The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher

Link: My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher

Ahhhh, The Onion. Yep. This sort of speaks for itself.



NPR: “Is Teach For America Failing?”

Gary Rubinstein was recently interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More, ostensibly due to the kerfuffle caused by his highly controversial blog post lambasting the nonprofit service organization Teach For America.

Yeah.

So, I think it’s time to re-post one of the rants I originally posted on Feb 4, 2012 to my previous blog, The Very Spring and Root. Note that there are comments and discussion on the original blog thread that unveil new points and help to clarify the original content a bit.

Here it is:

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons. On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves. Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations. Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals. By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain. As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators.

Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education. By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field! Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize? I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals. If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist? I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits?

The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America. In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.

Addendum 1: If your goal is not actually to become an educator for longer than a brief stint (or you are not at least entering the profession with the intent to make a good faith effort to try to stay), then the above reasoning will not apply as well. In that case, I would urge you to consider very carefully how and whom you are actually helping.

Addendum 2: I make no pretense of knowing what teaching is like. I have yet to teach a single hour in a single classroom. So, I am well aware that my opinions on this and other educational issues may change and grow with my experience. That’s called life. In the meanwhile, I’ll perform the best analysis I can with the information I have.



Wendy Kopp: The Trouble With Humiliating Teachers – WSJ.com

Aside  Comment

Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America and Teach for All, recently wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that I thought was actually very cogent and balanced: Wendy Kopp: The Trouble With Humiliating Teachers – WSJ.com. I note that she (seems to) make the important distinction between data-driven methods to inform instruction versus standardized testing to make high-stakes career decisions for teachers.

[polite applause].

 



Why I Didn’t Choose TFA

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons.

On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves.

Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations.

Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals.

By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain.

As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators. Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education.

By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field!

Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize?

I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals.  If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist?

I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits? The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America.

In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.



Correspondence with my “Thought Partner”

Hi [TFA Recruiter], thanks for offering yourself as a thought partner. Here is my honest line of thinking, though I am also looking forward to speaking with [Other TFA Recruiter] soon as well.

I am interested in teaching long-term, as a career. TFA is one among many entry programs to which I have applied. While I am genuinely excited to have been accepted to TFA, I am in the nice position of having a choice between TFA and these other programs, some of which include built-in masters programs and classroom residency time in the training process.

My direct concern with TFA is that, even though the preparation is much faster, it seems consequently much less effective. I am not interested in teaching for two years and leaving, so a year-long preparation program (as some of the other programs offer) is not of major concern. Why should I choose TFA over a program with more rigorous preparation, if I have a long-term commitment to education?

More broadly, I have done quite a bit of analysis (I am, after all, a research engineer) on TFA from the data available, and have arrived at some serious concerns about the organization in general.

For example, how would you justify TFA’s expansion into regions in which, due to the recession, there is apparently a surplus of already-qualified teachers? When I applied to TFA, I assumed that I would be placed into schools for which no qualified personnel are available; in analyzing the contracts you have with Washington, California, and Massachusetts as examples, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Another serious concern is what appears from your own documents to be what is in my opinion an over-reliance on quantitative data. Again, I am a research engineer, I *love* data – it takes me to my happy nerd place. But I also understand the limitations of data, and the importance of human factors. When we screen applicants to NASA, the quantitative elements of the applicant’s portfolio (grades, test scores, etc) are used for cutting off a minimum threshold only; 60 years of doing the hardest science and engineering imaginable has led us firmly to the conclusion that of far greater importance is creativity, judgement, analytical skill, and critical thinking. We don’t care as much about what they know as we do about how they approach what they *don’t* know. What does TFA believe about these factors, and how are those values built into the way you assess CMs and teach them how to teach students?

Of more general concern are the following:
What is the relationship between TFA CMs and traditional teachers? How do you respond to the (often highly vitriolic) accusations that TFA is displacing qualified, experienced teachers in favor of less expensive, less-well-trained, temporary teachers? What is the difference between a two-year CM and a long-term substitute? Are these issues different for the specific case of math/science, and/or the Bay Area?

Thanks for your time and support. I haven’t decided against accepting the TFA position by any means, but these are the questions I am pondering.

Thanks,
Nalin.



TFA Acceptance: Secondary School Math, Bay Area

etH_admissions
Dear Nalin,I am pleased to extend you an offer to join the Teach For America 2012 corps! Your acceptance into Teach For America reflects your outstanding accomplishments, leadership potential, and commitment to expanding educational opportunity for children in low-income communities. In order to secure your place in the 2012 corps, you must complete the confirmation forms on the Applicant Center on or before Monday, January 30 at 6 p.m. ET.

