Fred Hechinger

More on Adolescence and the Future

VTR Date: October 29, 1993

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


GUEST: Fred Hechinger

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest, for a continuing discussion of the fateful choices Americans make every day now for the future of our nation through the proper schooling and nurturing of our adolescents, is Fred M. Hechinger, now of the Carnegie Corporation after many years at The New York Times and the brilliant journalistic career spent there and elsewhere in the pursuit of excellence in education.

Now, we didn’t solve any problems last time, but there are so many more to look at, that we’ll make a start at them today. But, Fred, you know, there was something that we were talking about at the end of the other program, the previous program, the attitudes toward children in this country are really the most basic stumbling block in the way of achieving the educational reforms that you were going on at great length about and that Carnegie has proselytized about. We’ve always said that we were a child-oriented society. How can we account for the fact that we take so little good care of our children?

HECHINGER: Well, we really haven’t. We’ve always, you’re absolutely right, we’ve always boasted that we are a child-centered society. But we really haven’t been. If you look at this history of children in America, that really hasn’t been true. Child labor was condoned until way into the ’20’s. The first child-labor law was passed somewhere in the ’20’s. And then only because at that point the unions no longer wanted children to work. It wasn’t that this was for the good of the children. The argument before that, the people, and some very highly educated and influential people, including, at that time, the president of Columbia University, were saying that child labor is absolutely essential to guard the freedom of parents. If you outlaw child labor, it’s, then you are really limiting the freedom of parents to decide what should be done for the children. So if you have that kind of historical background, it’s really hard to say that we are really a child-centered society.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, when I first went to Hollywood to be chairman of the Film Rating Board, a mutual friend of ours in a major foundation said to me, “Dick, how could you be involved with that, with that community?” And I said that I thought that if film ratings succeeded – and they seemed to be succeeding – that they were the best barrier against censorship that we could have, because otherwise if parents were dissatisfied they would storm against the industry and censor it. And I wasn’t as much concerned about that industry as I was ultimately about what you and I do as teachers and writers, etcetera. You start down the slippery slope, you don’t stop. He said, “Don’t be silly. American parents really aren’t that concerned about their children, so concerned as to deprive themselves of the pleasure of violence and sexuality and extreme language in films.” This seems to be the case.

HECHINGER: I think it’s absolutely true. And as a matter of fact, very recently Anna Quindlen wrote a column in The Times on that issue and said, in fact, “Look, we are blaming everybody. We are blaming the industry, we are blaming the writers, we are blaming everybody. What about the parents? Nobody seems to blame the parents. There should be, if the parents really don’t want children to see violent movies or violent television, why don’t they do something about it? And I think that really corroborates what we are saying.

HEFFNER: Of course, they don’t do anything about it.

HECHINGER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Or they do very little about it, but not enough.

HECHINGER: Not enough.

HEFFNER: But again, Fred, how do you, what is the picture, as you’ve identified it in your own mid, that you believe most Americans have of children if we are so careless about their well-being? Are these, as in centuries ago, is the conception that they’re just little adults and we don’t have to pay that much attention to them?

HECHINGER: Well, I think it varies. I think the problem really is we are concerned about our own children, or at least many of us are, and many of us want the best for our children, try to do the best for them. But we are not concerned with other people’s children. And that means we have no way of dealing with the bigger problem of what should be done for children. And we certainly don’t have any great concern as a nation, and our politicians don’t, about poor children who don’t have the benefits that we provide for our children, or that many of us provide for our children. And it seems to me you can’t say that a country is concerned about the welfare of their children unless you’re saying you’re concerned with the welfare of all children. And we try to make the lot of all children better, or make the lot of other children as good as our children’s, or at least try to do this. If you don’t do that, then you really don’t have any sense that we care.

HEFFNER: What would make a people such as our own understand that, A) It is a question of human concern, of decency; and that, B) it is a very practical matter too in terms of our own children because our own children are being maimed and murdered by those who don’t have what we seek to provide for so many others?

