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This Week in Magazines: Fixing Schools, Money, and the World

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If Barack Obama wants to debrief Michelle Rhee, even he may have to take a number. The intrepid chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools is on the Dec. 8 Time cover, star of the unequivocally-titled "How To Fix America's Schools." It's the latest in a series of profiles giving her flavor-of-the-month status in U.S. education.

As Obama plots critical strategy for education, there's a rancorous experiment underway in Washington. When selected in 2007, Rhee was a mere 37, and with no experience running even one school, much less 144 schools with a total of 46,000 students. She was running a nonprofit group, helping to place good teachers in schools, and she herself had been a teacher just once, in a Baltimore elementary school through the Teach for America program.

And, as reporter Amanda Ripley recounts, Rhee melded very tough-minded aims, a distinct strategy and a nettlesome lack of social graces; closing 21 schools, canning more than 100 members of a notoriously boated school bureaucracy and needlessly pissing off people with a modus operandi which includes BlackBerrying as they try to talk to her.

But the system is an expensive mess, and one shouldn't even wonder why Barack and Michelle Obama didn't go through the motions of visiting a public school before picking a private one for their daughters. They're that bad, and all the more needlessly so given the significant amount of money budgeted for the system.

For sure, Ripley's excellent look (with the more apt headline inside, "Can She Save Our Schools?") has flaws, including the flat assertion that, "the biggest problem with U.S. pubic schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research." Well, that's fine if you choose not to intertwine grinding poverty and the breakdown of the family (my own perspective is fashioned partly by having a child in a high-poverty, Chicago public elementary school).

But the dour Rhee clearly understands the need to get good teachers into the most awful schools. The key proposal she's made involves changing the tenure system and offering merit pay. It's gone nowhere, given union resistance, and, one suspects, her impolitic personal manner.

This is the best Rhee profile so far, though it could have used a companion piece on the more high-stakes, more difficult, older attempts to change far bigger systems in Chicago and New York. What are the lessons there? How have charter schools, military academies and selective-enrollment high schools worked? What concessions, if any, have been made by unions? And what about a recent Boston study, by the Boston Private Industry Council, concluding that two-thirds of high school graduates in 2000 who enrolled in college never got degrees?

In sum, is there any evidence of positive, systemic change anywhere?

---One suspects that the Obama transition team will not inspect "Justice After Bush" in December Harper's Magazine, attorney Scott Horton's urging to prosecute President Bush and top aides for war and other alleged crimes. "No prior administration has been so systemically or so brazenly lawless," he argues as he calls for the sort of "truth and reconciliation" commission, with nonbinding recommendations, one has devised elsewhere, including South Africa and Argentina.

Elsewhere in the issue, there is novelist Suki Kim's contrarian take, "A Really Big Show," on the New York Philharmonic's widely-praised trek to North Korea. Kim's take is that "the real audience" was the media and that it "seemed peculiarly American of the Philharmonic never to fathom that they might not be liked by those in dire need of economic and humanitarian assistance---that the North Koreans' tears, if they did indeed shed tears, might signal not gratitude but humiliation. North Koreans might politely endure an American presence and even court its company for their survival, but nothing short of a responsible American foreign policy would change the fact that for fifty-five years they have despised the United States and its politics." Ouch.

----"Fareed Zakaria's "How to Fix the World" in Dec. 8 Newsweek could be used as a job application for a big job at the State Department, given his thoughtful call for Obama to think big, exploiting the goodwill Obama will encounter internationally and avoiding being reflexively reactive in dealing with foreign affairs. That will be easier said than done, and perhaps more responsibility will have to be shouldered by international organizations, like the United Nations, than Zakaria is confident they should handle. But will Obama be able to opt consistently for the important, rather than the urgent, as Zakaria hopes, amid the utter complexity of so many issues, not to forget the virtually certain outbreak of civil wars and humanitarian crises (in some cases one giving birth to the other)?

---December National Geographic's "King Herod Revealed" is a somewhat revisionist look at Herod the Great, King of Judea. "An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew's Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews." This underscores his visionary ways; the prosperity and benevolence of his reign, building projects of impressive scope; and a rather complicated personal life, with ten wives and more than a dozen children.

--- Dissections of our Wall Street and economic debacle are ample, solutions for what any of us should do not are quite as plentiful. It's why December Money is a superior counsel on how to "Make Your Money Safe." This combines sophisticated reporting with distinctly utilitarian efforts on the obvious topics those of us without our own Gulfstream are worrying about: what do with your 401(k) or a 529 college saving plan; recalibrating longterm investment strategies; taking a tax loss for worthless stock; and even advice on how much to tip everybody from the newspaper carrier to the babysitter.

What about couples with most of their savings in Treasury notes and cash? Are they being way too conservative in plotting their retirement? This suggests yes. And the magazine's analysis of four free financial websites gives the highest marks to Mint.com. It allows one to track bank accounts, credit cards, investments and loans with an inviting layout and substantial investment capabilities. The next best is deemed Moneycenter.yodlee.com