Commentary Magazine


Topic: education reform

A Response on the Common Core

On Thursday, I wrote about the problematic rollout of the Common Core and its parallels to the process by which ObamaCare ran into similar trouble, noting the difficulty of significant reform at the national level. I received the following response from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

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On Thursday, I wrote about the problematic rollout of the Common Core and its parallels to the process by which ObamaCare ran into similar trouble, noting the difficulty of significant reform at the national level. I received the following response from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

ObamaCare is a federal program through and through. Created by an act of Congress, it puts federal bureaucrats in charge of one-sixth of the economy, overrules state regulatory bodies (regarding insurance and much else), involves a massive redistribution of public and private dollars, and excludes any sort of “opt out” provision for states. (Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can refuse the Medicaid expansion, but they are stuck with everything else.)

The contrast with the Common Core could not be starker. This was an initiative launched by the governors and state school leaders well before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency, much less seated in the White House. It had momentum prior to the 2008 election as state policymakers came to understand that their own academic standards for public schooling were far too low—and sadly uneven—and that a joint effort to create common standards might provide the political cover to aim higher. Smartly, the federal government was kept out of the standards-drafting process, which was funded by the states and by private entities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But then, yes, the Obama administration fatefully decided to award extra points to states adopting the Common Core when deciding which would get big grants under its stimulus-funded Race to the Top program. So 45 states plus D.C. quickly did so—surely more than otherwise would. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put $300 million into the development of common assessments to go along with the standards.

But that’s it. That’s the extent of federal involvement. I understand that, for many conservatives, these incentives and investments tainted the entire Common Core project. But they don’t come close to turning Common Core into “Fed Ed,” as pundits like Michelle Malkin like to say.

Let me be clear: I do not defend the administration’s actions on Common Core, the rest of its education agenda, or anything else. The charge of Obama’s being an “imperial presidency” has legs, in my view. Arne Duncan’s aggressive use of “conditional waivers” from the NCLB mandates is both unconstitutional and unwise, and his ham-handed push for test-based teacher evaluations and school discipline quotas is apt to cause serious harm to America’s schools. (That the Tea Party isn’t up in arms about the latter is completely baffling to me.)

But get beyond the surface debates and any fair-minded observer can plainly see that the Common Core doesn’t fit into this narrative. It started in the states. Many Republican governors still support it. Many prominent conservatives do, too. The federal government played a role, but a limited one.

My own theory is that many conservatives, including those at the state level, are rightly frustrated at ObamaCare, and doubly frustrated that they can’t pull their states out of it. But they can pull out of Common Core—precisely because it’s not a federal mandate!—and might do so to blow off some steam at the president.

But if you believe that these rigorous new academic standards for English and math are importantly stronger than what states had before, and are likely to improve teaching and learning in U.S. schools, then pulling out of the Common Core to spite the president starts to look like a pretty silly idea. It’s certainly not a conservative idea—and it’s definitely not good for kids. Conservatives should find another target.

Michael J. Petrilli

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ObamaCore? Education Reform Hits a Snag

Wherever you stand on the Common Core, an attempt to provide a set of nationwide education standards, it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.

As the Heartland Institute noted in 2011, “The Obama administration made adoption of the Common Core a criterion for winning part of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, and states receiving Title I appropriations in the future may be required to adopt the standards,” after which “Forty-two states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in 2009 and 2010 in hopes of winning Race to the Top money.” This led to the first major complaint about the Common Core: conservatives worried the federal government was taking control of state-by-state education policy.

Liberals responded exactly as they did during the ObamaCare debate. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Bill Keller resorted to name-calling and equated conservative concerns about the Common Core standards to birtherism. Keller’s complete and utter disregard for even elementary intellectual engagement with conservatives was indicative of a defensive posture: it seemed the self-conscious ranting of an advocate of a weak policy for which he didn’t have a serious defense.

It portended darker days ahead for the Common Core. After all, there were real concerns about the Common Core from an educational perspective. They wouldn’t go away just because the left wanted them to. And then, true to form, the complaints piled up. The administration responded in typical fashion: Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed white resentment. Obnoxious racial politics and bureaucratic conceit aside, Democrats were also turning on the Common Core.

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Wherever you stand on the Common Core, an attempt to provide a set of nationwide education standards, it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.

