THE BLUEBERRY STORY : A Businessman Learns a Lesson
by Jamie Robert 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 in-service. 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 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 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."
"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 all: GT, ADHD, ADD, SLD, EI, MMR, OHI, TBI, DD, Autistic, junior rheumatoid
arthritis, English as their second language, etc.
We take them all! Everyone!
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!
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 chi ldren maximum opportunity to thrive in a
postindustrial 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.
Please forward THE BLUEBERRY STORY to teachers, parents, politicians and everyone interested in education.