who needs to write?

By Alex Reid | August 3, 2012

Perhaps you’ve seen the recent NY Times opinion piece from Andrew Hacker, an emeritus poli sci professor from Queens College, who argues that our math education is misguided in its emphasis on algebra (and more advanced maths). Instead, he suggests that we should be focusing on mathematics that are more relevant to everyday people, like statistics. He does a good job of addressing the obvious counter-arguments. For those who would suggest that learning algebra and so on is enriching on its own terms regardless of its usefulness, he points out the many, many students who drop out of HS or college because they can’t get through the math. For those who would point to our rhetoric about the need for STEM professionals he points out that “a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.” Specifically, what the report says is that only 5% of jobs will be STEM jobs. However the report also contends that

the market for STEM competencies far exceeds the 5 percent of science, technology, and engineering occupations. As a result, the demand for STEM competencies throughout the economy diverts STEM workers into nontraditional STEM occupations—making what seems like plenty, not enough to go around.

So while the 5% statistic is accurate, this report actually argues for a reform of math education that links math more directly with STEM professions. Not the elite jobs but the middle-of-the-road jobs that will require some kind of postsecondary certificate and some targeted math competencies rather than a general education. In short, the Georgetown report makes an argument for reforming math education rather than reducing it, which is similar to Hacker’s point, though Hacker focuses more on the importance of math literacy for citizenship than STEM-related careers.

Nels Highberg got me thinking about Hacker’s argument in relation to writing. He observes the commonalities between general math education and general writing education. Though students don’t fail out of composition at the rates they do in math, it’s mostly because we are willing to set a standard that most students can meet. We certainly see the same frustrations and disinterest in composition. The main commonality though is the comparability of “general skills.” Few would argue that our students do not require a basic literacy and numeracy, which we expect K12 to provide. As with STEM, we might also say that there is a small percentage of people who actually need to be able to write well for their profession. And here by “writing well,” I mean being able to write something that others will read freely (or even pay to read) as opposed to those who compose texts that others read out of professional obligation. Professionals in the latter category also require writing competencies, but as with the math issue, these competencies are not in a general writing ability but rather in a specific discourse. This is old territory for us. Technical documentation and scientific reports are important documents that need to serve their rhetorical purposes for their communities and audiences. But no amount of humanities-style academic writing or mainstream wide audience writing will help students develop that specific technical-rhetorical capacity.

Read full post here (Originally posted August 2, 2012)