Responding to the President on Choice Media

February 24, 2014

ResponseToObamaVoucher

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, the president claimed that “every study” shows voucher programs aren’t highly effective. Choice Media has posted a short clip in which a legend in the field (Paul Peterson), the leader of voucher research conducted by the president’s own department of education (Pat Wolf), and a modest chorus in the background (yours truly) contest the president’s claim.


Jeb Bush Drops School Choice – I Wonder Why

August 19, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jeb Bush’s big speech about education reform has made it onto NRO this morning. He does not include school choice as one of the four key components of education reform. I can’t imagine why Jeb would no longer view school choice as having been an important part of the Florida formula for success. Oh, wait, yes I totally can.

I am for standards. But choice must succeed before standards can succeed. By dropping school choice from his list of must-have reforms, Jeb is undermining the necessary path to success for standards.

Granted, he does turn aside at one point, under his section on digital learning, to tangentially mention school choice. But then, weirdly, he immediately feels the need to insist that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform.” Why is he suddenly going back to the subject of accountability when he’s already discussed that in a previous section? It’s a total non sequitur for him to bring it back up here – unless, that is, he shares my view that school choice is ultimately at odds with the technocratic, “trust us, we’re experts” spirit of Common Core.

He also asserts CC won’t hurt school choice – but his own defensive rush to demand that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform” after merely mentioning school choice undermines confidence in that assertion.

If anyone wants to contest my read of this speech I would request their responses to two questions: Why isn’t school choice one of Jeb’s four must-have reforms? And why does he suddenly rush to insist that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform” right after working in an anodyne mention of school choice?

One last point: We who prioritize school choice did not pick this fight. It was the CC crowd who came out with guns blazing, demanding that all schools must be judged on their yardstick (not parents’ yardsticks) and spitting on anyone who questioned their orthodoxy. We did not pick this fight. But we will not roll over just because the CC folks have all the money and power. A decade ago, the unions had all the money and power. We survived them, and we’ll survive Common Core as well, because we’re right.


I Recant! Common Core for All!

June 27, 2013

Greg loves CC cropped

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just like Jay did a little more than a year ago, I am recanting my opposition to Common Core. I’m all for it! Never mind everything we said about how there’s no one best way to teach children, and even if there were, we don’t know what it is yet; never mind everything we said about how unions would inevitably get control of the standards or how they would reignite the culture wars; never mind everything we said about how the standards are already being set too low, how they’re being put together by people with conflicts of interest, how they’re being illegally pushed from Washington.

Never mind all that. I’m all for Common Core. Why? Because Common Core is good for school choice!

Yes, I just wrote a big post about why Common Core is bad for school choice. I take it all back. Every word of it.

As Matt has just pointed out, 2013 is turning out to be the third big year in a row for school choice. Now here’s the thing. Back when 2011 was a big year for school choice, you heard about it everywhere. I mean every-frikkin-where. And don’t get me wrong, that was sweet. But 2012 and 2013 have been good years for choice, and for some reason, nobody’s noticing.

What gives? Well, for years we’ve been saying that “vouchers make the world safe for charters.” Whenever vouchers get on a roll, the unions have to train all fire on vouchers – leaving charters to slip through with less opposition. Meanwhile, mushy-middle politicians, academics and journalists can triangulate by opposing vouchers but supporting charters. It was Jay’s idea originally, but I wrote about it at some length in the Freedom and School Choice book a while back.

It would appear that just as vouchers make the world safe for charters, Common Core makes the world safe for vouchers. Everyone is so busy running around fighting over Common Core – especially the unions – that voucher supporters seem to have a freer hand. A while back, Jay wrote that one reason Common Core is a problem is “because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies….Common Core is consuming the lion’s share of reform oxygen and resources.” But it’s also consuming the anti-reform oxygen and resources!

And when money and muscle cancel out, there’s nothing left to determine the outcome but the merits – a debate we’ve already won.

So lock the government collar around my neck and break out the Gates Foundation checkbook, because starting now I’m all for Common Core.

PS Yes, that is St. Milton watching over me in the background.


