The Blueberry Story: A Failure Of Analogy

I came across the Blueberry Story recently. It didn’t pass the sniff test, but I couldn’t immediately explain why.

Jamie Vollmer was the CEO of an ice cream company that made, at one time, what some considered the best ice cream in America. He was also a sharp critic of the public school system, and shared his criticisms before an assembly of teachers and educators.

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!

At the end of this particular talk he took questions from the audience.

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 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!”

He was unable to reply to such ideas. And it took me a day to realize what was wrong with this teachers argument.

First, there is truth in both what Mr. Vollmer said and in what this teacher said. Neither of them are completely correct, and neither of them are completely wrong.

The big hole in this educators argument is that children are not the only resource in a school.

When you’re building a product commercially you gather all sorts of raw materials and assemble them and process them to create a finished product. Businesses are primarily rewarded by doing this more efficiently and with more quality than other companies. However, simple physical raw materials are never the entire picture.

You can take blueberries and cream and sugar and eggs and ice and salt and throw them together all day and it will not turn into ice cream. You must have a goal, a guiding principle, a primary idea which directs the process from beginning to end. This idea begins before any raw materials are assembled and achieves fruition and is born into reality in the end product.

In a school children are both a raw material and eventually the fruition and reality of this idea. A healthy, intelligent, wise, productive and strong member of society is the hoped-for result of any school. When children are the raw material (as small children first coming into the school) they indeed cannot be turned away. The school must take any and all. The teacher is right about this.

However, there are many other raw materials which may (and indeed should) be turned away at the loading dock for insufficient quality. Teachers are one of the raw materials of our education system. Those who can’t do, teach, is a sad but true tale of many who comprise the front lines of education in America. Low academic standards does not attract the best and the brightest to this profession. Many of the best teachers teach because they love to. Many others do it because they cannot find so secure a position with as healthy a payroll or extensive benefits in the private sector.

Education philosophies are another raw material that can and should be examined in light of reality and not in light of the establishment’s preconceived notions of the state of the world.

Specific subjects that do not pertain directly to healthy functioning in society also ought to be turned away at the door.

The lesson that schools should take from business, first and foremost, is that competition is good for everybody involved.

The only people who will be hurt by school vouchers, charter schools, more local control of education, and less federal nannying are teachers who aren’t up to snuff and entrenched and ensconced administrators who cannot really justify their silly existence.

The teacher was right, they can’t turn away children from school. Every child can and will benefit from learning truth. But learning and truth are not necessarily the same, and to fail to see the difference and to support a system that is so obviously and painfully failing yet another generation of children is to fail to see yet another blade laid to the neck of our great nation.

5 thoughts on “The Blueberry Story: A Failure Of Analogy”

  1. You sir have not been inside the walls of a school recently. Go visit one. Be responsible for 28 third graders..2/3rds of whom have some form of mental illness or diagnosable learning diability, and be responsible that they all meet the level of improvement mandated by federal guidelines established by politicians and business leaders. Then come back to the table. Don't tell us how to do it…show us.

  2. Mike, how would you respond to the establishments rejection of the amazing work of Michelle Rhee in the Washington DC school district, arguably one of the very worst in the nation, who left her job after the mayor who supported her and watched her back against the repeated and vicious attacks of the teacher's unions and other entrenched powers of the education establishment elite lost his job?

    The story and philosophy of Ms. Rhee is completely in line with what I'm saying. I agree that the schools really cannot choose who to accept. But even that isn't completely true. Public schools expel children for all sorts of reasons all the time. But the crux of my argument is that there are indeed things they can change and adjust and control, and they need to stop whining and complaining that they can't change factor Z when they have hamstrung themselves into being unable to change factors A through Y due to poor decisions, caustic labor practices, and poor management.

  3. I believe schools have a responsibility to adapt to whatever children come to them. My philosophy has always been if they cannot learn the way I teach, then I will teach the way they learn. The point of the blueberry analogy is valid. You add different ingredients to make ice cream and there are different ways to make it, but you can never make superior ice cream using inferior bluberries. You would throw those out and get new ones. The teacher's point is that we have to work with the children and families who come. We have no choice!

  4. “Low academic standards does not attract the best and the brightest to this profession”

    Or…a pay scale well below that of people with similar education does not attract the best and the brightest to this profession.

    You have a few good points in this article, but you miss the big point. Until there are real incentives for college students to become teachers, the profession will struggle to recruit quality people beyond the crazy idealists like me.

  5. “The only people who will be hurt by school vouchers, charter schools ….. are teachers who are not up to snuff ….” no not true, it will hurt the students who have no choice, who are stuck in less than desirable schools that will lose a chunk of their funding and a proportion of their students whose families would have been the ones actively involved in getting improvements made. Despite choices being available in most densley populated areas (in rural areas not so much) those choices won’t be options for many students from poorer homes unless free buses (at tax payers expense) are offered to every child to go to any school in their list of choices, if these buses aren’t available then only students from families that can afford transportation or who have a parent willing, able and with the time available in their schedule, to drive them to school will be able to exercise their options. You are looking at this entire idea of choice through a lens clouded from reality by your own experiences and life style. Recent research has also shown the jaw dropping proof that school choice, voucher systems and public funding of private schools has detrimental effects on students academic outcomes. I think that data has shocked many people.

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