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Common Core and Teacher Professionalism: The Case of Cursive Instruction

by Ted Purinton - September 11, 2014

Recent debates about the demise of cursive instruction demonstrate the disconnect between the educational policy and the profession of teaching.

Cursive handwriting has been in the news a lot lately. So has teacher frustration with policymakers. Though these two topics hardly seem related, I would like to propose otherwise.

Regarding cursive, the New York Times recently ran a story on the educational and cultural debates about teaching handwriting in schools, and it stayed at the top of the newspaper’s “most emailed” list for at least a few weeks (Konnikova, 2014). Other journalistic sources, as well, have chronicled its demise over the past year or so, particularly as schools and systems begin to operationalize the Common Core, which de-emphasizes handwriting after Grade 1. On one hand, handwriting skills appear nonessential now that digital technology is the norm; after all, the pencil, like the keyboard, is often thought to be a mere tool of communication. On the other, handwriting is a traditional skill, and cursive tends to be considered an expressive form. Education Week recently reported that a University of Illinois librarian was concerned that without cursive instruction, handwritten documents from the 17th through 20th Centuries would be inaccessible to future generations (Wexler, 2014). And above these cultural and functional arguments, research pops up occasionally to mediate questions about the positive effect of cursive on reading development, for example (James & Engelhardt, 2012). Yet, the issue most often is negotiated on terms of culture and function.

Regarding teacher frustration with policymakers, the National Education Association just recently called on Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, to step down after various decisions and actions related to teacher tenure and school districts' ability to fire poor performing teachers (Heitin, 2014). And the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution demanding that teachers have greater say on issues related to the Common Core (Sawchuk, 2014). Various surveys show that educators are worried that the implementation of the new standards has been flawed (Lynch, 2014). In sum, teachers everywhere are hoping that policymakers will listen to them before implementing new reform plans.

How do these two topics relate? For centuries, non-educators have made educational decisions based on cultural whims, political pressures, societal preferences, and personal opinions. Even now, despite years of focus on data, decisions are still rarely made on the basis of research, evidence-based judgment, or reasoned debate. As Louis Menand pointed out a couple years ago in The New Yorker, despite hearty research-infused debates about the value of homework, it is usually parents, or as illustrated in his article, the President of France, who make decisions about the value of homework (Menand, 2012). Countless other examples of professional educational knowledge being undermined by politics can be found in newspapers across the country, one of the most well-known being California Proposition 227, the 1998 law banning bilingual education in the state’s public schools. Despite evidence supporting the importance of firmly developing a first language before moving to a second, a new state law proposed for the 2016 ballot seems to be the only way to reverse such a decision (Ash, 2014).

In this very contentious time of educational reform, it is indeed possible, and on many levels necessary, for teachers to take the lead on educational policy. However, in order to do so, teachers must do quite a bit more to ensure confidence in the profession of education. I offer three recommendations:


Take ownership of instructional methods, not curriculum. The place of cursive handwriting in schools cannot and should not be the decision of educators alone. Likewise, though educators should have more input on the Common Core Standards, they cannot and should not be the only mediators. Outcomes should be the collective responsibility of society. Indeed, there is much in both state-level standards and the Common Core that might be considered problematic, inappropriate, unattainable, racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and/or possibly unethical. Though teachers must fight to sit aside politicians, parents, business leaders and other societal representatives, the whole system fails when good teachers decide to isolate themselves and modify their students' expected outcomes. Instead of treating curriculum as their domain, teachers must take full ownership of instructional methods. If teaching cursive in the grade levels past first is beneficial for reading development, then teachers can and should consider cursive handwriting to be a means toward an end, rather than an end in itself. If English fluency is an expected outcome, and that involves fluency in a first language other than English, teachers must fight for that—and use research as their foremost weapon of choice. When teachers can prove that their methods yield the results society wants, then—and only then—teachers will get the autonomy they want and need.


Hold one another accountable to evidence-based practice. Tenure in higher education is a distinct attribute of the academic profession: It ensures that fellow professionals, not administrators, make decisions on work quality. It acknowledges that the complex and highly sophisticated work of the profession cannot necessarily be judged by amateurs alone. Though tenure in higher education indeed has its problems, it serves as a valuable concept for P-12 education: quality can be judged by colleagues. Indeed, I would argue, following through with tough judgment is something many strong teachers would be pleased to do. As most teachers know, it only takes a few minutes of observation for an experienced educator to identify a weak colleague. Peer evaluation not only prevents us from having to resort to expensive, complicated, and potentially incorrect statistical measures, it is also an ideal method of building stronger evidence-based practice cultures within and between schools. But for peer evaluation to work right, teachers have to, as a profession, come to an implicit agreement that they will hold one another accountable to the knowledge base of the field.


Bargain for the profession, not the occupation. An occupation is naturally concerned with what it gets for the work it delivers. A profession, on the other hand, inherently makes itself indispensable to society. By building its knowledge base deeper, and expecting all members of the profession to know it and abide by it, a profession ensures to the public that it is the primary and fundamental arbiter of quality in its domain. In terms of bargaining, occupations focus on direct benefits; professions focus on ensuring that they are deeply needed by society to perform the work that they do. Though progressive efforts, such as the Teacher Union Reform Network, have been underway in the unions for a long time, the unions themselves must work harder to change the culture of teaching from an occupation to a profession.

Will cursive handwriting have a future in schools? Will teachers have a say in the matter? On both questions, only time will tell. What I can say though, is that until teachers build their profession in a way that ensures public confidence in the depth, evidence, and consistency of their methods, cursive will continue to be a hot cultural topic, unmediated by educators and researchers, when it could possibly be an instructional issue, mediated by teachers wielding a strong pedagogical knowledge base.


Ash, K. (2014, March 4). California bill would repeal bilingual-education restrictions. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/03/05/23bilingual.h33.html

Heitin, L. (2014, July 4). NEA calls for Secretary Duncan's resignation. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2014/07/nea_calls_for_sec_duncans_resi.html

James, K. H & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), 32–42.

Konnikova, M. (2014, June 2). What’s lost as handwriting fades. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html

Lynch, M. (2014, May 9). Do teachers really hate Common Core? Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2014/05/do_teachers_really_hate_common_core.html

Menand, L. (2012, December 17). Today's assignment. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/12/17/todays-assignment

Sawchuk, S. (2014, July 13). AFT Common-Core resolution calls for teacher input in implementation. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2014/07/common-core_resolution_calls_f.html

Wexler, E. (2014, July 17). Cursive is ready for a comeback. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2014/07/does_the_decline_of_cursive_limit_students.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 11, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17674, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:56:17 PM

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