A Teachable Moment

PCT President Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

A Different Common Core

If we were seriously interested in holding our public schools accountable, we would be much more interested in things other than standardized test scores. We would be horrified by how many Americans reject the scientific certainty that all life on earth has evolved over millions of years. We would be appointing one committee or another to determine why so many of the products of our schools know so little about their elected representatives, how their government works and how few of them ever bother to vote. In our discussions of academic standards, we would search for a curriculum that started children learning in their earliest years about what the legacy of slavery has meant to our nation and what it continues to mean to today’s African Americans. We would heavily sanction schools that didn’t find daily ways to engage students about current events, criticizing teachers for their failure to engage contemporary controversies in their classrooms. We would be taking stock of the extent to which America’s students recognize their responsibilities to others and how their political and economic freedoms are inextricably tied to those of their fellow citizens. We might even come up with some mathematical index to gauge the success of our schools as the agents of the renewal of our society. We need to be talking about a different common core.

This subject is on my mind this morning since I read this article in the New York Times on how poorly America’s seem to be doing in getting children to understand climate change and humans contribution to it.

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Moratorium?

The more I think about the moratorium on the consequences of high stakes testing for teacher and students in New York State, the more I’m sure that what we’re witnessing is simply a more sophisticated, more media savvy campaign to make the standards, the high stakes test aligned to them and the connection of both to teacher evaluation permanent. None of our leaders in Albany are talking about permanently ending the absurdity of judging teachers on the basis of student tests. What we are hearing is the continuing belief that appropriate tests can be developed for this purpose. What’s also curious is that while there is a moratorium in place for the time being, the state tests will still be given and the results for teacher evaluation will be reported on an advisory basis. In other words, we’ve put a halt on the consequences of these exams because we have no confidence that they measure what they claim to, but we are going to report the results anyway thereby potentially embarrassing some teachers, although that embarrassment is not to be construed as a consequence.

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Don’t Let the Moratorium Become a Trap

Federal law no longer mandates the use of student test data to evaluate teachers. While the 3 through 8 testing mandate remains, it is essentially left to the states as what is done with the test results. New York law, however, mandates a linkage of student test scores and teacher evaluation. While the Regents have adopted new regulations that establish a moratorium on the uses of state test scores in teacher evaluation, the information coming out of the State Education Department make sit absolutely clear that that in the 2019-20 school year, there is an expectation that teacher evaluations will make use of a revised growth model. Thus, if the stupidity of linking teacher evaluation to student scores on high stakes tests is to be consigned to the substantial history of idiotic education reform ideas where it so rightfully belongs, it is going take a change in the law. It becomes increasingly clear that the Cuomo’s Common Core Task-force is a diversion meant to confuse the public into thinking that there has been a meaningful retreat from the corporate driven education reform agenda. Clearly, the Regents have not given up their commitment to yearly testing and on the pseudo-science that claims the efficacy of judging teachers on the student results of that testing. If we fail to build politically on the moratorium, rather than a significant step forward, it will become a dangerous trap.

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New York Standards and a Moratorium

Predictably, the Governor’s task-force on the Common Core is apparently about to recommend that the state develop its own tests and standards with the input of teachers and a four year moratorium on the impact of test data on either students or teacher evaluations. In that Governor Cuomo has a reputation for having the reports of his commissions written before they even convene for the first time, it appears reasonable to expect him to implement most, if not all, of the report. The moratorium appears designed to politically shield Cuomo through his re-election as governor and for seeking the presidency should the Democrats fail in 2016.
I want to keep reminding readers of Cuomo’s craftiness in disarming his opponents and clearing the way for his own agenda. The coalition of opt-out parents, anti- standardized testers and Common Core opponents will need to keep their alliances organized and dedicated to making sure the changes they have been working for become permanent.

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NCLB is Dead. Welcome ESSA!

