from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

BLUEBERRIES: our wrong national education policy 

I hope the diary title at least intrigued you enough to come this far. Much of national education policy has been driven by the idea of making our schools more businesslike. This is in fact not a new phenomenon, as Larry Cuban notes in a book I am reading, which is entitled The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses. Since I am not finished with the book, I won’t use this posting to give a long analysis, although I will point out that Cuban is one of the most respected historians of education we have ever produced.

Today I offer a story well-known in educational circle from the beginning of his book. It expresses a key point often misunderstood by educational policy makers and those - especially but not exclusively from the business world -- who think our schools should be run more like businesses. I will offer the entire story, and then a relatively few other snips from the book. That will be the bulk of the posting.

Offered by Jamie Vollmer, a former CEO, the story is known simply as “The Blueberry Story”

The teacher gives the businessman a lesson.
"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 inservice. 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 knew 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!"

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 post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. I know this because 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.

(the story above is Copyright 2002, by Jamie Robert Vollmer and is online at his website, on which one find the quote
”Public education’s most precious resource is public trust. We must regain that trust, and in so doing, gain community permission to change our schools.”
. Vollmer is dedicated to improving schools, but he no longer takes the arrogant position of most business leaders. As you can see by going to his website, he starts by urging teachers and other educators to promote their successes.)

Cuban points out that business leaders have been involved in several generations of educational reform, even when the periods of reform have sought seemingly contrary goals (earlier reforms included insistence on tracking, on development of vocational education, for example, not exactly the high level college preparation insisted on by many today). Be he also, immediately after sharing the Blueberry Story, offers an important caution, one which I as a teacher strongly endorse:

Policymakers and others who set out to overhaul schools encounter a fundamental paradox: teachers and principals who block changes sought by reformers are supposedly the problem, yet these very same educators -- almost three million strong -- are the people who connect with more than fifty million children daily and do the essential work of schooling, Inescapably, therefore, they also have to be the solution.
(p. 5).

Far too much of the rhetoric surrounding the arguments about educational policy seems premised on the idea that those of us working in the schools do not have the best interests of children at heart. It often has a tinge to it that leads one to believe its advocates think that by using punitive measures and relying on rhetoric that denigrates those already committed to our children that somehow magically the schools can become a place that solves all the national problems of the day. This pattern of considering that more and better public education is the solution to all such problems is not knew. As Cuban notes
Generations of reformers have delegated public schools to solve such problems as racial segregation, poverty, lack of patriotism, and even alcohol and tobacco abuse; they have pushed changes in schooling that, they believed, would prepare students to handle these social issues better than their parents did. . . . reformers also looked to schools to solve the problem of lagging global economic competitiveness in the 1890s and the 1970s. This pattern of expecting education to solve the national problems is deeply embedded in the nation’s social and economic structures.
(p. 11)

I acknowledge that I am a pest when it comes to the issue of education. In many ways I am a contrarian, as I have discovered during my forays into educational policy here in the blogosphere. Today I will not explore what I think should be done. That would take far too long for one posting.

But I ask people to remember this: we have a shortage of qualified teachers currently in our classrooms, we want to improve our public education, and if we are going to attempt to do so, we must acknowledge that reality. We must also recognize, as the first Cuban quote I offered makes evident, that we cannot successfully change our schools without the cooperation of the millions of us already dedicated to the future of our children. That suggests that the voices of educators needs to have more predominant places in our public dialog, and that our role should not merely to be the punching bags for politicians and others looking to score points. We have a responsibility to work cooperatively, but it is unrealistic to expect enthusiasm from those who receive the bulk of the criticism and yet have little opportunity to offer our experience.

And when you listen to our voices, your attitude may well change. Vollmer went from being a typical business critic of public schools, wanting them to be more like businesses, to one of the most passionate advocates of schools and teachers. All because of blueberries.

What do you think?

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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