Quote of the day

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Found this in the Edweek newsletter.

It’s like we’re trying to put out a bunch of fires and, rather than look at the causes of the fires or improving the resources available to firefighters, we’re merely trying to switch out a few current firefighters for hypothetically ‘better’ ones.
David Cohen

I have been TERRIBLY remiss in hounding everyone with stuff here – I guess I can blame it on the end of semester rush, except we’re already well into summer minis. I’ll try to do better, all!  Hope you’re having a wonderful summer.

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

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I thought Jay’s piece in this morning’s print version was superb. I’ve been ranting about these issues for several decades yet on deaf ears,and perhaps his nicely done words will also fail. However, I think the tide is turning, albeit slowly – even with the scandals (with inescapably more to come), we as a whole are slowly recognizing that “it’s the leadership, stupid.”

There are teachers, as I was reminded today, who were single mothers facing no other option but welfare should they lose their jobs. Their choice was to put their babies at risk or erase bubbles on answer sheets under the orders of superiors. What would you do? I already know. See my piece here of January 8 on the Milgram research.

I don’t think he’s entirely correct (the elders among us will remember our frustration with automobile quality control), as Errol Davis has noted, education is the only profession in which the blame is placed on the workers.

My favorite turn of phrase from Jay, of many: ” . . .  we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear.”

Disparate thoughts, but all touched in Jays far more coherent piece below.

Jer

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

10:20 am May 9, 2012, by Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal Constitution

http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/05/09/tracing-the-test-cheating-scandal-back-to-its-roots/

For weeks, teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal have been appearing one by one in front of a tribunal, telling their stories in hopes that they will be allowed to retain their jobs and careers.

The process — guaranteed to them by law — is meant to ensure that if fired and stripped of the right to teach, they will be fired and decertified for good cause and after they have had the chance to defend themselves. Frustrating as it might be to some who want a quicker, cheaper resolution of the controversy, that’s important.

However, the public nature of the process and testimony has also produced an important side benefit: Taxpayers, parents and citizens in general are getting a more complete and in many ways more human picture of the internal culture of the Atlanta school system and how that culture contributed to the scandal. It is possible in at least some cases to sympathize with the individuals involved and the pressure they experienced, even if that sympathy does not mean excusing what they did.

In fact, while each educator implicated in the controversy has had a unique story to tell, in the end they leave me circling back to the same basic question:

Where was Beverly Hall?

Whatever mistakes were made by individual educators, the atmosphere of fear and casual corruption within the school system was Hall’s creation as longtime superintendent. The absence of safeguards and indeed the total lack of concern about potential cheating was Hall’s responsibility. The institution’s reluctance and even aggressive refusal to support district employees who knew something was wrong and who tried to protest is a direct consequence of her leadership style and priorities.

Hall has retired and left the district, and so far has played no role in the tribunal proceedings. And while investigations continue, there is no indication that she will be held officially accountable in any way.

In her rare public utterances, she has portrayed herself as a victim of employees who failed to do their duty, but in the end she failed them, not the other way around. In fact, Hall bears a significant degree of responsibility for every career that is being ended and every future that is being compromised.

However, it’s important not to leave the issue there, because in some ways Hall herself is as much a symptom as a cause. As AJC investigations have established, cheating on standardized tests has become a nationwide problem, with high-profile schools all over the country producing wildly implausible claims of improvement in student performance. Confronted with that evidence, public officials in too many cases have retreated into the same pattern of denial that has become familiar to Atlanta residents.

When the same problems occur on such a large scale, in so many different communities and school systems in more than 30 states, it is no longer possible to dismiss it as the actions of an unethical few, or of a corrupted bureaucracy here or there. Something deeper is driving the phenomenon.

There is no question that standardized tests are an essential diagnostic tool. They can tell us which students, teachers and schools are performing well and which require attention. But when we take it a step farther and use those same test results to dictate fates, we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear. When that happens, the tests themselves become a form of cheating, a means of producing misleadingly easy answers to what are really hard questions.

It’s also deeply confusing. In recent years, education reform has been dominated by two themes that are directly contradictory yet are often espoused by the very same people. And that contradiction is almost never acknowledged.

Here in Georgia, for example, state leaders have insisted that standardized testing be used as the educational equivalent of an industrial quality-control system. They produce a standardized model, and the tests determine how closely students conform to that model as they come off the assembly line.

