Education is a work of will, savvy and results

Sumner School DistrictNovember 27, 2013 

Jamie Vollmer is the successful owner of the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company. You would love his ice cream — the blueberry is award-winning.

Vollmer spent several years speaking to audiences insisting our public schools should be run like his business. He was a cynical business man on a bully pulpit, trying to get educators to reform — and now. He is an advocate and committed public education supporter (like me). He now has an important book, “Schools Cannot Do it Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools.”

I have a feeling he and I could be friends.

How did that big switch in Mr. Vollmer occur? A 27-year veteran English teacher used an analogy, a metaphor that connected to Vollmer’s brain and heart, and spun a web that caught Vollmer and made him into a believer.

Vollmer delivered a bitter talk about change to a group of Iowa educators. He emphatically told them the American school system is not getting our students ready for the workforce, and we’re falling behind our competitors.

“The status quo is killing us,” he said. “ ... You have to look to the world of business to solve your problems.”

He spoke of continuous improvement and just-in-time delivery. Zero defects! Benchmarked standards! Accountability! Rewards and penalties!

“I wouldn’t be in business very long if I ran my company the way you run your schools,” he said.

OK, he crossed the line with that last statement. We cannot process children as consumer products.

After his enthusiastic speech, a Q&A time was offered. A courageous, smart teacher zeroed in.

“Mr. Vollmer, we’re told you make good ice cream.”

“Yes, Ma’am, best ice cream in America.”

“How nice. Is it rich and smooth?”

Vollmer reported his ice cream is 17 percent butterfat, smooth and creamy with nothing but Grade A ingredients. He bragged that he accepted nothing but the best ingredients in a delivery — if the ingredients arrive flawed, he sends them back.

At the end of his smug summary of how he handles incoming products, the teacher snapped the noose right around Vollmer’s neck.

“That’s right! You send the less-than-perfect blueberries back. Mr. Vollmer, we never send back the blueberries our suppliers send. We take them all. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. We take them just as they come, and we make something amazing without judgment! Our parents send their best children to us — and trust us to do our best work with each of them. And that is why education is not business — it’s a work of will, savvy and results derived from skill and hard work.”

I’m proud to be a public school educator, especially in the Sumner School District. Our district, teachers, administrators, parents and community members demonstrate their care and support of all students. We are all committed to the long-term job of taking a child from pre-kindergarten through graduation. This is world-changing work. The magic materializes one connection at a time, over and over, every day — blueberry by blueberry.

Thank you for your commitment and your daily acceptance of students, and the work you do to ensure each one is carefully handled.

Sara Johnson is the superintendent of the Sumner School District. This is an excerpt from her blog found at

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