Nit-picking “progressive” education directives are driving New York City teachers nuts, writes R.M. Isaac, a middle-school teacher in Queens, in the New York Daily News. An observer from the district office praised Isaac’s ability to teach college-level words to his seventh graders, but slammed him for writing vocabulary words in chalk on a traditional blackboard.

. . . spelling tests are disallowed because they supposedly strike fear, do not relate to experience and produce a distaste for language.

Teachers are warned not to correct errors with red ink because that color is “aggressive.” Grammar is not taught because it is “dull.” Children are encouraged to invent their own spelling so that they can discover the delights of creativity. Dictionaries are frowned on. They have been replaced by mandatory word walls where random but relevant-sounding terms are taped.

The disciples of progressivism imply that absolute standards trigger inner conflicts in kids, that they are natural learners who are mentally sterilized by direct teaching. In some schools, teachers’ desks are removed because they are symbols of authority. Other teachers receive unsatisfactory job ratings simply because their bulletin boards are not showpieces for visitors.

Educrats tour the building, consulting their checklists and looking for a host of missing items. Among these are rugs, rocking chairs and “mission statements.”

While children can’t be held to absolute standards, Isaac writes, teachers are forced to teach in the one right way dictated by the central office.

About Joanne


  1. interested observer says:

    I still give thanks to Mrs. Allen, my first grade teacher, who ignored a “progressive” school board and taught us phonics.

  2. “mentally sterilized by direct teaching”

    what about the mental sterilization that results from winding up in a dead-end job, because you lack the background and skills for anything better?

    I hope someone pulls an “emperor – no clothes” on these educrats.

    I don’t know, I guess I’m just weird, but I LOVED school, and it was taught the old-fashioned, supposedly mentally sterilizing way. We got our papers marked with red ink, were encouraged to use dictionaries, took spelling tests*, and the teacher always had a desk.

    *(In third grade, our spelling lessons were sort of self-directed. We had a set of words we were expected to learn, but we could do so pretty much any way, provided we learned them. A friend of mine and I paired off and we learned our words by making up stories – most of them tremendously silly – about Red Riding Hood, the Wolf, and Grandma – that incorporated those words. I hardly think that learning spelling words in that way stunted our creativity. And yes, we learned the words, we regularly got “Outstandings” on spelling.)

  3. Michael Neibel says:

    Dear Joanne:
    I’m a regular reader of your blog as of about three weeks ago and I enjoy it a lot. But the following will have to go in my horror file.
    It is a LTE that apeared in today’s Detroit News from a lady teacher. It reads in part:
    “Last fall when I told my ninth grade English students they would be required to either type their essays or write them in cursive, some students practically wept. Most ninth graders claimed that they had printed everything during their middle school education. No teacher had ever required cursive handwriting, and they had long ago forgotten the brief instruction they recieved in second or third grade.”
    Sad eh? Do today’s teachers really think that because everything is done on computers today there is no longer a need to teach handwriting?
    I plan to write my senators about this.
    Thanks for your excellent blog. Mike N

  4. Rod McFadden says:

    Yabbut. Isn’t “Mission Statement” a military term?

    Forsooth. For shame. Militarizing our children.

  5. I don’t have a problem with allowing students to print their essays – same kids have more legible printing than they do cursive. The world is moving into the computer age, and cursive is not necessarily the “modus operandi” of communication any more. In the high school math classroom we do not do all computation by hand any more – we use the technology at hand to expand the amount of knowledge and shrink the time it takes to do a problem.
    The world is changing, and sometimes education has to change along with it.

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    Rod: “Mission Statement” is also management BS in industry.

    As far as handwriting is concerned, I regularly print in all capitals (Larger for the first word of a sentence and proper names).

    But then again I am an engineer. What counts is that someone can read what I write.

  7. I never learned to write in cursive. Back in 1981, when I was in 2nd grade, my school district taught cursive in the 3rd grade. The year I was in 3rd grade, they changed the lessons to teach cursive in 2nd grade. My entire class in our school district never received any formal cursive instruction. This was not discovered until we were in 6th grade taking spelling/vocabulary tests (which I hated at the time, but still remember many of the words) which were supposed to be completed in cursive. Still today, the only thing that I write in cursive is my signature, mainly because its required on most documents.

    Don’t just blame the students for not writing in cursive; sometimes, it’s the school district’s fault.

