The Blueberry Story

Based on a little googling this appears to be a true story, which the author/CEO admits to having modified slightly from the actual events. I got it from one of my nieces, who is a teacher.

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! 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 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.

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4 Responses to The Blueberry Story

  1. derek says:

    This is exactly the kind of “pass the buck” attitude that people in education offer up when they do not want accountability.  I am sure teacher unions would love to read this.  It reflects their “take no ownership” mentality.
    The business model may not be the best model to help schools improve but it is significantly more improved than the current education model.  Business practices such as “process improvement” “performance based pay” “customer satisfaction” and ” unhindered competition” are, in fact, exactly what education needs.
    I agree you should send this to educators and politicians.  Educators love it because they are absolved from accountability.  Politicians love it because without accountability they can continue to “use” public education to further political ambitions instead of helping to solve the problem.
    I would not advise forwarding this little story to the general public.  For most people, it will only reaffirm what is wrong with education.  There is an old saying, “When someone appeals only to emotion to help win an argument, it is only because they are trying to defend and indefensible position.”  This blog entry being a case in point.

    • admin says:

      As I suspect you already realize, Derek, I don’t agree with your overall conclusion. A single example: the educators I know are, by and large, very committed to the welfare of their students. Far from not taking ownership, they are very concerned about the degree to which their students get educated.

      There are many lessons from the commercial world which can, and should, be applied to education. But the two entities (efforts?) are fundamentally quite different, and that difference needs to be kept in mind when cross-fertilizing.

  2. derek says:

    I agree that most teachers are committed to educating their kids.  Especially in San Carlos.  This is not the same as being committed to accountability.  Teachers who care about kids should also care about the quality of instruction and should embrace the idea of measuring teacher performance more objectively.  Using student test scores as one criteria in assessing teacher performance is a reasonable step in that direction.  But, teachers–and teacher unions–resist any kind of performance based assessments such as this.  SCTA continues to be the single largest obstacle to education reform in this state and in this country.
    If teachers in San Carlos really want to show the general public that they truly do care about the kids, then reject the teachers union and work collaboratively towards real education reform. As long as they hide behind the political machine of the SCTA and continue to let the SCTA slow the progress of school reform, teachers will continue to lack any kind of credibility in the public arena.  You cannot have it both ways.
    Teacher unions and those who support them are not the ones who champion reform.  They champion status quo.  They champion mediocrity in education.
    And, I agree with you that we need to keep those differences in mind when we try to “cross fertilize”.  The example in the story is a good analogy.  I think,however, that there should be much more cross fertilization going on than what is going on now.  You can blame the SCTA for that one.

  3. admin says:

    Personally, I don’t think the CTA is doing itself any favors by not engaging more constructively on teacher (and administrator and school district) assessment. But that’s their problem, not mine.

    Putting together a reasonably fair and useful assessment system is not as easy as you may think it is. Few, if any, school districts have the kind of “technical” infrastructure that I suspect you’re used to seeing and working with in the private sector, and fewer still have the resources, particularly in today’s climate, to invest the time and money in creating the infrastructure such a system would require.

    Besides, the real goal is not “let’s have an assessment system for teachers” but “let’s improve educational outcomes”, because I agree that those outcomes need improvement in many parts of California. But strict accountability systems are not the only way to do that.

    For example, the SCSD doesn’t have the kind of strict accountability system I think you’re envisioning. Yet our educational outcomes are excellent within the context of the State, and I suspect very good on a national or international level. The reason for that is because the factors that drive educational success — strong and talented staff, good and focused leadership, ownership by and support from the community, and a deep volunteer network — are pretty well aligned on student achievement.

    Nor do I think San Carlos is terribly unique in any of these regards. I suspect there are lots of districts that can, or could, do what we do.

    So, without meaning to say strict accountability has no place in the scheme of improving educational outcomes (I believe it does), it’s clearly not the only way, nor even necessarily the best way, to get there. In fact, I suspect that if it were the dominant chord in the music played to improve a district it would actually undermine things. It’s like working for a “theory X all the way, all the time” boss — no one who’s any good stays in such an environment for any longer than they absolutely have to.

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