Guest Column: Alignment Rockford’s wishful thinking vs. reality

By Tim Hughes

Alignment Rockford appears determined to pry open the mother of all cans of worms with their high school academy proposals. If, as has been said, the proposal is motivated, at least in part, because students complain what they are learning in school isn’t relevant, that in itself should send up red flags, for what adolescents often think is not relevant to learn is the very thing they need to learn. Heck, everyone knows “brung” is the past tense of “brang,” so why bother with any more of that “irrelevant” English stuff?

This leads to a deeper problem the Johnny-head-in-wind advocates will face with their proposal. Just because high school students have reached a certain chronological age, doesn’t mean they have mastered comparable academic skills. To give one example, I used to post cursive alphabet charts on bulletin boards around my classroom for students to refer to as needed when writing compositions. I didn’t insist on strict adherence to cursive penmanship, but expected it to be used as a guide for uniform, legible penmanship. One student, noticing the charts, turned to a classmate, and I overheard him say: “It’s embarrassing to see one of those in a classroom. I haven’t been in a classroom with one of those since I was in the fourth grade.”

Later, while correcting his paper, I had to mark more than a dozen primer word spelling errors of the fourth-, third- and second-grade variety. There is much more of that than the public realizes, and just because adolescents think they are ready to take on the “relevant” subjects that presumably interest them, that doesn’t mean they are prepared to do so.

In addition, Alignment Rockford will come up against the “Feel Good Curriculum, Self-Esteem” crowd of teachers that insist a “positive image of one’s self” comes before all else, no matter how unrealistic it may be. I once had a student tell me her career ambition was to become a doctor. She said her science teacher advised her so because the highest grade on her most recent report card was a “C” in basic science. When I asked the teacher, a Golden Apple recipient, no less, about it, she admitted that was what she had told the student. “I thought it was important for her to think big.” How about thinking realistic?

Alignment Rockford is sure to have fun coping with that mentality.

Back in the 1970s, Rock Valley College conducted a one college credit humanities course in conjunction with District 205 high schools that gave students an earned college credit prior to their high school graduation. The course was carried out in conjunction with high school English classes, but had to be abandoned because of scheduling conflicts with other, mandated courses of study, that would no doubt be deemed “irrelevant” by some students, such as state-required courses in American history, government, and the U.S. Constitution, to name a few. And the Alignment Rockford proposal will face the virtually insurmountable difficulty in dealing with that same set of circumstances, to say nothing of what will likely be the need for remedial classes in basic academic skills to bring students up to where they need to be to take “relevant” career courses.

District 205 schools once offered at both middle and high school levels a viable, even enviable, vocational and industrial arts program for Rockford public school students, much of which got trashed during the People Who Care witch hunt. I think business and community leaders would be further ahead bringing their influence and prestige to bear on revitalizing those programs than in putting their efforts in “high school academies” that, for various reasons, are certain to fail.

Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.

From the May 23-29, 2012, issue

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