Changing children’s life trajectories by effecting meaningful gains in their academic achievement is an incredibly challenging pursuit. You have demonstrated great potential to excel as a classroom leader who will work in partnership with families, schools, and communities to offer your students the educational opportunities they deserve, and we are excited to welcome you to this effort. More than 28,000 Teach For America corps members and alumni are using their unique talents, skills, and perspectives to help transform education for children in low-income communities and address the factors that contribute to educational inequity, and we hope that you will join us in this important work.

On the Applicant Center, you can view a special welcome video from our Chief Executive Officer and Founder Wendy Kopp, as well as access information that will help you make an informed decision about this significant commitment, including:

  • Regional and grade/subject assignment: In determining your assignment, we made the best possible match between your regional, grade-level, and subject-area preferences, the projected needs of the school districts with which we work, and the requirements necessary to teach in those districts. Since we carefully consider each applicant’s qualifications and preferences when determining his or her assignment, we rarely reassign an applicant to a new region.
  • Information about your region: Over the next few days, staff members from your region will be welcoming you to the 2012 corps. In addition, you can access important resources on the Applicant Center that will provide: details about living and teaching in your region; information about the summer institute; and the phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses for corps members and alumni who would be happy to answer any questions you have.

If we can be of any assistance, please contact us at admissions@teachforamerica.org. Congratulations again, and welcome to Teach For America!

Sincerely,

Sean Waldheim
Vice President, Admission

Congratulations!

We are pleased to invite you to join the 2012 Teach For America corps and are excited to assign you to teachmathematics (grades 6-12) in Bay Area, with option to join 2012 charter corps in Sacramento. In order to reserve or decline your place in the corps, you must complete our accept or decline forms by January 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time.



Quick Update: TFA Final Interview

A quick update from Wednesday’s adventures. I can’t give too much detail on the format and content, due to a non-disclosure agreement, but here were some qualitative observations.

It was a very rigorous process for the final interview day. First up was the sample lesson.

The revised lesson plan went fantastically well, thanks to those who provided feedback. Making the geometric (instead of the mathematical, as I had originally intended) argument for Kepler’s 2nd law was much simpler to explain and much more intuitive. Everyone got it, and by my own (possibly biased) judgement I would say I was one of the top two lessons in the room.  Thanks for helping me to make that as strong as it could be!

We then went to a group activity, in which they set up scenarios for everyone and we were observed for our team interaction, leadership, and conflict resolution skills… after NASA FIRST this was a comfortable challenge.

Next up were two former corps members who spoke very frankly and openly about their experiences in TFA, after which there was a Q&A session. As usual I asked some pretty blunt questions (who invited *this* guy?) and was pleasantly surprised at how forthcoming and honest the answers seemed.

Lunch. Got to know the fellow “subjects” a little better. All very talented, motivated, positive, and idealistic. I felt kind of old though… the majority were undergrad freshouts, and a couple were masters students nearing their degrees.

Final one-on-one interview lasted about forty-five minutes. It was mostly asking me to expand on responses I had given to the online activity a few weeks back, clarification and expansion on my letter of intent and experience, and also a role play testing what I would have to term “improvisational persuasion under fire”. Kind of fun actually.

All in all, about a 5 hour process… ended exhausted but feeling great. My impression was that it went very well for me.

What’s next:

The TFA process is done, but they take quite awhile to process the whole ordeal. If accepted, they will let me know of assigned region, subject, and grade level on January 17th, after which I will have until January 30th to accept or decline. I did go in and change my assignment preference form to indicate that teaching physics or chemistry was more important to me than my geographical preferences. I hope that this action will further ensure that I am placed in a region of actual and high need should I choose to take the TFA route (if accepted).

I am still under consideration for the early admissions track into the Boston Teacher Residency. I will find out on December 14th if I made it to what they call Selection Day, which will be a similar day-long interview, sample lesson, team/leadership observation, reflective writing, etc on January 11th in Boston. A final decision will be sent out January 20th. BTR is without question the better alternative teacher preparation program, so I am still holding this as the preferable option.

I still haven’t decided completely on whether to do either, but I can say I’m very excited about the prospect of both. It’s been a strange and life-changing journey, often dipping into the highly personal in terms of what I value and my beliefs on the nature of education and society. The whole thing would be impossible without the support, feedback, letters of reference, and advice from several close friends, mentors, and colleagues throughout this whole process.



5 Minute Lesson: Kepler’s 2nd Law

Instructor: Mr. Nalin Ratnayake
Subject: Physics (algebra-based)
Target Grade Level: 11/12
Lesson Objective: Understand the major implication of Kepler’s 2nd Law.

Good morning class. Have you ever wondered about the motion of the planets? My name is Mr. Ratnayake (Mr. Rat will do). Today we will discuss Kepler’s 2nd Law of Planetary Motion, building on your previous knowledge of basic mechanics, algebra, and geometry.

