Teaching cursive and/or coding: Where should Wisconsin draw (or type) the line?

Cursive writing benefits learning and students’ brains


K-12 education in Wisconsin is at a critical point. Less than half of Wisconsin students are proficient in math and reading, and state test scores have significantly declined over time. Most disturbing, Wisconsin’s racial achievement gap is the worst in the nation.

It’s not a funding issue. In recent years, as education funding has risen, results have not.

How do we boost education while also getting the best value for taxpayer dollars? Assembly Bill 459 is a simple bill to ensure every student learns to write in cursive. The legislation requires schools that receive state dollars to include cursive in their elementary curriculum with the goal being legible cursive writing by the end of the fifth grade. (The bill was passed by the Assembly in February but needs Senate approval.)

How can cursive help? Studies show the value of cursive writing on student brains and learning: Cursive writing stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the right and left hemispheres in a way that printing does not. Cursive writing builds neural pathways and integrates multisensory learning, which is a key component for struggling readers. The College Board even found that students who wrote in cursive for the SAT scored higher than students who used print.

Dyslexia and dysgraphia, learning disabilities that can severely affect learning, have both shown to be aided with cursive writing.

The state Department of Public Instruction has exaggerated the cost of this bill, with its estimate of $1.7 million to $6 million annually. State agencies commonly inflate and deflate legislative fiscal estimates based on the department’s preferred policy positions. In the case of AB 459, the DPI’s estimate does not account for the fact that many schools currently teach cursive and many school districts already have the materials and training available.

Beyond the nostalgia of being able to read grandparents’ letters and the Declaration of Independence, cursive writing provides the mental gymnastics to develop student brains and increase learning outcomes. And it can be done in a low-cost way — not the millions the DPI suggests.

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) is chairman of the Assembly Education Committee and a sponsor of AB 459. A longer version of this article first appeared on RightWisconsin.

There’s no clear evidence of cursive’s benefits

By RACHEL HORTON | May 7, 2020

Cursive, a beautiful yet little-used mode of handwriting, should be allowed to fade away, alongside slide rules and typewriters.

Writing by hand fosters cognitive benefits over typing on a keyboard, but learning to write in cursive is extraneous when students already have learned how to print. A 2014 study suggests that students who took notes on laptops retained less information than those who took notes in writing. However, the study made no distinction between those who wrote in cursive and those who printed.

State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), a former teacher who introduced a bill to mandate the teaching of cursive in Wisconsin elementary schools, notes that research has shown writing in cursive fosters neurological connections in students’ brains and improves retention.

However, according to Karin Harman James, a professor at Indiana University who studies early brain development, “there is no conclusive evidence that there is a benefit for learning cursive for a child’s cognitive development.”

Some argue that children must learn cursive to read important national documents such as the U.S. Constitution — as if the only way young people could read the words “We the People” is by digging through parchment at the National Archives.

If reading cursive is a national priority, it “can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes,” a fraction of the time Wisconsin lawmakers estimate is needed to teach students to write in cursive, says Kate Gladstone, founder of Handwriting Repair.

The time spent teaching a little-used mode of handwriting should be spent instead on improving the substance of that writing. Wisconsin schools should focus its resources on math and reading, where the largest achievement gaps exist.

Until there is clear evidence proving cursive’s efficacy over printing, imposing it on schools that do not wish to teach it is arbitrary and misguided. The estimated $1.7 million to $6 million needed annually to implement the mandate in Wisconsin would be better spent elsewhere.

Schools that choose to do so may continue to include cursive in their curricula. Others may decide to channel their resources into more pressing areas. Like many policy decisions, this one is best made at the local level.

Rachel Horton of Milwaukee graduated from Indiana University with a degree in economics.

Cursive writing connects us to our past

By EMILY JASHINSKY | May 7, 2020

I graduated from the fifth grade in 2003, four years before the iPhone debuted. I learned typing from Mavis Beacon software but spent time perfecting the art of cursive writing as well.

Nearly two decades later, a majority of kids have smartphones by age 11, and some Wisconsin lawmakers have proposed making the teaching of cursive mandatory for all elementary school students.

While I don’t favor a state mandate because those decisions should be made by schools, cursive remains important — even, and especially, as the simple act of putting pen to paper becomes less a fact of everyday life.

Admittedly, the research on cursive is not conclusive, but supporters need not insist that the research is in their favor to insist that cursive be included in curricula.