DFER and the Miniature Machiavellis

April 29, 2013

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has done much to advance progress in education, but I am disappointed to report that in a recent series of events DFER has acted as if they have no shame.  I literally mean NO SHAME in the sense that they are not ashamed of doing something that is wrong, that they know to be wrong, and that they persist in doing anyhow.

I am referring to the series of blog posts and mass emails in which DFER Indiana is attempting to support Common Core by demonstrating that some of the opponents of Common Core hold positions on non-educational issues, like abortion, that DFER’s target audience might find objectionable.  These posts make no effort to defend Common Core substantively.  In fact, they contain virtually nothing about education policy.  The essence of their argument is that you should support Common Core because you really wouldn’t like some of the people who oppose Common Core.

When I wrote a post last week mocking DFER Indiana director, Larry Grau, for making this type of argument I assumed that he had acted without the knowledge and support of the national DFER organization.  So I contacted a long-time friend at DFER national to alert him to Grau’s actions and to see if he could convey to Grau the foolishness of this type of non-substantive, ad hominem attack.

I was shocked to discover that DFER National was not only aware of Grau’s campaign, but was fully supportive of it.  Sure it is wrong, I was told, but this is the sort of thing that works.  Stating the case and arguing the merits doesn’t carry the day, I was told, you need to engage in this type of manipulative trick.  Relying on logical arguments, evidence, and research is just naive.  The only regret DFER National expressed is that Grau’s attack didn’t gain enough attention.  My DFER contact wanted more critiques of Grau to get more people talking about it.

I’ve never seen so much cynicism so candidly expressed.

I wish I could say that this cynical embrace of shallow, non-substantive, and ad hominem attacks is unique to DFER, but it is actually wide-spread in the education policy world.  Advancing one’s political agenda with a callous indifference for the truth is the operating principle of most organized interest groups, including the teacher unions.  But you can also see it when the Gates Foundation makes non-falsifiable claims and spins their own research.  You can see it when Diane Ravitch repeatedly and falsely claims no academic benefits of choice in Milwaukee or DC.  You can see it in the obsession among attention-starved education policy advocates with Twitter.  You can see it when folks abuse language with weasel words, passive voice, and mindless jargon for supposed marketing advantages.

In fact, I have heard several Foundations candidly express disinterest in funding education research because they would rather invest those dollars in more advocacy.  Systematic analysis of 990 tax forms shows that Foundations actually are shifting more and more money toward advocacy.  I’ve been forced to endure sessions with marketing consultants at ed reform conferences where these charlatan Svengalis tell us that it is all about “messaging.”

It isn’t all about “messaging.”  Ultimately, it’s about understanding the truth as best as we can perceive it.  We need honest and high-quality research to improve our understanding of the truth about effective policy.  Yes, we need to communicate our understanding of the truth clearly and concisely, but it does no one any good to make stuff up, distort the truth, or cynically distract people from substantive arguments with ad hominem and “guilt by association.”

These Miniature Machiavellis may think they can twist the truth tactically to achieve a  greater policy objective, but they have no appreciation for how long-term policy change actually happens.  Real and enduring change happens because people come to a new consensus about facts and evidence.  This is achieved with substantive arguments and quality research, not by manipulative tactics.

The advance of Civil Rights occurred because of eloquent and substantive arguments by people like Martin Luther King, Jr about human dignity and equality.  It was helped by social science research about how separate could not be equal, which informed the Court’s reversal in Brown v. Board of Education.

Even the progress that’s been made in expanding choice in education has been achieved to a large degree because of a growing consensus among researchers that choice is generally effective and desirable, which has then influenced elite opinion to the point where both party’s platforms embrace the notion of parental choice.  This research took place over the last two decades before the rise of “The Twidiocracy.”  It took patience.  It took discipline on the part of funders and the earlier generation of advocates to stay focused on the search for solid evidence.

It is not too late for education reform to return its focus to substantive arguments and quality research.  The first step is for funders to scale back significantly on their giving to advocacy groups.  Most of these groups are completely ineffective anyway, consuming virtually all of their resources to engage in manipulative tactics noticed only by other advocacy groups inside some tiny and inconsequential bubble.  Second, Foundations need to increase funding for quality research.  Yes, research has sometimes over-promised, under-delivered, and cost too much.  But we can work on controlling inefficiencies there while advancing the search for truth.  Of course, the effective marketing of research findings and substantive arguments is important, but at the core there has to be a grounding in truth.  Messaging without truth is the same as having no real message.

