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Blueberries and Public Education

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From: Ann Heineman (aiheineman_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Sun May 19 2002 - 07:27:19 PDT


Hello dear artsednet friends,

    As we prepare to wrap up another school year (in the Northern
Hemisphere,) here is a good story that puts the marvelous things we do in
perspective. Go Teachers! This story was posted on our school server by a
teacher in my district who was a National Teacher of the Year.

                Ann-on-y-mouse in Columbus

The Blueberry Story by Jamie Robert Vollmer (Blueberries and Public
Education)

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 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 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!

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 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 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.

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 jamie@jamievollmer.com"

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