Fred Hechinger

Our Schools … Ourselves, Part I

VTR Date: June 16, 1990

Guest: Hechinger, Fred


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Fred Hechinger
Title: “Our Schools … Ourselves”
VTR: 6/16/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When Long Island University’s distinguished George Polk Journalism Award for Career Achievement was bestowed recently upon Fred Hechinger, my guest today, as he prepares to retire from The New York Times but not from what must continue to be a brilliant journalistic career in pursuit of excellence in American education, I couldn’t help but remember his first visit to THE OPEN MIND in 1958. He and James Conant, former President of Harvard and Victoria Wagner, Director of the Ethical Culture Schools were here to discuss what’s right with America’s schools. For then, as now, they were under ferocious attack and, as he looks back in his now long career as a journalist with a particular concern for our schools, I wonder what Fred Hechinger wants us to know, to understand, to do about American education. As important, I wonder where and when and how his own thinking about education in America, and his prescriptions for its ills have changed over the years.

So that’s the basic question, Fred.

Hechinger: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think my perceptions have changed that much, but the conditions of the schools have changed.

Heffner: For good or for bad?

Hechinger: In some ways for good, but not for enough children. For too many children the schools have become worse, and you know, you mentioned Jim Conant, and he wrote a book, and I’m not quite sure…it was a little later than the program we did…I think it was in the early 60’s…

Heffner: I think so.

Hechinger: …called Slums and Suburbs and he talked about the difference between the affluent and the poor schools being social dynamite. And I think that problem has become worse and we have not really addressed it as well as we should.

Heffner: There are those who say we have become a nation divided between the educationally rich and getting richer and the educationally poor and getting poorer.

Hechinger: Absolutely true…absolutely true. And, of course, part of the reason is the condition of the cities. The cities, it seems to me, have deteriorated. And in the cities you have the same problem, you have, on the one hand extreme wealth…what I sometimes think is almost obscene wealth, and on the other hand you have terrible poverty. And the middle gets squeezed out…the middle class gets squeezed out and the poor are left with the worst kind of education. Now that doesn’t mean that all the poor children are going to bad schools…I’ve seen some wonderful schools, in this city, in New York. I’ve gone to schools in East Harlem, I’ve got to schools on the lower East Side, wonderful teachers, new and imaginative programs, and you come away…your first reaction is “isn’t this wonderful?”, and then you think about the thousands and thousands of children who don’t have than advantage. And essentially that’s really…you know the ultimate test of American education will have to be, as it was then, will there be a day when all children can expect a good education, go to good schools, have good teachers…and that we have not yet reach.

Heffner: Well you say…let me, let me hold you back on that…you say, “we have not reached…”, I’m under the impression that you’re saying well we’ve marched somewhat backwards.

Hechinger: We moved…we moved backwards for the very poor. And you have to add to that we have more poor children than we used to have. I don’t know whether the schools have become worse for poor children, but there are more poor children in the schools. The figure, I think is that one in four children is growing up in poverty, and the schools obviously reflect that and if you add to that the children who are homeless, who get shifted from school to school, then on the other hand, we have made progress and we have created better schools…we’ve learned some things. We’ve learned, for instance, that it’s better to control schools at the school level than to have it controlled by a distant bureaucracy. And I think that’s improved things. I was amazed…the other day, just recently, page one in the New York Times, top of page one…there was a story that said “the whole child must be educated”. Now, I look back to the fifties, when I was covering education…people got fired…superintendents were fire for talking about educating the whole child because that was Dewey and Dewey was considered to be subversive. And it’s taken us all this time to get back to realize that, of course, you have to educate the whole child.

Heffner: Yes, but you know, two questions…for me, some out of that. Number one, isn’t that part of the whole business of imposing too heavy a burden upon the schools?

Hechinger: Sure. You know we do that with everything…we, we…whenever we have a problem, a national problem…

Heffner: Let the schools do it.

Hechinger: Let the schools do it. The nation must be competitive…let the schools make sure that we’re competitive. Even though the fact that we’re not competitive right now has absolutely nothing to do with the schools. We are not competitive because of certain management mistakes, not because of lack of skilled workers, we still have enough skilled workers. That’s true. We may…we may be in trouble in the future if we don’t educate enough people to read and write and to be, to be able to be good employees, but the schools are not going to make the nation competitive. The schools can’t solve all the problems that they’re burdened with because of the family having changed.

Heffner: It seems to me, too, Fred, that the schools, in a sense are doing less. For instance I was thinking, just the other day about a program that Governor Cuomo did here when we were talking…after he made a speech about teacher moral values in the schools. And, not trying to be a wise guy, I was trying to press him as to whose values and what values. Now I don’t think I’d do that today, I think I’d join him in his call…but the schools have withdrawn to a considerable extent from that whole child aspect…

Hechinger: Yeah.

