Squelching Public and Professional Voices: Big Donors and School Reform

There have been many criticisms of big donors in the past decade (see here and here). They have been criticized for trying to privatize public schools and throwing their considerable weight around in advocating policies that will increase numbers of charter schools, spread vouchers, evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, and, in general, oppose teacher unions. I will take up each of these criticisms in a chapter I am now drafting for a book on educational philanthropy that will be published in 2015.

For this post, however, I want to describe another criticism that is often mentioned but seldom developed, one that, I believe, should be front-and-center in the debate over the role that big donors play in pushing a reform agenda. What follows is a first draft. I have excluded footnotes documenting statements in this post that will appear in next draft. Any comments would be appreciated.

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One criticism I want to examine is that In centralizing governance of schools, policymakers, supported by major donors, have squelched public and professional voices.

The background to this criticism is that the Gates, Walton, Broad, and other foundations have advocated mayoral control in cities, state laws that expand choice of schools, and parent trigger laws that, in effect, strip local school boards of their authority to make decisions, shrink public participation in educational affairs, and diminish teacher and principal professional judgment.

Donors supported state laws expanding charter schools, urged adoption of Common Core standards, and endorsed mayoral control of city districts in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago because it made grant-making for small high schools, charter schools, and changes in teacher evaluation easier when school authority was fixed in the appointed superintendent’s or chancellor’s office. Here is Bill Gates on mayoral control of schools:

The cities where our foundation has put the most money in, is where there’s a single person responsible – in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system, and so instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that’s where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we’ve seen very good results in all three of those cities, so there are some lessons that have already been learned

No extended time going through messy public vetting of each proposal. No squabbling over school board members’ questions and community hearings when decisions could be reached in the mayoral appointed superintendent’s office.

I do not suggest that educational philanthropists have caused centralized policymaking or loss of faith in professional educators’ judgment since both had begun in the mid-1960s with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act underwriting federal and state actions and continued through the 1980s–A Nation at Risk called for states to act on their recommendations–and into the 1990s with the spread of mayoral control in big cities. And of course, No Child Left Behind (2002) has the U.S. Secretary of Education intervening into local schools as never before.

I do suggest, however, that “muscular philanthropy” has accelerated consolidation of authority at local, state, and federal levels with the consequence of even further shrinking citizen and school professional participation in governing schools.

Donors have also helped governors and state legislatures compete for federal funds offered through Race To The Top by bankrolling organizations helping officials negotiate federal eligibility rules to apply for funding. State legislation allowing more charter schools, evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, and adopting Common Core State Standards and tests strengthened state applications for federal funds. Few local school boards were involved or practitioner voices heard as these state laws imposed top-down requirements on every district and school.

Centralized governing of schools over the past decades has been done not only in the name of increased efficiency in operations and developing excellence in schooling but also in seeking egalitarian outcomes: leave no child behind, college for all, and equipping minority and poor students with essential skills to enter a 21st century workforce. This deep concern for those who have been educationally disadvantaged over decades is part of the belief system of foundation and corporate executives who push for centralized governance, curriculum and testing mandates, and accountability rules.

The sum total of these public and private ventures has meant that large donors have not only set the reform agenda but gone way beyond agenda setting to promote state laws that eroded, no, a more precise word would be—diminished—local public participation and professionals’ judgment in significant decisions.

Although these donor-supported policies have inadvertently drowned the public voice in local decision-making and shifted power to technocrats who guide policy into schools, I doubt that foundation leaders intended to consolidate school decision-making higher up the authority ladder away from local policymakers, professionals, and citizens. Nonetheless, that is what has unintentionally happened over the past 30 years in identifying the problem as failing U.S. schools and the solution of getting schools to be efficient, effective, and excellent through a business-driven, technocratic model of governing schools.

I find much merit in this criticism.

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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Technologies and School Reform: Kissing Cousins*

Over the years, I often get asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms. I answer the same way each time. When I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school system I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms. Again and again.

I then add that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I looked at how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I analyzed policymakers’ frequent curricular changes since the 1880s. I even investigated the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. I also parsed the utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. Almost out of words, I end my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn. That long answer usually squashes follow-up questions.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar components.

All reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient.

Going from policy talk to classroom practice. Patterns can be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted program to ending up in classrooms. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad purchase and roll-out, and any brand-new math program for a district). Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (Common Core standards in reading, online instruction).

 Criteria to judge success of reform. If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on a mix of political interests, ideological fervor, available resources, and research evidence.

By now, you get my point. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

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*This is an updated version of an earlier post.

