Fred Hechinger

Adolescence: Second Chance … Last Chance Part I

VTR Date: October 29, 1993

Fred Hechinger discusses an essay on the important role of secondary schools.


GUEST: Fred Hechinger
VTR: 10/29/1993

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind And the last time today’s guest joined me at this table, we probably amused our viewers no end by debating at some length and with some intensity the real worth — would say greatness – of the secondary school we both had attended as adolescents so many, many years ago. Of course, insisted that Dewitt Clinton High School was the greatest ever, mostly because the school and its extraordinary teachers marked such a turning point in my own adolescence. But Fred M. Hechinger, who last time here on The Open Mind was just retiring from The New York Times and the brilliant journalistic career there and elsewhere spent in his pursuit of excellence in education, had real reservations about my enthusiastic devotion to Dewitt C. Well, we didn’t come to blows on this subject, to be sure. But as I look back on my own adolescence at Clinton, I all the more appreciate the thrust of the Carnegie Corporations intense and continuous interest in the critical years of adolescents generally, and with Fred Hechinger’s most recent Carnegie essay on the important role secondary schools can play in providing at that age something of a second, perhaps last, chance in the development of individuals who then will or will not go on to make it In our increasingly and dangerously challenging society. Under the leadership of its president, David Hamburg, the Carnegie Corporation has devoted much of its resources and creative energies to our children, particularly to their second chance, to those fateful second choices we can help them have and make in adolescence that may then make for healthier, happier lives and a healthier, happier nation. At Carnegie now, Fred Hechinger has focused his own expertise and educational practices the world over on what our secondary schools can do to make this time of intense personal change, perhaps this last chance, into a positive, productively maturing experience. But my question to Mr. Hechinger is: Are the schools doing what they might?

HECHINGER: The answer is no. Some schools are, but many more should. We have, at Carnegie, we have focused on the middle school,, middle years, what used to he called the junior high school, because that’s where much of the change is necessary. But it’s a very slow process. These schools that have adopted some of our recommendations, and I’ve visited a number of them, are doing extremely well. They made real changes. But, you know, it’s a big country, and education reform goes very, very slowly. And one of the problems is that the education community, the principals, supervisors, tend not to look as hard as they should at the successful schools. So it’s a slow process. Education reform takes a long time.

HEFFNER: You know, was reading last evening the transcripts of a couple of programs we did back in the 1950’s when we were talking about the need to change. Now, at that time, the emphasis was mostly on the need to change to meet the crisis of the Cold War.

HECHINGER: I think that’s right. It was the days of Sputnik. And the reaction was, we are falling behind because our schools are not doing their job. There is much the same argument now. It’s now on the economic side. The argument now is we’re not competitive in the world or we are threatened with not remaining competitive because the schools are not training what’s generally known as a well—educated workforce, All of these things are true. But, you know, there’s a danger in concentrating on outside pressures on the schools. The schools, sure, they have an obligation to deal with the problems of the country. But basically the schools have an obligation to the children. And I think if you deal with what children need, if you really respond to what children need, you are going to take care or the other problems too. And we have concentrated on what do adolescents need in the years of their early adolescence, roughly from age 10 to 15. And I think making an impact there is going to take care or many of the other problems that the outside community expects of the schools.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, Fred, it seemed to me as I was reading Fateful Choices and other materials that you and Carnegie have set before the public, I wondered which approach, let us deal with the economic situation, or let us deal with Sputnik and its threat, versus the kind of plain, ordinary human concern for our children that Carnegie posits, which one s more likely to be successful.


HEFFNER: Are you deliberately choosing this for your main tack?

HECHINGER: We are deliberately choosing it largely because it’s good for the children, but also because it’s only under those circumstances that children really learn and teachers really teach. If children don’t know why they’re in school, if they go through a process that really doesn’t make any sense to them… Let me be specific on that. Take the junior high school. That’s the age group that we are talking about, roughly about 10 to 15. The traditional junior high school is run pretty much like the high school. The children, they were in a large building, a lot of children in one school. They, I or five or six periods a day they’re in from classroom to classroom, they different subject at each classroom, different teacher in each classroom. And the thought was that nobody knew them, and they didn’t know anybody. When they had problems there was nobody to go to, because the units were cut up by discipline, but not by human need.