  8. From:

    Brain scientists are discovering that there is a direct link between movement patterns that kids learn when they write and the ability to read fluently. You’ll also be a better speller because if you learn that muscle pattern your brain is going to remember it automatically.

  9. In reply to the previous author who spoke of calculators in the classroom and changes in education – look around you. Schools for years have bought into the NCTM garbage about calculators and look at the math skills of our students today. I know what the skill levels are because I taught high school math for 15 years and I saw the damage wrought by the “advantages” of technology. We now have so many people who can’t solve and analyze problems that require thought because it was termed “bad” to memorize multiplication tables. Long division was from the devil himself. So, when students arrived in my algebra 1 class and were required to find factor pairs they frothed at the mouth because they didn’t have a clue.

  10. “Brain scientists are discovering that there is a direct link between movement patterns that kids learn when they write and the ability to read fluently.”

    Anecdotal evidence at my house suggests that brain scientists need to go back to the drawing board. My kid just scored a perfect 36 on the reading portion of the ACT, and her handwriting is hair-raisingly bad. (So is mine.)

  11. As an English teacher, the things that bother me most are the encouragement of “creative” spelling and the discouragement of dictionary use. If you don’t know how to write something without misspelling every other word, don’t expect me to take it seriously. I also have a philosophy when it comes to legible/illegible handwriting: If I can’t read it, I don’t grade it.

  12. As a parent who’s homeschooled for two years, I do not allow my children to use a calculator. That’ll come after they know how to do it mentally or depending on the problems with pen and paper.

    Laura, I think they’re talking about the movement patterns, not whether the handwriting is sloppy.

  13. Joe in NM says:

    A great acheivement for your daughter, Laura.

  14. mike from oregon says:

    Hurray for private schools. My daughter graduated this year (8th grade) from a Catholic school. Even in her final year of grade school they were taking spelling tests. Dictionaries were REQUIRED, they also had vocabulary tests through all eight grades.

    And the folks who run the public schools have the nerve to wonder why “Johnny can’t read, write or become functional citizens.”

  15. Bob Diethrich says:

    Another personal story. Cursive handwriting skills apparently are NOT LIKE RIDING A BICYCLE!

    I went to Catholic elementary and still managed to have the most atrocious handwriting you ever saw. Long about high school I gave up and began printing everything. Then I discovered typing and word processeing. Pure Heaven!

    About twelve years after high school I had to take the NTE and in filling out the form you have to handWRITE and sign the plagiarism pledge. While attempting to do that I found that I had almost forgotten how to do this. Some of the letter combinations were totally foreign to me after so many years of not using the skill.

  16. To those discussing the use of calculators:

    I am not advocating the use of calculators AT ALL before Algebra I, and then only sparingly. Kids SHOULD have to memorize multiplication facts and be able to do basic arithmetic quickly – schools that let kids use calculators too early is why you see so many kids behind the counter at fast food restaurants who can’t count change.

    I am a Calculus teacher, and I took Calculus before the use of calculators was widespread in the classroom. Now with the availability of calculators, we can explore real-world data and tackle problems where in the past we would have gotten bogged down in the arithmetic. Calculators have their place, but not until high school at the earliest.

  17. Tim from Texas says:

    The dictation and reproduction are used in other countries to teach and reinforce spelling, penmanship, grammar, puntuation, listening and memory skills, vocabulary, and every kind of writing skill including creative writing. These two teaching methods also extend the students attention span to the max.

    Although, they have been utilized K-12 for years by other countries with great success, it has been impossible to get them even considered as teaching tools in this country.

    I’ve spoken about them at curriculum meetings and conferences until blue in the face, and each time these two excellent teaching methods are just considered laughable and moronic.

  18. “Back in 1981, when I was in 2nd grade, my school district taught cursive in the 3rd grade. The year I was in 3rd grade, they changed the lessons to teach cursive in 2nd grade. My entire class in our school district never received any formal cursive instruction. This was not discovered until we were in 6th grade taking spelling/vocabulary tests (which I hated at the time, but still remember many of the words) which were supposed to be completed in cursive.”

    Not discovered? You mean it didn’t even occur to any of them when they were making the switch that an entire class would miss the instruction completely? Wow, I thought the people running my school were dumb as rocks, but that blows everything out of the water.

  19. My handwriting is bad, but I can do calligraphy. For some reason my brain registers differently. I have some sort of “catch” in my brain, when teachers and my parents complained about my writing, it looked like it was supposed to be to me.