Yet at the same time, we are told, the one-size-fits-all public-school industrial model must be dynamited to make way for a more experimental, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to education via charter schools and even vouchers. There’s a fundamental incoherence between those two messages that leads me to suspect that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and in fact are using schools as a battlefield in a deeper social struggle that we do not wish to acknowledge.

– Jay Bookman

Education is personal.

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Kevin comes up to the plate. On the chance that you haven’t seen the AJC op ed today. VERY pretty.

Jer

Opinion 8:05 p.m. Friday, May 4, 2012, print Sunday 5/6/12.

Education’s personal to me

http://www.ajc.com/opinion/educations-personal-to-me-1431768.html

By Kevin Riley, Editor, Atlanta Journal Constitution

As you read this, I’ll be at my daughter’s college graduation ceremony in Ohio.

As with any family, it will be a proud moment as the eldest of our three children receives her college degree. My mother will be there, too, to see the first of her 18 grandchildren graduate.

My daughter has been very much on my mind lately, not only because of graduation day, but also because she’ll be awarded a teaching degree.

You don’t have to be a very close reader of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to recognize how often we publish stories about education. Schools and teachers are in the news almost every day.

It would be hard to argue that any profession finds itself impacted more often by societal trends, politics, the economy and the media than teaching.

During a visit with some of our editors and reporters last week, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis noted that education is the only profession he’s aware of in which failures are blamed on the workers (teachers) and not leaders. And he knows a little about the difficulties today’s educators face.

Yet, Davis remains an optimist.

“It’s a noble profession,” he said. “It’s a noble calling.”

While we’ve published stories about challenges in local school systems, changes in educational philosophy, examinations of teacher quality and questions about the integrity of school test scores, I’ve always wondered privately how all of this would affect my daughter.

(I’ve already suggested that she might avoid highlighting what her father does for a living when she interviews for jobs.)

She’s never wanted to be anything but a teacher; there was no talking her out of it, even though I thought about it.

So, as she makes her first steps into the front lines of education — looking for a job and having her own classroom — I want to offer advice on navigating the difficult world a young educator will face.

It’s a world where almost everyone, from politicians to average citizens, has an opinion and a say in how things ought to be done.

With the demands placed on today’s teachers, it’s reasonable to wonder if they can be successful.

So, I can’t help but be concerned about her leaving the shelter of college and entering that environment.

I believe, however, that no matter the circumstances, she’ll always find her own, effective way to reach and help the children for whom and to whom she’ll be responsible.

My best advice to you, Anne, is this:

I’ve never met a successful person who doesn’t have a story about encountering a special teacher along the way. A teacher who set them on the right course. A teacher who saw something in them that no one else had seen. A teacher who got them to try something for the first time that became a lifelong passion.

I don’t think I ever told you, but when I was named editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the congratulatory note from my high school journalism teacher was among the ones that most touched me.

As you walk up that aisle today, think of that teacher you had along the way who inspired you to want to be like them.

Be that kind of teacher.

Economic and political winds inevitably will push you around, and, as a young teacher, you’ll have to find your way.

I hope you’ll find a good school with a great principal. I hope the parents care about their kids as much as we cared about you.

Every school district struggles with funding, how to measure its progress and how to reward its teachers.

But nothing can stop you from caring and helping a child.

The kids you’ll be in front of won’t know much about funding arguments or about the theories of how to teach math or reading. They won’t understand implications of class sizes or student-teacher ratios.

And they probably won’t understand that the standardized tests they take may have huge implications for your job security.

But they may have had a bad ride on the bus to school. They might be sad about something at home. They might be frustrated as they learn to read.

They might need a calm, safe classroom to come to each day. They’ll need someone to help them see the immense possibilities their life holds.

And they might need a hug from you at times.

Give them as needed.

Your mother and I are proud to have a daughter who’s a teacher.

Discuss this column and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of other areas at editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page. Visit http://www.facebook.com/ajceditor.

Projecting and Producing Failure – Where is Success?

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A piece by Stephanie Jones’ Teaching Georgia Writing Collective. A young teacher wrote this, whom we very sadly apparently cannot identify (in itself an interesting comment on academic freedom in the public schools)

Clarke County Schools: Projecting and Producing Failure – Where is Success?