HECHINGER: Absolutely. The first part, obviously we ought to aim for being more decent about it. We ought to have more of a conscience about it. But that’s something you can’t create out of nothing. That’s something, I suppose, over a long period perhaps education can do something about it. But the other thing is practical. It’s a pragmatic question. We should ask ourselves, “What happens to all of us? What happens to our children if, as is now the case, a quarter of all children grow up in poverty? And what happens to all our children if a lot of children are not cared for at all?” It affects the nation’s health, which means our health and our children’s health. It affects the nation’s economic well-being, which means our children’s well-being. Just on practical terms, we ought to care for all the children. We also ought to care for policies that prevent – and this is, you know, again, this gets into an area that stops much of this, much of present progress – we ought to prevent unwanted children from being born. We are now bringing into the world huge numbers, altogether the majority of children are brought into the world unwanted, certainly a majority of young people’s children, teenage children, are brought into the world unwanted, by mistake, by whatever. And what happens then? If a lot of unwanted children are brought into the world, what happens to those children? What’s their fate, and what is our fate because of what these children mean? The unwanted child, the child that’s been damaged before birth by either the mother smoking or drinking or using drugs, and being born at low birth weight, the damage is so, so appalling, and the cost of trying to offset the damage, usually unsuccessful, frequently unsuccessful, is, the cost is enormous. And these are all policies which should not only, we should not only think of the children who are born whom parents want, but we should also think of the country’s, the people’s responsibility to prevent children who are not wanted from being born. And that gets you, when you’re talking in educational, political terms, when you’re talking about child, if you talk about school-based or school clinics, the focus then is instantly on, “You mean you’re going to distribute birth control or talk about birth control, or mention abortion?” Now, anybody who really wants to deal with the unborn clearly wants to do a lot of other things. And these clinics want to do a lot of other things. One of the things we ought to do is to prevent these children from having early sexual intercourse, prevent them from putting themselves into all kinds of risk. And there are not-yet-born children in all kinds of risk. We want to do all of these things. But the minute you talk about these things, the focus is on, you want to have the kind of approach that applies to sex education also, the kind of approach that will make all these children promiscuous. And that’s really not the real world.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m fascinated, Fred. We’ve done programs for almost 40 years. I have never seen you as frustrated as … is that the fair word?

HECHINGER: Yes, it is frustrating. It’s very frustrating in many ways. Because if you’ve dealt with these issues, as you have too, for a long period of time – I’ve covered education and school reform and human reform and all that for a long, long period of time – and it’s frustrating to see things that happened, say, 20 or 30 years ago, where there were some pilot projects where there were some solutions at that time that seemed to work, and you see them disappearing. And you see the need again to have it all reinvented at much greater cost.

HEFFNER: Now, that’s a fascinating point. And you’re talking now about a program that has been set in place, set in motion, and then disappears. That you’re suggesting that over the years some reforms have been made.


HEFFNER: Now, you’ve considered them successful?

HECHINGER: Some were. Some weren’t.

HEFFNER: But you’ve seen them.

HECHINGER: I’ve seen many of them not as successful. And they disappear. And some disappear, and some are being misused. I’ll give you an example, in New York. Quite a number of years ago (I can’t tell you exactly how long, but probably at least 15 or 20 years ago) we created something called “Higher Horizons.” It was a program, again, it was a program for the middle schools, largely, junior high schools. And the term described it pretty well. It was for children in poor sectors, children who didn’t have the advantages that rich children had. And it provided for them to go to museums, to see plays, to go to concerts, to have sports events, to do some traveling. They were all things that brought into the schools some of the advantages that affluent children had. And it worked. It really worked. These children performed, almost immediately, performed much better. And then what happened? The city system saw that this was a great, you know, it was a great title, it was a great thing to do. So they gave the title to, I don’t know how many, 50, 100 other schools, but didn’t do any of the expensive things.


HECHINGER: And then, of course, it failed. It had to fail. And you know, a lot of talk now, a lot of the opposition to Head Start … Head Start, I think, is one of the great programs that were invented in 1965. And we still have only about 20 percent or 30 percent of the kids who should be in it in the program now. But a lot of the opposition concentrates on the fact that some of the research shows that after third or fourth grade the advantages, the academic advantages that these children derived from Head Start faded away. Well, to me, this would raise the question: What’s happening in those schools? What’s happening in the elementary schools that has been successful in Head Start?

