Monday July 25, 2016

Teacher’s Blueberries Give Businessman a Lesson About Schools

Schools are not businesses.

Jamie Vollmer, award-winning advocate of public education and author of the book, Schools Cannot Do it Alone, tells the story of his evolution as a business leader who believed that if public education was run like a business all problems would be solved, through a story about blueberries.

Vollmer is a former business executive and attorney who now works to increase public support for America’s public schools. Here is an excerpt loosely taken from his book, with his permission:

The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle 1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our knowledge society.

Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects: TQM! Continuous improvement!

A speech given to a group of educators making these points was perfectly balanced — equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite and pleasant. She was, in addition, a razor-edged, veteran high school English teacher.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap … I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

She jumped to her feet. “That’s right?” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big and small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, chronic illnesses and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And, that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s a school!”

This story is important for everyone interested in Oklahoma City Public Schools to hear. Ninety percent of our students live in poverty and come through our school doors each day with a host of issues that need attention.

Our teachers, principals and administrators wouldn’t even dream of sending them back. They are called to educate and support them, no matter what.

We, as a community must be called to fill in where we are needed. No matter what.


Read Mary Mélon’s article on The Oklahoman here:

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