An Essay from the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective in Athens, Ga.

The Athens Patch

April 30, 2012

http://athens.patch.com/articles/clarke-county-schools-projecting-and-producing-failure-where-is-success

The end of the CRCT marks the time of the school year that teachers look forward to most. It’s the time when teachers have more freedom and flexibility to teach in student-centered, inquiry-based, and curiosity-driven ways. It’s the time of the year when tensions subside and mandates are over. Well, at least that’s what we used to look forward to. However, this year after the CRCT is over there is a new district mandate in Clarke County to which third and fifth grade teachers must adhere. It’s called the “Blitz.”
Third and fifth grade teachers across the district have been asked to compile a list of students “projected to fail” the CRCT. Teachers were forced to use previous standardized assessments to determine this list of students. And if the lists weren’t long enough, teachers were told to add more, just in case.
Students on the “projected to fail” list will be involved in a “Blitz” session immediately following the conclusion of the CRCT – before test results are even known. Students will be re-rostered – that is, the students will be grouped with new students and different teachers so all the “projected failures” will be in one class receiving “intense remediation” while the remaining students will experience “acceleration and enrichment.”
This means that while some students are investigating how tornadoes are formed, creating inventions to fix a problem they see in their community, or making informational videos using iPads, the “projected to fail” students will be sitting in a computer lab staring at a screen and listening through headphones to practice skill and drill reading assignments for an hour every day. This is on top of the hour and a half of direct reading instruction they will receive.
When does the torture end? Why aren’t all students given the opportunity to learn in creative and inspired ways? Why are students who may struggle with reading constantly given boring and uninspiring things they must read while other students have choice and learn to read through creative projects? Don’t all students need an enriching and encouraging environment surrounded by friends and teachers that know them best?
“Struggling” students are constantly on the losing end of every battle – and now they lose even before their test results are known.
If students aren’t successful on a high-stakes standardized test in reading, the blame is aimed at the student who is labeled defective and in need of fixing. But what if the student isn’t what needs fixing? What if the way school policies and mandates are created is what needs fixing? What if the budget is what’s broken? What if we stop blaming the students, their parents, and the teachers and instead look at the conditions of schooling that produce failure?
We dream of a school system in which students aren’t projected to fail and schools don’t produce failure. That school system would encourage teachers to slow down and learn about a student who is struggling and design instruction to make that student successful. We teachers don’t need more textbooks, scripted curricula or software programs, we need time to teach our students in the way that is best for them. And students don’t need more textbooks, scripted curricula or software programs either.They need a less stressful and anxiety-ridden environment and more time in creative, supportive classrooms where they know they are valued and projected to succeed. They need student-centered inquiries back in their school lives, and teachers who do engaging projects with them for which they ask questions and find answers.

School systems’ fear of failure has created the conditions for more failure to emerge. We might all be surprised if we stopped making decisions out of fear of failure and started making decisions based on hope and seeing our students as possibility. Let’s change the definition of “success” to include more than one test score and project success for all our students.

We might begin with a different kind of “Blitz” – which is defined as an intense campaign for something, even if most definitions refer specifically to military campaigns. Let’s use the end of the school year for a “School is a place I want to be” Blitz to motivate students to make deep connections to school and inspire them to look forward to the fall. Keeping them in their classrooms with teachers and students they have come to know and trust all year is one place to start, and engaging them with challenging and creative projects is another. If we don’t, this “Blitz” for the CRCT – even after the CRCT is over – will likely backfire on us all.

The Teaching Georgia Writing Collective is a group of educators, parents, and concerned citizens who engage in public writing and public teaching about education in Georgia. Some goals of the collective include: 1) empowering educators to reclaim their workplace and professionalism, 2) empowering families to stand up for their children and shape the institutions their children attend each day, 3) empowering children and youth to have control over their education, and 4) enhancing the education of all Georgians.

The Creative Monopoly

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Brooks published this in the NYT a week ago; you saw it if you read the op ed page of the AJC. There are many ways to worry about what canned curricula (and factoid recognition testing) are doing to America. Enjoy.