  20. Andy Freeman says:

    > “Brain scientists are discovering that there is a direct link between movement patterns that kids learn when they write and the ability to read fluently.”

    > Anecdotal evidence at my house suggests that brain scientists need to go back to the drawing board. My kid just scored a perfect 36 on the reading portion of the ACT, and her handwriting is hair-raisingly bad. (So is mine.)

    That evidence suggests nothing of the sort. The association was with “movement patterns”, not “legible writing”. Bad handwriting can easily satisfy the association.

  21. Walter E. Wallis says:

    My teachers thanked me when I started printing.

  22. Teachers thanked you for printing? Mine BEGGED me to!

  23. I learned cursive and hated it. Finally, in college, I realized that I was not reading my notes before exams because it was just too difficult! (High school was more a memorize-as-you-go situation; I frequently didn’t study for tests.) So, I switched to speed-printing for everything except for my signature, and I have trouble sometimes remembering how to do that!

    Interesting side note. Because I use a fountain pen (the pressure from a pencil or ball point pen has hurt my fingers ever since grade school) and my pen doesn’t always leave the page between letters, I can see where some of the cursive characters developed from printing. In other words, I am convinced that printing came before cursive.

  24. Mad Scientist says:

    Very rarely do you see words carved in stone done in cursive. So, yes, I would imagine that printing came first, and cursive derived from it as probably the first shorthand.

  25. Steve LaBonne says:

    “My teachers thanked me when I started printing.” I thank myself when I print. 😉

  26. Does anyone know what PURPOSE cursive handwriting serves? (I do! I do! Pick me! Pick me!) It has a strictly functional purpose. (but I’m not telling, you gotta guess) I once asked a classroom of about 50 students in a teachers’ education class if anyone knew. No one had a clue!

    I wonder why people consider cursive handwriting as a sign of the depth of one’s intelegence or education. I hadn’t thought of it, but I agree with some who have responded in this post that it is NOT like learning to ride a bicycle.

    A tangental subject is the notion that excelling in spelling is a sign of intellegence. It isn’t. It shows perseverance, and a willingness to concentrate, or maybe some natural ability (like having a photographic memory) but champions at spelling bees are not destine to become overall academic masters.

  27. I imagine cursive is faster because you have to pick up your pen less. I never could figure out why anyone would write in all caps since that requires more lifting of the pen. It seems very inefficient but my Dad is an engineer and that is how he writes. From what I have read about typefaces and fonts, all caps is harder to read.

  28. Devilbunny says:

    Amazing. But not untrue.

    Based on my experiences with high schoolers today, I’d do what my teachers at the time did with me – no calculators unless you’re doing trig functions, square roots, calculus, or science. And I’d make third-graders learn the multiplication tables to 15. (We only did through ten, and I later taught myself 11 and 12, but I’m awfully slow on them.) I would point out, though, that I still couldn’t (rapidly) do change in my head when I graduated high school. That came with real-world experience buying stuff and making sure I wasn’t shorted. There were a lot of things wrong with my elementary school, but failing to provide adequate primary education was not one of them.

    I can’t write in cursive anymore myself – I use a sort of hybrid script that is faster than block lettering but more legible than my script. I had excellent grades in handwriting until 6th grade – when they started grading us by the quality of handwriting on our spelling tests. Prior to that, it had been based on the work in our handwriting workbooks. We weren’t allowed to use print once we had learned cursive. My junior high and high school, however, had no such policy. I last used cursive for any extensive purpose in 8th grade.

  29. Jane wrote it’s faster. Does she win a prize for answering first? 😉

    For what it’s worth: Cursive helps the child learn to spell correctly since the hand acquires knowledge of spelling patterns through repeated hand movements. This is the same phenomenon that occurs when pianists or typists learn patterns of hand movements through continued repetition- Blumenfeld, 1997.

    My understanding is that more and more standardized tests are including a hand-written essay. Isn’t part of that graded on legibility and whether it’s printed or cursive?

    My children couldn’t read cursive until they could write it.

  30. What? He doesn’t want to warmy embrace “Pre-operative Transexual Awareness Month?” It all about things the kids need to learn to equip them for adult life!

  31. MmeMoxie says:

    I have just read everyone’s comments. I guess, that I am the ‘true’ exception. I HAD to teach myself how to print!!!