In sum, Foundations need to step back from the focus on prevailing in the next session’s legislative battle and start taking a longer term view of what it really takes to win.  That requires the courage and patience not to expect quarterly or annual metrics of progress, which only encourage the shallow and near-sighted tactics of the Miniature Machiavellis.   If Foundations only wished to reproduce the scheming and superficiality of 18th century French courtiers, then they have succeeded.  If they wish to produce real educational progress, then they need to change course.


Being a Woman is Not a Tool for Humiliation or Punishment

April 25, 2013

If ever you forget where in the world the greatest threats to liberty and gender equality can be found, remember this item about Iran:

After an Iranian judge ordered men from feuding families to publicly dress as women as punishment, men across the country and even the region have been putting on dresses to show that being a woman is not a source of shame.  Following the April 15 ruling in the town of Marivan in Iranian Kurdistan, public protests were reportedly held in Iran, and men began posting images of themselves online in women’s clothes. The slogan of the campaign reads: “Being a woman is not a tool for humiliation or punishment.”

These protesters in Iran are potentially risking their lives by dressing as women.  They have a Facebook page cataloging photos of their defiance.  Here’s a sample:

(Hat Tip: Bob Costrell)


If I Woke Up With Larry Grau, I’d Really Hate Myself

April 24, 2013

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) supports Common Core.  I don’t for reasons I’ve explained on numerous occasions in the past, but most recently here.  Reasonable people can disagree, so I am not particularly perturbed by DFER’s position.  It’s fine.

What’s not fine is how DFER Indiana director, Larry Grau, tries to support Common Core in a blog post that was mass e-mailed today. It’s provocatively titled, “Are you going to hate yourself in the morning?”  He answers saying that if you “have spent the night canoodling with far-right opponents of the Common Core State Standards… we can almost guarantee the answer will be yes.”

His argument, such as it is, in support of Common Core standards is that a number of Common Core opponents are the kinds of people you wouldn’t want to wake up next to: “Before you decide to get into bed with extremist right-wing critics of the Common Core, we highly recommend that you get to know them better.”  He then goes on to profile State Senator Scott Schneider and Eagle Forum founder, Phyllis Schlafly, to show that they oppose abortion and other policies that DFER folks might like.  In sum, Larry Grau’s case for Common Core is that its opponents are people with whom you may strongly disagree on other matters.

By Grau’s brilliant reasoning, of course, you should also oppose charter schools, which DFER strongly supports.  As it turns out, Sen Scott Schneider was given the Charter School Warrior of the Year Award in 2012 by School Choice Indiana.  So if you should recoil at the thought of agreeing with Sen. Schneider, you should also oppose DFER on charters.

Unfortunately, this type of non-substantive, ad hominem argument is becoming the norm in education policy discourse.  Even people with whom I generally agree, like DFER, think this is how you are supposed to make arguments in education policy.  It’s disgusting.

Well, if Grau wants to go down this path of ad hominem in defense of Common Core, he might consider how it could be used against Common Core.  After all, I’m hard pressed to think of a single pro-Common Core organization that has not received money from the Gates Foundation.  And at least if folks get in bed with Sen. Schneider to oppose Common Core they are doing it for love, not money.  So when Grau or other Common Core supporters wake up in the morning to find Gates money on the nightstand, they can at least take comfort in the thought that they are carrying on the traditions of a venerable profession — some say the oldest profession.


Review of Sarah Reckhow’s Book, “Follow the Money”

April 5, 2013

The following is my review that was just published in Philanthropy Magazine of Sarah Reckhow’s book, Follow the Money:

In 2005, I conducted original research on a question that, to my mind, had not been satisfactorily examined. I tried to gauge and categorize how much total philanthropic giving there was to public education. I was surprised to discover that, relative to the vast public expenditures on K–12 education, philanthropic contributions were remarkably small—amounting to about one-third of 1 percent of total school spending. My paper was published in Rick Hess’ book With the Best of Intentions, and it concluded that trying to reshape public education through the sheer financial force of philanthropic dollars was futile—like pouring buckets of water into the sea. If philanthropists aspired to have a transformative effect on public education, they would have to use their limited resources to convince public authorities to redirect how public monies were spent.