Heffner: …haven’t they?

Hechinger: I think they have. They have withdrawn from that, but they also are in a difficult situation because the child, of course, is educated not only by what it…but what he or she hears about in the school, but also what the society is like. And there are a lot of things, a lot of things happening that are daily in the newspapers that are on television that give children the clearer impression that moral values are not all that protected, that high on the agendas. So that’s a problem with schools. There’s another problem…heath is enormously important. And the schools can’t solve that problem.

Heffner: Am I correct in my impression, and I was thinking about this the other day, I remember back in school that an effort was made to teach us what was called “hygiene” then…we were taught, on a very primitive level, and after all our teacher know only primitively about health matters, but the schools were involved. My sense of the matter is that they’re not that involved…

Hechinger: They’re not…

Heffner: …today.

Hechinger: …they’re not involved now and they really should be and if the schools say, quite rightly, that they can’t do it all alone, then you have to bring in the health services and attach them to the schools. You know there’s a lot of argument about should there be…should there be clinics attached to, to the schools, well it seems to me it makes a lot of sense because that’s where the children are. And especially the poor children. Frequently they have no way of getting to a place where their teeth are looked at, their eyes are looked at. It should be done in a school, but then that, as you know, gets instantly mixed up with, with contraception and sex issues. And, again, it seems to me I’d rather have the, have health clinics available to advise the kids than learn it on the street. But that’s a terribly difficult to get…problem to solve.

Heffner: So that the health question gets mixed up, as you say, with the question of teaching sex education.

Hechinger: Absolutely.

Heffner: …and offering contraceptives, etc. And the values question gets mixed up with religion in the schools…

Hechinger: Absolutely.

Heffner: …and the separation…

Hechinger: Absolutely.

Heffner: Alright, then…

Hechinger: Absolutely. And, you have to add something to it. Because of the…the schools have been so afraid of being accused of teaching religion, they have moved totally away from religion and obviously, if you teach history, for instance, religion is a part of it, and you can’t, you can’t take it out of the instruction, but we have done that largely.

Heffner: Now…we’re not talking only, I presume about New York City…

Hechinger: Oh, no.

Heffner: …I presume we’re talking about urban areas throughout America.

Hechinger: Absolutely. There’s no difference between New York and other cities, and not that much difference between New York and the smaller towns. The suburbs are different. I’ve always felt that the suburbs, suburban schools are really private schools run with public funds…they look very much like private schools. But in smaller towns you have the same problems as, as you have in the big city schools.

Heffner: Do you think there’s going to be an increasing and perhaps even a successful push toward privatization in the school area?

Hechinger: Well, right now there is, of course, a new report that’s being pushed quite heavily by the Brookings Institution, which essentially really advocates privatization of the schools, It says in fact that any private school that proclaims itself public school by meeting certain standard would become…would get public funds through what this report calls “scholarship”, used to be called “vouchers”, but the vouchers were defeated, so this is now a way…an attempt to get around…I don’t think it’s going to happen but it certainly, is certainly a push in that direction.

Heffner: You say you don’t think it will happen. Would you like it to happen?

Hechinger: No.

Heffner: Why not?

Hechinger: I think total deregulation, which this would mean, of the schools, of education…

Hechinger: …would invite the same problems that we’ve had with total deregulation of other services, and I don’t think we want the savings and loan reputation in the schools. No, I think the reason I…to be quite serious about it…this public schools have many problems. But one problem is clearly money. And if you take public money and spread it among the non-public schools, it just stands to reason that the public schools will get even less money. What I am, what I am supporting, and that’s the part of this proposal, I strongly support choice within the public school system and competition. Let parents choose which, which school their children…which public school their children attend and if there are some schools that no parents choose, then it gives you a message and close the school down or change it.

Heffner: Fred, what would that do to our efforts in the fifties, after Brown versus Board of Education, after the desegregation decision…what would that do to our efforts to bring about a smidgen of equality in our schools, in terms of Blacks and whites…

Hechinger: Well, I think one of the…one of the objections incidentally to the…to having the choice go beyond the public schools is that it could very readily lead to re-segregation, although there are ways you could prevent this. But it’s really, it’s certainly a danger. I think within the…choice within the public school system, while there’s a slight danger of that, too, it’s not as serious because you can, you can regulate choice within the public system to an extent that it can’t be used exclusively for race or whatever reasons. There are …you know there are very effective choice programs being conducted now. Minnesota has gone into the choice program, quite effectively. Minnesota has gone even to the point where high school kids can take part of their work at the local universities and colleges and get credit both in high school and the college. New York City, the District Two, which is in the lower East Side, very poor area, has a program now where the District Superintendent reported that this year, in this past school year, something like 90% of all the children in the elementary schools are going to the school of their choice. East Harlem has an effective choice program. And the “magnet” schools are an element of choice. If you set up a school, a high school for instance that specializes in foreign languages or specializes in the art or specializes in science and math and the kids…their parents apply to that particular school, you create better schools, you create a condition where the children won’t drop out because that’s the school they chose, they’re more likely to stay there. And there you have a chance, in fact, of having better integrated schools because the children come from a wider…

