America’s public school system is set up so that some children will be left behind, author and national speaker Jamie Vollmer said Wednesday in Bozeman.

Vollmer, author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone,” spoke to hundreds of teachers at Willson Auditorium in the afternoon, before a public talk co-sponsored by the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bozeman School Superintendent Kirk Miller said that Vollmer, though once a harsh critic of public schools, today is “a champion of public education.”

Vollmer said “time is a constant” in America’s schools, which means all students attend classes for the same amount of time, even though some take longer to learn.

Yet 5-year-olds with college-educated parents who read to their kids every night can arrive in kindergarten knowing 35,000 more words than the children of poorly educated parents, he said. Kids who start behind may never catch up.

“The system is designed to have time as a constant and quality as a variable,” Vollmer said. It was created to sort kids, so some kids get A’s and B’s and go to college, and others get C’s, D’s and F’s.

That was OK a generation ago, when 77 percent of the workforce could earn a middle-class living with low-skilled jobs, he said. But today only 13 percent of low-skill workers can earn middle-income pay, and in the future it will be 5 percent.

“I’m not shilling for any kind of change in your school calendar,” Vollmer said. But, why not change it, he asked. “Make time the variable, to get to quality as the constant.”

The Bozeman School District currently has a large committee studying possible school calendar reforms, which could include year-round schools, longer days, four-day weeks or other changes.

Vollmer said in 1984, People magazine named his Iowa company’s ice cream the best in America, and he was invited to join a business-education roundtable.

Back then, he said, he had three assumptions: Public schools must change. Lazy, uncaring teachers were the problem. And schools should be run like a business.

Then one day, a teacher challenged him, asking what his ice cream company would do if blueberries sent to his factory weren’t up to high standards. Send them back, he replied.

Well, the teacher said, schools can’t send kids back. They take everyone, rich and poor, kids who don’t speak English, kids with attention-deficit disorder, head lice or other problems. That day, 250 teachers jumped to their feet shouting, “’Blueberries, pal!’” Vollmer said that’s when his ideas started to change.

Nearly every school reform is based on the core assumption that the problem with public schools is the people working there, Vollmer said. But after working as a teacher’s aide, he realized that teachers work hard, often 50 to 60 hours a week, teaching a diverse, distracted generation of kids.

Public support for public schools is eroding for many reasons, and that worries him, Vollmer said. “If public education breaks apart, America breaks down.”

America is aging, and fewer than 25 percent of Montana taxpayers have kids in school, he said. Anti-government and anti-tax movements target public schools. And schools are vilified in the press as failing because of international test scores, which are misleading because they fail to recognize America’s large percentages of kids from immigrant and high-poverty families, he said.

Educators have the power to change the community’s view of schools, Vollmer said, by emphasizing the positive when they talk with friends and family members.

“Public education is a miracle,” he said, “and if we all do our part, this is public education’s most hopeful time.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.