Why Schools Can’t Run Like A Business


I must have heard dozens of School Board candidates say over the years that education would be fine if it only ran like a business.

Some aspects of the school system should run like a business:  Construction and the purchase of goods.

Education itself can not be run like a business. The reason is apparent to anybody who taught school, which I did for a very short period of time.

The following Blueberries Story was written by education activist Jamie Vollmer. It first appeared in Education Week on March 6, 2002. It has been making the rounds on the Internet since then.

Local political consultant David Brown, who is also on the school budget committee, sent it to me today. I hadn’t seen it in years.   I thought it was particularly appropriate to read this year when the education system is under attack everywhere.

Here it is for those who never read it.

Your thoughts as always are appreciated.


By Jamie 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 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 had become famous in the middle1980s 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 was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.

She jumped to her feet. “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. For 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.

20 Responses to “Why Schools Can’t Run Like A Business”

  1. professional teacher says:

    I appreciate you posting this truthful article.
    People constantly tell me how great charter schools are because they run like a business. Charter schools don’t take students with problems so it is easy with them. The public school has to deal with all the problem students, which cost more money and take more time.

  2. BrowardVoter says:

    Dear Professional Teacher – you may be correct about some charter schools but not all. Many have a lottery for entrance and do have their share of “problem students.” Given the state of public education in Florida and the nation, now is not the time for public school “professionals” to attack each other(and FYI, charter schools ARE public schools).

  3. Rupert says:

    Not unlike health care; those without insurance who get sick, those with preexisting conditions… still need health care.

  4. pineystride says:

    Thanks for posting, Buddy. Nice article.

  5. Wrong, Wrong, WRONG says:

    I disagree. Education is a business and we teachers should stop embrae that concept. Education is the business of imparting knowledge and teaching is the means through which we ensure education.

    Education is not the ice cream business and comparisons to blueberries do us and our kids no good. It is a diffent kind of business and a very serious business because kids get one chance in life to learn. If our system fails them they become failed adults. Well beyond any other consideration is the real life consequence to students who do not recieve a quality education.

    Lots of money is supposedly spent to make sure a quality education is imparted. Yet the public is not satisfied that this is happening nearly to the required degree. We must stop making excuses and become accountable for making the difference because that is the business we are in.

    Education is not a business for people that want summers off. If we want to get the salaries we deserve, we must become more business-like so that our results demand respect. We need to stop coming to school dressed like we are not serious. We need to carry ourselves professionally in everything that we do. We must acquire a new set of attitudes and expectations. Society depends on it, our kids depend on it and so do our professional futures.

    We in the education community have forgotten that we are public servants first and foremost. Civil servants second. We confuse our vocation with our employment rights. Our job is to ensure learning and we should welcome the accountability so long as we are also given the tools to achieve it.

    I left the private sector to teach because I wanted that change but I have not forgotten what the real world was all about. Education is absolutely a business and our business plan is fractured. We as teachers have invited the public’s disrespect because our product is inferior. There is no getting around that and our excuses only make things worse.

    Education is a business that needs rediscovering and we should embrace this as a time when we are eager as a profession to compete.

  6. Patriot says:

    So Mr/Ms Wrong, your a teacher and your bitching about the summers off? Do YOU make a difference in the school system and with the kids of tomorrow or are you just mouthing off because you want to complain? It isn’t a business and I commend Mr. Nevins for a wonderfully presented article. It is about people, personalities, not sticks and stones. These kids are not robots that learn or fail like our newly elected (gag) Gov. would like to run this state. When life becomes a big business it loses more than you realize. Why not cut all the arts and culture, the sports, the extra fat so that we can be a sterile and robotic business community. Get real Mr/Ms Wrong, you are the one that’s wrong here. and I highly doubt that you are in the “profession” of teaching. (Make note; not the business of teaching, teachers don’t take the job to compete you moron).

  7. Return of Wrong says:

    @Patriot. You have a right to your opinion but do you think that’s a view shared much in China or India or any of the many nations that outperform us educationally? I think that answer is no. So, if you are a truly a patriot, perhaps you may want to rethink your view. I am a teacher and I am unafraid to be held accountable for my results so long as I have the tools needed to succeed. Enjoy your summer…

  8. Floridan says:

    @Wrong “I am a teacher and I am unafraid to be held accountable for my results so long as I have the tools needed to succeed.”

    And what are those tools?

  9. pbm says:

    Too often kids go to school to get fed and breathe in air conditioned rooms while socializing. Working on the 3R’s is the furthest thing from the minds. The don’t see the need for much schooling in their future, and very often some parents just don’t see the need either and pass that on either verbally or silently to their children.
    Each home is different. Each family is different. Each child is different. While there are many good homes that foster responsibility, respect, dignity, honesty and other morals, there are many family lifestyles that leave much to be desired.
    Teaching is a very difficult task in America because of the lack of respect and discipline in general. Kids enjoy disgusting behavior and disrespect on the screen as “hot” and they want to act as such. In some unstable homes, all they see is screaming, fighting, selfishness, and alcohol/drug/sex abuse, multiple parent figures, etc. There are many children who have the inability to focus for various reasons. How will teachers be accountable for that?
    We all want and wish the very best for our future society, but we need to understand that at some point we have to face reality and stop dreaming. There are many children who won’t be able to learn the way you or I wished they could.
    How in the world are the teachers going to be accountable to that? The teachers are not the issue. The problem is society.