The nation took a huge step forward today with the Senate’s passage of Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the failed No Child Left Behind Act that ushered in the test and punish approach to public school reform. This bipartisan measure is said to have the support of President Obama, although it must be seen a repudiation of his policies and the work of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Credit is due for the efforts of our two national teacher unions for their very effective work in getting this legislation passed.

The downside of the measure is that it maintains the yearly testing of current law, but differs markedly in permitting the state significant latitude in what is done with the test scores. It also ends the federal mandate that the test scores be tied to the evaluation of teachers. More responsibility for education is returned to the states where issues of academic standards, teacher evaluation and what to do about failing schools will now be addressed without the financial coercion effectively dictating state policies. To be sure, there is still much work to be done to undo the harm done to our schools by the corporate driven test and punish reform movement. We can begin to see, however, movement toward a return to sanity.

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Cuomo’s Strategic Retreat

The media and blogosphere are full of speculation about Governor Cuomo’s apparent turn-away from the connection of student test scores to teacher evaluations. On my way to work this morning, local public radio had a commentator talking about Cuomo’s retreat from the combined attack of the parents and teacher union activists in the opt-out movement. If indeed Cuomo is retreating on the issue, we have to figure it’s a strategic retreat, one most probably designed to get even with those who have had the temerity to disagree with him. That’s simply baked into the character of the governor we have come to know. Just look at his treatment of Mayor de Blasio, a leader in his own party but a rival for the public’s attention.

I implore my colleagues in the movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing to avoid declaring premature victory. I am increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s retreat is temporary, just long enough to dissipate the energy of the anti-testing movement many of whom are already celebrating victory and declaring value added teacher evaluations dead. To do so is to trust Andrew Cuomo. Is there anyone in our movement who does? Then let’s act accordingly and redouble our efforts to bring sanity back to the evaluation of students and teachers.

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Watch Out for a Moratorium

In my November 6 post, I warned about the distinct possibility of the Cuomo administration out maneuvering the parent/teacher movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the tying of that testing to the evaluation of teachers by having his Common Core Commission propose a moratorium of some kind.. Today, the august New York Times is reporting unidentified sources as saying that a moratorium is in the offing. If true, while many will see this as a victory, I’ll be increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s real goal will be to suck the wind out of the teacher/parent opposition to his test and punish approach to public education – lull his opponents into a false sense that they have won. Once the pressure is off of him, he will go right back to supporting the agenda of his Wall Street backers. The only strategic response to a moratorium is to redouble our efforts to end the corporate sponsored reform movement once and for all.

Taking the rest of the week off. Back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Test and Punish Takes a Hit

Good news this morning about progress in the battle to end the scourge of high stakes testing. A Senate and House conference committee has apparently agreed on successor legislation to the No Child Left behind Act that introduced the test and punish approach to school improvement in the United States.

Although we are as yet unable to read the bill, press reports indicate that while the grade three through eight annual testing requirement remains, most of the federal consequences for schools and school districts for insufficient progress have been abandoned in favor of state authority to decide. Also said to be absent is any mandate for the Common Core State Standards or the linkage of student test results to the evaluation of teachers, again such issues being left up to the states to manage.

While this legislation that seems assured passage into law does not guarantee any relief to New York’s teachers and children, state education decision makes will be unable to say that test and punish is the law of the land that must be followed. We will now be able to focus laser-like on demanding sate changes to the Standards and a teacher evaluation process free of the linkage of to student test results. The defense that the fed are making us do it is about to lose some of its potency. The new ESEA will not resolve all of the issues we have with the corporate reform movement. We will need to continue the battle to end the federally mandated annual testing. But ending the mandates on the standards, test based teacher evaluation and federal remedies for students and schools that don’t satisfy arbitrary federal notions of growth is a major step forward. The NEA and AFT deserve big-time credit for helping to shape this legislation.

