RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the backpacks of returning elementary school students in Alabama, there's likely lined paper for handwriting. Alabama recently joined Louisiana and California in passing a law that mandates students learn cursive, though critics argue that law is about more than just old-fashioned writing. Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiot has the story.
KYLE GASSIOT, BYLINE: A lot of erasing is happening at this kitchen table in Prattville, Ala.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You can just - coming off the C, and then you go like...
GASSIOT: Second-grader Caedmon Craig is attempting to write in cursive, and he's being helped by his mom. This school year, Caedmon will be writing in cursive for the first time. For now, he's only required to write his cursive letters separately, but he's ready for more.
CAEDMON CRAIG: I think joining them is actually easier than separate.
GASSIOT: Why is that?
CAEDMON: Because you don't have to do much. It's just...
GASSIOT: By the time Caedmon reaches the end of the third grade, he'll need to demonstrate for his teacher that he can join all of the letters. State Representative Dickie Drake proposed the new law. He says he knew that cursive instruction was already a requirement of the state-approved school curriculum.
DICKIE DRAKE: But it was not being taught. I think, really, it's due to the fact that they're teaching Common Core, and they don't have time to teach it.
GASSIOT: In 2010, Alabama's state education board adopted a new set of standards. These included the federal Common Core guidelines, which have recommended requirements for subjects like math and reading. At that time, the board also changed the cursive proficiency, moving it up from the fifth to the third grade.
But even then, Drake didn't feel like educators were taking cursive seriously.
DRAKE: Since they're already ignoring the law, I thought I'm going to do something to force them to do it.
CAEDMON: But others say there's more behind this law than just making sure all of the cursive letters join up. Thomas Rains is with the A-plus Education Partnership, which advocates for education policy in Alabama. He often hears complaints from individuals such as Drake about Alabama's version of Common Core.
THOMAS RAINS: The term Common Core - it now is responsible for all the ills in public education, right, which is really unfortunate because all we're talking about are academic standards for math and English in K through 12.
GASSIOT: Rains says he believes the complaints stem from the fact that the state standards are harder. He points to a Harvard study released earlier this year that gave Alabama's guidelines a grade of B, up from an F given in 2013.
RAINS: I think what we're going to see in the future is that our students graduate from high school much better prepared for real life, whether they go on straight to college or whether they go straight into a career.
GASSIOT: Historian Tamara Plakins Thornton says the battle over teaching cursive in schools is not new. She says in the '50s and '60s, the teaching of cursive was even linked to the Cold War.
TAMARA PLAKINS THORNTON: Unbelievably, there were arguments that the fact that American kids couldn't do cursive made us vulnerable to the Russian menace.
GASSIOT: Thorton sees the cursive laws as really a way lawmakers in Alabama and other states can advocate for what they see as traditional values in a time of social unrest.
THORNTON: When we want to embrace the past, when we get nostalgic for the past, when we think it was better, then we get all warm and fuzzy about handwriting.
GASSIOT: The cursive law's sponsor Dickie Drake says it's about making sure Alabama students know how to perform important life tasks, such as signing their name. He also says more legislation concerning Common Core may be on the way.
DRAKE: There's about 10 states that's introduced a cursive writing bill. There are several states that have actually passed laws to do away with Common Core, and, you know, that's a possibility.
GASSIOT: For now, many teachers in Alabama will be working with new handwriting guidelines that satisfy both Common Core standards and the new cursive law. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiot in Montgomery.
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