Now, we have, one of the key recommendations, and they’re not all really implemented in many schools, was that the school should be subdivided into smaller units, 120 to 150 kids, And a team of teachers, four, five, together, representing all the different disciplines, together would work out the curriculum. They would be responsible for all the teaching of this group of 120, 150 children. And they, every child therefore would be known to somebody, and the teachers would know a child, and the teachers would devise a curriculum, a curriculum that would cover as much, and probably more, than the old school provided. But it makes sense to the children.

Let me give you an example. One group of teachers – this happened to be in a California school – they took one five – or six – week period, and they built it around the concept, the history of the plague. The plague was a new experience in those days. And the history teacher dealt with it in the history or the period. The science teacher dealt with it in terms or what happens when there’s a new disease, how do you respond to it. And that linked automatically to the latest new disease, which is AIDS. The math teacher dealt with charts and percentages and all the figures involved in that period. The English teacher dealt with the very extensive literature of that period. And the children saw that something made sense. Something was interesting. And yet they learned in all these areas, in science, history, English, in a way that made sense to them.

HEFFNER: Fred, doesn’t that approach fly in the face of the attack that has been made upon the schools that they have indeed been too much concerned with larger issues and that there hasn’t been enough rote teaching or reading, writing, arithmetic?

HECHINGER: Well, that’s another issue. Of course, reading, writing and arithmetic is important. And the children should learn it early on. I really believe that we know enough about the teaching or reading and writing and arithmetic so that if we approach it in the right way, every child should be able to read and write by, say, third or fourth grade. That part of the education ought to be out of the way by that time. And then the children have the tools to do these more complicated things. It seems to me, if a young person graduates from high school and doesn’t know to read in a way, and like to read in a way that he or she will continue reading for the rest or his life or her life, and read books, that person isn’t educated. And we’re not concentrating on that. We’re not giving the children the tool early on to do all of this.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you’re saying then, let us focus on that age span of beginning adolescence.

HECHINGER: Well, I’m not… I’m saying we should focus on that age span because so many things happen in the children’s lives. It’s a period of tremendous changes in the children’s general physical and physiological makeup. It’s puberty and so forth. And a lot of experimentation goes on and should be going on in those years. And the kids need a lot of help to make the right decisions. But they also have to learn to make decisions.

The other period, the other similar period of crucial importance, is very much earlier. It’s in the first three years of life, when again so much happens to these children. The development in those three years is just incredible. The child learns to walk, to speak, to react to the environment and so forth. And if you neglect that, then the other things won’t follow. You know, we talk a lot now, and politically we talk about that all children should be ready to learn when the enter school. True. Of course. But they are not going to be ready to learn, those children who don’t have the support in their first three years, are not going to be ready to learn.

HEFFNER: I intrigued by your emphasis upon two periods really. That’s why I talked about Second Chance, Final Chance, because I derive that from what you had written, what you have said to me. It’s, I don’t know whether to find that a positive and joyous and optimistic approach, or to be terribly, terribly disturbed by it. Because the concept, as then interpret it, is last chance.

HECHINGER: Yes. With some exceptions.

HEFFNER: Alright. There are always late bloomers.

HECHINGER: But basically you are absolutely right. It’s, First Chance, Last Chance. And for very real reasons. And you are right. It can be very depressing; it can be very optimistic. For the child who grows up the first three years in the caring environment or the parents read to the child or where the parents talk to the child, where they feed the child in the proper way – nutrition is very important those children are going, for them it is a very optimistic period. For the children who are deprived of that, it’s a terrible period. And the division between the two types of children is really set at that point. The child who doesn’t have the advantage of language, the child who doesn’t have the advantage of knowing what books are like and listening to stories, is terribly disadvantaged and is not going to be ready to learn in school at age five or six.

