April 7, 2013

Some local educators ‘worried’ by new standards

By Christopher Smith

— New common core standards that omit handwriting instruction will “hurt kids ... by taking away the basics of communication,” says one local teacher.

Coulter Redding, an English teacher with Morris Innovative High School in Dalton, says “teachers throwing handwriting out the window” is a bad idea. But that could happen under the new Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS).

Common Core is an umbrella term for new education standards tailored to the 45 states that adopted them in 2012 as a way to hopefully better evaluate teaching and learning. Georgia’s common core standards replaced many benchmarks of the Georgia Performance Standards to put more emphasis on readying kids for college and work in a digital word.

Under the new standards, handwriting is no longer a hard and fast rule for curriculum. That doesn’t mean schools will suddenly be pencil-free zones, Morris Principal Jennifer Phinney said.

“I do have concerns with it because a lot of students don’t know how to write in cursive,” she said. “We may get to a place where cursive is ... you know, we eventually eliminated calligraphy (used mostly in medieval times) ... I don’t think we’re there yet with handwriting. We are in the time between ... we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift.”

A strange shift for Redding.

“This age we live in is very odd,” he said. “When kids lose handwriting they also lose spelling, grammar and punctuation ... it’s becoming a lost art. It worries me. We’ve moved into an age of text messaging and Facebook (wall posts). Those are sometimes the only forms of communication that some of our students now know.”

George Kopcsak, principal of the new Eastbrook Middle School that opened last year, is more optimistic about the new standards.

“To be honest with you, handwriting hasn’t really been stressed in middle schools for awhile,” he said. “CCGPS is still pretty new so it will be a few years before we get impact and what that will look like ... but just because something is not part of state standards doesn’t mean teachers won’t teach kids to write. I don’t think they will stop writing.”

The fact many people get styluses for their tablets is evidence to Phinney that most aren’t ready to say goodbye to good old-fashioned longhand.

“We’re not at a point where electronic devices have completely succeeded the role of writing,” she said. “We’re trying to duct tape our way to write on a tablet ... you still have to put pencil to paper. And there are going to be times and places where pens and pencils are the most effective tools.”

Even if they are “outdated” tools, Redding said.

“The idea that handwriting is antiquated is true,” he said. “If someone wants to succeed in a local or global marketplace, they have to know how to use computer programs. But we must be able to communicate at any time and to throw handwriting out ... is a mistake. For a student, it is a (foundation) skill that must be there for building ... imagine a math class that (skips) the basics. (Handwriting) is still important.”

Especially when testing a student’s learning, Phinney said.

“There’s no better way to authenticate what a student has learned than having them write down on paper with a pen or pencil in front of you,” she said. “That’s good old test security. That’s airtight security.”

That’s exactly why so many tests require handwritten exams, Redding said.

“High school tests ... if you write them and it is illegible it cannot be graded,” he said. “It’s even on most eighth-grade writing tests. The issue of handwriting impacts multiple facets.”

But even if state officials get rid of traditional handwritten tests, students should invest in handwriting if only to be “pleasing to the eye,” Phinney said.

“I think it’s a nice thing,” she said. “I graded essays for a long time. And y’know, if your handwriting is neat and pleasant to the eye that’s a very nice thing and it’s a nice skill to have. It doesn’t have to be calligraphy ... but good writing is the sign of an educated mind.”