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States Want Kids To Learn A Lot — Maybe Too Much

A fifth-grade student uses her cursive skills at a school in Baltimore. The Indiana Senate recently passed a bill that would restore instruction of cursive writing as an educational standard.
Lloyd Fox
A fifth-grade student uses her cursive skills at a school in Baltimore. The Indiana Senate recently passed a bill that would restore instruction of cursive writing as an educational standard.

Jean Leising admits she's no expert on brain development, but she still hopes to do something about the way kids learn.

Leising serves in the Indiana state Senate. Last month, she convinced her Senate colleagues to pass a bill that would restore instruction of cursive writing to the state's educational standards — the set of skills and knowledge kids are expected to master in each grade level.

Even in the email age, teaching cursive might be a great thing. But when legislatures impose mandates on instruction, professional educators get nervous.

It's not just controversial topics such as creationism, which is still a matter of debate in states such as Texas, Louisiana and Missouri. When legislators insist that students master certain material, whether it's a specific historical event or a set of writing or math skills, it can interfere with the overall program that schools are guiding kids through.

"If you have too many cooks throwing too much decontextualized content into K-12 standards, they can very quickly become overwhelmed," says Kathleen Porter-Magee, a policy fellow at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

The Kitchen Sink Approach

Education standards are endlessly debated by lots of different people, including teachers, school districts, parents and politicians. States consult with experts, but specific expectations are often set by the legislature.

The end result can be textbooks larded with more material than teachers can hope to get to in the course of a year.

"It's impossible to cover all that content with any depth and rigor," says Porter-Magee. "Teachers have to decide what they're going to teach, but if that's the case, what is the point of the standards?"

Teachers may confront competing mandates from the state, their district and even their own school. This can lead to situations where kids in one fourth grade class are learning fractions, while their peers in the room next door aren't.

Their fifth grade teacher might then decide to teach fractions again, since half the kids in class don't understand them. But the fourth graders who already know fractions will not only be bored, but miss out on the chance to learn something else.

The lack of coherent instruction is becoming an even bigger problem at a time when textbooks are giving way in many cases to Internet-based materials, says Julio Noboa, a professor of teacher education at the University of Texas, El Paso.

"If it becomes an ad hoc set of topics, it's like memorizing the phone book," says William Schmidt, director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University. "From the research we've done, coherence is one of the things that makes a difference to kids. If topics are put in the proper sequence, it fits and follows and flows into the next thing."

Common Core Issues

Schmidt served as an adviser to the Common Core effort, which was headed up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Common Core represented an effort not only to raise standards to a more rigorous level than was found in many states, but to prioritize what it is that all kids need to learn in order to get ready for college and careers.

There are now proposals to slow or cancel implementation of Common Core standards in at least a dozen states. Although it was developed by state officials, it has been heavily promoted by the Obama administration.

As always when the feds interfere with instruction, that is causing a backlash. Two of the governors involved in shaping the standards recently published an article defending them, called "Common Core Isn't a Government Conspiracy."

Who Gets To Decide?

The pushback may be due to fears about federal control, but it's been exacerbated by the fact that states have not done a good enough job tailoring the standards to their own needs, Porter-Magee suggests. Common Core allows states to custom-fit 15 percent of the material to suit their own needs.

"Very few states took seriously the task of adding content on top of the Common Core," Porter-Magee says. "A lot of states did not add anything, or very little."

In other words, too much interference from state-level politicians can cause problems, but taking a totally hands-off approach and leaving instruction totally up to distant technocrats can lead to trouble, too.

That leaves Leising hoping that the Indiana House is ready to take up her proposal to require cursive, which it's passed on over the past couple of years.

"When kids connect letters from left to right, it stimulates the brain and cognitive development of the brain," she says. "When we have kids who are not being taught cursive, they're going to have bigger challenges regarding their ability to spell and to read and write."

If legislators decide that cursive is something all Hoosiers should know, that's OK with Andrea Neal, a member of the state Board of Education.

"If legislators believe something of great significance is being omitted from the schools, then they have every right to pass legislation," Neal says. "As the Common Core debate illustrates, there's no agreement on what that one clear standard should be."

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Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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