John Purroy Mitchel

The Book of the Week is “John Purroy Mitchel, The Boy Mayor of New York” by Edwin R. Lewinson, published in 1965.

Previously a young attorney, co-Commissioner of Accounts and President of the Board of Aldermen in New York City, Mitchel was elected Mayor in 1913 on the Fusion Party ticket.  However, he was inept as a politician because both his speech-making and political-machine-building skills were poor. Like Mayor John Lindsay, Mitchel had good intentions, but did not get much done. He was brutally honest and never took action for the purpose of gaining the popularity of his constituents.

Like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mitchel’s economic concerns overrode all others, and his administration operated under a veil of secrecy. Mitchel rubbed shoulders with the Rockefellers, and thus acquired a reputation of favoring big-money interests. However, he wanted to keep the then-46 members on the Board of Education, rather than have the power to appoint only 9 members.  If he had such power, those 9 men would be difficult to find, in that they would be “required to give all their time.”  The only people who could afford to, were millionaires, “and they are the very worst type to put in control of the schools.” Further, “The tendency of mayors is to respect the aristocratic voice of the community and to forget the democratic.”

The irony of the Mitchel administration was that, although he was pro-education, he was more interested in saving money than providing New York City’s children with a decent education. The mayor was not a narcissist out to acquire power and appoint his cronies. Nevertheless, the Board of Estimate was a penny-pinching entity, and engaged in petty squabbles over money, with the Board of Education.  Estimate refused to spend money to build much-needed schools. Mitchel wanted Estimate to control the wages of Education’s employees, which included teachers.  Besides, during his entire time in office, Mitchel’s public relations was non-existent with teachers and parents.

In 1914, Mitchel and other city officials visited Gary, Indiana to observe an education experiment, and decided to introduce “The Gary Plan” to New York City’s schools. The Board of Estimate favored the plan because it saved money and saved school-building space. Not surprisingly, teachers and parents opposed the plan. Under the plan, students could opt to start learning a trade in middle school. The schools superintendent published a two-year progress report showing poor performance among students in the two “Gary” schools in New York City.  The plan was abandoned in 1917, after 35 participating schools experienced negative results.

In 1917, Mitchel ran for re-election because he wanted New Yorkers to support the United States in World War I. He accused others of being unpatriotic if they did not support the war. He himself attended a military camp while still in his first term. When he lost the mayoral election to John Hylan, he joined the Air Force, which was at that time part of the U.S. Signal Corps, and was sent to San Diego, then to Louisiana for training. Although he was 38, he wanted to fight in the war.

In July 1918, Mitchel did not have his seatbelt fastened when he died in a solo-flight accident in Louisiana.  More people paid their last respects to him than did people who attended New York’s 4th of July celebrations just a few days before. He was highly praised for his “bravery, patriotism, his integrity and his ability as a public official.”   Mitchel Field, an airfield just finished on Long Island, was so named in his honor.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.  They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

The Merry Baker of Riga

The Book of the Week is “The Merry Baker of Riga” by Boris Zemtzov, published in 2004.  This book described the difficulties of operating a bakery in Riga, Latvia in the 1990’s (just after the fall of Communism).

Latvia used to be a Soviet territory. The half-American author was a businessman and part-owner of said bakery.  Latvian culture was largely to blame for the poor profitability of the capitalist venture, which lasted only a few years.  Language and sanitation were among the myriad problems Zemtzov encountered.

Whenever an employee had a birthday or there was an excuse for a celebratory social gathering (which was often), the consumption of alcohol ensured that nothing got done the whole afternoon.  Alcohol consumption also played a part in a bad experience Zemtzov had with a contractor who was supposed to complete a renovation job in his home.

Nevertheless, Zemtzov described an aspect of Latvian culture that this American blogger found to be quite funny:  on one’s birthday, one is woken up at the crack of dawn by his or her loved ones, is wished a happy birthday, and has a birthday gift shoved in his or her face.

In sum, this was an entertaining tale.

Who’s Teaching Your Children?

The Book of the Week is “Who’s Teaching Your Children?” by Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, published in 2003.

This book describes the ominous future of education in the United States.  There is a dire teacher shortage which is slated only to get worse.  A vicious cycle accounts for this trend.  The authors ask, is it not a contradiction that parents demand quality teachers in their children’s schools but discourage their children from becoming teachers?