Heffner: You know, Fred, that, that makes me think…the first time I went to the Soviet Union, actually to look at broadcasting, talking to the Manager of Programs, and asking him what was the relationship between what the Soviets discovered about what people want to watch television and what is provided them…he drew himself up and said, “Professor Heffner, when you walk into your classroom do you ask your students what you should teach them?”. And I wonder about the competitiveness that you’re talking about here…aren’t we…if you indicated that our basic problems, educationally, stem from our basic societal problems, then the people who are going to be competing here are the people who are giving us these problems anyway, or responding to them. You made the comment a moment ago about the savings and loans, talking about deregulation…are you really so sanguine about competition in schools as well as in every other aspect of our lives?

Hechinger: No, I think you have to be careful about it. But you still need competition, but you also need regulation. And competition has to be within a certain framework of what’s expected of the schools, what the standards are. But at the same time if you don’t have competition, if you run a monopoly where everything is fixed and can’t be changed, and of course, the latest issue on that score in New York has been the capacity of the Superintendent or the Chancellor to shift Principals…which you couldn’t do in the past. Well, if you can’t move a Principal, you can’t change the school. And, so I think in that sense, competition and an effect on the school, the good school being chosen by the parents over the poor school. Now you have to be very careful, you have to make sure that the poor school has a chance to get improvement or imprive itself. We’ve not, in the current system, we’re doing the opposite. You know we’re giving extra money, largely Federal money, not enough, but we’re giving extra money to the poor school on the basis…sound basis, that poor children are harder to educate and they need…the school needs more money. But when the school improves itself, the money is taken away. So the incentive is not to improve yourself and it ought to be the other way around. Of course you help…you want to help the school and its problems, but if it improves itself, give it a reward and give a reward also to the school that’s doing a good job already, don’t say “Well, they’re doing a good job, they don’t need any money.”

Heffner: Now, I, I, I see the point…it just frightens me somewhat to think of this wonderful, great, enormous American penchant for competition somehow or other beginning to seem like a panacea.

Hechinger: It’s not a panacea. It’s not a panacea, but you want to stop parents feeling, and children, too, that they are locked into something that they can’t change.

Heffner: Well, you know…

Hechinger: It’s, it’s a modified way of competing, It’s not…it doesn’t mean it’s not cutthroat competition, obviously, but it also means that good Principals should be able to compete in the total teacher pool for teacher pool for teachers they want.

Heffner: But you know, I have…I have to ask this…I can’t ignore the fact that you and I sat here together with Mr. Conant and Mr. Wagner 32 years ago…if the schools are under attach now, very much as they were under attach 32 years ago, aren’t some of our basic assumptions about what schools can do in a society such as our own, subject to revision. Some…maybe where…it’s not just a matter of asking the schools to do too much, when Larry Cremin sat here with me some time, I think he was basically annoyed with me, said “You’ve got an elitist point of view” when I raised the question as to whether the universal education hope, aspiration might not have proven to be too much of a burden for any society to bear, or at least our own. And I wonder what your own response to that is?

Hechinger: I’d say “no”, I think we…I think it’s still…

Heffner: We can do it.

Hechinger: I think we can do it. I think we are moving much too slowly. That would be my main criticism, and that grows out of my own experience. I find that Chancellor Fernandez is now…

Heffner: Here in New York.

Hechinger: …in New York…the Chancellor of the largest school system in the country, is now trying to do things, improve things, specific things that I wrote about 30 years ago, that were then being debated. An example….30 years ago there were repeated moves to get rid of the Board of Examiners in New York because the Board didn’t work to get good teachers in the system. He’s now finally getting to the point, I think he’s about at the point where he can do this. But 30 years is too long to bring about a change. And there are many others.

Heffner: Now, if you had to put your prophet’s hat and ask yourself where this nation, now just New York, not just California…where this nation will be at the end of this decade, where we’ll be at the end of this century…educationally…realistically, not wanting to be a Pollyanna or the opposite…what would you say?

Hechinger: I would say we have a chance to make the system better. A chance…that doesn’t mean that’s going…

Heffner: No, but I’m asking you…

Hechinger: …using…

Heffner: …as a prophet.