HEFFNER: You seem to be saying too that that child entering school will not be prepared to learn, and will not be prepared even to take advantage of that second last chance that you talk about in junior high school.

HECHINGER: That’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. That’s why it’s so important to improve the lot of children – I won’t just say “school” – the lot of children. And it goes back to prenatal care of the children. To improve their lives at these critical stages. And it also means that whatever happened to a child before, when the child enters the middle years, there ought to be again the same kind of caring that human beings need at a period when there are a lot of changes in their lives. You know, one of the things that impressed me most, in some of the schools that I visited – and many of them were inner-city schools – in some of the schools that I visited that have implemented this kind of middle-years personal attention, when these kids go to high school – and saw it happen – when they go to high school and they have a problem in high school, personal or academic, they don’t turn to a teacher in the high school; they go back to the middle school to the teacher they know and ask them. Now, that, to me, is the proper indication, I hope that eventually high schools will change sufficiently so that the kids don’t have to go back to the middle school when they have problems.

HEFFNER: Fred, do you think that we have the resources – and I don’t just mean the economic resources; I mean the human resources and the human concern to accomplish this on this kind of scale that you’re referring to.

HECHINGER: The answer is at least a partial no. And let me respond to human resources first. Clearly, when you do these things, again let’s focus on the middle years. Teachers who want to do this. And it is very difficult in the beginning; it’s very difficult to get teachers to accept the team aspect. Because they, first of all, they’re worried that they’re going to lose, they’ll lose standing in their discipline. Which, of course, they don’t. But they think they will,

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute. Fred, If they think they will, there must be some basis for, that the team aspect is going to, somehow or other, undermine their professional status.

HECHINGER: I don’t think it does. But they think it does. Because in the past they were responsible only to the department chairman in their discipline. Now they are carrying their discipline forward together with others from other disciplines. But that doesn’t mean that their discipline is neglected. But the problem is that first of all they don’t know what it’s like to work in a team. They are not even sure that they know that they like the other team members. You know, that’s one of the problems: Teachers don’t talk across disciplines very much. They don’t have time to do it frequently. So they’re worried. One teacher said to me, you know, “Starting out on teaming is a little bit like starting out at dating. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Those who are in the teams, all the ones I saw, love it. They work much harder. Because they meet after school, they talk about their children’s problems and so forth. But they are working in conditions that are professional. They are working with kids who want to be there. And so once it works, they like it. But it’s very hard to get them into it. And you shouldn’t do it unless the teachers want to do it. If they don’t want to do it, find a job in another school where they old fashioned ways still prevails. Because if you impose this kind of change, it doesn’t work. So the answer to your first question is, yes, it’s difficult from the human resources point of view.

On the economic side, the in-school change doesn’t cost very much, if anything at all. It’s a change in how you organize t school. On the other hand, there are other aspects that we recommend that we think are terribly important. For instance, health services. We recommend that every middle school, probably every elementary school too, should have a school-related or school-based health clinic where the children’s physical problems are taken care of, where they get dental care, where all of these things are taken care of. Now, since that doesn’t exist in most schools, exists in very few schools, to institute this is expensive. But they you again have to say, you know, it’s very hard to draw the exact line of expenditures, what it costs to do what is essentially preventive health care, and what it costs when you don’t have it. Preventing the child from getting the measles because the child has been immunized is very inexpensive. Dealing with the child once he or she has the measles or some more serious diseases is very expensive. Getting to the point where a 14 or 15-year-old is not going to be pregnant is a lot less expensive than if you have to deal with the pregnancy and with the outcome of the pregnancy.

HEFFNER: Okay. Fine point. What evidence is there, if I may, that we’re even beginning effectively to realize, to recognize the point that you just made. And the key word in what I ask is “effectively”. I’m sure it’s easy to say, “Of course that’s true, Fred Hechinger.” But it’s much more difficult to find the, again, human resources and others, and the determination to do this.

HECHINGER: Very difficult. And it’s a, you know, it’s a big country. Communities differ. In some communities it’s being recognized. Nationally, the answer is no. We really do not have a policy for children that the nation as a whole accepts. And that’s a real problem. We have policies for almost every, every other industrial country has a policy for children, and the country accepts it. We don’t have that. We don’t have that.

