Author. Speaker. Consultant.
Jamie Vollmer is an award-winning champion of public education, and the author of the highly acclaimed book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone.
He has spent the last twenty years working with school districts, education associations, foundations, and chambers of commerce across the nation to halt the erosion of public trust and build support for America’s public schools. His primary goal is to help educators and their allies remove the obstacles to progress and create schools that unfold the full potential of every child. He is the proud recipient of the 2012Friend of Public Education award, presented by the Ohio Federation of Teachers. In 2010, he received the Learning and Liberty award, presented by the National School Public Relations Association in recognition of his “outstanding efforts to strengthen school/community partnerships.”
Vollmer is not a professional educator. He became involved with school reform after careers in law and manufacturing. He worked in the firm of former United States Congressman William Cramer until 1985 when he relocated to Iowa to become director of franchise operations for the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company. The company was proclaimed by People magazine to make the “Best Ice Cream in America!” He ultimately became the company’s president.
In 1988, he was invited to serve on the nationally recognized Iowa Business and Education Roundtable. After two years as a volunteer, he changed careers and became the Roundtable’s Executive Director. He remained in that post for three years after which he formed the education advocacy firm, Jamie Vollmer, Inc.
Once a harsh critic, Vollmer has become an articulate friend of America’s public schools. His presentations combine statistics, logic, and humor to energize and encourage educators, business leaders, and community groups to work together to build successful schools.
In addition to his book Schools Cannot Do It Alone and numerous articles, Mr. Vollmer has written and produced the videos, Why Our Schools Need to Change, Teachers are Heroes, and Building Support for America’s Schools. He has served on the boards of the National PTA and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
Jamie holds a Juris Doctor from The Catholic University in Washington, DC. He received his B.A. in political science from Penn State University. A native of Philadelphia, he is married to his college sweetheart, the former baton twirling majorette, Jeanne Hecker. They have three grown children, all gainfully employed.
“My father died in a spectacular room in his home on the Florida coast.”
So begins this provocative story of a businessman’s journey through the land of public education, and his transformation from critic to award-winning advocate of America’s public schools. Part memoir, part how-to manual, Schools Cannot Do It Alone tells of his encounters with blueberries, bell curves, and smelly eighth graders, and, most importantly, describes a no cost plan that every district can use to secure the support it needs to unfold the full potential of every child.
Based on his twenty years of working with school districts across the country, Jamie Vollmer argues that we are at a pivotal point in our history. Public education is under attack as never before. Bashing public schools has become a blood sport—a dangerous game in which sensational headlines publicize half-truths, statistics are used out of context, and test results are reported in the worst possible light. We are witnessing a campaign to annihilate the emotional and intellectual ties that bind the American people to their public schools. And it’s working.
Schools Cannot Do It Alone confronts the threats to public education, and presents a practical, doable plan to increase student success. Vollmer’s community-based program, called “The Great Conversation,” provides step-by-step instructions to tackle the major obstacles to school improvement, including:
- The Terrible Twenty Trends. The major social, political, and economic trends that are individually and in toxic combination eroding public support for public schools.
- Nostesia. The debilitating fusion of nostalgia and amnesia that destroys rational thought in millions of Americans. Nostesiacs insist that “if we could just have the schools we used to have around here, everything would be all right.”
- The highly corrosive tendency among America’s teachers, administrators, and, sometimes, board members to bad-mouth one another and their schools in public.
- The obstacles presented by Vollmer’s First Rule of School Restructuring: You cannot change a school without changing the culture of the surrounding town.
Schools Cannot Do It Alone includes an expanded version of the famous “Blueberry Story,” and the latest update of “Vollmer’s List.” This exhaustive review of the responsibilities heaped upon the nation’s public schools over the last hundred years proves that our schools are no longer being told to teach America’s children. They are being told to raise them.
From the first words of the Introduction, to the final chapter’s inspirational message of hope, Vollmer praises the people who work inside our schools. In clear, compelling terms, he offers, he offers a plan to help them gain the public support they need to prepare all children to succeed in the knowledge age. He argues with passion that America’s teachers and administrators are ready and able to meet the challenges of our time, but they cannot do it alone.
The Ever Increasing Burden on America’s Public Schools (PRINT VERSION)
This is a story about America and America’s public schools. Specifically, it’s about how we, as a society, have changed what we ask our public schools to do. How we respond to this story will affect everyone’s future whether or not we have children in school.