As the Heartland Institute noted in 2011, “The Obama administration made adoption of the Common Core a criterion for winning part of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, and states receiving Title I appropriations in the future may be required to adopt the standards,” after which “Forty-two states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in 2009 and 2010 in hopes of winning Race to the Top money.” This led to the first major complaint about the Common Core: conservatives worried the federal government was taking control of state-by-state education policy.

Liberals responded exactly as they did during the ObamaCare debate. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Bill Keller resorted to name-calling and equated conservative concerns about the Common Core standards to birtherism. Keller’s complete and utter disregard for even elementary intellectual engagement with conservatives was indicative of a defensive posture: it seemed the self-conscious ranting of an advocate of a weak policy for which he didn’t have a serious defense.

It portended darker days ahead for the Common Core. After all, there were real concerns about the Common Core from an educational perspective. They wouldn’t go away just because the left wanted them to. And then, true to form, the complaints piled up. The administration responded in typical fashion: Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed white resentment. Obnoxious racial politics and bureaucratic conceit aside, Democrats were also turning on the Common Core.

And then came the warning that the rollout of the Common Core standards risked looking a lot like the botched rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges, with potentially disastrous results for American education:

The education world is scrambling to avoid its own version of a full-scale HealthCare.gov meltdown when millions of students pilot new digital Common Core tests this spring.

Technological hiccups, much less large-scale meltdowns, won’t do: The results of the Common Core tests will influence teachers’ and principals’ evaluations and other decisions about their jobs. Schools will be rated on the results. Students’ promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school may hinge on their scores. And the already-controversial Common Core standards, designed to be tested using a new generation of sophisticated exams that go beyond multiple-choice testing, may be further dragged through the mud if there are crises.

Indeed, Democrats in Republican-leaning states began criticizing the Common Core rollout as a “train wreck.” Then liberal states–and early supporters of the program–turned against it:

But the newest chorus of complaints is coming from one of the most liberal states, and one of the earliest champions of the standards: New York. And that is causing supporters of the Common Core to shudder.

Carol Burris, an acclaimed high school principal on Long Island, calls the Common Core a “disaster.”

“We see kids,” she said, “they don’t want to go to school anymore.”

If it followed the ObamaCare playbook, it was only a matter of time before the unions joined the chorus of opposition. Sure enough, Politico reports:

The nation’s largest teachers union is pulling back on its once-enthusiastic support of the Common Core academic standards, labeling their rollout “completely botched.”

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said he still believes the standards can improve education. But he said they will not succeed without a major “course correction” — including possibly rewriting some of the standards and revising the related tests with teacher input.

And to complete the cycle, the Common Core’s supporters are now taking the posture that opponents shouldn’t just be against the Common Core but must propose their own ideas: “If someone offers a better option, we will support it.”

None of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is. And the Common Core’s supporters have a point when they note that some of the arguments against it are based on misconceptions, fears, or unsubstantiated rumors.

But there is an overarching lesson here about the difficulty of national reform, the problematic hints of federal coercion, the humility that desperately needs to be applied to the way our government–or any sprawling bureaucracy–operates. Common Core may in fact have much to offer in the effort to restructure standard education curricula. But it isn’t conspiratorial thinking to be suspicious of grand, one-size-fits-all schemes in a federal republic–a lesson we apparently need to keep learning.

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Bloomberg’s Exit and the Future of Education Reform

There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

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There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

De Blasio’s education platform boiled down, in effect, to a pledge to dismantle the policies that Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted over the past decade in the nation’s largest school district.

Those policies, emphasizing the need to inject more free-market competition into public education and weaken the power of teachers unions, are not unique to New York City; they’re the backbone of a national education reform movement that has won broad bipartisan support. Yet the reform movement has also triggered a backlash from parents and teachers who see it as a threat to their schools, their jobs and the traditional concept of public education as a public trust.

For those activists, de Blasio’s victory – coming on top of a handful of other recent wins for their side – is a sign the tide might slowly be turning.

The article cites the successful anti-reform movement galvanized to oust Adrian Fenty in Washington D.C., though there have been victories for the school choice movement since then, and certainly victories in reining in union power. Those victories owe something to the financial crisis and increasing government debt, a fiscal backdrop that turned the hoary liberal clichés of “fair share” and inequality against Democratic interest groups like public unions, whose job security and generous health and retirement benefits are financed by increasingly struggling taxpayers.