HEFFNER: Why not, Fred?

HECHINGER: Well, I think part – there are many reasons, of course – part of the reason is that traditionally we assumed – and that’s the political rhetoric too and part of it is true – that family must take care of the child. The family takes care of all these personal problems. And ideally that’s still true. But the family has changed so enormously over the years. First of all, one dramatic change, the majority of the women .are now in the work force. And that means the majority of mothers. And that changes what happens to the child in the family. And that’s not going to change. That’s not going to he reversed, whether it should be or shouldn’t be is really is not relevant.

Number two, the number of families with no male has increased enormously.

HEFFNER: Why do you put that into this account?

HECHINGER: I put it into this account because it is much more difficult to bring up a child in a one – parent family than it is in a two – parent family. And that doesn’t mean that every two-parent family is doing a superb job of bringing up children. But basically it’s easier to bring up a child in a two – parent family. For many reasons, including the economic reason.


HECHINGER: So, having one-parent family, which is usually a family headed by a woman, and if its a poor family, the woman either has to work at low salaries, be out of the house, and has very little money left over, if at all, for decent child care. That’s changed over the years. So those are two very major changes in what has happened in the family and what has happened to children. But the rhetoric is still the same. Let the family… This is not the problem of the government; this is the problem of the family.” Well, if a family can do it, fine. I’m all for it. And so. But if the family can’t do it, then you have to have a substitute for it. And we are so far behind in the whole area of child care compared with all the other industrial countries. We are faced by a start – up problem. If we had started 50 years ago, as other countries have started, it wouldn’t be so expensive. But when you have to start up something that you haven’t done, it’s expensive. And it’s not only expensive in terms of money, but it’s also expensive finding the people to do it, training the people to do it. And paying them. You know, typically a child-care worker around the country is paid about five dollars an hour. That’s less than cleaning women are paid. And, you know, it’s hard to get high-quality staff to, and to get staff to stay with a job, not go off to something better, unless you pay them properly. That’s expensive.

HEFFNER: Fred, why, why, how do you account for the fact that the theory, the notions, the rhetoric, the philosophy, are not there to tie the hands of other countries?

HECHINGER: I think partly because other countries always had a basic agreement that children needed more than the family. That there were times in children’s lives that the family needed help. And, you know, the whole concept of social services has been developed much earlier in other countries. And then that’ true, of course, in health care. My, not my favorite character, but Bismark created health care in Germany over a hundred years ago.


HECHINGER: And it’s accepted. We are very ambivalent about what – in quote – “that government should do.” And we don’t want to pay for the government – and ‘government” means not just Washington; it’s state and local and all that – we are very reluctant to pay the government to do these things. And yet, when we pay for it ourselves, we pay a lot more. And to get good child care is very expensive, if you do it yourself in the private sector. It’s very expensive.

HEFFNER: It’s such, not a cynical approach, but it’s so devastating that we respond to the need by saying, as you suggest, ‘This, we really feel, is the province of the family.’ And you and agree it is the province of the family. But what happens when the family does not do what it should be doing?

HECHINGER: That’s right. Exactly. Exactly. And also, think there is something fundamentally wrong to let educational policy be governed by non – educational needs. Now, every country wants its children to…

HEFFNER: In the minute we have left, what do you mean by that?

HECHINGER: I mean that the first, the first attention should be to what is best for the child. Not say that because Sputnik was launched, we now have to teach differently. Maybe we should have taught differently. That’s not the issue. But we shouldn’t be constantly dragged into doing something in school and for children because of some outside force. Yes, we want to be competitive in the world. But that should not be the reason to change the curriculum.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting that you say that, when obviously the assumption behind that is that we are really much more concerned about our children than we are about our own pleasures, our own safety, our own province in the world, etcetera. And that’s something I’d like to talk about further with you if you would state where you are, and we’ll do another program.

HECHINGER: I’d be glad to.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Fred Hechinger, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, Good night, and good luck.”