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Political Progress

I and many others have been critical of the early endorsement by our two national teacher unions of Hilary Clinton before extracting from her some reasonable commitments to our political agenda. Recent days, however, have brought the pleasant surprise that through leadership efforts Hillary is laying out education positions that hold the promise of undoing the severe damage done to our schools by the Obama administration’s brainless test and punish approach to closing the achievement gap between the children of the poor and the more affluent. Brainless is really too mild an epithet for a Race to the Top scam that led cash strapped states in the midst of a financial crisis to embrace the untested Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation plans tied to high stakes tests. Hillary seems to understand this and has pulled away from full-throated support for charter schools, recognizing that they do not educate all of the children public schools do. She has additionally, stated that she knows of no evidence to justify the tying of student test scores to teacher evaluations. I strongly suspect that our leaders have been telling Hillary that their endorsement wasn’t going to amount to much if her positions on education didn’t start to bend in our direction. One way or another, let’s recognize AFT and NEA progress when we see it.

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Our Tax Dollars Wasted

New York State has spent almost 700 million dollars on Race to the Top. 700 million dollars to implement a test and punish culture in our public schools. 700 million to enrage parents and encourage them to opt their children out of the tests on which we have spent millions. Here’s the state’s breakdown on what they spent our tax dollars on. November 2016 will be our opportunity to hold the people who let this happen accountable.

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Teach Strong

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to Teach Strong, a coalition of organizations interested in public education who want to work to make teaching a more attractive career. Both the AFT and NEA are participants in this venture, a venture premised on the belief that the quality of America’s teachers is poor and that changing the way we recruit, train, support and pay teachers is key to having a great teacher in every public school classroom.

Why the hell members are paying dues to the NEA and AFT to have their leadership run down their abilities is beyond me. Much of the bullshit that passes for serious discussion of teacher quality references SAT scores of ed-school students and draws conclusions about their intellect and teaching abilities on the basis of a standardized test that is increasingly coming to be understood to essentially be a fraud. Are there some dumb teachers? Sure! Just as there are some incredibly dumb physicians, dentists, lawyers etc. Here’s the interesting thing from my experience, however. I’ve met numbers of teachers over the years who are not intellectual giants, don’t see themselves as belonging to an intellectual elite, but who are, nevertheless, fantastic teachers, teachers who any sane person would want their children exposed to.

Even the name Teach Strong is offensive, the implication being that we have been teaching weakly. Why is it that we can’t face the fact that talent in any field is unequally distributed so that to expect there to be a “great teacher” in every classroom (whatever that means) is ludicrous. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we could staff every classroom with honors Ivy League graduates, and we wouldn’t have a great teacher in every classroom. We might even be surprised to find that we had made matters worse. The real problems facing America’s public schools have little to nothing to do with the quality of the teacher workforce. We would gain much more from halting the denigration of America’s teachers than we will from raising the bar for entry into the job.

America’s teachers are teaching strong. Many work in places where salaries are so low they must work multiple jobs to maintain themselves and their families. Even in our best schools, places where teachers make considerably more than the median American salary, teachers meet the challenges of working in an hostile environment, one in which they are essentially isolated from other teachers, asked to individualize instruction to over 120 students, evaluated in part on the test results of student scores on high stakes tests, required to respond to the most outrageous complaints with complete equanimity, infantilized by administrators who increasingly have had little teaching experience and where they talk increasingly about career change. Hardly a week goes by that one of our members doesn’t tell me about a conversation she has had with her child who has express interest in becoming a teacher. With guilty looks on their faces, these members tell me how they discouraged their kids from following them into teaching. Like all good parents, they want better than they have for their kids.

We’re already teaching strong. What we need is for people to notice, especially our national union leaders.

