by Nathan Warner
Speaker, author and education reformer, Jamie Vollmer, landed in Elk River Wednesday evening to address a small gathering of teachers and parents in Zabee Theater about what is wrong with public education and to share his vision for how to fix it.
Superintendent Mark Bezek introduced Vollmer as a longtime colleague and a friend.
“Jamie and I have been good friends since the ’80s,” Bezek said, “and I’m pleased to have him here with us tonight, as I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.”
Vollmer also addressed more than 850 teachers and staff the following morning at an annual District 728 welcome back program.
Fueled by jetlag, Vollmer shared his passion about education after concluding his speaking tour across the country this week that included 41 speeches in 27 citiess in 36 days.
“My journey to this point began back when I still believed you could run a school like a business, the people in the system were the problem, and the system needs to change,” Vollmer said, “and while I’ve proven to myself that the first two are false, I still hold to the last one.”
He shared how companies select only the best ingredients or materials for their business, but schools must accept everyone at the level they’re at whether they’re “big, small, rich, poor, gifted, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, brilliant, have ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis or speak English as their second language,“ he said. “This practice would kill a business, which is why you can’t run public education as a business.
“More importantly, the people in the system are not the problem,” he stressed. “The system is the problem.”
To argue his main point, Vollmer took the audience back to the day when America’s public school system began as the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, then-governor of Virginia.
“Here was this groundbreaking idea that every white, male citizen should have access to education,” Vollmer said, “and that the people should pay for it through taxes.” Vollmer painted a pleasant picture of the man who created the school board and made sure there was a school not more than two miles from every child in the country. “But here is what the author of this system said the express purpose of this system was,” he paused, drawing on Jefferson’s own words, “‘to rake genius from the rubbish’ — that is what the system we currently have is designed to do: separate children into two groups, those who go on to higher education and those who are rejected.”
Vollmer said that this was because America needed a very large unskilled labor pool at the time and only a small intelligentsia class. Thus, he feels the system was designed to fail the vast majority of the children that came to it, but it wasn’t seen as failure because the economy needed them as unskilled laborers.
To illustrate this, Vollmer said that when he graduated high school in the 1970s, 77 percent of unskilled laborers without a high school diploma could afford the American dream because America needed them. He contrasted that to 2010, when only 12 percent of unskilled laborers could afford the American dream, “because we don’t have the same agrarian and raw material needs we had even 40 to 50 years ago,” he said. “These things have changed, but our education system has not.”
In fact, Vollmer argued, we’ve seen more efficient ways developed to separate children into the two classes with IQ tests, multiple choice tests, and more each decade that has passed since Jefferson launched our public education system.
Why are so many children rejected? “The real issue comes down to the equation for success in education,” Vollmer said, which states that good education is equal to good facilities plus professional staff plus technology plus money plus time. “Everything is variable in this equation except time,” he points out, “and here we have our problem.” Vollmer holds that time is the problem with education because every child is held up to the same learning standard.
He said he feels that as soon as we choose time as our measuring stick, we’re no longer educating every child to the same potential because each child has a different learning method — some take more time, some less. “Quality is variable when time is constant,” he said, “so it’s no big surprise that you get the famous bell curve of student achievement with winners and losers in the race you’ve arbitrarily set up.”
Vollmer says that many people incorrectly equate the bell curve of human intelligence with the bell curve of student achievement. “They’re not the same,” he said, “because children with the same IQs come to the classroom with different levels of preparedness and foundational knowledge. Thus, some get a huge head start in the race against time.”
“Are there other ways that work?” Vollmer asks. “Absolutely!” He points to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, flight schools and college as examples where time is not constant.
“In the Boy Scouts, you demonstrate the knowledge you’ve learned regardless of how much time it takes you,” he said, “then you get your badge and move on. Time is variable, but quality is constant.” He added that the high school diploma is the only education system that stigmatizes, pushes, pulls and prods kids to stay in the same time, “based on their manufacturing date,” Vollmer joked.
For one thing, Vollmer believes we need to start a conversation about what kids should be learning. “We’ve added a mountain of stuff to the list that they’re supposed to know,” he said, “but remember we’re still holding time constant. This has to change.”
Why is it so hard to change the high school diploma? “You can’t touch a school without touching everything else around it,” Vollmer says, quoting the comic strip Pogo. “‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’”
In order to change the schools, Vollmer says you have to change the town, the state, and America itself.
First, he feels we need to regain and maintain local control of schools, keeping bureaucrats on the state or national level out of decision-making. “The school districts can’t be the football of politics,” he said.
He suggests a good way to start a dialogue with the community about education might be partnering with local chambers of commerce. “The first step is for our society to answer the question, ‘Do we want children to succeed?’” Vollmer says. He feels that until people who don’t have children in school realize that there is a direct connection between their quality of life and kids’ education, there won’t be movement on this issue.
“We need to talk about how better education reduces crime, increases the tax base, lowers teen pregnancy, and even reduces the use of emergency rooms as primary care,” he said, “and we need to show that all of these directly affect everyone’s safety and wallet, so if they vote ‘no,’ they know they’re cutting their own throats.”
Vollmer closed by saying to fix the problem, you need to begin with an understanding of the problem.
“Once everyone has an understanding, we need to increase trust between people and teachers,” he said, “and then we need permission to change things, which will ruffle ideas about what ‘real school’ is. Some communities will get it right, others won’t, but that’s where we have to start.”
Vollmer reminded people that the problems with education in America have nothing to do with the people in the system. “They’re working like animals to accommodate everyone in a system inherently designed to reject most kids to run a country on cheap labor,” he said, “but in the 21st century, we can’t run our country on cheap labor anymore — we need every child to help run our country in higher education, so we need to fundamentally change our education system by asserting constant quality with variable time.”
To learn more about Jamie Vollmer, visit his website at www.jamievollmer.com, or purchase his book, “Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools.”