America’s first schools appeared in the early 1640s. They were designed to teach young people—originally, white boys—basic reading, writing, and arithmetic while cultivating values that served a new democratic society. The founders of these schools assumed that families and churches bore the major responsibility for raising a child. During the 1700s, some civics, history, science, and geography were introduced, but the curriculum was limited and remained focused for 150 years.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, America’s leaders saw public schools as the logical place to select and sort young people into two groups—thinkers and doers—according to the needs of the industrial age. It was at this time that we began to shift non-academic duties to the schools. The trend has accelerated ever since.
The contract between our communities and our schools has changed. It’s no longer “Help us teach our children.” It’s “Raise our kids.” No generation of teachers and administrators in history has had to fulfill this mandate. And each year, the pressure grows.
Social and economic conditions demand that we unfold the full potential of every child. Our futures are tied to their success as never before.But this is a job for all of us. Everyone, in every community, must help remove the obstacles to student success. We must recognize our common interests, and do our part to help our schools create the graduates and citizens we need. Our schools cannot do it alone.
The Ever Increasing Burden on America’s Public Schools (VIDEO VERSION)
Your staff will cheer. The people of your community will stare in stunned disbelief.
Twenty years of research. Developed for educators and their allies. The Ever Increasing Burden on America’s Public Schools is finally available in video form.
Brilliant, stop-action animation has been combined with Jamie’s dramatic, on-screen commentary to expose the unprecedented challenges facing our public schools. Everyone who sees this video will walk away with a clear understanding of the mountain of social, psychological, and medical responsibilities that have been heaped upon the schoolhouse door.1
For two decades, the live reading of “Vollmer’s List” has been one of the most anticipated and compelling segments of Jamie’s speeches and workshops. Staff, community, parent, and business audiences have listened with rising alarm as he chronicles the staggering growth of mandates our public schools must bear. Now, everyone can share his powerful message, and quickly accomplish two critical goals:
- Help people in every community see just what it is that society is asking their public schools to do.
- Inspire the people working in our schools, and motivate them to strengthen ties with their communities.
Administrators, board members, teachers, and their allies can use this potent new tool in their struggle to increase local support for schools. The Ever Increasing Burden on America’s Public Schools was created to inform, entertain, and energize. And the feedback says it works.
The Blueberry Story:
The story below first appeared in Education Week (Volume XXI, Number 25 · March 6, 2002). Since then, it has been reprinted hundreds of times in newspapers and periodicals across North America.
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 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.
Copyright 2011 Jamie Robert Vollmer
The Great Conversation:
No generation of educators in the history of the world has been asked to do what Americans now demand of their public schools. Our teachers and administrators must teach all children to high levels while, at the same time, they struggle to remedy the stunning array of social, psychological, and physical problems that retard the progress of so many of their students. Each year the burden grows, and each day millions of public school employees give everything they’ve got to meet the challenge.
Their record of achievement is remarkable. But no matter how hard they work, they cannot produce the results our nation needs. Not because they are lazy, stupid, arrogant, or unionized as so many politicians and pundits would have us believe. They cannot teach all children to high levels because they are working in a system designed to do something else: Select and sort children for an industrial society that no longer exists.
We must change this system. We must break the mental, emotional, and cultural grip of the status quo and create schools that unfold the full potential of every child. But we cannot. America’s educators and their allies cannot change the system and dramatically increase student success until we secure the four Prerequisites of Progress: community understanding, trust, permission, and support.
The Great Conversation is designed to secure the Prerequisites of Progress. It is a positive, ongoing discussion between educators and the public. The action steps are practical and powerful. They can be successfully executed in any district, not just those favored by history, geography, or economics. They produce an ongoing flow of positive communication that leads to the development of a community-wide culture committed to increasing student success.
The Great Conversation is easy to understand and undertake. No new money or personnel are required. The process is built to run on two separate but synergistic tracks. One formal. One informal. Each can run in isolation, but when pursued together, they quickly produce a wealth of benefits. In addition to community understanding, trust, permission to change, and support, districts can expect increased public participation at school events, better quality candidates for the school board, winning majorities of “Yes” votes during bond and levy elections, and, most importantly, a pronounced rise in the community’s store of social capital.
Participation in either track must be completely voluntary, but the broad participation of the staff—classified and certified—ensures maximum results. The rewards are substantial, and the process informs, inspires, and invigorates all who choose to participate.
