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Colleges & Remedial Education

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Editor's Note: Bridging Differences resumes today.

Dear Deborah,

Happy New Year to you and to our readers. 2009 is shaping up to be an important year for American education. We will soon have a new Secretary of Education, a new voice in charge of the nation's bully pulpit. There will be much for us to discuss and debate as the policies of the new administration are rolled out. I have read a great deal about Arne Duncan in the press, but still don't have a clear idea about where he stands on important questions and how tied he is to the horrible business model applied to schools. By business model, I refer to the belief that test scores are the bottom line, that schools can be closed like a failing chain store, that school systems can be run by people with no knowledge of the classroom or education, that the fundamental strategy of reform is choice/competition/testing, and that schools can be turned over to corporate entities to run like branch offices. Duncan seems to acknowledge the importance of collaboration, which sets him apart from some of his infamous peers who now are considered "reformers" by the national media (or have appropriated that term to represent their slash-and-burn tactics).

I was reminded of the business model last week when I was writing a short article about the late Senator Claiborne Pell for Forbes.com (it appeared on Monday). What I will describe is by no means analogous to what is happening today in K-12 education, but see if you can follow the logic. Sen. Pell was quite an interesting and accomplished man. Among other feats, he was the main sponsor of the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts. He will be mainly remembered for establishing a federal grant program for low-income college students, now known as Pell grants in his honor. In 1972, Pell engaged in a celebrated debate with Congresswoman Edith Green, who believed that federal aid should flow to colleges and universities. Sen. Pell, however, wanted new federal aid to go directly to students, who could take it to the college of their choice. Pell won, and in doing so, he created a voucher system for higher education. In the years since then, proponents of vouchers (such as President George W. Bush) have proposed that the federal government create Pell grants for K-12 education, building on the senator's precedent.

Today, voucher proponents point to the Pell grants and suggest that they have helped to make the U.S. higher education system the best in the world. It got that way, they say, because Pell grants encouraged choice and competition. (We are still missing test scores as the bottom line in higher education, but some federal officials have been pushing to add that ingredient.) Therefore, say the proponents, we should have a voucher system for all schooling, not just higher education.

But the counter-argument has grown louder in recent days and weeks and years, and it goes like this. Why are we pushing all students to go to college? If they want a job or career that does not require college-level studies, we do them a disservice and we load up the colleges with students who don't want to be there and would rather be working. Charles Murray has made an argument along these lines. Then there is the implicit argument in Tom Wolfe's novel from a few years back, "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Anyone who took this book seriously would conclude that even a great university, as he portrayed it, was a scene of debauchery where learning was incidental. And more recently, in The Atlantic, an essay by the anonymous Professor X describes students who are enrolled in his or her classes because they need the degree for their job but have no interest in collegiate studies, have read nothing in common (the only common reference point they share is "The Wizard of Oz" [the movie, not the book]), know little about the world, and cannot compose a coherent sentence. As you read the article, you may be struck, as I was, that the students are getting a degree for jobs that really don't "need" a college education, but that the college degree has been substituted by employers for the high school diploma, which now signifies no skills or knowledge at all.

Sadly, colleges and universities become "hooked" on remediation. They have their departments of "developmental education"—the new euphemism for remediation—and they will not relinquish them.

As I read the complaints of Professor X, I wondered whether Pell was right after all. Certainly, I share his belief that no student should be denied a college education because he or she cannot afford it. Money should be no barrier to those with ambition and a thirst for learning. Nonetheless, I wonder about the unintended consequences of sending so many unprepared students to "college." In some state university systems, nearly half of entering students require remediation. In New York City, despite the school system's boasts about higher standards and higher graduation rates, fully two-thirds of the city school system's high school graduates need remedial courses when they enter local community colleges. There is also the subsidiary problem that the goal of "college for all" makes the high school diploma worthless; this puts an enormous burden on low-income and disadvantaged students, who are the least likely to slog through two years or four years of higher education.

How did we find ourselves promoting the idea that all students should go to college? I am all for giving students the opportunity to go to college without regard to their income, and for keeping access open to older students who want to extend their education. But it does seem that we as a society have compelled most of our colleges and universities to establish extensive remedial programs, trying to compensate for the inadequacies of the schooling offered in K-12, or maybe 7-12.

I don't think we will ever return to a day in which college is reserved for students who are actually prepared for college. But it seems reasonable to ask how we got where we are, and whether the current situation serves students and society best. And a pressing problem for our society, as well as for its new education leaders, is how to restore meaning and value to a high school diploma so that those who have it are well-prepared for life whether or not they choose to go to college.