    I was taught cursive, right out the shoot, in 1st grade. I am older than ‘dirt’, so please, bear with me.

    I was taught with the ‘Dick and Jane’ books. In learning to read and write, we were shown the words in BOTH the cursive and printed flash card versions, side by side.

    For those, who do not understand, cursive is much easier to teach to younger children, since it is mostly the making of loops, circles and slanted lines. It is called eye and hand coordination. Learning to play a musical instrument, is much easier as a youngster, as well, for the same reason.

    Cursive writing is NOT about intelligence. What most people fail to realize, many times the intelligent person with ‘lousy handwriting’ usually is thinking so much FASTER than they can write, is all. My girlfriend was that way, so, when we were in Junior and High School, I would re-write her reports or essays, so, she could get the grade she deserved. Talk about ‘team effort’. Her IQ was around 140. Her handwriting was what I loving referred to as, Ancient Hieroglyphics or Hen Scratchings.

    As far as the usage of calculators in the classrooms of today. . .I have my doubts about that. I come from a large family of mathematical intellectuals, but, for some unknown reason I was NOT given the “Math Genes”, in my genetic makeup. I have always struggled with Math. BUT, I still believe that had I been given a calculator to learn with, it would have been the ‘lazy way out’. I had to learn my multiplication tables and how to divide the LONG way, so, that I could understand the concept. So, does the calculator really teach??? Does just the seeing of 2+2=4, really compute inside of a students mind??? Or does the actual seeing of 2 pennies plus 2 pennies, being equal to 4 pennies, make better sense???

    To Jill,

    Do you teach your students the slide rule and how to use it??? My grandfather was a Mechanical Engineer and ALWAYS had his slide rule with him. This was long before calculators and he was able to solve all the mathematics of his designs, with it. Yet, in all honesty, the slide rule was the ‘calculator’ of it’s day.

  32. Richard Brandshaft says:

    My anecdotal evidence (with myself) fits Andy Freeman’s.

    There is a real question here: math skills are still necessary. But why does a not-poor American NEED to write long legible passages with a pen or pencil and paper?

    Furthermore, computer dictionaries are much easier to use than paper ones.

    Skills that are no longer necessary tend to atrophy. The older generation tends to view this as a sign of moral decay.

    In a series of spy novels written in the 1960s, Donald Hamilton’s character, WW II generation secret agent Matt Helm, decried the inability of youngsters to use stick shifts.

    Western style eating utensils are apparently catching on in Japan. Some years back, I read an article about how young Japanese are clumsy with chop sticks. The older generation, which considers dexterity a necessary part of character, deplores the loss.

    MmeMoxie makes the point about slide-rules. 1973 — the first HP calculators hit the market — is one of the few dates after my college graduation I remember. I used to always carry a slide rule. Now I always carry a calculator.

  33. Here’s a phenomina I’d like to add about cursive handwriting. I had heard of it, but didn’t think it possible, until I came across an example myself.
    I had been given a memo written in cursive by an educated adult (so we can assume it had meaningful content). I couldn’t decipher it. It was, literaly, TOO BEAUTIFUL TO READ.

  34. Paul: Yes, cursive gets far more regular and beautiful if you omit (or at least de-emphasize) the features that distinguish different letters.

  35. St. Andrew says:

    Regarding the use of calculators, I am a student at New Mexico Tech and the math department there disallows the use of calculators completely (I’m starting calculus 3 next semester). It definetly makes a difference in learning concepts. Most of the poeple I have talked to from other colleges find it inconcievable to do higher math without the aid of a calculator.

  36. Back to the initial topic, this is all sounding frightfully like the mid-nineties movement known as “Outcome-Based Education,” – Why teach spelling when Microsoft has a spell checker, and why teach times tables when we have calculators? Horrifying! For starters, basic math is known to enhance all facets of life, including basic reasoning skills and proficiency in music. Second, I am a lawyer, and if I tried explaining to the Judge that I mispelled most of the words in my legal brief because I was too busy being creative with the English language, I’d be disbarred. What am I talking about, I’d have never passed the bar exam, let alone law school, in the first place! There is nothing that is more disrespected in the professional world than a failure to have basic command of the English language, both spoken and written.


  1. O'DonnellWeb says:

    Why does anybody use the NYC Public School system?

    Teachers are warned not to correct errors with red ink because that color is “aggressive.” Grammar is not taught…

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