What Does a Business Do With Inferior Blueberries?
Accountability has moved to the forefront of all educational discussions. Tough federal mandates on schools have pushed administrators to implement a number of major educational initiatives. Self-proclaimed “education experts” have been quick to offer “solutions” like the insidious No Child Left Behind Act, all with the well-intentioned goal of making schools more effective.
One of the most misguided suggestions is that schools should be run more like businesses. In this business model, students are “clients” and instruction is a “delivered service.”
Whenever I hear this business accountability analogy, I’m reminded of the story of Jaime Vollmer, a one-time outspoken critic of public schools.
Vollmer is best known as the successful businessman lauded by People magazine in the mid-1980s for running a Midwestern ice cream company hailed as having the best blueberry ice cream in the country.
Because of his notoriety, Vollmer frequently spoke to business groups on total quality management, zero defects, continuous improvement, and how to produce the highest-quality product. During one of his talks, at a business and education roundtable in Iowa, Vollmer lashed out at the inefficiency and lack of quality in public schools.
Vollmer insisted that the most significant problem with education lay within the school establishment and suggested that personnel work to keep the status quo and ward off the need for structural change. Vollmer ended his speech with a pointed statement: “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long.”
A Teacher Sets Him Straight
After Vollmer’s speech, a teacher in the audience raised her hand with a question. In an account he later published on his web site, Vollmer recounts their exchange.
The teacher began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”
“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”
“Sixteen percent butterfat,” Vollmer said.
“Premium ingredients?” she asked.
“Super premium! Nothing but AAA,” said Vollmer.
“Mr. Vollmer,” the teacher asked, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” A silent room awaited Vollmer’s response.
“I send them back,” he said.
“That’s right!” she snapped, “but 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 is not a business. It’s a school.”
A 180-Degree Turnaround
Thus began Vollmer’s transformation. Enlightened by the teacher’s stinging response, Vollmer began to realize that schools are not analogous to businesses. Indeed, Vollmer was shocked into understanding what educators, who’ve been in the trenches, have known for years.
Public schools don’t have any control over the quality of their raw materials. Moreover, school leaders cannot always count on specific, stable revenues to fund programs, even if they deem such initiatives to be important for a quality education.
Instead, schools must rely on revenue controlled by people in political positions, funds for which various constituencies compete. And educators must take all the raw materials they receive and be committed to doing the very best they can with those materials in accordance with the funding provided and under government mandates.
As those mandates increase and become more rigid, with little room for flexibility or creativity, the task becomes harder. This is an issue that all educators grapple with constantly.
Vollmer now understands this situation. Since that confrontation with the teacher nearly 20 years ago, he has made a 180-degree change. He no longer believes the issue of school performance is simply a function of the people working within the system.
And for those who believe that somehow NCLB might actually improve schools should also take note of Vollmer’s recent talks. He states: “I pray that we escape this national hysteria of standardized tests. It’s a huge fraud. ….The road to hell is paved with good intentions. No Child Left Behind is filled with good intentions and it will take us to hell.”
Today, Vollmer refers to himself as “a friend of public education.” His web site is dedicated to strengthening community support for public schools and developing professional pride among the nation’s educators.
Public school critics and the staunch believers of the school-as-a-business model, should take note of Vollmer’s enlightened view. Schools can never truly imitate the models associated with the business sector—nor should they—if education is to focus upon our children.