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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.

vollmerOne 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.

Successful Businessman
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.”

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

“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.


1 Mark Riffey { 12.22.07 at 2:51 pm }

While the teacher was absolutely right to rip Vollmer a new one about his comments about TQM, so-called raw materials quality and that sort of thing, he does have a point in other areas: a point completely lost on many people when this valuable story is told.

A disconnect seems to occur when teachers and administrators hear a business person mention that things would be better “if this school was run more like a business”. The perhaps natural and certainly most frequent reaction results from the assumption that the business people are saying that the *classroom* should be run like a business.

Unless the business person is a moron, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that no one with half a brain is asking *classrooms* to “truly imitate the models associated with the business sector”.

Perhaps a more astute business person would say “this district should be run more like a business”. Why? Because most of the issues that a business-like examination of schools would resolve are on the administrative side of the house, not in the classroom.

That includes personnel issues. Almost every school has an underperforming teacher who is at that level well after any “learning on the firing line” period has passed. In a business environment, that employee would be retrained or fired. In a school, we turn our heads and hope our kid doesn’t end up in their class because little or nothing can be done about them in most districts after they’ve obtained tenure.

As you note, schools are not analogous to businesses, but that does not mean that they cant achieve substantial improvements in performance by applying proven business practices in the areas that would gain from them.

By the way, before you assume that I’m just another business person spouting anti-teacher rhetoric, you should know that my wife is a hard-working sixth grade teacher, who more often than not is working 6-7 day weeks and 10-12-14 hour days for her kids. I know far more about what happens inside the schools and classrooms than most business people, much less parents, will ever know.

Keep writing, this blog is doing good work.

2 Roberta Hudlow { 07.22.08 at 4:19 pm }

The last blogger stated that the businessperson who suggests that schools should be run more like businesses is not talking about what happens in the classroom. Just as in NCLB they do expect that the product ( the child ) should come out perfectly formed and uniform. Therefore we have state tests that eliminate creativity and problem solving. They even leave out social studies. The goal is a person who can read at the fourth grade level, do adequate math to survive but can’t think politically. The test covers only one form of intelligence.
Yes, there are teachers who aren’t as good as others, but when you are a poor district and teacher pay is lower than surrounding areas, you take what you can get.
Mr. Vollmer, you are a breath of fresh air for teachers. However, I suppose we will have to wait to get back to the real business of education when the business model people give up in failure.

3 Amber Southard { 07.28.08 at 5:03 am }

I like the article when I first read it and I searched the internet to find it again. I’m glad I did. The only thing I would change about the article would be “defective” . In the business world, that could be anything from being a slightly bigger size or weight, but the word “defect” involving children has terrible implications. No child is “defective” though their abilities, backgrounds and strengths vary. This type of variation is not accepted in the business or quality control world, at least for now.

The best term to use is diverse, not defective.

4 Bill Saitta { 08.15.08 at 1:40 pm }

It just amazes me that we can spend so much money abroad to make the world a safer place for future generations of Americans and at the same time, short change the very people we are trying to protect.

5 Sharon Stevens { 03.23.09 at 12:52 pm }

I understand both points of view, however when you are on the outside looking into a situation, everything is not always as it appears. Sometimes, when we look for something negative that is exactly what we will find. There are so many positive things going on in education. We need to focus on how we as educators along with business partners can make our schools better.

6 Andy Holleman { 03.21.10 at 10:34 am }

With regards to Mr. Riffey, the missing link for schools emulating businesses is the revenue stream – the ultimate evaluative tool. Most of our activities lack that.
Looking directly at personnel issues, I worked, a long time ago, on commission. My value to the company got calculated every Friday after closing, on an adding machine. Brutal in a way (not exactly….I did quite well 8>) , but wonderfully honest and unbiased. Nothing political about it.
It isn’t that education lacks the will to judge that way……there’s just no meaningful yardstick that is anywhere near that simple.
That whole administrative end is the area of the principals, and they seem oddly left out of the fray when it comes to all the accountability issues that being thrown around. They could learn a lot from studying businesses, but I suspect most don’t, and most don’t have time.
But back to the lack of a revenue stream…..people have a great respect for businesses that make a lot of money, but there are few things less efficient in the world than a business that’s making money hand over fist. On-site child care, catered lunches, envelopes with bonuses in them throughout the year, a credit card with the company name on it……do you REALLY think the public will go for those perks at the schools that have top test scores???

I HOPE so 8>)

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