HEFFNER: They had to nurture more.

HECHINGER: And yes, wouldn’t it fade away if you don’t do the things that worked at one level? And those are the things I find very frustrating. When we know so much more today than we used to know about how children learn, about good teaching, about what, how the school should be organized. And we don’t apply it. We don’t apply it.

HEFFNER: When David Hamburg was here, he talked about how much we know. That we know what will work. That must be the source of absolute, enormous frustration.

HECHINGER: Yes, it is. It is. And you know, it’s even on a simple reporter’s level. You go to a school. Everything works. It’s a good principal, the teachers like to be there, the kids like to be there. They learn, the school is in good shape, everybody seems happy. And go to a school a few blocks away, and it’s bedlam, it’s chaos. Now, in any other enterprise, somebody would say, “If this school in the same conditions can do a good job, what’s happening in that school? Why not?” And I think eventually we have to come to the point of saying, “If a school fails where other schools under similar conditions don’t fail, get rid of it.” You have to be tough about it at some point. Either get rid of the school, or get rid of the team that’s running the school. Bring in a new team.

HEFFNER: Fred, what do you think about the efforts that have been made, the theories that have been set forth – more than theories – let’s say to bring about the changes that I’m sure in very large part reflect what it is you’re talking about?

HECHINGER: Yeah. Well, the Riddle, the original Riddle concept has more or less collapsed. It’s, Riddle, the organization, has really announced that the Edison Project is not going in its original way of starting 100 or so new non-public schools …

HEFFNER: For lack of being able to do that because money …

HECHINGER: For lack of money. Originally, they said they were going to raise, I think, between $2 and $3 billion from industry. And it just isn’t coming forth. Also, they promised a kind of return on the investment that just couldn’t be accepted by anyone in those finances. So they have now turned to, they are now saying that what they will do is, public schools that want them to come in, they will manage, in fact, manage the schools. Whatever the little program is, put it into those schools. But they will be public schools, in effect. Now, that’s happening in a number of other, there are other organizations. There’s an organization, the name of which now escapes me, Ultimate, Ultimates of something. But is managing some of the schools in Baltimore, at the request of the schools. I think there’s a place for that kind of thing, at least to test it. Because one problem – it’s not the only problem, not even the biggest problem – but one problem in the public schools is poor management. And that’s understandable. The schools are being managed by people who are trained to be teachers. And I think there’s a case to be made that the management should be in the hands of people who learn enough about how schools are run and so forth, what the purpose of schools is, but who know management. So I think that at least is worth trying. But again we have to be careful. There was a period in, oh, about 15 years ago, there was an organization, a fairly reputable organization that offered something that was called “performance contracting.” And they offered the public schools, they would run the school, they would bring in the materials, they would even bring in some of their own teachers as supervisors. And they said, if the children didn’t reach a certain level of performance and testing, they wouldn’t get paid. Well, the system really collapsed. First of all, there was a lot of opposition, which probably didn’t make it easier. But it really collapsed because, when you brought in their own curriculum and their own way of teaching kids – and a lot of it was kids teaching themselves, sitting in isolation with their books and so forth – they raised the standards by manipulating the materials and the tests.

HEFFNER: You mean the results of the tests, right.

HECHINGER: So it went out of business. And you have to watch all these things. You have to make sure that in the process of doing it –again, I get back to the same point – the child is at the center of things. If there are outside managers that can provide better education, better service for children, by all means try it. But you have to be careful that it’s not just a management kind of approach, not just an approach to say, “We can make the kids pass better tests by doing certain things.” That’s not the issue. The issue is how children learn, how they behave toward each other, and so forth.

HEFFNER: It is still so difficult for me to deal with the phenomenon, as an American historian by training, to deal with this notion of we don’t put our children first. It’s difficult for me as a father and a grandfather to understand that. And it runs against our, what one sees in the movies and sees on television and so forth and so on about what we’re supposed to be like.

HECHINGER: And you know, even at the top of society historically, at the top of society the very rich are sort of the American aristocracy, really abandon their children to hired help. And often without any real sense of a choice of what that help would be like. So it’s not just a poverty issue. It’s an issue of children are, here, children require time and effort, and you have to give up some things.