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No Doubt Left About Elia

If we had any doubts about who Commissioner Elia is and where she stands on the scourge of high stakes testing and the incalculable damage it is doing to even our very best public schools, her release of a tool kit for superintendents makes it clear to teachers and parents that she wants New York’s students taking the 3 through 8 ELA and math tests and expects her superintendents get both groups to toe her line. Were I a superintendent, I would be outraged by the insult of thinking that I was too lazy and or stupid to write my own letters to parents and teachers if I wanted to, requiring Dr. Elia to give me a form letter into which I simply have to fill in the name of my district. What chutzpah! But what a jerk. The superintendents’ organization should blast her for this outrage, but I bet they don’t. If she had not smelled their fear, she never would have had the nerve to put this demeaning crap out to them in the first place.

Before most superintendents have even examined the tool kit, its publication has further inflamed those parents and teachers who have come together to defend our public schools from a testing regime that has been designed to discredit the institution of public education so that it may be privatized into an even bigger profit center than it already is. Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt Out, immediately took to social media to warn superintendents that our movement is watching them and is poised to pounce should they turn their backs on the their communities. My guess is that Elia has given our movement a gift, one that will help us achieve our goal of doubling our opt-out numbers this year.

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Driving Our Kid Nuts

Vicki Abeles is the maker of the film Race to Nowhere, a powerful documentary on the psychic toll America has been inflicting on its children in the name of competition and achievement. In the years since my union showed the film to several audiences in my community, hoping to wake it up to the realities of what we were doing to their children, the situation it graphically depicts has only gotten worse with the adoption of the developmentally inappropriate Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing aligned to the Standards with the testing connected ever more tightly to the evaluation of teachers. Going to our schools today is more like having a job than being educated. In fact, the working conditions at most work place are superior. Little children are spending hours at home after a seven hour school day doing homework and studying for tests. High school kids are taking more college classes than many will take in college without the unscheduled time to do the work associated with them. Whatever time school work does not absorb is often scheduled into resume building activities in a fretful drive for conspicuous achievement that just might give one an edge on a college application. You have to look good to the colleges, the good ones at least. Forget about who you are. Abeles has written an essay that explores the hollowing out of childhood from the perspective of a parent who has the fortitude to honestly look at what she has allowed to happen to her children. Everyone with a child in school needs to read it and think deeply about it. If they do, they will hopefully immunize themselves against the almost virulent belief that our children are all underachievers if they do not have all As in Advanced Placement courses and are no guaranteed admission to Harvard.

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A Month of Atonement?

A member called this morning and asked me to explain the calculation of the local portion of her Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Although I played a major role in negotiating the plan, I couldn’t recall the answer to her question. It’s hard enough to remember things that make sense. Senseless things like APPR plans have nothing to attach themselves to in one’s rational mind. I told her I would look it up and get back to her which I did.

The answer to her question hinged on the results of our district’s students on a state assessment relative to the average state performance of similar students statewide. Our students are expected to do better than the state average, and our plan awards point toward a teacher’s final score based on how much better than the average our students do. I emailed her back my answer complete with an explanatory chart only to be met with yet another question. “Why does it have to be so complicated and hard to understand?”

The answer to that question, of course, is even harder to understand. How could responsible adults devise a system of teacher evaluation that is largely incomprehensible to the teachers being evaluated? 99.9% of those being evaluated don’t understand how the state arrives at their growth score. A significant number don’t get 20% of the local score. All they really get is the 60% that is essentially tied to observations of their actual teaching (which was the system before the reformers took over).

Now before most teachers fully understand their current APPR plans, a law gets passed last year requiring us to negotiate new and in some ways even more obscure plans. When do the leaders of our school district say, ENOUGH! When will they give their full- throated support to the opt-out movement and return some level of sanity to our public schools? I’ve been hearing from some of our members that maybe we should refuse to participate – simply tell the state we prefer not to. Thank you, but no thank you. Thinking about all of this gave me the idea that our national unions ought to designate November as a month of atonement for what we have allowed the reformers to do to public ed

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Take Your Appeals Process and…

According to the New York State Department of Education, some two thousand teachers are potentially eligible to appeal their ineffective “growth score” on the state test portion of the teacher annual professional performance review (APPR). To my very pleasant surprise, only eighty-six have applied.