Diane

26 Comments

"By business model, I refer to the belief that test scores are the bottom line, that schools can be closed like a failing chain store, that school systems can be run by people with no knowledge of the classroom or education, that the fundamental strategy of reform is choice/competition/testing, and that schools can be turned over to corporate entities to run like branch offices."

Diane--are there any actual business people who salute when you run that one up the flagpole? I am not a "business" person in the strictest sense, but I have come close enough to management theory to have a bit of respect for it. And what you describe ain't exactly any "business model" that I am familiar with. What you describe might be a caricature of hierarchical management theory from fifty or more years ago. Or not.

I'm wondering what the future of higher education looks like. Given the astronomical increase in tuition over the last 2 decades and the decrease in funds available to students, there is no sustainable future. Couple these facts with the reality that much of what passes for "learning" in colleges and universities is a joke. Can you say "death by lecture"? At some point, students and parents will begin to (rightfully) question the value of higher education and conclude -- in most cases -- that it's literally not worth it.

So what will replace it?

Margo/Mom,

I don't think anyone in the business world would recognize what is happening in education today as a "business model." But what I described is indeed referred to as the "business model," even though any business that followed it would soon be bankrupt.

Diane Ravitch

Margo/Mom,

I don't think anyone in the business world would recognize what is happening in education today as a "business model." But what I described is indeed referred to as the "business model," even though any business that followed it would soon be bankrupt.

Diane Ravitch

Margo/Mom,

I don't think anyone in the business world would recognize what is happening in education today as a "business model." But what I described is indeed referred to as the "business model," even though any business that followed it would soon be bankrupt.

Diane Ravitch

Diane,

When I read your Forbes article, I was struck by the description of Pell's eccentricity. It gave me a little surge of nostalgia. Where have all the eccentrics gone?

When I was in college and graduate school, I enjoyed the company of eccentrics—all sorts of eccentrics, from the outrageous to the subtle. Some could be unbearable, others delightful, but I learned from them all, and they were all around—in the books we read, in the dining halls, in ourselves. Not that college had more eccentrics than other walks of life. It was more that we had a chance to live with verve. Yes, that’s part of what college was about, but is it still?

It seems that eccentricity is muted now, in college and elsewhere. I don’t have data for this, but I sense a change. It’s still there, but people don’t seem to exult in it. Education has tilted toward remediation and career preparation. There’s a mixture of panic and caution. That's not to say that college can or should remove itself entirely from the job market or practical goals. It can't. For that very reason, college should be more than that. It can only be more than that if students are prepared for it and come to it with desire for education itself.

What would it take to raise the level of education so that high school graduates could choose--truly choose--whether or to go to college, to begin working, or to do something else? It seems that if they were prepared to choose, they would also be prepared to live richly (eccentrically) within their choices, whatever those might be. Education cannot prevent anyone from making mistakes. But there is treasure to be found even in mistakes.

Diana Senechal

Diana,

If you read articles about Pell, you will see that he was indeed eccentric. My favorite story was that he liked to job wearing a long tweed coat. And of course, he was a great fan of extrasensory perception, even bringing the psychic Uri Geller to Capitol Hill to explain how he used his mind to bend spoons.

My hunch is that today a young Claiborne Pell would be put on Ritalin or assigned to special education, until he shed his strange ways.

Diane

Diane:

Not to yammer ceaselessly on vocabulary--but I haven't heard anyone but educators use the term "business model" in conjunction with what you describe--but more important, I don't see the application of the "model" that you describe anywhere in education. What I do see is a frequent allegation, by educators, that they are being forced into something called the "business model," which they claim looks like what you describe.

I think that there are some real dangers here--not the least of which is the associated dismissal of any learning to be gained from business people, or social scientists, who have studied organizations and management. The best person for any job in a school district--by some accounts, in corollary with a belief in your model, is someone who began their career as a teacher. As a result, districts are full of administrators whose primary qualification for their job is that they have "put in their time."

It hasn't been too many years since a study of hiring practices in urban districts contributed to their inability to attract well-qualified teachers--who wanted (even preferred) to teach in urban districts. A combination of practices--mostly developed to give existing teachers an edge up for any desireable openings, combined with principals' work-arounds to maintain some control over who they had to interview--resulted in delayed posting of openings, delayed selections and openings that stayed open past the opening of school. Meanwhile, potential candidates were being hired away by more agile suburban districts--perhaps having an advantage due to their smaller size and ability respond more cohesively.

There are in fact people who are professionals in recruiting and hiring candidates for positions with all kinds of qualification requirements. In education we assume that they are a poor fit because they haven't spent time in a classroom (and don't know our kids or what our teachers have to put up with). They are generally able to design hiring systems that are able to incorporate the (responsible) views of anyone concerned in the hiring process. If they are good, they are able to see systemic problems that result in such things as not filling positions until very late in the game. In school districts we view these people as suspect. If we hire them at all, we disdain their judgment and keep them far away from anything like "program planning" where their interactions would be valuable.