 

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Secret Lives of Teachers (Steve Drummond)

 

So where do they go, all the teachers, when the bell rings at 3 o’clock?

 

When you’re a kid, you don’t really think they go anywhere. Except home, maybe, to grade papers and plan lessons and think up pop quizzes.

 

And when you find out otherwise, it’s a strange experience. Many people remember it vividly: the disorienting feeling of encountering your teacher in the grocery store, or in the line at McDonald’s, talking and acting just like other grownups. A jarring reminder that they have lives outside the classroom.

But of course teachers go off and do all sorts of things: They write books and play music and run for office and start businesses. For some, a life outside the classroom is an economic necessity. In many states, more than 1 in 5 teachers has a second job.

 

For others, it’s a natural outgrowth of their lives as educators: the drama teacher performing in community theater, the history teacher/Civil War re-enactor, the music teacher onstage at open-mic night.

And still others have some private passion that has nothing to do with teaching or school — it may be the thing that keeps them fresh and fired up when they are in the classroom.

 

So where do they go when the 3:00 bell rings?….

 

‘Art Brings Me Back’

For Mathias “Spider” Schergen, his Secret Life plays out in a one-car garage out back of his house in Southwest Chicago.

He turned it into a studio, a crowded place full of lumber and wood and paint and scrap metal and odd things like shoes and fabric. Stuff that he fashions into art.

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“The art brings me back to my thinking and reflection,” he says.

 

Schergen, 61, is slender and muscular — his most notable feature, perhaps, his tattoos of spiders. They’re part of a persona that he has created — “Mr. Spider” — that year after year his students at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts find mysterious and fascinating.

 

He has taught there for 21 years, through good times and bad. Once, the school stood in the shadow of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects in one of the city’s most violent and dangerous neighborhoods. Now, the projects are gone and the school is surrounded by new developments.

Still, it draws many children from the surrounding neighborhood: 98 percent African-American, 96 percent (low income) free and reduced lunch.

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I first met Schergen seven years ago, on a reporting trip for a story about great teachers and how they keep their teaching fresh year after year. In class, he has a persona: He exudes coolness and confidence, joking with the students, firmly keeping them on task.

 

Over dinner at his home, he’s a different guy. Quiet, soft-spoken, deferential.

 

“I’m a loner kind of guy,” he says. And he needs the time in his studio to square those two sides of his personality.”As my life has changed, and I’ve found I’m not so harried, my interest and my aesthetic have reflected that.” He’s now making work that’s more colorful and more connected to other people.

 

He recently started transforming objects that other people have discarded or overlooked. He wants to tell the stories that might be hidden in a forgotten shoe or a child’s headboard covered in stickers.

 

He says he can’t remember a day when he didn’t spend time in his studio. When he’s there, cutting and clipping and gluing and assembling, time doesn’t exist. “If we didn’t call him inside, he would never come in,” says his wife, Vanessa.

He says his time in the studio has a strong connection to his time in the classroom.

“The relationship is symbiotic,” he explains, “they both affect one another and they both affect me.”

 

He carries his thoughts from Jenner with him when he works out back. “I can usually work out issues I’ve been having during school,” he says. “I think of different ways to look at something, and I often realize there’s a completely different approach I should be taking with a student.”

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The Persistent Dilemma of Play, Work, and Testing in Prekindergarten

New York City schools welcomed 50,000 four year-olds to prekindergarten last week. Ginia Ballafante summarized crisply the dilemma facing over 4,000 pre-K teachers:

“How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling, digressive learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.”

And Ballafante is right on the mark. If kindergarten is the new first grade as some progressive critics point out, then prekindergarten threatens to become boot camp for kindergarten.

First, let me establish that kindergarten is, indeed, becoming the new first grade. In a recent study looking back at how kindergartens have changed in the past 15 years under a regime of testing and accountability, researchers found the following:

*The percentage of teachers who indicated that incoming kindergarteners need to know most of their letters or count to twenty doubled. In 1998 less than one-third of kindergarten teachers agreed that children should learn to read in kindergarten. By  2006 that number had more than doubled to 65 percent.

*Time spent on reading and language arts rose about 25 percent or from 5.5 hours to 7 a week.

*There was no change in percent of time spent on math instruction but there were significant drops in teaching time spent on social studies, science, art, and  physical education.

