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Column: Cursive writing and ‘practical skills’
Frank Morgan-Nov. 2011.jpg
Dr. Frank Morgan

Although I’m now an old, retired fossil, folks still ask me about education issues. Lately, I’ve been getting asked a lot about the teaching of cursive writing and “practical” skills like car and home maintenance, personal finance, and cooking and sewing. The question I keep getting is why schools don’t teach these areas “like they did when I was in school.” This question actually raises a much larger problem.

Public schools have always been expected by the political class to solve society’s problems. Drug education, sex education, bullying and harassment prevention, conflict resolution, abuse education, cyber safety education, diversity education, wellness education, driver education, character education, and “soft” skills development are just a very few examples of programs schools are expected or required to deliver in response to some societal need.

A successful business executive named Jamie Vollmer wrote a book called Schools Can’t Do It Alone in which he identified no fewer than 85 programs that schools have implemented during the past 100 years in response to various problems. Almost all of these programs still exist in some form or another. In addition, there are now many more academic content mandates than ever before. Cursive writing and “practical” skills have basically fallen victim to this burgeoning curriculum overload.

Take cursive writing. Back in the day, a typical 2nd Grade class spent a lot of daily time on this skill. (I remember this vividly, although my efforts never quite met my teacher’s precise expectations.) In today’s 2nd Grade classroom, content that used to be taught in 3rd or 4th Grade has been jammed down into 2nd Grade, limiting time for areas like cursive writing that were once staples of the second grade curriculum. This has been justified by a perceived need to increase “rigor,” although I continue to question if a lot of what we’re doing now in 2nd Grade is actually developmentally and age appropriate.

On top of this, the time that was once spent in Kindergarten and 1st Grade to develop the fine motor skills necessary for cursive writing has been displaced by more “rigorous” content that was previously taught in grades 2 and 3. Also, because 3rd Graders are expected to take the sacrosanct state tests on computers (mostly to save the state money), there is by necessity more emphasis on keyboarding than on cursive so that students will be “ready” for the tests. Don’t start me on how standardized tests have seized control of our classrooms.

People also tell me a lot that high schools need to be teaching “practical” life skills. This puzzles me somewhat because I learned this kind of stuff at home as I was growing up or when sheer necessity forced me to do so. Necessity (not to mention a lack of funds) definitely forced me to figure out how to replace the guts of a toilet. Same goes for cooking. This isn’t rocket science. And now there’s YouTube to help.

All this said, if students are required to take coursework in “practical” areas, what would this replace? Honors or AP classes? Foreign languages? Arts classes? STEM and career and technical classes to promote economic development? Dual enrollment college classes? Athletic conditioning classes? Mentoring and internship opportunities? Science or history requirements? All of these programs have very vocal constituencies that will buck hard about any de-emphasis of their preferred program. Also, in a state where scholarships are based on grade point average and class rank, any requirement for a non-weighted credit class will receive more than a little pushback. We’re talking money here.

The plight of these two areas point to the much bigger problem, which is that there is only so much that can be accomplished during a 180-day school year, especially given all the mandates that are already in place. Ask any teacher about the struggle to get everything done that they are expected to do within the allotted time before state testing. It’s no longer about authentic learning or nurturing curiosity. It’s about the standardized test. Parents should be raising you-know-what about this.

Unfortunately, politicians continue to add requirements (usually without the necessary funding) to an already crammed curriculum without adequate consideration of the actual impact. This is what happens when detached people in political ivory towers (or in this case, domes) make educational decisions. The good news is that it does give them something to boast about at election time. The very bad news is that this mushrooming overload is a major factor in driving good teachers from the profession and preventing very qualified people from wanting to teach.

At a time when the leadership of the South Carolina General Assembly is promising comprehensive education reform legislation, an honest conversation about realistic and sustainable goals and expectations for our schools would be extremely useful. This conversation, which needs to involve educators in a meaningful way, is long overdue. I will be curious to see if the paternalistic political hierarchy of our state is willing to allow such a conversation to take place. And even if it does happen, will the politicians actually listen?

(Guest columnist Dr. Frank E. Morgan is a retired educator and amused observer of life’s ironies. His email is drfrankemorgan@gmail.com.)