In her new book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, Sarah Reckhow picks up where I left off. She provides a much deeper and quite thorough consideration of the potential and pitfalls of philanthropic giving in public education. Reckhow confirms that total foundation giving to K–12 education may exceed $1 billion, which sounds like a lot of money, but relative to the almost $600 billion spent annually on public education, it is actually a very small percentage.

Reckhow shows that large foundations have recognized the need to focus on influencing how public monies are spent, and that they are now devoting a significantly larger share of their giving on policy advocacy. Around the same time that I was recommending that donors shift their efforts toward policy influence, many large foundations were already making the change. Reckhow’s careful analysis of foundation tax filings shows direct giving to public schools dropped dramatically between 2000 and 2005, while giving to policy-advocacy efforts rose sharply.

Reckhow extends this analysis by warning us that shifting to policy advocacy won’t necessarily result in policy success, especially on an enduring basis. Foundations are tempted to concentrate their advocacy efforts in locations where there is centralized control over policy decisions. She empirically demonstrates that districts with mayoral or state control have been much more likely to attract foundation giving. It’s like one-stop shopping; foundations can get policy change while devoting fewer resources if they have to persuade fewer agencies or policymakers to embrace their preferred reforms.

But what happens when there is a personnel change among the central authorities? Eventually there will be a Pharaoh who knows not Joseph. Without building authentic and lasting support among local constituencies, philanthropic dreams of policy change may be ephemeral.

Reckhow illustrates this danger by contrasting the reform strategies in New York City and Los Angeles. In New York City, mayoral control was fully achieved. Through both network modeling and extensive interviews, Reckhow is able to show that reform-oriented philanthropists concentrated their efforts in New York on a relatively narrow band of elites to advance their policy agenda. In Los Angeles, by contrast, education policy decision-making is more decentralized and diffuse. In Los Angeles, reform-oriented donors were forced to expand their efforts to cultivate support among a broader set of constituencies.

New York City may have been easier, faster, and cheaper for reform-oriented foundations to accomplish their goals, but that speed came at a price. The support for reform policies is so narrow in New York City that Reckhow doubts it will survive for long after Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office at the end of this year. In Los Angeles, extensive efforts to build a base of support among a diversity of constituencies may help protect those reforms even with changes in political control of the district. To be clear, Reckhow does not provide evidence that Los Angeles’ reforms are lasting better than New York’s; her analysis leads her to expect that New York reforms rest on a thin and unsteady foundation and may not endure.

Reckhow is clearly advising foundations to avoid top-down reform strategies, but the largest foundations are not heeding her advice. Many have decided to up the ante on centralization. Mayoral or state control is no longer enough. They need national control. They are now focused on implementing the Common Core state standards with aligned national tests upon which teacher evaluation will increasingly rest. Federal policy, through Race to the Top financial incentives and selective offers of waivers to NCLB requirements, is pushing this centralizing strategy forward. If large foundations can build and control a national machinery to shape education policy nationwide, then they have no reason to worry about how broadly based support is for their preferred policies. As long as national elites favor their agenda, they hope that the national machine they are constructing can force policies from the very top all the way down to every classroom.

Reckhow’s implication is that this national reform machine is doomed to fail. Either state and local education authorities will resist the national reforms before they can be completed, or they will ignore and subvert policies that actually go into effect. Millions of teachers and thousands of schools cannot all be monitored and compelled from the top. Reckhow’s lesson is that enduring and successful reforms require a broad and deep base of support, which top-down reform efforts are failing to develop.

Of course, there is an alternative to trying to convince the education establishment to buy into reform. Donors could mobilize the most important yet most ignored constituency of all: parents. By expanding parental choices in schools, foundations can engage parents very effectively in controlling education policies.

Top-down reform strategies, such as merit pay or high-stakes testing, may be fragile, too vulnerable to shifts in the political winds. Once Bloomberg leaves office, who will fight to keep merit pay or high-stakes testing in place in the Big Apple? Bottom-up strategies, however, are more robust. Movements like school choice grow their own base of support. Once parents have good choices of schools, they are much more likely to fight efforts to take them away.