Many urban children come to preschool (and kindergarten) with many strengths (often unrecognized in school settings) and weaknesses such as deficits in words that are the currency of formal schooling. The onset of testing five year-olds has commenced–25 states mandate assessing 5 year-olds. So how to get young children up to speed to do well on these tests has accelerated the move toward academic instruction for kindergarteners with the pressure inevitably seeping down to three year olds.  This shift toward academic instruction has put the spotlight on exactly how much of school experiences for three-to-five year-olds should be play and how much academic work in light of the demands of testing for determining first grade for young children and teacher evaluation.

Two Bank Street College educators (New York City), however, do not see a conflict between work and play for pre-kindergartners. “This is a false choice,” they say. “We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.” They continue:

As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.

What does play look like in a room filled with three- and four year-olds?

When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

 In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.
Work and play become one. “Play,” they say, “has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school.”
During the summer, these pre-K teachers were worried over the impact of testing in kindergarten trickling down into their classrooms in worksheets, drills on words and colors, and group lessons on phonetics and numbers.
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The idea that play and work are intimately connected and in young children learning is not separated into bins–silos are favored academic-speak–but are as one means that there is no dichotomy, no dilemma. It is a classic case of reframing what appears as a dilemma into a problem that can be solved. That is what these educators are trying to do. They end their op-ed by saying:
But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.
So true.

 

 

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Cartoons about Teaching and Learning Science

Last month, I featured cartoons on teaching and learning math. This month I turn to science. Enjoy!

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BioCartoon4

 

Rocket Science: The online course.

 

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Physicists disputing whether the clock moves backwards or forwards according to season change.

 

'No, this is its nucleus, not its cell phone.'

 

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School Leaders as Marathoners, not Sprinters*

Most urban superintendents serve between four to six years and move on. I call them sprinters. Think Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C. (2007-2010) and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District (2011-2014). A precious few serve a decade or more. Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents?

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. They sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals.  Two story lines, one popular and one true, explain Sprinters nad Marathoners. Consider each explanation.

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

These schools chiefs are rare; they are extraordinary individuals. They have turned around districts that were nearly terminal cases due to chronically low student performance, bureaucratic resistance to change, and managerial incompetence. They persuaded their bosses to install new systems of parental choice and teacher evaluation, to refocus bureaucracies on improving teaching and learning, and to create portfolios of different kinds of schools. By sheer force of individual will, together with political smarts and enormous expenditure of energy, these superintendents have succeeded. And test scores have risen. They are super-stars.

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

The key to success comes down to being in the right place at the right time. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Joel I. Klein the system’s chancellor in 2002 and served until 2011—the longest tenure of a New York City schools chief since the early 1970s. Bloomberg’s predecessor, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, however, engineered the appointment and departure of two schools chancellors—Ramon C. Cortines and Rudolph F. Crew—in less than seven years.

If timing is crucial, so is context. Each of the chancellors Mayor Giuliani wanted had been hailed as a super-star in his previous urban district. In each case, however, the mayor decided that the school chief didn’t fit him or the city.

Or consider Carl Cohn, who shepherded the Long Beach district through a decade of changes yielding strong gains in student achievement—a record sufficient to win the Broad award for urban district excellence. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002.

In 2005, the San Diego Unified school board hired Cohn to heal the district’s wounds after six years of struggle and the forced exit of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin. In December of 2007, barely two years into his tenure, Cohn left San Diego. His 40 years of urban school experience and extraordinary work in Long Beach could not find traction in San Diego.

For marathoner superintendents, then, it’s best not to look for a super-star. Leadership depends on finding the right person for the time and place. Cohn in Long Beach and Klein in New York City are examples of perfect pairings; Cortines and Crew in New York City, along with Cohn in San Diego, were imperfect ones.

WHICH STORY IS POPULAR? WHICH STORY IS TRUE?

Of the two story lines, Superman/Wonder Woman is currently the most popular explanation for superintendent success. America idolizes heroes. Yet it is the biggest gamble of all since saviors are rare, they depend upon others to do the work, and even get fired by school boards. Closer to the truth is the “best match” explanation and a tad less risky.

How is picking a superintendent a gamble? A school board assesses whether the person is going to fit the current situation and has sufficient expertise and experience to carry off the task and then bets that prior success will repeat itself. Some superintendents do have winning streaks in a string of jobs–and become heroes. But winning streaks—like playing the horses and blackjack—end. And school boards or mayors simply do not know when. That is why picking a superintendent, CEO, and football coach is gambling, pure and simple.

Yet even the “best match” explanation for superintendent success and longevity must also come to terms with the limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban schools. Here are social and political institutions strongly affected by a city’s demography, history, and economy—and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of inequitable resources, community neglect and discrimination have limits that even a Superman or Wonder Woman cannot overcome.

