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What’s the Matter with Kansas?

It’s good to be back after a few weeks on the road. I knew my trip to Kansas would provide fodder for the blog.

First, I’ll admit it: I am a latte-drinking, coastal-living (until recently), blue-state elitist. But every time I go on an obligatory trip to the “heartland” (and obligatory is the only reason I’d ever go), damn if something doesn’t just reinforce the stereotype.

But this isn’t really a rant about Kansas — it’s about something that is desperately wrong with our country. Kansas merely provided me the most outrageous example possible. I couldn’t make this up and tell it with a straight face.

Have you ever heard the statistic that 80% of American adults can’t identify the US on a world map? Well get a load of this:

I stopped at a gas station in Dodge City to get some cold drinks for the family. A friendly local (cowboy hat and all) started talking to me about the weather, then asked if I was from around there (I so obviously wasn’t). Here is the exact transcript of what followed:

Me: No. My husband is from here, but we live in Nevada now.

Him: (With a look of utter blankness) Where’s that?

Me: (trying to control my expression of shock) Next to California.

Him: (blank look)

Me: It’s just east of California……Between California and Utah…?

Him: Is that near Alberta, Canada?

And so on until my drinks were thankfully poured and lidded and I escaped.

It was clear this guy not only did not know where Nevada was, but that he’d never even heard of it! How is it that an adult in our country can be completely ignorant of our own states? I shudder to think what his “knowledge” of the rest of the world might be.

This encounter and my experiences as a parent, shared by many other parents I know, illustrate how broken our country’s educational system is. Studies have shown for years that the US is slipping behind other Western industrialized countries, in all subject areas. If this trend continues, what will the outcome be when our poorly educated children rise to power as adults? Where will the US lie in the international arena?

I remember my childhood education quite clearly. I was one of those braniac nerd kids, who was pretty bored with the drivel the public school system was serving up. However, I was allowed to work at my own level — by being provided more advanced-level math worksheets, joining a higher grade for reading/English time, etc. Such measures kept me challenged enough that I remained engaged in the educational process.

But these steps aren’t being taken today. As I watch my older daughter — every bit as much a brainiac nerd as I — enter the school system, I am dismayed and worried. No Child Left Behind is a sad misnomer, because while it helps (I presume) kids at the lower end of the spectrum, the bright, overachieving kids are suffering. They are unchallenged, and teachers are so pressured to meet standards that they are virtually unable to provide extra material for these kids. And thinking outside the box to provide some creative solutions is inconceivable. So, I am left with a first grader who, at the start of the year, knew everything she was supposed to know by the END. I informed the teachers of this within the first month, but my concerns went ignored (as they did all year). And this is supposedly one of the best schools in our district!

In talking with other parents around the country, it is obvious that this problem is universal. And that’s a problem for everyone – parent or not. We talk on this site about how we, as government employees, serve as leaders. We need to provide leadership for educational reform, before all our children — and the country — are left behind.

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And I thought it was bad when I was talking to a co-worker today who had never heard of Wikipedia. But I bet he had heard of Nevada. And everyone knows Las Vegas. Education is a tricky problem and I’m happy to know some great teachers (it runs in the family). But they are constantly juggling a ton of demands and it always seems someone is being left behind (either the least or most gifted).


Yes, there are some magnificent teachers out there. I’ve been fortunate to have learned from some of the best! And from talking with my daughter’s teachers now, I think even the best teachers are growing more frustrated. Their hands are being tied by more and more testing, increased focus on standards, etc. The trend is that teachers are being forced to do more of these things and less actual teaching — which is why they got in the business in the first place!

As a teacher-type myself (though not in current position), it saddens me to no end. The worst part is that this is not a local phenomenon — our national system is in dire straits. There are still some great schools out there, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

Pam Broviak

I have seen the damage that this “No Child Left Behind” law has done to the kids at the “lower” spectrum too – I can tell you that law is not helping them either. I have 6 children – one of whom must attend a public school because he has Down Syndrome (the others all go to a Catholic school). We wanted him to stay in a school that specialized in teaching kids with disabilities – he had started there at age 3 – but this law forced our school district to bring him into the public system once he was old enough for Kindergarten. So instead of getting the help he needed he was placed in a class with 30 other children.

I sat in on class one day at the teacher’s request because she was having trouble getting my child to learn anything. After sitting the whole day in that class, I was amazed that any of those children could learn anything. There was obviously too many kids and the teachers (she had an assistant) could barely meet all their needs, much less those of my child. How frustrating for the kids and the teachers.

Now my child is finally in a class in that system that only has kids with learning challenges, but he has to be taken about 15 to 20 miles to another city on a bus each day to be able to attend this class which is a major scheduling problem for us since we have so many other kids to get to and from school. Yet they still won’t allow him to stay in town and just go to the one school that is specifically set up to teach kids like my son.

You are right, it isn’t the teachers or even the administrators – it is the stupid law passed by legislators who must have ignored the practicality of all this.


I’m sorry to hear of your situation. I can’t believe that your school district has such a poor teacher:student ratio for special needs students — that is a crime! Two teachers for 30 “regular” students is impossible enough; how do they expect it to work for children who need extra help and attention?

I have no idea how this law was passed. There must have been a pretty good lobby, but given that there’s no real economic profit to it, I’m not sure whom it would’ve been. Maybe the companies who deal with standardized testing and that provide tutoring to accomplish all that isn’t happening in the schools!

I hear you on the scheduling issues w/driving to another school. We are facing the same issue: do we enroll our daughter in a charter school, which would require a 20-minute drive out of the way (a lot for us)? We intentionally bought our house because of its proximity to our office, day care, and what is supposedly a good school. So we resent the idea of incurring additional stress by having to drive out of the way.

We are dreading the start of a new school year (one week from today). It is so depressing.

Pam Broviak

Sometimes I just wonder if politicians pass laws like this because on the surface they seem to be “feel good” laws, and they think they are scoring points with electors. But these laws always end up messing things up the most because no real thought goes into the implementation.