No School Left Behind
Our September issue came out just as kids headed back to classes, so it's not surprising that our article on Michelle Rhee's campaign to fix Washington, D.C.'s public-school system provoked a lot of heated comment (" The Iron Chancellor "). Readers from D.C. were especially fired up — "I am so glad that principal at Dunbar was fired!" gloated one, while another lamented the ouster of a biology teacher — but voices from across the country also chimed in. One young Minnesota woman wrote that she'd been frustrated since middle school by "knitters" who kept their teaching jobs through seniority. Meanwhile, negotiations over the groundbreaking teachers contract outlined in the article have stalled. No one who read senior editor Jeff Chu's story will be surprised that Rhee says she has a plan B.
Jeff Chu aptly observes that "perhaps only an outsider — and someone who may be just a little bit crazy — could set in motion the fundamental change needed to transform a creaking bureaucracy." The qualities that Chu describes in Rhee are the very characteristics we see in so many education entrepreneurs who are making a difference for thousands of public-school students. Some of those entrepreneurs are creating outstanding new charter-school systems; others have pioneered new ways of recruiting and training excellent people to teach and lead in our nation's schools. Like Rhee, they are sometimes viewed as "a little bit crazy" — but which is crazier: believing you can change a massive, dysfunctional system, or believing that doing the same thing again will yield a different result?
San Francisco, California
No school should be spending nearly $17,000 per student a year and getting the second-worst standardized test scores in the nation. Can entrepreneurialism shine a light in the darkest of bureaucratic corners? For the benefit of our kids and the competitive future of America, it better!
Santa Rosa, California
I was a teacher at a closing D.C. school that held 500-plus students and taught barely 150. People were taking extra-long lunch breaks, aides and parents "hanging out." It was a trip! I am praying for an agreement on this contract so we can make people work hard for their jobs and the children and communities of D.C.
I am a lifetime D.C. resident, product of the D.C. public-school system, and current parent of two DCPS students. The writer referred to Chancellor Rhee as "an unlikely crusader," but that is precisely what D.C. has needed for a very long time. Although there were shining jewels in remote corners of our schools, the system as a whole was a failure to our children. The only way to fix an environment this badly damaged is with swift, decisive, radical change. There are those who find Rhee to be rude, divisive, and cold. Those are usually the ones she is trying to get out of our system, the very ones who allowed the system to break down so far. The politics and red tape that surround "grown-up" bureaucracy should not leave our children uneducated. When elephants battle, the grass suffers. I admire the honesty in Chancellor Rhee's view on the consequences if she fails, but I would like to correct her. Given how long it has taken to see real change start, it's not just that she's screwed if she fails. We all are.
As a resident of D.C. and parent of a child who might enter into the public-school system, I want to point out an issue not addressed in the article. Rhee says she answers only to Mayor Fenty, but what she and others have to realize is that, now that D.C. doesn't have a school board to which we can voice our concerns, we have only the city council. If she is allowed to shun the city council because she doesn't want to get hammered by council members on TV, she has practically no one to hold her accountable.
MySpace vs. Facebook
Thanks for the insight on the workings at MySpace ("MySpace, the Sequel," September). I've been a longtime user of MySpace and am now a new short-time user of Facebook. MySpace is far more flexible in terms of HTML formatting and has a lot of interesting multimedia content, but I never know when I log in if it's going to work or if it's going to be hopelessly bogged down to the point that page loads repeatedly time out. My assumption is that the network is under-engineered. Facebook seems to be able to deal with its user load. Rupert Murdoch needs to give his kids at MySpace a kick in the pants.
Interesting that just three paragraphs after the writer says that "Andrews knows exactly what he's doing" ("The Most Valuable Player in Sports Is This Doctor," September) and that no one would like to play chess with him because "he'd be 10 moves ahead of you," Dr. Andrews claims he had no knowledge of HealthSouth's illegal practices. Ironic that someone who prides himself on relationships could be distanced enough to be "shocked" by the corporate fraud that was financing his yacht and private jet.
