A business leader learns his lesson.
by Jamie Robert Vollmer
Special Note: The author of this story
was gracious enough to give us permission to reprint his story and
added this comment. "I have received many
kind words for telling the Blueberry story, but the real credit goes
to the teacher. I took some license with her comments for publication,
but she was eloquent and passionate; she did an amazing job of both
crystallizing the message and waking me up. My teenagers would have
called me a "slug" had I not been changed by her words."
'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 training. Their initial icy glares
had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a
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 its blueberry flavor 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! Total Quality Management! Continuous improvement!
A school is not an ice cream company: It can't send back its inferior
In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance
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 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, 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
In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides,
custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, "Yeah!
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.
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
Jamie Robert Vollmer, a former business executive and attorney, is
now a keynote presenter and consultant who works to increase community
support for public schools. He lives in Fairfield, Iowa, and can be
reached by e-mail at