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The Blueberry Story

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 education 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 the 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 of 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 replied. "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 wicket eyebrow raised to the sky, "when you are standing on your receiving dock and 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 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."