Put simply, the public unions’ math never added up, and they could not win the argument that they had a right to bankrupt their states because of benefits they won from favored politicians. That’s why reform-minded governors had an easier time getting union members to contribute more to their own benefits than in measures designed to curtail unions’ political organization and clout. The unions are betting that without a fiscal sword of Damocles hanging over their heads the public will lose interest in this fight, and they can turn the momentum away from dismantling a major source of their funding: the failing government monopoly on childhood education.

If the unions are able to decouple financial concerns from those related to political organization, proponents of education reform will need to be able to win an argument over the latter to stop the tide from turning. How to openly attempt to disempower public unions without appearing to be motivated solely by the lure of partisan advantage? True independents on the issue are likely to be swayed to whichever side they believe is representing the best interests of the students.

It’s easy to argue that teachers’ protected salaries and high benefits can hurt the students by forcing cuts in other areas, such as books, computers, tutoring, or sports programs, that fall on the backs of the students. But there hasn’t been much of an attempt to argue the political power of the unions per se harms the education of the students. Some, however, are beginning to do just that. The Heartland Institute draws attention to a new study from the University of Chicago’s Johnathan Lott and the University of Florida’s Lawrence W. Kenny that finds that “students in states with strong teachers unions have lower proficiency rates than students in states with weak state-wide teacher unions.”

From the conclusion:

Strong unions should have a greater impact on student proficiency rates in math and reading than weak unions. The small literature on union strength has used district-level variables – the size of the district and the restrictiveness of the district contract – as measures of union strength. But state-wide teachers’ unions are often successful in influencing state regulations on education by being the major contributors to candidates for the state legislature. The state-wide teachers’ unions that contribute more are expected to exercise more influence and thus be stronger unions. We may be the first to use the state-wide teachers’ union financial resources as a measure of union strength and find that students in states in which the teachers’ union has high dues and high spending have lower test scores than students in states with low dues and spending. Union strength matters and indeed matters more than any other variable in our regressions.

Beyond the moral and financial cases for school choice and broader education reform lies the most important issue: the effect of public policy on the actual education received by the students. If liberal politicians like de Blasio are going to try to push the momentum back in favor of their union allies, reformers should be able to argue persuasively that it will come at the expense of the students.

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Laptop U?

Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

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Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

Yet Heller’s article, though it records the promises of MOOCs, also offers some reason for skepticism.

First, some MOOC enthusiasts do not seem to understand how education works. Heller observes that “comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity,” and asks “why shouldn’t college teachers do the same?” After all, “the basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance.” But that isn’t true. Any teacher knows that circumstances matter: the characteristics of a particular generation of students, the qualities of the kinds of students one’s own college or university attracts, what is going on at the moment on campus or off, the chemistry of a particular group, and the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in it.

Good teaching calls not only for a grasp of general principles but attentiveness to the particulars. It requires prudence. A professor teaching 100,000 students, much less a recording of a professor teaching 100,000 students, is not in a position to exercise that virtue. Heller, who seems to be playing devil’s advocate early in the article, gestures at the importance of circumstance in teaching later in his piece, describing a face-to-face lecture he sits in on and the “strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room.”

Magic is the wrong word, leaving the user vulnerable to Kevin Carey’s snark: “If the traditional college value-add boils down to intuiting the light in students’ eyes they’re in deep trouble.” But Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is himself naïve if he scoffs at the idea that having a teacher or mentor who knows you is a “value-add.”

Second, MOOC enthusiasts sometimes exaggerate how innovative MOOCs are. For example, Heller reports on Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy’s reasons for thinking that “multiple-choice questions,” which are forced on him by the constraints of having to grade so many students, “are almost as good as essays.” One reason is that “The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right.” That is what we in the education biz used to call “an answer key.”

One would not expect conservatives to be enthusiastic about MOOCs, which tend to involve more screen time and less reading, more multiple choice tests and fewer, if any essays, and more, not fewer, concessions to a student’s inability to pay attention for long periods of time. But some are excited about MOOCs because they promise, as Roger Kimball says, “to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.”