The Formal Track
The formal track is a deliberate, organized, group action. It is designed to engage educators and the public in an ongoing discussion that leads to increased student success. The centerpiece of the formal track is a scripted message that evolves over time in a series of distinct phases. This track is usually initiated and maintained at the district level, but it can be launched by an individual school or a cluster of neighboring schools.
The most important feature of the formal track is that it takes place on the community’s turf at the community’s convenience. This must be understood: We are going to them. This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional approach to public engagement, which too often revolves around inviting the public to attend meetings held in the evening at the school. The response to this approach is, almost always, an audience comprised of the same twelve parents and the one weirdo who comes to all the meetings. The challenges facing our schools today demand that we engage the entire community.
The Informal Track
The people working in America’s public schools are often the largest and, potentially, most powerful force in the community. The informal track taps the power each of them has to influence his or her environment. It channels their ability to amplify and accelerate the movement of a positive message across the entire community.
Like the formal track, the core activity is talking. Unlike the formal track, which is built around the scripted presentations of teams, the informal track is conducted by individual staff members talking casually with the people who populate their social networks—family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. This track has no formal script, but the benefits accrue more quickly when these private conversations echo, at least in part, the message that is being presented in the formal track.
The action steps of the informal track are simple to understand and easy to execute. They were specifically designed to add nothing to the existing workload. In other words, participation causes no pain. To the contrary, it produces joy. By choosing to participate, even a little, everyone plays a powerful role in increasing support for their students and their schools
Every district, rich or poor, regardless of location, already has the personnel, expertise, and resources it needs to execute all aspects of The Great Conversation and reap the rewards. The benefits that accrue are very much worth having. Obstacles that retard student achievement will be removed. Staff and public resistance to change will be replaced by an environment conducive to innovation and progress. The people of the community will begin to act as owners of their schools. Teachers and administrators will gradually find themselves accorded their proper status as the community’s most important professionals. In Great Conversation Communities, families, neighborhoods, and businesses will thrive and prosper.
As with so many other life-altering endeavors, the most important thing we can do is take the first step. We already have everything we need to participate. We have a tremendous story to tell and an army of educated people to tell it. Each of us is already immersed in our own vibrant social networks that can act as conduits for our message. By adding this simple but essential ingredient, and without breaking the budget, every district is perfectly positioned to set the stage to unfold the full potential of every child.
The Great Conversation is an essential building block of any strategy to increase student success. And the times demand that we do it now.
Excellent! Outstanding and worth repeating.
– Ohio School Boards Association
Electrifying! His enthusiasm is contagious.
– Alabama Education Association
A huge success. His mix of humor, compassion and conviction set the tone for the entire conference. –Pennsylvania School Board Association
Great! Professional, and crowd-pleasing. – Nevada Association of School Administrators
Even at ten o’clock on a Friday night he wowed the room. He was practical, compelling, and funny all at the same time. – Oregon Education Association
Best keynote speaker we have had in years. No one walked out! – United School Administrators of Kansas, Annual Convention
His contribution was vital. The presentation was informative and entertaining. – Capistrano Unified School District, California
Jamie possesses a rare combination of insight, experience, and perspective. He is a breath of fresh air. – National Education Association
Jamie Vollmer Says Kids Can Learn if Allowed to Learn at Their Own Pace
Racine Unified residents, we have the all the power we need to affect change for the better in our district. It won’t be easy, but it can be done if we do one very important thing: change the culture of our community.
That was the foundation of the message Jamie Vollmer, nationally known speaker and advocate for public education. He spoke at Wingspread on Jan. 25 to a crowd made up of educators, business leaders and heads of different organizations. In a nutshell, Vollmer told the audience, healthy communities are a direct result of healthy schools. Just look around, he was telling us, and you can see the truth of that statement.
“There is no quality of life without healthy schools,” he said.
Part of the problem is the current model of public education because it expects every child to learn the same material at the same pace in the same amount of time. But people just aren’t built that way, Vollmer stressed.
“No one has ever linked the speed at which you learn with your ability or capacity to learn,” he said. “Some people just take longer.”
Take high school, for example. We expect students to absorb a curriculum that has greatly expanded over the past 30 or 40 years, but we’ve not added a single minute to the school calendar. When kids can’t make the grade, so-to-speak, and can’t graduate in the prescribed four years, they carry that stigma with them for the rest of their lives.
