Run Schools Like Businesses. Yeah, Right

It’s not uncommon for someone to passionately declare that schools should be run “like a business.” Chances are good that this someone may have a strong business background.

Someone much like Jamie Vollmer was more than two decades ago when he was president of the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company in Iowa. (People magazine called their product “Best Ice Cream in America” and President Ronald Reagan served it in the White House.)

In 1988 Vollmer became a member of the Iowa Business and Education Roundtable and two years later became the group’s Executive Director. During this time he honed his critique about how schools should operate as a business.

“I was speaking all over the state,” recalls Vollmer, “we needed reforms that would turn up the heat by imposing accountability measures that rewarded success and punished failure. We needed to raise standards, demand rigor, reject excuses and introduce competition.

“I preached the business gospel of school reform in all 99 Iowa counties and received an ovation at every stop,” Vollmer says. “In retrospect, I was the perfect double threat: ignorant and arrogant. I knew nothing about teaching or managing a school, but I  sure I had the answers.”  (Sound familiar?)

But on a cold, January day in 1991, Vollmer spoke to a group of educators and it turned out to be the start of his road to Damascus experience. The day he began to understand that he was wrong about schools being run like a business.

The day he encountered a veteran English teacher who sat through his standard “school as a business” speech and had the courage to defend her profession.

Vollmer refers to this moment as “the blueberry story” and has retold it countless times since.

Here’s what happened:

At the end of his remarks, the school superintendent reminded him that he was to end with questions and answers. As soon as he called for questions, the English teacher raised her hand and asked, “Mr. Vollmer, if you are standing on your company’s receiving dock and you discover a shipment of blueberries that do not meet your standards, what do you do?”

“I send them back,” replied Vollmer.

At that, the teacher jumped to her feet and told him, “We can never send back the blueberries our suppliers send us. We take them big, small, rich, poor, hungry, abused, confident, curious, homeless, frightened, rude, creative, violent and brilliant. We take them with head lice, ADHD and advanced asthma.”

Vollmer will never forget the moment. “She challenged my simplistic, self-serving beliefs armed with nothing more than the knowledge born of her daily experience—in other words, the truth—and in doing so she forced me to rethink my views.”

Vollmer made up his mind to learn all he could about the challenges educators face. He visited hundreds of schools, spent time in classrooms, studied research, attended conferences.

Along the way he came to understand that comparing businesses to schools is comparing apples to oranges.

By and large in business you can control your inputs he says. You can make sure each bolt you install meets certain tolerances. In other words, you can make sure you’re not using bad blueberries. Schools can’t. Today’s teachers now stand before the most diverse, distracted, demanding generation of students the world has ever seen.

Businesses know who their customers are. But with schools the customers may be students, parents, corporate executives, taxpayers, politicians and many more, many of whom may have agendas that are not in the best interest of young people.

And there is no such thing as a reliable revenue stream for educators; instead they are entirely dependent upon the mood of the general public and the nuances of local politics when it comes to taxation.

Vollmer’s message today is nothing like it once was. Today he is an unabashed advocate for public education who speaks around the country, consults with school systems and is the author of the book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone.

Tucked away in his book on page 83 is a brief statement that speaks volumes.

“The farther the decision maker is from the child, the dumber the decision gets.”  The more people who understand this, the better off we will be.


3 Responses to Run Schools Like Businesses. Yeah, Right

  1. I don’t know why I feel like I am reading a story I can’t put down every time I read one of your articles. This article was right on target…so factual…and speaks for all educators in America. Teachers absolutely have “one of every flavor” in their classroom. …and yes they do the best they can with every flavor. Parents send the best they have and teachers (most) do the best job moving them up the ladder of success. Thanks Mr. Lee for pointing out the truth of the matter…

  2. I think that the point about public schools being unable to control their “inputs” is a valid one. The differences between them and the first class private schools is noticeable. But, do not the Catholic schools take all in their parishes who come? The cost is a sifting factor and I do not know how they deal with that, but I should think that Catholic parents who apply would get the help needed.

    At any rate, I am more interested in this point: even though the “input” cannot be governed, ought not we to have clear standards about the acceptable “output”? If the schools would produce students who can read with understanding, write and spell correct standard English, and calculate with the tools of mathematics up to algebra, we would have a citizenry capable of functioning in society. No child should come through the public school system without being able to demonstrate those skills, and except for American and world history and geography, the rest seems icing on the cake, available for those who have mastered the basic skills but ONLY after those skills have been mastered.

    • At the Senate Hearing earlier this year on the accountability act, the principal of McGill-Toolen Catholic School in Mobile (which accepts scholarships under AAA) stated that he would not accept students who were discipline problems.

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