A bill that would require South Carolina’s public school students to demonstrate competence in cursive writing and multiplication-table memorization before completing the fifth grade is bound for the House Education Committee after gaining unanimous approval from a House K-12 education subcommittee.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Dwight Loftis (R-Greenville), says that despite the public’s growing reliance on typing and digital communication, students still need to learn to write by hand. “It’s the motor skills; it’s memory; it’s brain development,” he says. “[Researchers] also point out that it helps with written expression. It’s not just writing pretty letters.”
As for the multiplication tables, Loftis cites research saying that rote memorization has a role in brain development and that the instant recall it facilitates conserves intellectual power for when it’s really needed.
So far, 11 other Republican representatives and six Democrats have supported Loftis’ stance by signing onto the bill.
Loftis’ H.3905 strongly resembles a North Carolina bill passed last year. That bill was pushed by Zaner-Bloser, a private company that produces and sells handwriting instructional materials, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing advocacy group often criticized for prioritizing the interests of its corporate membership over those of individual citizens. Those ties were uncovered by N.C. Policy Watch, the reporting arm of the progressive N.C. Justice Center. Both bills are nicknamed “Back to Basics”.
The Raleigh News & Observer cited North Carolina’s “Back to Basics” bill in a May 2013 article about ALEC’s pervasive influence in the North Carolina General Assembly.
But Loftis says his bill originated from his own experience as a businessman who’s hired high school students for part-time help and a grandfather who helps his grandchildren with their elementary-school homework almost every day.
“I will say the North Carolina bill caught my attention. We did borrow from that bill. There’s no question about that, but I did my own research,” Loftis says, citing materials from The National Association of State Boards of Education.
Asked about ALEC and Zaner-Bloser, Loftis says, “They may have pushed it, but I didn’t get my information from them.”
Meanwhile, opponents of such legislation argue that there simply isn’t enough time in the school day to teach everything and that other areas of learning should be prioritized over cursive and multiplication tables. At the very least, they say, educators should be the ones prioritizing the lessons.
Even handwriting doyenne Kate Gladstone, who directs the World Handwriting Contest, attacked North Carolina’s “Back to Basics” legislation, saying that its primary sponsor had misrepresented the research in arguing for the bill’s passage. Gladstone also counters proponents of cursive who argue that children will no longer be able to read the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence without cursive instruction.
“If we had to learn to write every style that we needed to read, we would have to learn to read and write all over again whenever anyone invented a new font,” Gladstone has argued.
But Loftis doesn’t appear to be driven by any nostalgia for the three Rs. “In education, sometimes we go from one extreme to the other. I’m a great proponent of digital technology in the classroom, and I was really disappointed that our superintendent here in the Upstate mentioned they’re getting rid of [teaching] keyboarding,” he says, adding that proper keyboard instruction, which teaches rote memorization of where the keys are, is needed for the same reasons multiplication-table memorization is, to save time and brain energy.
Asked whether legislating curriculum was the appropriate role of state lawmakers, Loftis says, “Absolutely,” adding that there is a gap between what’s being taught and the workforce needs of the business community.
“The legislature has an ear for that,” Loftis says.
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