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Secretary Of Education Arne Duncan On Play, Policy And Spanish Homework

As Secretary Of Education since 2009, Arne Duncan is the Obama administration’s point man overseeing some of the most dynamic reforms to the national education system in a generation. As the father of a 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, he’s a parent navigating the tricky balance between attending parent/teacher conferences while answering to the highest boss in the land. High ranking federal officials: They’re just like us!

RELATED: The Wildly Innovative, Unexpectedly Fun, and Very Expensive Future of Education

We caught up with Secretary Duncan while he was visiting schools in Maine to talk about the role of play in elementary education, national education policy versus family screen time policies and who handles the Spanish homework in his house.

What have you learned about the U.S. public education system from being a father, as opposed to being … the head of the U.S. public education system?

“The only hard part is fitting into those little chairs with the desks. That can be tough.”My children have been to schools in both Chicago and Arlington, Virginia. First and foremost, I’m a dad – that’s the most important thing in my life by far. And I’m extraordinarily thankful that my children are able to go to wonderful public schools with great principals and teachers who are really committed. My wife and I have been really pleased with the quality of the education our children have received and we just try to do what we can to be good partners to their teachers.

As a father, is it a challenge to go from working on that macro level all day long, and then coming home where you need to deal with education on that one-to-one level with your kids?

Not at all – that’s the most fun. It’s what keeps you grounded. I visit hundreds of schools; that’s how I learn. I talk to kids, I talk to teachers, I talk to parents, I talk to the community and go to concerts or assemblies, those kinds of things. I don’t learn sitting behind a desk in Washington. But I’ll only stay in this job for a limited amount of time and I’ll be a dad forever. Being a dad always comes first.

Does the Secretary Of Education get to attend his own kids’ parent/teacher conferences and, if so, how do the teachers usually react?

I attend parent/teacher conferences faithfully and the teachers are fantastic. When it’s about my kids, whether it’s at school or a soccer game or basketball game, I’m just “dad.” The teachers give honest and candid feedback and we try to help our children build upon their strengths and be responsive when they have challenges. That’s when education works best, when parents and teachers work together. So we try to keep very clear lines of communication open. The only hard part is fitting into those little chairs with the desks. That can be tough.

arne duncan interview

Technology can do a fantastic job of driving excellence and helping kids move faster, helping them identify their passions and pursue them. It’s also an important tool in increasing equality and providing opportunities to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have them. The school we were in yesterday, in Indian country where unemployment is 60, 65 percent and things are really difficult, they’re moving to a 1-to-1 student-to-iPad ratio this fall. Think about world of learning and opportunity that opens up for kids – it’s phenomenal.

At home, we try and think of screen time in terms of entertainment and in terms of educational value. We limit the entertainment side, but when the kids are working on a PowerPoint or studying something – both of my kids work on Khan Academy, and my daughter and wife are learning Spanish online – we’re really encouraging of the educational benefits and value there. But we do limit the entertainment-type stuff.

“As a parent, I’m less concerned with the quantity than I am with the quality.”

The concept of play in education and how it fits with things like the Common Core curriculum and standardized testing has been getting some attention in the press lately. Can those things coexist in today’s schools?

Absolutely. I’m a huge proponent of play – I was one of those boys for whom it was difficult to sit still for 6 hours a day. When I had the chance to have recess or PE, I was a better student. My wife is a former PE teacher who works for a non-profit called Kaboom, which builds playgrounds in disadvantaged communities, so we’re both personally and professionally committed to the idea of active minds and active bodies, and that these things can not only coexist, they’re mutually beneficial. When children are physically engaged they do better academically. Some people think of play and working hard in the classroom as either/or, and I fundamentally reject that. It has to be both/and. They reinforce each other.

Kids in the US get a lot more homework than in some European countries. What’s your opinion on what the right amount is?

As a parent, I’m less concerned with the quantity than I am with the quality. Our children could have a 2 or 3 hour assignment that’s captivating and makes them think, and time flies by. They could have a 10-minute worksheet that’s boring and mundane and it’s much more painful. So, I’m less interested in the amount of time it takes and more interested in it not just being a regurgitation of stuff they did before. It needs to be challenging them to think critically and draw conclusions and do research. When assignments push our kids, they thrive on that and it goes by quickly, whereas if the assignment is redundant it’s much less beneficial and they don’t get much out of it. The actual minutes, that’s the wrong way to view it.

What’s the homework routine in the Duncan house – do you and your wife divide and conqueror does one of you wind up carrying more of the load?

With my wife and daughter trying to learn Spanish together, that’s not one of my strengths, so I’m no help there. But we do try to divide and conquer. I generally work later than my wife, so she ends up doing most of it during the week. But we eat dinner together and then read together as a family after dinner. We try to be disciplined in that routine; both my parents and my wife’s parents read to us as kids, and we try to build that pattern with our kids. Then, on weekends, I help more with the homework.

What advice would you give a father whose kid is just about to start Kindergarten?

Relax and enjoy it. We used to have little kids; when we moved to DC, they were 6 and 4. Now we wonder where the time went. It’s hard and challenging and the most important thing you’ll ever do, but it’s also the most fun thing. Nothing is more fun than having little kids, seeing them learn and grow. I’d like to find a way to stop time or at least slow it down, but we haven’t figured that one out yet. Our days of having little kids are gone and we miss them – it’s an amazing time.

Last question: who handles the school lunches in your house?

My daughter started middle school last year, so she starts earlier than my son. Since my wife works out in the mornings, I get my daughter breakfast and lunch and then take her to the bus stop or drop her off at school on my way to work. She likes sandwiches, bagels, and they can heat stuff up so sometimes macaroni and cheese or some meatballs. She likes meatballs.

Sounds pretty mundane, considering your station in government.

It may sound mundane, but that stuff is more important than anything else I do during the day. Got to make sure the kid is well fed.