By Beth Bily
“It’s not a business, stop saying ‘run it like a business,’” Jaime Vollmer, businessman and public education advocate told a group of community stakeholders in Grand Rapids Tuesday morning.
Vollmer, who has authored “School Cannot Do It Alone,” was hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Community Education, the Downtown Business Association, the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success and the Blandin Foundation. He came to town with the message that a community’s success hinges on the success of its schools. And school success, he said, takes the backing of the entire community.
While many say they support education and schools, Vollmer said far fewer are really serious about it. The task is large. “Getting all children to succeed has never been done anywhere,” he said.
The challenges are becoming greater. “We’ve never seen this America before – these kids are completely different,” Vollmer said, adding that distractions and a growing sense of entitlement have been game changers. “If we’re going to get from A to B, we have to go through C – which is the community.”
In order for communities to become the support system schools need, however, the larger community has to rid itself of assumptions about public education. Vollmer noted that he once believed three things about public schools, which he has since come to view as incorrect. 1) There is something wrong with schools; 2) The people who work inside the schools are the problem; 3) If schools were just run like a business everything would be fine.
After spending time in and around public schools, Vollmer realized there were fundamental differences between running a business and a public school system. It can’t be run like a business, he said, because there’s no control over the raw material and little control over the financing.
He sharply criticized the notion that if schools just went back to the way things were in the “good old days” everything would be fine. In the span of 50 years, the American economic landscape has changed dramatically. In the 1960s, 77 percent of jobs required unskilled or semi-skilled labor. Today that percentage has dropped to 12.
“We can’t go back to the good old days,” Vollmer said, after reading a list of the many functions schools have been asked to take on in recent years. “Every year we take more and more from the family and the community and dump it on the school house door.”
Vollmer didn’t offer easy answers, but rather suggested the local community needs to engage in a serious conversation about its schools. It’s essential to the economic vitality of any community, he said, and directly impacts such quality of life measures as the crime rate and housing values.
While the specifics of the conversation were left to the local community, Vollmer did say the community discussion needs to meet four “prerequisites of success” objectives – understanding that school success it vital to community success, increasing trust in schools, community permission for schools to change and support for schools.
Approximately 80 percent of Minnesota’s taxpayers don’t have a child in the public school system and that number is higher in Greater Minnesota. “You’ve got a very large group of people who think that the schools are someone else’s problem,” said Vollmer. “You need to have a thoughtful conversation that everyone has a stake in public schools.”
Vollmer flatly rejected the argument that there’s something wrong with today’s public schools saying by every performance measure, they are doing better than ever. The gap, however, between what schools do and what students need to prepare for the future is widening.
Better performing schools will come when communities address such issues as extending the school calendar year, increasing parental support of schools and grouping children by current proficiency rather than age.
He also said, collectively, we need to rethink the notion of measuring student achievement with standardized tests, which he referred to as “low budget” assessments that “marginalize everything you value about your kids and grandkids.”