Cursive is how we sign our names. It connects us to our past, unlocking primary source documents from the Declaration of Independence to the stack of love letters your grandfather sent home from war. It is an inextricable part of our history. More important, in our screen-centric world, where emojis are just a tap away, cursive reminds us that words have weight and language is beautiful.

Asking screen-saturated kids to spend time writing words on paper with intent and grace teaches them the value of time away from technology and the importance of thoughtful communication.

Curious about her experience, I contacted my own fifth-grade teacher, Kelly Page, who has taught Wisconsin students for 31 years and who required her fifth-graders to write in cursive.

Cursive “helps strengthen their fine motor skills and improves eye-hand coordination. Cursive writing increases students’ concentration as I see them more focused in the classroom,” Page says.

She also shares an anecdote. “A few years ago, my friend’s eighth-grade son returned from a school-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C., upset and disappointed. He told his mom that he was unable to read the historical documents that he long anticipated seeing.”

“This solidified my rationale,” Page says.

Emily Jashinsky of Washington, D.C., is culture editor at The Federalist. The Delafield native was formerly a Badger Institute intern.

Coding is essential in a tech-driven world

By MARY NEWBY | May 7, 2020

Going into my first year as a teaching assistant for AP Computer Science A at a local school, I felt prepared. I had mastered all of the programming languages in college, developed a comprehensive curriculum and had soft skills from years of tutoring.

But one thing I was not prepared for was the perennial question posed by high schoolers around the world: “Why do we even need to learn this?”

Well, why do we need to learn algebra or biology? Because they help form the foundation of our daily lives and foster skills such as critical thinking and the use of formulas. In 2020, coding is no different.

Advanced technology affects our lives everywhere — from grocery stores to airports to stadiums to hospitals. Yet few people pause to ask, “Who is responsible for that technology?” The answer is programmers. They are the ones who create the technology we can’t live without, sometimes literally.

Teaching high school students coding will not only enhance their understanding of the technology, it will prepare them for the job market.

Computing is the leading source of new wages in the United States. Almost every career circles back to coding — yet a majority of public high schools do not offer a coding course.

Students should be required to take at least one coding class before graduating high school as coding teaches such essential skills as logic, persistence and trial and error.

Coding instruction in high school also will boost diversity in the technology field. Female high school students who participate in an Advanced Placement computer science course are 10 times more likely to pursue computer science in college. Black and Latino students in the same AP class are seven times more likely, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, to all the students asking, “Why do we even need to learn this?”

Open your eyes and your mind. Understand the world around you and why it exists the way it does. Realize who is transforming business, medicine, academia, manufacturing, entertainment and sports.

And wake up to the possibility that it could be you.

Mary Newby of Milwaukee is a data integration designer for Harley-Davidson. She is close to publishing her first book, “Get with the Program — Computer Science Education Opportunity and Accessibility.”

Let tech companies train their own coders

By RACHEL HORTON | May 7, 2020

Requiring coding competency for Wisconsin high school students would be a mistake.

Without clear evidence of the superiority of learning coding over further emphasis on existing areas of study, teaching coding would turn “tax-supported schools into job-training sites for high-tech firms,” writes Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban.

If Silicon Valley is in desperate need of coders, it can fund its own boot camps and summer programs, like Code with Google, and usher students into the world of coding in a way that’s consistent with the changing demands of the workplace.

Coding isn’t like math or history, after all. It’s an evolving skill.

“Coding is just one technique of our times. And I think it would be a bad mistake to have that tool become ingrained,” warns Adreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It’s easy to suggest that subjects be added to curricula, but once those changes go through the curriculum development and approval process, what happens if the basics of how to code, let alone economic demands, change? In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 7% decline in computer programmers from 2018 to 2028.

Much of the push for coding instruction in high school comes from a panic that students will fall behind in the job market without early exposure to computer science. But “because kids grow up in a tech-dominated world, they’re going to have tech skills. … a lot of great coders learned as adults,” writes Jim Taylor, author of “Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Child for a Media-Fueled World.”

Further, schools face a conundrum when tasked with adding another mandate to the curriculum on top of the byzantine local, state and federal regulations that they already must comply with. If coding is added, what gets cut?

The purpose of education is not merely to prepare students for the job market in the narrowest sense. Instead, it’s to develop young people into well-rounded, intellectually adept, engaged citizens.

With an emphasis on the humanities, math and other timeless subjects, schools can serve as a respite from the inundation of technology. Requiring coding in high school would only add to students’ ever-increasing amount of screen time.

Rachel Horton of Milwaukee graduated from Indiana University with a degree in economics.