Obama's Back-To-School Message Is Responsibility

Classrooms are filling up as kids head back to school, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's two children are among them.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Duncan said students should take more responsibility for doing well in school, and he called on their parents to step up, too.

Duncan said that is the message of President Barack Obama's address to students on Tuesday. He also thanked teachers for being "unsung heroes."

Highlights from the interview:

Q: What was your favorite thing about going back to school as a kid?

A: I love this time of year. I remember there was almost a smell of new school — new pencils, new erasers, new magic markers. There's something magical about it.

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Q: What's different for kids today than when you were a kid? They face bigger challenges than when you were a kid.

A: I actually think there's more at stake than ever before. It's almost a life-or-death issue today.

For students that don't have a great education, students that don't really apply themselves — those that do have a whole series of doors continue to open for them as they get older. And those who don't see doors start to close on them very, very quickly.

There's also a lot more temptation than ever before. I'm not that old, but I didn't have MTV. We didn't have video games. There's a whole bunch of things today that can get in the way of students really applying themselves academically.

The flip side is, there's a whole set of opportunities, the Internet, chances to learn in ways that just didn't exist before.

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Q: What's different about the back-to-school time now that you're a parent?

A: It's super exciting. I have an incoming second-grader and a kindergartner. I can't believe they're that old. As a parent, you just want time to stop.

It's the first time our kids are going to be at the same school together. They're really looking forward to that. My daughter's being a great elder sibling, figuring out how she can take care of my son on the first day and walk him into class. She's a good big sister.

Q: The president is making an address to the nation's school kids on Tuesday. You've encouraged schools to watch the speech. What ideas, broadly speaking, do you expect him to talk about?

A: What's so fun about working for the president is this is so personal for him. He did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father wasn't around much. There were times when his family was on welfare.

And here he is, the president of our country, the leader of the free world, because he received a great education and worked so hard.

He's challenging all of us, but he is absolutely going to challenge students and parents to take their education seriously, to really have personal responsibility.

He really is asking students think about how critically important it is that they do well, that they take advantage of those opportunities and they apply themselves and they work hard.

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Q: The one idea kids might not want to hear about is more time in school.

A: This is not my most popular line when I've talked to young folks. But I think the idea of schools being open five days a week, six hours a day, nine months of the year just doesn't work for families in our country anymore.

Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet. Schools are safe havens. We want to make sure those are open longer hours, after school, weekends, throughout the summer.

I also want to make sure that our students can compete in an international economy. They're competing for jobs against children in India and China. And the fact is that many of those young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here.

I think our students are smarter than anyone. I just want to give them a chance to be successful.

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Q: What's different for schools this year, especially with the recession? How are schools, kids, teachers most commonly seeing the impacts of the money from the stimulus?

A: The biggest thing you'll see is hundreds of thousands of teachers in buildings who wouldn't have been there without the stimulus package. We averted an education catastrophe. We were on the verge of just a total disaster, seeing class size go from 25 to 40.

So a second-grader or a third-grader won't know, necessarily, that their teacher may not have been there, had it not been for this package.

That just is so important. We have to get dramatically better. We couldn't afford to take a step backward.

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Q: What's your message to teachers as the school year begins?

A: I just want to say thank you. Teachers are the unsung heroes in our society.

In so many other professions, you're measured by what you get, what you accumulate. Wealth and power and prestige and fancy titles.

Education, teaching, is totally different. It's all about what you give, not what you get. Helping students learn. Giving students a sense of self-esteem. Giving them a vision of what they can accomplish.

And teachers, hundreds of thousands of teachers, every single day, are making a miraculous difference in the lives of our students.

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Q: What about for parents?

A: Parents are always going to be our students' first teachers. The most important thing I can do is to read to my children every night, to not have them watching TV and to really be a partner with that teacher.

Parents have to step up. I know it's tough. People are working several jobs now. They've never been under more financial stress.

But there is nothing more important any of us can do than to help our students be successful academically, to really let our children know how important school is, how much we value education, and how much teachers and principals are our partners in helping our students fulfill their potential.


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