U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a daunting task: reform the nation's public school system and fix the widely criticized No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. But Duncan is no policy wonk; he and his wife, Australian-born Karen Duncan, have two school-age children themselves. Claire, 8, and Ryan, 5, both attend a public elementary school in Arlington, Va. They spoke with us as the country's first couple in education -- and as parents just like you.
Q When we launched our School Years edition last year, our unofficial tagline was "Because school changes everything." Now that both of your children are in school, what changes have you experienced?
Karen Duncan: Our kids' transition from home to school was really smooth, fortunately.
Arne Duncan: Yeah, Claire had her backpack laid out on her bed three weeks before her first day of kindergarten. She couldn't have been more thrilled about starting. And when we had all that unexpected snow in DC [in February and March], she was devastated that she was missing school.
KD: What's been interesting for me is to see the range of interests they've developed, since school has exposed them to so much more. Our son has become musically inclined and they're both learning Spanish. When you let kids follow their interests, you'll be surprised sometimes at what they choose.
Q A lot of people might find it refreshing to learn that your kids go to a public school. Why was that the right path for your family?
AD: Our children have been in public school since they started kindergarten. We believe in public schools and think there are phenomenal ones across the country. What makes a public school great, though, is engaged parents. Karen has been a very active volunteer, and we feel a real responsibility to contribute to the success of our school and community. You can't just hand your child off [to the school] and say "Your turn now." No matter what the community -- urban, rural, suburban, rich, poor -- parents need to step up. And that's tough today, I understand. Parents are often working two or even three jobs to make ends meet. But it's so important that our children see their parents right in there with their teachers. It sends the message to them that "wow, there's nothing more important than my education. Everyone's working together on my behalf." I think that's a powerful, powerful message.
"To see the extraordinary potential that every child has is what drives me. I've witnessed, firsthand, that when you give s tudents a chance, no matter how tough things are, they can be successful."
KD: Right, and certainly at the age that our kids are, they're very receptive to having their parents around at school. I know that won't last forever, but every day, my kids ask me, "Can you please stay?" They love to see their parents at school. They're proud.