The small number of appeals suggests that most of the members of the pool of eligible teachers recognize the absurdity of the so-call growth scores and so long as their jobs are not threatened by the APPR process could care less whether they receive a highly effective or an effective rating. Their response to the appeal process is a small but healthy expression of contempt for an evaluation system that is seen by most teachers as denigrating their hard work.

The appeals process appears to be part of a public relations campaign by the Regents and Commissioner Elia to rehabilitate the State’s disastrous education reform efforts with cosmetic changes. Look for the State to re-introduce the Common Core as the New New York Standards which will change some of the words but little of the substance of the Standards. Regrettably, real change is probably only going to happen when a majority of the children in all of the public schools in our state are opted out of the high stakes examinations and when we defeat a least a few of our elected leaders who have inflicted this scourge on us.

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Accountability or Surveillance?

Much of what gets talked about today under the heading of teacher accountability should be more appropriately referred to as surveillance. Accountability implies responsibility and an obligation to explain or account for one’s actions. Surveillance denotes watching for wrongdoing, catching malefactors in the act. It’s root is the word from which we get vigil. True teacher accountability tends to be embedded in the culture of an institution. It’s internalized by all staff regardless of rank to the point where an outlier gets the attention and sanction of all. It takes thoughtful leadership to build true accountability. It’s ultimately built on a deep respect for the work and the institution.

Teacher accountability today is increasingly a surveillance system. Neither the teacher observation systems currently employed nor the linkage of student test results to teacher evaluations promotes real accountability. Those are systems to which we devote huge resources of time and money to ferret out information that would be self-evident in an accountability approach built on a belief and trust in individuals to do the right thing. Those are systems that promote gaming. They do nothing to nurture institutional loyalty. The dirty little secret behind all the accountability palaver is that we could put an end to all of the surveillance we do of teachers, all the formal observations, all their growth scores, all the spying on them, all the questioning of children in their classes and the educational outcomes would be totally unchanged. Were we instead to put the money we spend on surveillance into reducing class size or other educationally enhancing measures, we would accomplish something real.

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Wait for the Taskforce Report, But Get Opt-Out Letter In

Feeling the heat of the growing parent revolt against high stake testing and the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores, Governor Cuomo has once again reached for the creation of a taskforce on the Common Core State Standards, hoping to mollify those who hold him politically responsible for the chaos wrought in the name of higher academic standards.

Early responses to the naming of his taskforce are less than enthusiastic, with NYSUT welcoming the taskforce’s creation but suggesting that proof of its worth will await its recommendations for cleaning up the current education policy mess. Opt-out movement leaders have taken to social media this morning, most alleging the taskforce to be a fraud owing to its lack of parent and teacher members.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no informed opponents of the Common Core State Standards or high stakes testing on the panel. Those I know talk about the need to reduce the number of tests and a fairer system to evaluate teachers, but basically support the concept of national standards and the use of high stakes tests to measure student progress. The influence of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is clearly present, with Randi Weingarten its former president, Catalina Fortino and a teacher from Brooklyn all owing allegiance to that powerful local union whose President, Michael Mulgrew, passionately defended an attempt to have the American Federation of Teacher oppose the Common Core at its last convention. It was on that occasion that he made his now infamous, intemperate threat to punch in the nose anyone who tried to take the standards away.

I will be pleasantly surprised if any change other than around the margins comes from this panel. Those of us who care about the extreme damage being inflicted on our best school districts in the name of standards and accountability must continue to build the parent movement to veto test and punish education by refusing to participate in it. Let’s wait for the panel’s report, but while we’re waiting, let’s encourage parents to get their opt-out letters in.

