Editorial: Lost arts — and sciences

The fate of handwriting and science will have serious implications for our public schools.

Probably most people who read newspapers also write in longhand — “cursive” letters learned by repetition on tablets (that would be paper sheets, not digital devices) that enforced the proper slant (that would be angle) of the letters and the particular formation of capitals and lower-case forms of each member of the alphabet with designated swirls and loops.

It is a sign, for better or worse, that we share an educational background related to a time. It is kind of an age-stamp. And its value has been called into question in an age of computers, printers, calculators and electronic and digital tools

Handwriting. It has produced jokes about doctors. It has been used to analyze personalities. Handwritten letters and notes have been bundled away as family treasures. And it has been imitated by computerized fonts that seek, among other things, to mask those pesky mailed requests for donations as something more personal in nature.

This week the Kansas State Board of Education received a report that seemed to indicate that the teaching of handwriting was being downgraded in importance. In addition, the board also got a troubling report that as many as one in five elementary school teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are reporting science grades on report cards even though they don’t teach science or test students about science.

Technology that is reducing the need for pen, pencil and paper may be at play in curtailing the time spent teaching handwriting skills, but when it comes to science, it’s an emphasis on math and reading assessments that apparently is influencing teachers to spend more time on those subjects, at the expense of parts of the school day that once were, or could be, devoted to science.

The board is dealing with both issues. A shift to new “Common Core” state standards in English language may not provide reassurance to those who favor teaching cursive handwriting, but those new standards do give states such as Kansas some flexibility to add it. The board’s upgrading Kansas science standards also, guided by a National Research Council project. What happens with each of the topics will have serious implications not just for students but for the state as well. Possibly it will lead to discussions of expanding the school year to give educators more time to address science, handwriting and other subjects that get lost or shorted as teachers emphasize the areas on which students are measured on standardized tests.

Now that these issues are getting more public attention, let’s hope that parents and teachers keep themselves informed, and take note. (Perhaps in cursive.)