To lessen the inevitable disappointment that follows the appointment of a savior school chief, mayors and school boards would do well to downsize expectations, display more patience, seek leaders who believe in incremental changes toward fundamental ends, and pay far more attention to sniffing out better matches between the person and the city than betting on a super-star bearing a tin-plated reputation.

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*This post is a revision of an earlier one in light of Thursday’s resignation of John Deasy after three years as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.

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Teaching World and U.S. History in a Failing School (Part 4)

In earlier posts, I have described and interpreted how a high school history teacher taught history in a failing school (see here and here). In Part 3, I described a veteran history teacher in the same school and the four lessons he taught when I observed him in November 2013. Gary Hart (a pseudonym) taught world and U.S. history. In all of the lessons I watched, the sequence of activities unfolded in the same order: students signing in when they entered, sitting and talking until Hart caught their attention directing them to answer questions on the white board, the teacher supervising their  answering questions with scattered students chatting and having to be admonished repeatedly before settling into the task. In each class, Hart used worksheets drawn from the textbook covering particular pages and then supervised students by walking around as most (but not all) students completed the task. At the end of the period, Hart collected  both students’ answers to questions on the whiteboard and the worksheet. Occasional interruptions for dealing with cell phones and PA announcements jiggled the routines during the four lessons. Nonetheless, the activities occurred in this sequence.

Overall, what I saw in the four lessons I can sum up briefly.  Most students were disengaged from the content of the world history unit on late-19th century imperialism in Africa. A climate for learning content and skills of thinking was absent in each and every class I observed. A few students would answer questions asked by the teacher but the Q & A was, at best, dispirited. Surely, except for occasional disruptions, there was compliance; most of the students did as he directed. There is no question in my mind that the teacher had prepared lessons drawn from the textbook and knew that content thoroughly. His skills in managing the class were evident although there were moments, especially over cell phone use and persistent chatting, that became dicey.

If Mark Allison, his veteran colleague, (see here) went beyond the textbook and engaged his classes in African American history and they responded to questions on the photos he presented even asking questions from time to time, I saw no such engagement in these four world history and U.S. history lessons.  Clearly, these two teachers got compliance from their students, at least the ones that attended, and one of them went beyond compliance by creating a reasonable facsimile of a learning climate and interest in the Civil Rights movement.

So what sense do I make of what I observed? As in an earlier post, I return to contextual factors that I believe influenced Hart’s teaching.

First, the contextual factors. In Part 2 of these four posts,, I laid out how student backgrounds come to influence in positive and negative ways how students respond to history lessons. Nearly all students in the school, for example, are eligible for free and reduced price meals–the district measure of family poverty. Family and neighborhood poverty shapes, but does not determine, academic achievement. Ill health, limited experiences with non-poor families, few forays outside of neighborhood, increased influence of peers, inadequate preparation in lower grades, and other influences take their toll. Poverty is not an excuse for either behavior or achievement; it is, however,  an abiding factor that cannot be ignored.

Also the organization of Greenwich as an age-graded high school with departments and its place in the district affected what happened in classrooms.

For example, classes are only 40 minutes long in a ten period day. With laggards and low attendance, Hart did reasonably well given the organizational factors within which he labored. School and district policies made low attendance and high tardiness a school norm. Moreover, Greenwich has been identified as low-performing year after year and both teachers and principal had been notified that the school would be restructured which meant teachers that teachers  would have to reapply or transfer to another school. Daily sporadic attendance and the shadow of “reconstitution” often erodes teacher motivation to teach at the top of his or her game.

There is another contextual factor that matters for Hart and his colleagues. The state has adopted the federally funded Race To The Top program of teacher evaluations in order to secure additional monies. And that means 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation depends on the student standardized test scores.

That bothered Hart a great deal. He complained about the unfairness of a system that based half of his evaluation on student test scores. Because Greenwich students did poorly on these tests year after year there was no way that he could reach the highest category (“Accomplished”) when the principal evaluated him  even if he taught stellar lessons. For Hart, the evaluation system was skewed against him and his fellow teachers.

While these contextual factors surely played a part in what and how Hart taught, there were individual factors that mattered also. Hart claimed that he rewarded students with pizza parties and displayed work of successful students. That he did all of that, I have little doubt. However,  in the four lessons I observed, he lacked passion for the lesson content and the activities that he designed. In every lesson, he marched the group mechanically through routines in which students were clearly disengaged. The 40 minute lesson was something both students and teacher endured.

For 2014-2015, the “reconstitution” year, the principal chose Mark Allison and not Gary Hart to teach at Greenwich.

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