It is in our power to affect substantive change, Vollmer continued. Our model of education worked for the economy of the time in which it was created by Thomas Jefferson in 1781, but it’s not appropriate for now. Most cultural shifts take about 100 years, like the agricultural age to the industrial age, but now we’re moving into what Vollmer called the “cognitive knowledge age,” and it’s only taking about 10 years.
Our education model is not keeping up and the question Vollmer wants us all to ask of ourselves, our educators and education administration is if whether or not what we’re doing is helping unlock the potential of every child.
“It’s not a grey area,” he said after his presentation. “It’s very black or white and if the answer to that question is no, then why are we still doing it?”
And the proof is in the proverbial pudding. When achievement goes up, just about everything we associate with the poorly educated goes down: crime, the need for social services, using the emergency room as healthcare. But you know what else happens when achievement goes up? The tax base because companies will settle in communities where there is what Vollmer called a “tight circle of human capital.”
So how do we get there? Well, it starts with changing our minds. Vollmer describes it as a low tech/high touch approach that has two primary focuses, each with a few steps.
For the first focus, we must build understanding so more people understand the very real challenges that go into educating every child. We need to build trust because there is a very real trust issue here between educators, administration, and the community as a whole. Next, we need to give the district permission to change. Vollmer says we have to give it to the board and to the Superintendent to be bold and often, that permission comes in the form of bonds to finance schools and programs. And finally, we need to really support our schools with more than money. The Racine Unified community is overflowing with talented people who could do a lot for our district’s kids with just a little time.
“We need a conversation at the community’s convenience,” Vollmer said. “That means forming teams to build rapport. Public education is a miracle and this its most hopeful time.”
During the Q&A that followed, Karen Urben addressed the voucher program in Racine Unified.
“With so many parents convinced that now they have the best education for their children, what can we do?” she asked.
“Do it better and let the chips fall where they may,” Vollmer responded. “Voucher and charter schools do not outperform public schools when the same socioeconomic standards for students are applied. We have to make sure our schools are the best they can be.”
Leighton Cooper, director of a Head Start program, asked for an example where Vollmer’s theories are working.
“Beloit, which I know sounds strange given what’s happening in their economy, but it’s true,” Vollmer answered. “Three years ago they started working actively to promote relationships between the schools and businesses and now they’re moving into the rest of the community.” And while Vollmer doesn’t really like standardized tests, he recognizes they are a measurement tool and according to what he said, Beloit is seeing dramatic improvement.
“But, you know, part of the reason they’re succeeding is because after a couple of failed attempts, residents gave a ‘yes’ vote on a bond for schools, and that’s part of what it means to give permission.”
I have to be honest and say that Vollmer blew me away. Of course we have the tools right here. What is stopping us? We stop ourselves and by extension, we stop our kids from becoming all they can be. I don’t pretend to know what this could all look like, but I know that I’m echoing my good friend and Caledonia Patch Editor Denise Lockwood when I say Vollmer is really telling us that it’s high time we show up not just for our own kids, but other people’s kids, too, because the health of our community depends on us putting ourselves out there.
Letter: Tweets Are Teachable Moment for Wilton
WILTON, Conn. – The following is a letter from State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, on the recent set of offensive tweets from a high school student
We have been presented a teachable moment in our town. A series of offensive tweets allegedly sent by a high school student is being investigated by the police and the state’s attorney.
The hateful language contained in these tweets does not represent the community in which we live and should not be tolerated in our homes, our town, or our state.
In the past, several towns in Connecticut have also been targets of anti-Semitic or racist incidents. These incidents provide us with teachable moments for parents and the school community to imbue their children with value of tolerance and respect. A serious discussion should be had regarding prejudice in all of its forms and the damage that it causes.
The message we must send is that there is zero tolerance for this kind of conduct. Our society was founded on the principles of respect and tolerance of the individual’s race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. Too many have sacrificed and fought to uphold these principles. We must send a clear, unequivocal and united message that this offensive behavior has no place in our town.
Jamie Vollmer, author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone,” writes that vigilance in the prevention of bullying is at the core of what we adults can do to help.
Do we remind our young people of their responsibility to interact fairly and thoughtfully with everyone around them?
Are we alert to signs of despondence or of fear in going to school that may reflect the impact of bullying?
Do we monitor computer use?
Do we step up to the plate to see that our own kids acknowledge responsibility if they have been victimizers?