In the early 1600’s, most astronomers believed that if the planets orbited around the sun, they must do so in circles. However, astronomical observations did not agree; planets seemed to move randomly in the sky. It was a mystery. A German mathematician named Johannes Kepler forever changed astronomy by demonstrating in his *first* law of planetary motion that by simply treating an orbit as an ellipse, instead of the previously-assumed circular shape, the simplicity and harmony of planetary motion became clear. He then went on to explain the consequences of elliptical motion in his *second* law, which states: A line connecting a planet to the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times.

Refer to the diagram on your handout, or follow me on the board. Suppose I have here my orbital ellipse, and I consider the area swept out by the radius r in some interval of time. The planet has moved on an arc, by an angle θ as measured from the sun. Now we have set up our problem and will commence, like good scientists, to ask questions.

What basic geometric shape does this look like? (Triangle). Let me draw this triangle. Who knows how to find the area of a triangle? (one-half the base times the height). Ok. Do we have a variable on our diagram that looks like it would be the height of the triangle?  (the radius r).  And this arc forms the base. What is the length of an arc (You remember from geometry of course, it is the radius of the arc times the subtended angle.)  So the area (A) of this pie wedge is…. ½ (r θ) r , or ½ r2θ.

Let’s assume, as Kepler did, that this area must remain constant for the same time interval in an orbit. Consider our diagram. If our planet moved closer to the sun, say here, then the radius, our distance to the sun, is much smaller. To maintain the same area of triangle, what must happen to its base? (must get larger). Remember, this is the arc length we traveled in our orbit for a set time interval. We traveled farther in the same amount of time than we did out here! What can we deduce about our speed? (we went faster!). We move faster when we are near the sun on our orbit and slower when we are far from the sun on our orbit.

Was Kepler right? It turns out that his theory exactly matched observational data from astronomer Tycho Brahe; this explained previously erratic motions of the heavenly bodies with a simple concept. Today, Kepler’s Laws enable us to predict the motion of the planets, asteroids, comets, and satellites in space. NASA’s Mars Curiosity probe just launched this week. It will take 8 months to reach Mars. Thanks to Kepler’s Laws we know exactly where Mars will be and how fast it will be going in 8 months; and Curiosity will be in the right place at the right time.

Check for understanding, all together now, and I’m looking for every one of you to answer. As a planet gets closer to the sun, does it speed up or slow down? (Speeds up!) As a planet gets further away on its orbit, does it speed up or slow down? (Slows down!) Good. Any questions?



Gary’s TFA – It May Already Be Out There

Gary Rubinstein has followed up his previous condemning critique of TFA with a plan for how he would fix it. He calls for greater rigor in new teacher preparation and an emphasis on long-term teaching.  Here is my response in the comment thread:

Thanks to your posts over the last few months, I have been also applying to alternatives to TFA, while continuing with the TFA application path as well.

I’ve found some incredible programs, many of which are doing what you think needs to be done, though on a smaller scale than TFA (and hence without the massive PR, so its harder to hear about them). But if you look, you will find…

Top of my list is the Boston Teacher Residency (http://www.bostonteacherresidency.org). A one-year immersive masters in education program is followed by a three-year commitment to Boston Public Schools. The masters program includes four days a week of student teacher during the school year, and two summers on either end of full-time coursework at UMass. If I get accepted to this, I will definitely go over TFA.

There’s an alliance of such programs at http://www.utrunited.org/. I’ve found most of the others fall somewhere in between TFA and BTR on the preparatory rigor scale, but there are so many alternative options. If you are interested in TFA for the right reasons, as I think I am, then take a look at these other programs too… maybe TFA will be right for you, maybe not. But its not the only structured alternative cert pathway out there, especially for career-changing professionals. As these residency models gain more exposure, TFA will have competition for the national stage in education reform teaching entry programs, and that may be all that is required to prompt change.

on November 23, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I think Gary is right on to be concerned about these issues, and so should anyone not solely interested in short-term, band-aid solutions. The problem cannot be improved by throwing untrained idealists into classrooms who put in a couple of years to say they did their time in the trenches, and then wash their hands of it.



Congratulations!

etH_admissions
Dear Nalin,

Congratulations! I am pleased to invite you to Teach For America’s final interview day. We enjoyed learning more about you during your recent phone interview and would appreciate the opportunity to meet you in person.

As you plan for the next steps of our application, log on to the Applicant Center now to complete the required actions and forms by the specified deadlines:

    • Sign up for your interview date and location by 11:59 p.m. ET tomorrow, November 17. Dates and locations are available on a first-come, first-served basis and go quickly, so we strongly encourage you to schedule your interview now!
    • Request an official transcript from your registrar as soon as possible so you can upload it by 11:59 p.m. ET on November 25. For more information about our transcript upload process, check out our blog.
    • Mark your calendar with the required forms and documents deadlines found on your Status page.

We are excited to learn more about you and your interest in joining our corps. If you have any questions, please contact us at admissions@teachforamerica.org.

Sincerely,

Sean Waldheim
Vice President, Admissions




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