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New Yorkers Are On To The Common Core

A new Siena College poll finds 64 percent of New Yorkers think the Common Core State Standards have either had no effect on public education (24%) or have worsened it (40%). That then means that we have spent millions of dollars of scarce resources to fund the implementation of an approach that has diminished the public’s confidence in its schools. We have tied these standards to a regime of high stake tests of undetermined validity and in turn tied the student results to the evaluation of teachers, demoralizing our teacher corps as they have never been demoralized before.

We hired a new commissioner on the basis of her allegiance to the standards, the tests aligned with them and teacher accountability linked to student test scores. When does the absurdity of this policy dawn on our elected representatives? When do we collectively say, ENOUGH? When does it become clear to the policy makers that a few cosmetic changes will not suffice to convince the public of the merit of this policy? Must we wait for one hundred percent of New York’s students to opt out of the testing regime? Or have we reached the point where what the people of the state think no longer matters? Maybe the problem is even bigger than we think.

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The Seattle Strike

There were four education union strikes in the state of Washington this fall with the Seattle strike receiving the most attention. It remains to be seen whether this strike activity is a harbinger of increased union militancy or a phenomenon peculiar to special circumstances in the way schools in Washington State are funded.

One this is clear. The Seattle strike while about pay and benefits was also about professional conditions, the kind of conditions that have been demoralizing the people working in our nation’s public schools for some time. Already a leader in the anti-high stakes testing movement, the Seattle union representing teachers and support staff demanded and achieved two major concessions. Once and for all, they broke the ludicrous nexus between student test results and teacher evaluations, even winning some reduction in the number of tests required. Convinced that students were being subjected to more and more unrelenting academic pressures that were crowding out any time for students to relax and let off steam, the union bargained contractually mandated recess time for students. With some significant gains in special ed staffing and a financial package calling for a 9.5 percent wage increase over three years, an increase above a state funded increase of 4.8 percent over the next two years, the week-long strike certainly produced one of the best settlements we have seen in a long time.

The Seattle strike was clearly influenced by the recent teacher strike in Chicago, where a militant union mobilized the community to confront the test and punish policies of Democratic mayor Rahm Emmanuel. I want to believe that a trend is developing of a return to kind of militant education unionism that arose in the late 50’s and 60’s that ushered in an era of improving salaries, benefits and working conditions and which did so much to improve the lot of people working in our public schools and the children served in them. I want to believe that we can rebuild our movement from the bottom up and return it to a position where we sit at the table where education decisions are made as people who must be reckoned with because we are once again organized and organizing for ourselves and for economic justice in our nation.

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Regents Cling to the Wrong Approach

It wasn’t very surprising to learn yesterday the New York State Regents voted to make their teacher evaluation regulations permanent. While some seats on the Board of Regents were flipped last year, there are still not enough members committed to ending the test and punish approach to school improvement that is choking meaningful quality education from even our best public schools. The real disappointment came with the knowledge that Regent Tilles, a professed opponent of the test and punish policy, voted to support the regulations, claiming he had to because it is required by law. Frankly, I have always seen Tilles as wanting things all ways. He opposes the current policy but votes to support the regulations. He opposes the scourge of high stakes testing but played a vital part in hiring Commissioner Elia, a proponent of testing and its connection to teacher evaluation. I fear Tilles is more interested in becoming chancellor than he is in acting on his professed beliefs. One way or another, he has let the defenders of public education on Long Island down.

Today, parents and school personnel who oppose the direction of education policy in our state are wearing red to show support for their local public schools. The failure of the Regents to seriously revise the regulations promulgated last spring will undoubtedly serve to breathe new energy into the opt-0ut movement. It will also hopefully begin the process of targeting public education’s political enemies in Albany and devising a strategy for their defeat in November 2016. Despise Governor Cuomo as I do, the crafty devil senses that the political tide is turning against him and his education policy, causing him to suddenly favor changes to the teacher evaluation system in the direction of greater fairness. It’s going to take more than that Andy!

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