J

The Creative Monopoly

By DAVID BROOKS

April 23, 2012

The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/opinion/brooks-the-creative-monopoly.html?_r=1&ref=davidbrooks

As a young man, Peter Thiel competed to get into Stanford. Then he competed to get into Stanford Law School. Then he competed to become a clerk for a federal judge. Thiel won all those competitions. But then he competed to get a Supreme Court clerkship.

Thiel lost that one. So instead of being a clerk, he went out and founded PayPal. Then he became an early investor in Facebook and many other celebrated technology firms. Somebody later asked him. “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?”

The question got Thiel thinking. His thoughts are now incorporated into a course he is teaching in the Stanford Computer Science Department. (A student named Blake Masters posted outstanding notes online, and Thiel has confirmed their accuracy.)

One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

In fact, Thiel argues, we often shouldn’t seek to be really good competitors. We should seek to be really good monopolists. Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it. The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger, too.

Now to be clear: When Thiel is talking about a “monopoly,” he isn’t talking about the illegal eliminate-your-rivals kind. He’s talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity. You’ve established a creative monopoly and everybody has to come to you if they want that service, at least for a time.

His lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets.

First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Then they move into a ranking system in which the most competitive college, program and employment opportunity is deemed to be the best. There is a status funnel pointing to the most competitive colleges and banks and companies, regardless of their appropriateness.

Then they move into businesses in which the main point is to beat the competition, in which the competitive juices take control and gradually obliterate other goals. I see this in politics all the time. Candidates enter politics wanting to be authentic and change things. But once the candidates enter the campaign, they stop focusing on how to be change-agents. They and their staff spend all their time focusing on beating the other guy. They hone the skills of one-upsmanship. They get engulfed in a tit-for-tat competition to win the news cycle. Instead of being new and authentic, they become artificial mirror opposites of their opponents. Instead of providing the value voters want — change — they become canned tacticians, hoping to eke out a slight win over the other side.

Competition has trumped value-creation. In this and other ways, the competitive arena undermines innovation.

You know somebody has been sucked into the competitive myopia when they start using sports or war metaphors. Sports and war are competitive enterprises. If somebody hits three home runs against you in the top of the inning, your job is to go hit four home runs in the bottom of the inning.

But business, politics, intellectual life and most other realms are not like that. In most realms, if somebody hits three home runs against you in one inning, you have the option of picking up your equipment and inventing a different game. You don’t have to compete; you can invent.

We live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills. And they are necessary: discipline, rigor and reliability. But it’s probably a good idea to try to supplement them with the skills of the creative monopolist: alertness, independence and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions.

Everybody worries about American competitiveness. That may be the wrong problem. The future of the country will probably be determined by how well Americans can succeed at being monopolists.

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

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In case anyone needed a reason to cry today at what we’re doing to public schooling.

J

New York Times

April 20, 2012

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

By CLAIRE NEEDELL HOLLANDER

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/taking-emotions-out-of-our-schools.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=general&src=me&pagewanted=print

FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.

For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.

Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.

And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.

Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

An English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.

What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform

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A lesson to be learned. In Valerie’s column this morning, Pasi Sahlberg of Finland explains why – aside from the fact that most folks are saying about the Finnish ed system “Oh, that would never work here” – the Finn success would not work here. My own take is that we never actually “re-form” education; we simply bat around the edges, expecting “reform” to work like a light switch – flip it and it’s done. While there are many reasons we will fail, there are two primaries: First and foremost, our factory model of schooling will continue to have us treat teachers like dirt (The latest MetLife survey found that the percentage of teachers who say they’ll get out as mushroomed. AND, don’t forget, the best leave first). Second, we will continue to refuse to face the reality that poverty cannot be erased by test-driven “standards” that have been randomly scattered across the grades in the absence of properly developed curriculum. I rant enough for today. I DO have some hope for positive impact from the Common Core, in spite of Diane’s piece.

Here’s Pasi’s final paragraph; the full piece you’ll find on Valerie’s site at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/what-the-us-cant-learn-from-finland-about-ed-reform/2012/04/16/gIQAGIvVMT_blog.html#pagebreak

What Finland can show to others is how equity and equal opportunity in education look like. However, school reformers in the United States need to be careful when considering equity-based reform ideas to be imported from Finland. Many elements of Finnish successful school system are interwoven in the surrounding welfare state. Simply a transfer of these solutions would add another chapter to already exhausting volume of failed education reforms.

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