Colleges and universities, Kimball suggests, have largely been taken over by the left, and so there is no reason to mourn and some reason to celebrate the possibility that online learning will put many of them out of business. Thus a relative traditionalist like William Bennett is on Udacity’s advisory board, embracing Udacity in part because “traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence.”

I am not a proponent of what Kevin Carey calls “MOOC denialism.” But it is a mistake to embrace MOOCs as readily as conservatives have thus far. For one thing, MOOC proponents have absolutely nothing to say about the purpose of education. MOOC companies simply offer menus from which students choose. Conservatives who have in the past allied themselves with proponents of liberal education should be skeptical that MOOCs will advance rather than further weaken liberal education. For another thing, if Thrun is even half right, we can expect the institutions that dominate the future of higher education to be the high-prestige places like Harvard, Berkeley, Wesleyan and others that have a national or international brand. It hardly seems likely that such institutions are going to help turn a false promise of diversity into a true one.

The hope that technological innovation will somehow enable conservatives to win a war they have been losing in the field of higher education is really a symptom of despair. If even a bit of a story like this one about Swarthmore is true, this despair is understandable (though Swarthmore is among the institutions least likely to suffer any damage from online competition). But without neglecting the possibility that MOOCs or some other version of online education may really make a decent education more widely and cheaply available, conservatives like Kimball should not act like spurned lovers, crying out that if they can’t have higher education, then nobody will. In cheering for a flood that will sweep away their enemies, they risk sweeping away what remains of liberal education and of intellectual diversity in the academy.

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The Extravagant Hypocrisy of Charlie Crist

Let me pose a hypothetical. A young, charismatic Hispanic advocating for more humane immigration policies and against draconian enforcement defeats an aging, white politician in an election. The older politician then leaves his party to join the party led by the politician who took unprecedented action to squash immigration reform. What would you call the older politician?

You would call him Charlie Crist, right? After all, that is exactly what happened in Florida, and over the weekend Crist bolted the party advocating for more immigration with a growing cadre of Latino political stars for the party of the status quo. Crist endorsed President Obama, perhaps unsurprisingly but not without a dose of irony and a mammoth lack of self-awareness. There is a lot to love in his Sunday op-ed announcing his endorsement of the president, but this is my favorite part:

But an element of [the Republican] party has pitched so far to the extreme right on issues important to women, immigrants, seniors and students that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people.

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Let me pose a hypothetical. A young, charismatic Hispanic advocating for more humane immigration policies and against draconian enforcement defeats an aging, white politician in an election. The older politician then leaves his party to join the party led by the politician who took unprecedented action to squash immigration reform. What would you call the older politician?

You would call him Charlie Crist, right? After all, that is exactly what happened in Florida, and over the weekend Crist bolted the party advocating for more immigration with a growing cadre of Latino political stars for the party of the status quo. Crist endorsed President Obama, perhaps unsurprisingly but not without a dose of irony and a mammoth lack of self-awareness. There is a lot to love in his Sunday op-ed announcing his endorsement of the president, but this is my favorite part:

But an element of [the Republican] party has pitched so far to the extreme right on issues important to women, immigrants, seniors and students that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people.

The senator who defeated Crist, you’ll remember, was Marco Rubio. Rubio, no doubt, can’t help but laugh at the thought of Crist lecturing him–the son of Cuban immigrants–on what is good for Latino immigrants. But it’s even more risible as Rubio’s defeat of Crist enabled the Republican Party to raise the issue of liberalizing immigration policies. Rubio put together his own version of the Dream Act, which was expected to gain such bipartisan popularity that the Democratic Party moved to destroy any chance of it coming up for a vote. So President Obama released an executive order directing authorities not to enforce immigration law against certain immigrants rather than pass legislation to fix the problem.

Additionally, Crist mentions education, but Crist’s predecessor, Jeb Bush, enjoys a legacy that includes a reformed state education policy with impressive results. In other words, Crist hails from the state at the center of an immigrant-friendly, pro-education reform movement led by the party he is walking away from.

Both Bush and Rubio have earned extraordinary respect from the national party and the conservative movement. If Crist wants to take a stand on behalf of a status quo that is failing students in order to enrich union bosses and preventing bipartisan immigration reform, he is free to do so. But it should be acknowledged that this is exactly what he is doing.

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