As schools swap out old state standards for new Common Core academics, educators are warning about an overlooked casualty of progress: cursive handwriting.
They say that, because Common Core standards don't call for cursive instruction, public schools are more likely to drop or, at least, de-emphasize it. Their fears are not unfounded.
-- At least 41 states do not require public schools to teach cursive reading or writing.
-- Common Core is silent on cursive, but it prioritizes computer use and keyboarding skills because its tests are taken on computers. Even before Common Core, many schools, in response to No Child Left Behind laws, had already narrowed their curricula mostly to the subjects being tested by their states. Even in the 1990s, cursive writing got less and less instructional time, teachers said.
Earlier this year, bills were introduced in state legislatures in North and South Carolina, Indiana and Idaho mandating cursive instruction. In some cases, the bills were supported by companies that sell writing materials.
Jeffrey Mims Jr., a longtime educator who represents Butler and several other counties on the state school board, said closing the book on cursive could limit some children's futures. "I don't understand the need to eliminate it," he said.
"I think it's a basic element of students' control and peace of mind. You pay attention to what you're doing when you're writing in that format."
The cursive question has become a national one recently.
In the murder trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Trayvon's 19-year-old friend, Rachel Jeantel, testified to being on a cellphone talking with him just before his death. Many in the courtroom were shocked, though, when Jeantel admitted on the stand that she could not read a document a lawyer handed to her -- because it was written in cursive.
Experts have said handwriting training helps small children develop hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and other brain and memory functions. Mims said cursive writing could be important for children who grow to be a surgeon, a painter or some other professional requiring laser-like precision with their hands.
Even educators who like cursive admit they are of two minds about whether it should remain a classroom staple.
When Lockland Elementary's third-grade teacher Cheryl Adams saw that Common Core lacked a cursive requirement, she quietly celebrated, believing she'd have more time to teach other essentials, such as reading. But her principal at the time informed her she'll still be teaching cursive, mandatory or not.
Adams doesn't mind, she said, because her students like cursive writing. "It's not art, but it is artistic," she said. "I think it's just a time when they can sit and copy this letter over and over and practice it. I think it's restful for them."
Catholic schools, long known for emphasizing penmanship, are still teaching it but are using less class time, said Kathy Mears, the National Catholic Education Association's executive director of elementary schools. Instead of getting it a half hour or so a day, she said, students may get 15 minutes' practice three times a week.
"I would not drop it, because I do think it's important for the development of children, but â€¦ I realize we've given teachers more to teach but not more time," Mears said.
An online poll by Harris Interactive in June showed 79 percent of adult respondents and 68 percent of kids, ages 8-18, think cursive should still be taught. Nearly 49 percent of adults and 35 percent of youth say practicing reading and writing in cursive improves literacy.
The poll, paid for by pencil maker Mega Brands America, is neither random nor representative of the entire country. It does bear out some biases against those who can't read cursive, however.
When asked what they assume about people who can't read or write cursive, 30 percent of adults polled and 25 percent of children judged the person as less literate, and 7 percent of adults and 11 percent of children assumed they are "just not smart."
Steve Moore, a retired chemical engineer who consults with businesses, said cursive was not essential in his 30-plus years at Proctor & Gamble. "You have to be able to express yourself in writing," he said. "But in today's world all the critical writing is being done on a keyboard."
Many of today's teens are more comfortable texting on cellphones, touch-typing on iPads or tapping on laptop keys.
"A lot of children can't really read cursive right now," Mears said. "I don't think it's life-altering, that you won't survive in the world if you can't read cursive."
But they may be missing out on some intangible benefits, said Cincinnati Country Day's Shanna Morarity, a second-grade teacher who teaches cursive. For some kids, she said, it's a rite of passage to be able to write like grown-ups.
"Children like it, and it promotes perseverance," she said. "Because they enjoy it, they are determined to write full words and they love writing their names."
Denise Smith Amos, The Cincinnati Enquirer