The Education of Jamie Vollmer began with the now famous (at least among teachers) “Blueberry Story.”
As Vollmer tells it, he was chief of the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Co. when he was asked to speak to a group of teachers. He was telling them how they needed to run their schools more like he ran his business when a veteran teacher asked him what he would do if his blueberry supplier delivered a shipment of blueberries that was not up to his standards. He said he would send them back.
“That’s right!” she said, “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!”
Vollmer re-enacts it well here so readers should check it out.
But that pivotal point was just the beginning of his transformation from an education critic to public school advocate. Vollmer was director of the Iowa Business and Education Roundtable before leaving about two decades ago to write, speak and consult for schools and education groups. He’s giving a talk to some superintendents at Lehigh University on Oct. 10.
I called Vollmer because I am interested in his research into all the mandates that have been added to public schools over the decades.
When America’s public schools started in the 1600s, the founders intended them to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic and inculcate democratic values in students through some history and civics lessons, Vollmer writes. Science and geography were added but it wasn’t until the 1900s that society began to require more. For example, from 1910-1930, schools added physical education, home economics and vocational education.
The list of classes and requirements grew steadily over the next decades with -- for instance -- business education (typing, shorthand) and the school lunch program among those added in the 1940s, driver’s education in the 1950s, Advanced Placement programs in the 1960s, and drug and alcohol abuse education and federally mandated Special Education starting in the 1970s.
The programs and mandates really exploded in the 1980s and beyond with everything from child abuse monitoring to HIV/AIDS education to expanded classes for gifted students. In all, Vollmer lists 86 classes, programs and mandates that have been added over time.
And we’ve done it all without increasing hours to the school day or extending the school year, he said.
“Republicans and Democrats created that list of mandates and every year that list grows,” he said. “This is what we … have asked our schools to do.”
Take health care. Vollmer said last year he talked to a nurse at a Cleveland, Ohio, school who said she typically administers 67 doses of insulin to students per week. Vollmer was at another school in Pennsylvania’s coal region and saw a line outside the nurse’s office in August before school started.
“I said, ‘What are all the kids doing here?’” Vollmer recalled. “She said many of the families wait for the nurse’s office to open up because their kids are sick.” One of the patients came with a fractured leg, which had been broken for a few days. Schools, he said, have become “medical facilities of first resort.”
He writes that communities are expecting schools to essentially raise children and schools can’t shoulder these burdens alone.
In my next column, I’ll talk about Vollmer’s take on “nostesia,” which he says is a cross between "nostalgia" and "amnesia" when adults compare their own schooling to schools today. And I’ll tell you what he thinks educators should do about it.