I was perplexed at Tina Dupuy's banal assessment of Quiksilver's rather forward-thinking experiment, SiteLA ("Quiksilver's Spice Girls," September). SiteLA seems like an initial (and spot-on) step in creating a rich dialogue between an empowering brand and those who share similar values, beliefs, and dreams. In my experience, brands with the courage to invest in these meaningful interactions are the ones that successfully shape a destiny and thrive. They are pioneering. They transcend transactional relationships. The real question for Quiksilver will be the internal commitment to scaling these rich approaches for connecting (versus defaulting to conventional advertising tactics). Perhaps if it chooses the latter, then Dupuy could recommend some good billboard rentals.
What's your beef with Quiksilver? This article is pocked with cynicism and sarcasm. Why can't you just present the story and let us make up our minds whether or not this is a folly?
Cary, North Carolina
Diet and Diabetes
As the mother of a 17-year-old with type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes, I was extremely disappointed to read Eduardo Sanchez's comments about pediatric diabetes (Fast Talk, September). Sanchez, the VP and chief medical officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, says, "In trying to tackle pediatric diabetes, the clear issue is childhood obesity." Yes, obesity is responsible for type 2 diabetes. But that's not the case for the million-plus kids that have type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that results from the body mistakenly attacking the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. The best nutrition in the world would not prevent diabetes in these kids, since obesity is not a factor in this form of the disease.
As exasperating as it is to see these comments from a man who has been a state health commissioner as well as the chief medical officer at a leading insurance provider, it's unfortunately not surprising. For several years, we were covered by a different Blue Cross/Blue Shield affiliate that regularly sent mailings to my daughter that focused on issues specifically intended for type 2 diabetics. Luckily, there are medical providers who know what the key issues are for our kids — even if they're not clear to Blue Cross of Texas.
Recycling by the Numbers
The author of "Plastic Potion No. 9" (September) finds fault with free enterprise making a decision not to pursue a line of business that isn't profitable. If no one were willing to pay her enough to live her desired lifestyle as a writer, she'd choose a different trade. And she lost total credibility with the statement that she provided "more than you ever wanted to know about the convoluted and inefficient world of plastics." This is an enviro-radical view. Oil is used in a wildly efficient process to make plastics of all types. The material is pervasive because it is incredibly efficient and utilitarian.
The heaths' mutual-fund data points (September) look at only a few periods. I could prove just about anything by picking the right data periods. I do agree the "average" mutual fund has disappointing results and investors consistently make bad decisions based on fear and greed. But a diversified and disciplined mutual-fund strategy with skilled, active managers produces better results than an index fund. Fees matter, but after fees, performance matters more.
Eric W. Bennett
I enjoyed reading your excellent article about the Sierra Club's endorsement of the new
The Sierra Club's primary expertise is in public-policy issues, not chemistry; other nonprofits, such as Green Seal, could have provided Clorox with a better and less-controversial certification-endorsement relationship. Your article notes that Green Works qualifies for the EPA's Design for Environment label, and this should be promoted by Clorox. Government approvals such as Energy Star and USDA-certified organic labels have become respected in the marketplace, and Clorox could build a better competitive advantage by educating the public about this lesser-known EPA label's meaning. This strategy would have allowed both Clorox and the Sierra Club to avoid this entire "green wash" controversy.
Edwin R. Stafford
It's hard for me to decide which partner has the more pathetic motive for the shotgun marriage between Clorox and the Sierra Club. Is it Don Knauss, who seeks to buy street cred with consumers by paying a sales commission to a nonprofit to use its logo? Or is it Carl Pope, who claims that Sierra Club's decision to license its identity for undisclosed compensation stems from an organizational change of direction with a new mandate for "making good things happen"?
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A version of this article appeared in the November 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.