  10. Patriot says:

    @ Return of Wrong says:
    Ooooh, Ouch, China or India? Are you kidding me? China is a COMMUNIST country of course all they do is work and study they are slaves. Want to discuss China lets talk GARBAGE and how they deal with that environmental issues since they are so advanced in your toolbox brain, or how about WAGES. Those people are starving! This is a country that has dumpsters at hosptials for those unwanted children they dispose of if not a male heir. Wake up or get another tool box will ya? Please don’t show your ignorance teacher. India?India? LMAO, oh yeah, people are brilliant over there, the rats and cows are sacred too. I am an American, I live in America and I am concerned for American children as much as the next guy, but don’t think that means that the school system is a BUSINESS venture, as in CAPITOL GAIN.
    Apparently you need some new tools in your trade toolbox starting with your narrow mind.

  11. @Floridan says:

    Finally! Floridan asks the right question. Let’s start a list with the following from my own experience and add to it as necessary —

    1. No teacher may teach more than six years without earning a masters degree which the district will pay for it in return for 13 years of service minimum (something like that). Less than that, there shall be a per rata charge to the teacher.

    2. Florida teachers are to immediately begin receiving salary placing them within the top third of teacher salaries nationally. That is separate and apart from bonus pay. If you want results you have to pay for it.

    3. Teacher assistants shall be provided in such K-8 as needed to help keep order in the class so that professional teachers can teach, to assist with techniques such as differentiated learning, and to work with students needing special attention. Do this and you can adjust class size without a problem.

    4. Every school shall be open for summer school and students not achieving at least a C average shall be required to attend as a condition of being promoted to the next grade. Social promotion is a death sentence. Hold them back if they can’t at least get a C. Every teacher is to be given the opportunity to compete to teach remedial classes if they so wish.

    5. Districts shall organize and provide tutoring services on a sliding scale to any student that need it and teachers shall have every opportunity to participate.

    6. Classrooms shall have sufficient supplies to carry out the requirements of the course of study, without exception. Teachers are not responsible for buying supplies for their classes.

    7. All students are to wear uniforms because students learn better in structured environments.

    8. Student must be taught “How to Study” it’s amazing how many of them have no idea what they are doing or how to prepare for tests.

    9. Keep students in school one hour longer every day. Make them study and do homework in school before they go home. That’s five extra hours of study that I promise you on average they do not get at home.

    10. Pass a law that parents may be fined a civil penalty for failure to participate effectively in the education of their children. I can handle my kids but the parents today, on average, just don’t get it. Make parents take an interest or they pay.

    11. If a teacher wants to transfer out of a school, principals shall not have the authority to intervene as if we were indentured servants.

    12. Pass a law that students may not be able to drop out of high school until they are over 18 years of age.

    How’s that for a start?

  12. pbm says:

    I like that start! Let’s finish it and present it to Rick S.

  13. S only says:

    Excellent article Buddy—and so true. Our whole society is to blame, and I don’t see any big effort to make the changes that are needed to turn this around. Neither at the grass roots nor at the school board or legislature.

    Follow the $. Start salaries at $75,000. See the competition (and even males) come to the table. Disband 3/4ths of the Central Administration. Make parents responsible. I feel sorry for our future…

  14. Parental Involvement Law - HB 255 says:

    On #10 (parent participation) there is already a bill pending (no fines, only assigning the parent a grade for parental involvement) in the Legislature:


    Write your state representative and your state senator asking them to support this bill!

  15. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong says:

    I like the list also.

  16. Floridan says:

    Why not include a classrom visit from Elvis on the list?

    The legislature and governor are not going to provide a penny more for public schools — why would they when their goal is to destroy public education in Florida?

    I strongly agree with #8, however. That should be a component of education at every grade level.

  17. Return of Wrong says:

    There’s an old saying: never accept responsibility without the authority to carry it out. A fool agrees to be held responsible for making something happen without the tools to necessary to ensure success. The biblical reference is making bricks without straw; a well understdood basis for objection.

    I welcome teacher accountablity but only if that teacher is empowered to succeed. If the Legislature is unwilling impose this mandate in good faith, then teachers should go find other work. Otherwise, they will find themselves imprisoned in failure and blamed for it.

    It is unbusiness-like to deny someone the authority and tools needed to succeed yet hold them accountable. So, if this list is truly pie in the sky as Floridan suggests then this move toward accountability is an empty gesture. Fair is fair.

  18. Floridan says:

    @Wrong: Your list is “pie in the sky” as long as we have people in the legislature and governorship who have little interest in the public education system.

    The list is reasonable. The fact that the GOP-controlled Florida government would reject it out of hand is an indication that either: 1) they don’t care about public education, or 2) don’t undertand how a successful business works.

    I suppose there is a third explanation — that the GOP assumes that most teachers are Democrats, so its OK to squash them.

  19. Real Reason says:

    Republicans like Scott want only to turn education into a business. They want for profit charter schools like Charter USA to take $100 millions more of the public’s money. They can only accomplish this if teaching and other parts of education are paid slave wages.

  20. I'm Starting To Get Pissed Off says:

    These tea party people got angry. They made a little noise and got a little motivated. So sure, a few of their candidates got elected into office. They were given a chance to lead but now they think they own the place. They think they’re tough and can ram down whatever ugly hateful shit they want.

    You want to see tough and angry? Keep fucking around with our teachers, cops and firefighters. We are Democrats and we own this state. Piss us off and we will rise up and slap you down like the bitch punks you are. Keep it up jerk offs. We’ve almost had our fill of your bullshit.