The Blueberry Story:
The teacher gives the businessman a lesson
“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 had become 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.
Copyright 2011 Jamie Robert Vollmer
Since its publication, reactions to this story have been overwhelmingly positive. Heartfelt messages of thanks and appreciation have come from around the world. They are always deeply gratifying.
There are people, however, who take issue with the lesson presented. The arguments usually fall into one of two groups. The first is comprised of those who claim that the story is simplistic, and the teacher painted with a broad brush. Sure she did. She had ninety seconds. Since that day, however, I have visited hundreds of schools and her point remains apt.
The second group argues that the comparison of children to blueberries is specious. Most of these people contend that the children are “the customers,” not the raw material. The truth is that no one can agree on who the “customers” are. Candidates include students, parents, grandparents, business owners, corporate executives, human resource directors, and college deans of admission. (I tend to designate the entire taxpaying public as the rightful customers. They are the ones who are paying.) This problem is further complicated by the fact that few of these “customers” can agree on what they want as a finished product, except in the broadest terms. Everyone has an opinion. Politicians and bureaucrats are left to define what children should know and when they should know it. And they are constantly manipulated by dozens of organized, aggressive, well funded special interest groups. Many of these groups have conflicting agendas that are directly at odds with the best interest of kids.
If the final product of the PreK-12 enterprise is a young adult prepared with the knowledge, skills, habits, and values needed to succeed in a fast-paced, global, knowledge society, then the quality of the “raw material”—the student’s talent, intelligence, physical and mental health, attention, and motivation—is a huge variable in the education process over which public schools have little control. Parents, teachers, administrators, board members, civic and business leaders must work together with the students to develop their potential and help them reach the goal. Whether they are called customers or workers is next to irrelevant.