Forum: Our schools have persuaded kids to become ‘quite quitters’

Our models for teaching kids rely on corporate theories. It’s no wonder education doesn’t inspire them.

By Ron Friesen / Herald Forum

Schools are undergoing more scrutiny than ever following the pandemic, and fundamental questions about our educational structure are emerging.

Students are way ahead of adults with their “why” questions. These questions usually start in middle school and are unanswered. The questions become more frequent in high school. As they continue to go unanswered, the students do their own version of “quiet quitting.

Students may be in their seats, and may appear to do the work, but some are not engaged nor inspired and do the minimal required to just get by. What are they learning? To do the minimal to just get by. No inspiration. No extra effort. Little accountability.

Why is this? Our students, their attitudes, and their inspiration are the direct products of our assembly-line education system designed more than 100 years ago.

But in the 1990s, following President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy, our education system morphed into a model similar to Boeing management and production. Student achievement was the “product.” And so to produce a top-quality product, the manufacturing process (teaching) and materials (students) had to be defined to the tiniest degree possible so nothing could go wrong. Except something huge went very wrong. Students were dehumanized, and teaching was devalued as it became more and more mechanized. I saw this happen as I taught music in middle school.

Students privately ridicule the notion of required subjects, because when they ask the “why” question, the answer is always some form of “Because I said so.” And why is this? Because teachers are told what, why, and how to teach their classes, and if they ask “why?” they get a variation of the same “Because I said so” answer. And up the chain of command it goes.

The intentions were good. We wanted to insure that everyone could get a “good education.” But the wrong powerful people tried to “fix” the education system. People who were in charge of building airplanes and technology climbed into the driver’s seat and tried to refine the assembly line. But what has happened?

After this 30-year experiment, are student outcomes better? Have more of our students become inspired to greater achievement? Have we done a better job preparing better citizens with better life skills? No. The promised advancements have not been delivered despite huge effort and cost.

The most recent assembly line “shiny object” is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Social studies, history and English, which focus on citizenship and critical thinking skills have now been devalued and put in the “second row.” And now, completely devalued, in the far back row, are all the “performing” classes like fine and performing arts and the industrial arts. Yet those “back row” classes are the very ones which do the best job teaching the essential life skills students need to become their very best selves in whatever role they choose.

What are those life skills? Preparation. Accountability. Value. Performance.

Performance requires practice and skill mastery which is preparation. Group performance requires accountability as each one is responsible for doing their part to make the group’s performance look good.

Value is learned as each part of the whole, no matter how small, is vital to top performance. In my band room there was a motto: “In band, no one sits on the bench.” Every person played a part with individual ability. But all were equally important.

Performance is that one moment in time when all the preparation and accountability come together. Each person does not do well just so they can look good. They do well so everyone can look good! Everyone works together to achieve their very best.

These kinds of experiences engage and motivate students. They understand their value and so try their very best. There is no quiet quitting because it is just not desirable nor even possible.

Our popular athletic programs come close to this model, but coaches in some sports have to work very hard to convince those on the bench that they are as valuable as the “first string” players. This is much easier in the performance classes.

This can be done in all classes, but it requires a total mind shift. Teaching must focus first on the needs of the student, not the needs of the curriculum. The curriculum must serve the student. Today, the student is slave to the curriculum so quiet quitting is the most common form of rebellion.

If we want to engage and inspire our students in middle and high school they need opportunities to perform. If we want to inspire our community’s support for schools, it needs to experience these performances which proudly shows off our kid’s achievements!

Our students’ education will transform only when our rigid system is turned upside down. Classes, subjects and curriculum must serve the needs of students, instead of students serving the needs of classes, subjects and curriculum. Programs that focus on performance automatically do this. But instead of trying to transform all classes into performing models, the models of performance are the first to get cut because they sit in the back row of our education structure. The high-tech assembly line strikes again.

The last line of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is appropriate here: “When will we ever learn?”

Ron Friesen is a longtime Marysville resident, a retired music teacher and community and church musician and is committed to community improvement.

Herald Forum

The Herald Forum invites community members to submit essays on topics of importance and interest to them. Essays typically are between 400 and 600 words in length, although exceptions for longer pieces can be made. To submit essays or for more information about the Herald Forum, write Herald Opinion editor Jon Bauer at or call him at 425-339-3466.

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