Hechinger: Well, I’m going to be a prophet. I think in the next ten years we will get a larger group of good teachers, and we will reward them better than we have in the past. That’s one thing that I think will happen. I think we will see a realignment of the school within the school. I think we’ll see situation where particularly for adolescents, who are not in the worst shape in the whole school systems, the junior high school, where they will get a different kind of environment, where there will be people who are taking charge of their educational and social and…and whatever…problems, something that they can work with. I think we are moving…I think we will see at the…one of the great failures of American education in the past has been the, the bigness of the school, the impersonality of the school. I think we’re going to see changes there. I think by the end of this decade many, many schools, perhaps all of them, but may but maybe that’s too much to expect…many schools will be run by the people in the school, not by some distant School Board, not by some distant Board of Education. They’ll be run in various combinations, some by Principals working with teachers, some maybe even by teachers alone, very few, but some might be. Some will be run in combination for teachers, principals and community people, parents. I think we will see a, a breaking up of this colossus, of the school where people…I, myself, graduated from a high school in New York that had 6,000 students…

Heffner: What high school was that?

Hechinger: DeWitt Clinton High School.

Heffner: I mention that only because I went to DeWitt Clinton…

Hechinger: That’s right…

Heffner: And I remember when I went there, there were 10,000 students.

Hechinger: Alright. Well, you know what’s wrong with that. Even a decent school…

Heffner: Wait, wait a minute, Fred. Are you saying that old DeWitt C was not a better place to be a student when we went there?

Hechinger: Better than what?

Heffner: Better than most parallel high schools today? Large or small? Seriously.

Hechinger: I’m not sure.

Heffner: Ah, come on.

Hechinger: I’m not sure. I think…well, yes, I guess it was. It was different time…it was different time you could do things…

Heffner: So it’s not just a function of largeness.

Hechinger: Well, but it is partly. It is partly a function of largeness. I, I still…looking back on DeWitt Clinton…it was not a bad school, it was not a great school, either.

Heffner: Oh, it had great teachers.

Hechinger: It had some great teachers. But it was run, as any school of that size…it was run like an Army camp. And the Principal was somewhere…the Principal was more awesome than God.

Heffner: A. Mortimer Clark.

Hechinger: That’s right.

Heffner: Right.

Hechinger: That’s right.

Heffner: Sure, and one of the Boylen, there’s always a Boylen to order you around…

Hechinger: That’s right.

Heffner: But by gosh and by golly, it seemed to have worked in terms of what it produced.

Hechinger: But you dealt then with…first of all you dealt with a large enrollment that had intact families.

Heffner: Okay.

Hechinger: And the children came to school whether they wanted to learn or not, they knew they were going to stay there. And…so you really are dealing with a different, different situation and that kind of thing would not work today.

Heffner: Okay, you’re saying our society has changed.

Hechinger: Our society has changed…exactly. And, but I Have to say…I mean I’m not being disloyal to DeWitt Clinton…

Heffner: Please don’t be.

Hechinger: No, I’m not…I’m grateful to DeWitt Clinton and a hew of the teachers there. But it could have been, even then, a better school than it was. We didn’t dare to expect anything better. But you see today, people do expect something better.

Heffner: Well, it’s funny that, that you say that…that today people do expect something better because it seems to me that we’re all so down on that experience, expect those of us who send our children to private schools and make that selection, have those alternatives available to us because of our good fortune.

Hechinger: That’s right.

Heffner: Ahhh…

Hechinger: And that…and parents should…parents who have their children in public school should have the same opportunity to select good schools within that system.

Heffner: But, Fred, when you say “should”, and I know we’re getting…going to soon get the signal to stop…so I’m going to ask you to sit where you are so we can go on with this conversation and do another program…there are fewer and fewer people who are in that situation. You say so yourself, and I wonder why you then do, when I ask you to look into the crystal ball, need…want, certainly to see a brighter picture for the future.

Hechinger: I see a brighter picture because more people want it. Because there’s more pressure to provide better education, there’s more…there is a greater understanding, I think, today among the population that not getting a good education…not graduating…dropping out really is something that our economy no longer can support. You know one of the, one of the sort of interesting figures, historically, is that in the forties approximately 30% of the children who entered high school graduated…70% never graduated. But they weren’t called “drop-outs”, we didn’t have the term probably…they got jobs. Now we’ve reversed it…which, you know, in a sense is great…it’s a great accomplishment, we…we graduate 70% and 30% drop out. But there’s nothing for the 30% to do. So that the society has changed.

Heffner: Obviously, we have to go on.

Hechinger: (Laughter)

Heffner: So, stay where you are…maybe we’ll even spend the next half hour talking about DeWitt C. Thank you, Fred Hechinger, for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Hechinger: It’s a pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, to, to you in the audience. I hop eyou’ll join is again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s programs, your thoughts about American education, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.