Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Blueberry story: the teacher gives the businessman a lesson

This was written by Jamie Vollmer who is a former business executive and attorney who now works to increase public support for America’s public schools. His new book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone is available at This post appeared here.

by Jamie Vollmer

“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by  the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice.  Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a  knife.

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 middle1980s 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  selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the  needs of our emerging “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!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant – she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

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, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “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, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, 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 school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission, and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

Jamie Robert Vollmer © 2011


  1. I think there is some confusion with the analogy. The students are not the product. Instead, education is the service.

    How long would a refinery be in business if it didn't optimize its processes to better process the ore it receives? Or would it, like these teachers in the story, throw up their hands and say they can't control the ore they receive, and by implication, argue that they don't have to worry about their processes?

    (Yeah, maybe not the best analogy. Kids aren't rocks. But I hope you get the gist...)

    1. If education would be assessed as a service in attending to the educational needs of children I would agree with your point. The problem is that children are the raw materials , their test scores are the end product, the process is lousy and kids needs are not being met in this competitive environment

    2. I think you restated in your first sentence my position better than I did: Education is a service attending to the education needs of children. In fact, you've simplified my point to a tautology. Education is educating. It's hard to disagree, yet you do.

      When success is measured by metrics, it's important that the measurements encourage the behavior we want. I believe measuring teaching success using standardized tests is short sighted and encourages teaching to tests, memorization instead of thinking and analyzing, and discourages teachers from wanting to help the kids who need it most.

      Yeah, people *think* scores are the end product. And they would be, if the goal was teaching students how to take standardized tests. And we could evaluate teachers based on test scores if all students were equal. But I disagree on both counts.

    3. I agree that different quality blueberries should not matter - the likes of Deborah Meier believe that smaller schools, constructivist education etc can deliver a good education to underpriveleged inner -city school kids.The problem is for business , politicians success is measured in terms of how many kids pass a test.


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