies” (Ball, 2006, p. 48) - for example, official curriculum texts, guidelines, and companion documents that shape the teaching of English language learners in high schools across different but related global contexts. It interrogates what value is ascribed to critical literacy for English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners within English teaching in schools in this historical moment which is characterised by discourses of English learner deficit and renewed calls for back to basics curriculum. The key interest is: what’s in and what’s out, in terms of critical literacy, in the age of global economic competition, and the attendant accountability and measurability through wide-spread testing regimes?; and how might a particular assemblage of policy ensembles across related contexts produce “truth” and sets of “knowledge” as discourses (Ball, 2006) about critical literacy? Interrogating the status of critical literacy in policy ensembles for EAL learners is important because critical literacy is deemed by many to be an integral part of learning to become literate in English as an additional language (Alford, 2001, 2011, 2016; Janks, 2010, p. 2014; Lau, 2013, 2015; Luke & Dooley, 2013; Wallace, 2013; Pandya, 2019). However, current education reform agendas eschew critical approaches to literacy in favour of more quantifiable practices that are said to prepare learners for stable employment amid turbulent economies (Pandya, 2014; Pandya & Avlia, 2014). However, as Luke (2013a) remind us, curriculum embodies social and cultural ideas about

what counts as knowledge, skill and competence, human cognition and sociocultural a textual settlement that has an empirical consequence in the shaping of what teachers and students do in schools and classrooms, a process that occurs anew each and every day.... (It) provides grounds for constraint, delimitation and prescription and, in our current accountability-focused contexts, enforcement, surveillance and monitoring of what occurs in classrooms and, indeed, in student learning, knowledge and consciousness.

(p. 2, my emphasis)

The technical form of the curriculum matters (Luke, Woods & Weir, 2013), and the everyday, material effects of this technical form are vital to analyse as well, a matter I explore in this book in Chapter 4. In looking at how critical literacy is represented in policy in a range of contexts at this point in time, I invoke Michalowski’s notion of the interconnectedness of official meanings bound to historical conditions: “[Throughout analyses influenced by social deconstruction there are rumours of power. Society is more than an accumulation of private, subjective meanings. Meanings are bound to historical conditions” (1993, p. 383). Current conditions are characterized by an emphasis on market choice, measurability, uniformity of instructional input, and education for self-sufficiency and utilitarian purposes. Sahiberg (2012) captures these current conditions in a list of features of what he terms the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM: greater standardization, narrowed curriculum, high stakes accountability and corporate management practices.

So, how is critical literacy faring amidst these neo-liberal conditions? Comber (2001) reminds us that critical literacies are bargained over in the midst of divergent sets of expectations from many stakeholders: “What counts as critical literacy varies in relation to competing ideologies, discourses and cultural practices” (p. 277). I explore the inclusions and exclusions made at official policy level to determine what knowledge and whose knowledge (Apple, 2014) English language learners are being offered. This has long reaching ramifications for English learners globally.

Understanding education policy across borders is important as we move towards greater transnational management of education (Luke, 2013b). Speaking of globalisation broadly, Pennycook (2010) notes that what happens in one context can inform and influence what is happening in other contexts, even if they are quite different:

Globalisation may be better understood as a compression of time and space, an intensification of social, economic, cultural and political relations and a series of global linkages that render events in one location of potential and immediate importance in other, quite distinct locations.

(Pennycook, 2010, p. 114 my emphasis)

In terms of the globalisation of education specifically, Spring (2009) argues that “nations ...independently control their school systems while being influenced by (a non-static) superstructure of global education processes”, and that “many nations choose to adopt policies from this global superstructure in order to compete in the global economy” (p. 1). In facilitating this competitive agenda, nations engage in the formation of language and literacy education policies for all learners, including those who are the children of global migrants. According to Spring, these policies contribute to the overall goal of competing economically and are shaped with this firmly in mind. Leung (2016) also highlights the increasing emphasis on neo-liberal discourses of competition as an organising principle in society, and therefore in education,

Constructing critical literacy 21 including education for EAL learners. Within this constraining global education climate, where does the competition discourse leave critical approaches to literacy and language learning in general, and more specifically in relation to those learning English as an additional language? In this chapter, my interest is in how policies reflect the selection, shaping and offering of critical literacy approaches to language and literacy learning by those in authority - at the regional or national scale.

The analysis here is offered, then in the context of growing “policy borrowing” (Steiner-Khamsi, 2004) - what can be learned and imported from elsewhere - a practice that is not necessarily principled or drawn from deep learnings about the success and failure of such policies in the context of their source system (Lingard, 2010; Luke, 2013b). Australia, for example, has borrowed education reform policy from the US No Child Left Behind, a distributive policy that allocates money to schools of the basis of reaching set performance targets, rather than on providing equitable education opportunity (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). Following the US, Australia has adopted greater testing in basic literacy and numeracy; publishing school test score performance; and the introduction of a national curriculum as part of the back to basics movement (Luke, 2013b).

Within this current policy borrowing environment, this chapter offers an overarching critical analysis of how wider discourses generated by an increasingly neo-liberalised education reform agenda are influencing constructions of critical literacy in English language education policy in schools across five contexts: Queensland, Australia; England; Ontario, Canada; California, USA; and Sweden. Why these particular contexts in this book? Foremost, the above-named contexts all have a number of things in common.

  • • All part of the so called Global North1, which allows for comparison of “like” contexts, notwithstanding their individual characteristics, and allows for analysis of contexts that are likely to engage in policy borrowing from one another;
  • • circumscribed by increasing neo-conservative education reform agendas that have led to the prioritisation of standardised testing regimes that see critical literacy elbowed out (Leung, 2016);
  • • experiencing increasing de-professionalisation, or post-professionalisation (Buchanan, 2015) of the teaching workforce as teachers become more technocratic in nature with the implementation of regular, standardised testing (Comber & Nixon, 2009; Taubman, 2009); the rise of associated pre-packaged, scripted curricula (Masuda, 2012); and the official endorsement of commercially produced resources to support the roll out of these curricula;
  • • facing increasing diversity within immigration patterns, through skilled migration programs and humanitarian settlement for refugees and asylum seekers, and the social, economic and political challenges this diversity produces.

More specific reasons for the choice of each country are provided in subsequent sections, along with a brief snapshot of literature that critiques the trend toward the narrowing of English language policies of each of the countries in view.

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