Reckhow thinks donors should court unions, community activists, and local leaders, but she fails to consider building the base of support for reform at the even more fundamental level of parents. Engaging parents in education reform through school choice may take longer, but no one involved in education reform should fool themselves into thinking that real and enduring reform can be done quickly. Donors need the wisdom and evidence that a book like Follow the Money can offer—but they also need the patience to do the job right.


New Score: Tom Vander Ark 3, New Gates PLDD Strategy 0

March 19, 2013

The research score continues to run-up in favor of the old Gates education reform strategy of creating small schools of choice rather than the new Gates PLDD strategy of centrally determining what students should be taught (Common Core) and how teachers should be evaluated (Measuring Effective Teachers).  When Tom Vander Ark led the Gates education effort, they had a winning strategy.

The new evidence comes from another paper that was presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference.  Two of my excellent students, Anna Jacob Egalite and Brian Kisida, received a data award from the Kingsbury Center to analyze the effect of school size on student achievement using NWEA test results.  They used a student-fixed-effects research design to see if students improved or worsened their academic achievement when they switched to a school of a different size.  And the results:

We found consistent negative effects of large school size on student math and reading achievement, especially in secondary schools that enroll more than 540 students. In grades 6-10, for example, math achievement declined by -.043 SD (standard deviation) and reading achievement declined by -.024 SD.

If a student moved from a largest quintile school in grades 6-10 to a school in the smallest quintile for those grades, we would expect a 6.4% of a standard deviation improvement in math performance.  Of course, a student fixed effects study is not quite as strong methodologically as the random-assignment evaluation of small high schools in New York City, but it is pretty darn good.  And this study has the advantage of using a large data base of more than 2 million students from across the country.  It’s pretty clear that students would benefit significantly from a reduction on school size — especially junior high and high school students.

Bring back Tom Vander Ark.


Bring Back Tom Vander Ark

March 18, 2013

Under Tom Vander Ark‘s leadership the Gates Foundation pursued an education reform strategy focused on creating smaller high schools.  The theory was that smaller high schools would create tighter social bonds between schools and students, preventing students from slipping through the cracks and increasing the likelihood that they would graduate and go on to college.  Smaller high schools could also be more varied in their approaches and offerings, allowing students to choose schools that best fit their needs.

But around the same time Vander Ark left the Gates Foundation at the end of 2006, the reform strategy shifted.  Rather than fostering small, diverse schools of choice, the Gates Foundation now wanted to build centralized systems of what everyone should be taught (Common Core) and centralized systems of evaluating, training, and promoting teachers (Measuring Effective Teachers).  As I’ve written before, the shift in Gates strategy was not prompted by research.  In fact, the high quality random-assignment study that Gates had commissioned to evaluate the small high school strategy showed strong, positive results.  But the post-Vander Ark leadership at Gates couldn’t wait for the evidence.  The knew the truth without any pesky research and had abandoned the small high schools strategy in favor of their new centralization approach years before those results were released.

Well, the evidence continues to pile up that the Gates strategy under Tom Vander Ark was effective and the new strategy is a failure.  A new National Bureau of Economic Research study by Lisa Barrow, Amy Claessens, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach examines the effects of small schools in Chicago.  Just like the earlier random-assignment study of small high schools in New York City had found and like the Vander Ark theory of reform had suggested, small schools promote high school graduation:

We find that small schools students are substantially more likely to persist in school and eventually graduate. Nonetheless, there is no positive impact on student achievement as measured by test scores. The finding of no test score improvement but a strong improvement in school attainment is consistent with a growing literature suggesting that interventions aimed at older children are more effective at improving their non-cognitive skills than their cognitive skills.

As Vander Ark had expected, smaller schools have non-achievement effects, like creating stronger social bonds, that help students go further in their schooling.  And as numerous studies have shown, higher educational attainment is strongly predictive of a host of good outcomes for students later in their lives. Score: Tom Vander Ark 2, New Gates PLDD Strategy 0.

Meanwhile I witnessed further confirmation of the failure of the new Gates approach during a panel at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference last weekend.  The Gates folks spent more than an hour presenting their Measuring Effective Teachers work.  That stuff may win over gullible policymakers and journalists, but the researchers at AEFP were not impressed.