HEFFNER: Now, Fred, when in the last generation or the last two generations have Americans shown a willingness to give up anything?

HECHINGER: That’s it. That’s it. And you know, if people don’t want to give things up, they shouldn’t have children. You know, there’s a lot of joy in it, of course, if you do the right things. But it does mean giving things up, it does mean making sacrifices. And it’s very hard to get the American people to do that.

HEFFNER: Now, what do you think is going to happen, in the few minutes that we have remaining? What, if you had to look into a crystal ball and say, “Given what’s happened in the past, given how successful or unsuccessful it might have been, I think this will happen to children, and particularly adolescents in America.”

HECHINGER: Well, I think, if I take an optimistic view of what could happen …

HEFFNER: Be realistic.

HECHINGER: Well, I’ll be realistic. Okay. I think there is now, there is enough pressure to do better. There is enough pressure to do better for the children. For variety.

HEFFNER: From where?

HECHINGER: Well, if you start at the wrong end, there is pressure because of the violence that involves children.


HECHINGER: So there is real pressure to do something about this. And clearly, clearly, something should be done about it. Again, there are no simple solutions. It requires all kinds of things: child care and education and decent home lives and so forth. But there is pressure for that. I think there is, there are two conflicting pressures now. One comes sort of from the people who want more national tests and a national curriculum. And on the other hand, there are the school reformers who say, “That’s not what we want. We don’t have any objection to national goals, but we want individual attention to the children, we want the schools and the teachers to reach those goals in their own way.” They think that’s a problem, if you have those two streams fighting each other. And I’m with the second one. But the first one is very strong. You know, Americans like to have visible, simple solutions, and a test of the simple solution.

HEFFNER: But, Fred, are you suggesting that the kind of work in junior high schools that you’re talking about, teamwork, will not produce results on a national test level?

HECHINGER: I think, yes, I think it will produce results on the national test level. It also will produce results in dealing with more congenial atmosphere for the schools. It will have results in terms of these children behaving differently. And that’s an issue, that’s a real issue. Our children behave at their worst when they go to schools like we went to. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

HECHINGER: But I am saying in those days this was not a problem, because we were docile.


HECHINGER: But that’s no longer true. And if you look at the urban high school today where really there’s an enormous amount of misbehavior and lack of safety and all that, and one of the reasons is that nobody knows these kids. In the junior high schools that I described, the middle schools I described, there isn’t this problem, because these kids are all known. They don’t behave like anonymous people; they behave like human beings. So I think there is a chance that if this kind of thing spreads – and it makes sense that it will – and if eventually we deal more effectively with children in their early years – and as you probably know, Carnegie is now engaged in a task force that will deal with those years – I think then there is some hope. But it takes an awful lot of public support, which we don’t have now.

HEFFNER: It takes two, in the minute remaining, doesn’t it? A national educational policy?

HECHINGER: Absolutely. A national education policy …


HECHINGER: … children’s policy, population policy.

HEFFNER: What sign is there of the development of such policies?

HECHINGER: I wish I had been more optimistic about it. There are bright spots occasionally, but overall a long way to go. And there is still too much of the benign myth that the family will take care of all of this, at a time when the people who are saying this don’t realize what’s happened to the family.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the present Washington leadership recognizes the problems that you recognize, A; and will do something about it, B?

HECHINGER: I think much of the leadership really recognizes it, and I think is pushing in the right direction. I think there is, for the first time, some contact between, say, the Education Department and the Labor Department and the Justice Department, so forth. The Secretary of Education, as it happens, was the chairman of our task force on young children, and of course he had to resign from that when he was appointed. But clearly he was deeply concerned with what happens to children from birth. So I think there is pressure in the right direction in Washington, but Washington has not, you know, Washington has to cope also not only with other problems but with other branches of government.

HEFFNER: Fred Hechinger, thank you for joining me today. If I sigh as I say that, it’s because of the enormity of the problems we have been discussing. Maybe in a couple of years when you are back here again we’ll be able to be much more optimistic.

HECHINGER: I hope so.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Fred, for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And 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, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

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