A large percentage of graduates who enter the teaching profession are not good students.  The ones who are, take more lucrative, rewarding jobs.  The teachers-to-be receive poor training.  For the most part, during their careers, they are underpaid and underappreciated.  No wonder the good students enter fields other than education.

Many teacher-training schools are for-profit institutions that need to fill seats to stay in business.  Therefore, in order to attract customers (graduates) they need to make obtaining teaching certification sufficiently easy.  “Grade inflation” (awarding higher grades than customers truly deserve in order to pass some customers who would otherwise fail) is one way they do so.

The authors present a scenario of their imagination, named, “The Millennium School.”  It is an elementary school that doubles as a teacher-training school, with a structure completely different from the usual American school’s.  It would be a small school with small classes, consisting of chief instructors “who supervise professional teachers, who supervise the teachers and associate teachers, who participate in supervising interns and instructional aides.”

Everyone on the team would be accountable for each child’s success or failure. The personnel would conduct classes and hold meetings as teams.  The school would be linked to a college, which would allow the teacher-trainees to fulfill the student-teaching component of their training, in teams.

I think the authors make exaggerated claims of such a school’s possible success, although it is a nice idea.  I like the team-teaching part.  However, the whole point is that power is distributed among many educators– they are supposed to cooperate, share ideas, and be rewarded with higher pay, more responsibilities and supervisory duties when they display an interest in advancing their careers. However, to me, this smacks of a corporate ladder.  Human nature is such that the ladder would spur competition rather than cooperation.  That would defeat the whole goal.

In addition, a school is a different sort of entity because it is funded by taxpayers. The kinds of operations a private company might fund for itself would not be possible for a school, due to a limited budget. There is an exception to this situation– in certain areas of this country, schools receive private monies from wealthy donors, making distribution of resources hugely uneven among schools.  As for the well-endowed schools, the funders are not educators, so they may have misguided notions of where to spend their money.  The money might go toward additional standardized testing, resources that reward corporate partners and activities relating to public relations, rather than toward real improvement in education quality.

Further, the government supervises the school, so there are politics from above and within.  The authors acknowledge the Millennium School model would necessarily be more expensive, but they argue that this model would eliminate many non-teaching positions, such as “curriculum coordinators, staff developers, teaching coaches,” etc. The resulting reduced payroll expenses would compensate for the raises received by the teachers and supervisors.

I think raises in pay would be extremely controversial– who would receive how much.  Theoretically, employees who acquired additional experience would deserve more pay.  However, the expedient way to measure the increase in education quality due to that increased experience, would probably be through standardized tests– another extremely controversial aspect of teaching.

I would suggest that various criteria be used to determine additional compensation for supervisors and teachers, that could include tests, as well as qualitative evaluations of supervisors, completed by teachers and trainees, and interviews with students.  Although I give them an “A” for effort, the authors present too simplified a model of the ideal school.

This is an informative, yet depressing book.

Walking on Walnuts

The Book of the Week is “Walking on Walnuts” by Nancy Ring, published in 1997.  This book is the career memoir of a pastry chef in New York City.  Ms. Ring discusses the uncertainty surrounding the fiercely competitive restaurant business in New York, and thus the attendant job insecurity of a pastry chef.  She discusses the details of the job– long hours, difficult bosses, hard work, and a hilarious episode in which The Fig Tree restaurant personnel were tipped off that a very influential restaurant reviewer, one Bette Brown, was to visit one night.

A woman fitting the reviewer’s description entered the eatery with her entourage.  She proceeded to complain about a draft at her table, then when moved, about being too close to the waiter’s station.  The bread basket caught fire from a candle on the table…  You can see where this is going– a long series of further mishaps, complaint-fodder for the fussy diner, “… who sarcastically asked Liz [the waitress] if she had graduated from high school.” Ms. Ring, who was also a waitress there at the time, witnessed Liz’s feisty temper flare as she finally told off the customer.

The supposed Ms. Brown confronted Carl, the restaurant owner, who, at the bar, was “… busy crying into his fourth double bourbon.” With the ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ speech, she told off Carl, telling him her name.  It was not Bette Brown.  Carl was extremely relieved.  A good dining experience was had by the actual Bette Brown, who had been there earlier that evening.

This book contains not only entertaining anecdotes, but recipes, too.