Tim Sass had the first question and essentially repeated my concerns about how MET fails to provide evidence for the use of multiple measures.  Value-added test scores are predictive of later life earnings, as Chetty, et al have shown, he said, but why should we believe that classroom observations measure anything we care about?  The Gates folks didn’t really have an answer.  Jane Hannaway then articulated my concern that effective teaching may be too context-dependent to lend itself to a single formula for effective practices.  The Gates folks responded that there are probably some basic skills for effective teaching that are useful in all contexts.  They may have a point but that does not address whether MET is getting at those basic skills or not.  The weak correlations of everything in the study suggest they are not finding approaches that are commonly effective.

A third questioner wondered about the cost of adopting the MET approach, especially given the need for multiple observations by multiple, trained raters.  The response was that schools are already spending money on classroom observations but of course that does not address the extra costs of the multiple rater/observations approach.

And lastly William Mathis asked about the generally weak correlations between classroom observations and value-added test scores.  Doesn’t this suggest that these are distinct dimensions of effective teaching that shouldn’t be combined in a single measure, he wondered.  The Gates response surprised me.  They said that the weak correlations were good news.  It is precisely because classroom observations and value-added measures capture different dimensions of effective teaching that we need to combine them in an overall measure.

Of course, this ignores the Sass question about whether we know that the classroom observations are measuring any important aspect of effective teaching.  But more problematic was the “heads I win, tails you lose” nature of their response.  If earlier arguments defending MET were based on how classroom observations and VAM were correlated, then how could the lack of correlation also be presented as proof of MET’s success?  I went up to the Gates presenters after the panel (and chatted with some of them later) and asked them what MET could have found that would have led them to conclude that combining the measures was a bad idea.  They were stumped.  Maybe negative correlations would have dissuaded them from advocating a combined measure, but they weren’t confident about that either.

Essentially, they admitted that the MET policy recommendation is a non-falsifiable claim.  No research finding would have dissuaded them from it.  The ability to falsify a claim is at the heart of science.  MET is not science; it is just politics.  You should have seen the discomfort of the Gates researchers as they pondered why they were presenting non-falsifiable claims as research findings at an academic conference.  This sort of thing corrupts science and has reputational consequences for the researchers who lend their credibility to the new evidence-free Gates reform strategy.

There is a solution to the rot at Gates — Bring back Tom Vander Ark.  At least his ideas were supported by rigorous research.


Chingos and West on Florida’s Pension Reforms

February 21, 2013

Matt Chingos and Marty West have a new paper published by Fordham examining pension reforms in Florida.  Specifically, Florida offered its new teachers the option of choosing between a defined benefit and a defined contribution retirement plan.  The defined benefit plan is the type most commonly found for teachers and defined contribution is more commonly found for private sector workers.

Defined benefit plans have some unusual characteristics that may push some teachers out of the workforce before they really should leave and may keep others as teachers longer than they should.  These defined benefit plans also reward long-serving and immobile teachers at the expense of shorter-serving and more mobile teachers, like those most commonly found in charter schools.  And defined benefit plans shift all of the risk for achieving sufficient investment returns to the government, which given recently weak investment returns, government under-funding of plans, and overly generous promised benefits is putting many states in serious financial trouble.

So states like Florida are considering shifting more teachers to defined contribution plans, which are more like 401k plans where the employer and employee each contribute money to an investment account and then the employee bears the risk of investment returns.

Matt and Marty addressed four questions in their study: 1) What portion of new teachers have chosen the defined contribution (DC) option? 2) What kinds of new teachers were more likely to make that selection? 3) Did the teachers who chose DC more likely to be effective teachers? and 4) Is there a difference in attrition between new teachers who choose DC or defined benefits (DB)?

The quick answers are 1) Between a quarter and a third of new teachers chose DC.  This is a surprisingly large share choosing DC, especially given that DB was the default option.  2) Teachers with more advanced degrees and degrees in math and science (presumably those with the most attractive options outside of teaching) were more likely to choose DC.  3) There was relatively little relationship between whether a teacher chose DC and their later effectiveness as measured by value-added scores. 4) New teachers who chose DC were more likely to leave their teaching positions.

Check out the full report to see all the details.


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