Second grader Caedmon Craig is attempting to write in cursive and he’s being helped by his mom. But a lot of erasing is happening at this kitchen table in Prattville, Ala. This school year Caedmon will be writing in cursive for the first time. For now he’s only required to write his cursive letters separately, but he’s ready for more.
“I think joining them is easier than separate,” he says. “Because you don’t have to do that much.”
By the time Caedmon reaches the end of the third grade he’ll need to demonstrate for his teacher that he can join all of the letters. Alabama recently joined California and Louisiana in passing a law that mandates cursive proficiency for its students. The law has made some parents and lawmakers in the state very happy, but others view it as unnecessary.
State Rep. Dickie Drake proposed the new law and says he knew that cursive instruction was already a requirement of the state approved school curriculum, “but it was not being taught. I think really due to the fact that they are teaching Common Core and they don’t have time to teach it.”
In 2010, Alabama’s state education board adopted a new set of standards, these included the federal Common Core guidelines, which have recommended requirements for subjects such as math and reading.
At that time the board also changed the cursive proficiency moving it up from the fifth to the third grade. But even then Drake didn’t feel like educators were taking cursive seriously.
“Since they’re already ignoring the law I thought I’m going to do something to force them to do it,” he says.
But others say there’s more behind this law than just making sure all of the cursive letters join up.
Thomas Rains, with the A+ Education Partnership which advocates for education policy in Alabama, says he often hears complaints from individuals such as Drake about Alabama’s version of Common Core.
“The term Common Core, it now is responsible for all of the ills in public education… which is really unfortunate because all that we’re talking about are academic standards in math and English for K through 12,” Rains says.
Rains says he believes the complaints stem from the fact that the state standards are harder. He points to a Harvard Study released earlier this year that gave Alabama’s guidelines a grade of B up from an F given in 2013.
“I think what we’re going to see in the future is that our students graduate from high school much better prepared for real life,” Rains says.
Historian Tamara Plakins Thornton says the battle over teaching cursive in schools is not new. She says in the ’50s and ’60s the teaching of cursive was even linked to the Cold War.
“Unbelievably, there were arguments that the fact that American kids couldn’t do cursive made us vulnerable to the Russian menace,” she says.
Thornton sees the cursive laws as really a way lawmakers in Alabama and other states can advocate for what they see as traditional values in a time of social unrest.
“When we want to embrace the past, when we get nostalgic for the past when we think it was better, then we get all warm and fuzzy about handwriting,” Thornton says.
The cursive law’s sponsor Dickie Drake says it’s about making sure Alabama students know how to perform important life tasks such as signing their name. He also says more legislation concerning Common Core may be on the way.
“There’s about 10 states that’s introduced cursive writing bills,” he says. “There’s several states that have actually passed laws to do away with Common Core. And you know that’s a possibility.”
For now many teachers in Alabama will be working with new cursive guidelines that satisfy both Common Core standards and the new cursive law.