We are similarly dismissive of anything that might be learned from people who study "customer service." We don't like the word "customer." We don't like to see ourselves as "servants." So we go on waging battles with parents whose needs we don't understand and watch them walk out the door in search of better options. And this is where the major opposition to vouchers, on the part of teachers, comes from. I am not a big voucher proponent--preferring to improve public education as a larger entitity. But that is not likely to come about as a result of holding the "customers" (or clients, or patients, or families, or neighbors, or just plain parents) hostage to schools that disparage the notion that there might be something better possible.

Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, beauticians, welders, etc., are all jobs that pay well and are in no immediate danger of ever being outsourced. NOT EVERY US HIGH SCHOOL GRAD NEEDS TO GO TO COLLEGE.

Many of these blue collar positions pay well and provide excellent benefits. Many of these individuals will make more money in their lifetimes than most teachers and will be able to retire comfortably with excellent benefits. In addition, many of these kids do not want to spend four more years in school and have even less desire to be saddled with massive student debt upon entry into adulthood.

The insistence in this country that everyone needs to go to college is perhaps the most misguided doctrine of the, otherwise sound, education reform movement of the past quarter century.

Deborah has contended in the past that students not going to college can be a negative reflection on the intelligence of their parents and can also portend derogatory class implications upon their family in the community as well. While I would concur with her argument, the question must still be asked: What life path will be more/less satisfying for each of these individuals?

Margo

Want to see the so-called business model in action?
Come to NYC. Bonuses for principals & teachers & students, all based on test scores. Schools closed if scores don't go up. It's all incentives & sanctions--just like NCLB.

Business people may gag but this is considered a "business model"


Diane

Margo

Want to see the so-called business model in action?
Come to NYC. Bonuses for principals & teachers & students, all based on test scores. Schools closed if scores don't go up. It's all incentives & sanctions--just like NCLB.

Business people may gag but this is considered a "business model"


Diane

Margo

Want to see the so-called business model in action?
Come to NYC. Bonuses for principals & teachers & students, all based on test scores. Schools closed if scores don't go up. It's all incentives & sanctions--just like NCLB.

Business people may gag but this is considered a "business model"


Diane

"Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, beauticians, welders, etc., are all jobs that pay well and are in no immediate danger of ever being outsourced. NOT EVERY US HIGH SCHOOL GRAD NEEDS TO GO TO COLLEGE."

Actually most of those have colleges you can go to in order to learn those trades. I call them community colleges. Yes, even auto mechanics can get a 2 year degree.

The problem is that our high school graduates do not have the basic skill level to do those types of jobs - contractors need to know algebra and fractions, car mechanics need to know how to trouble shoot and know metrics and American measurements and how to convert, electricians need to know basic principles of electronics, etc., they all need things that are currently not taught in HS but in community colleges.

Margo says our schools are full of administrators whose primary qualification is that they have "put in their time". When I was young I would have said that that is a very important qualification. Now I'm not so sure. A few years ago I would have responded very favorably to a "business model" for schools. Now I'm not so sure. I do feel that time in the classroom is certainly desirable for administrators. But important? I don't know. And I do feel that surely there are some aspects of business practice, custom, values, and ways of thinking, that could be valuable for education, but I'm not at all sure what they are.

But there is one idea that I think is relevant to all this. That is the idea that administration is not an educational job. It is more of a management job, and it is very much a political job, because it consists of dealing with constituencies. This was an important point in a book by John Black, "What They Didn't Tell You In Schools Of Education About School Administration". It made sense to me, though I have no experience in administration. If this is the case, if school administration is very different from teaching, then does it follow that a business background for administrators is good? I don't know the answer to that one either.

In recent months I have entertained the idea of the "parental model" for schools, or for teachers. I'm sure it has its drawbacks, too, but I think it's a model worth careful consideration.

Putting this all together it would seem that the best thing that an administrator can do is to protect the space of the teacher, provide her with what she needs, but stay out of the way. As a teacher I think that is the standard that I have always judged administrators by. By extension the best thing the school, the state, or the nation can do is again to protect the space of the teacher, provide her with what she needs and then stay out of the way. By this standard I think NCLB is counterproductive. And by this standard a business model might be helpful if they measure success as protecting the teacher's space, but that doesn't sound very measurable.

Diana Senechal has a very interesting post over on the Core Knowledge blog. Here's a link. What she describes, it seems to me, must be a combination of the worst of ed school, the worst of school administration, and the worst of law (meaning NCLB) all mixed together in one dysfunctional maelstrom.

[I wanted not to comment on the "business model" appellation again, but since you all did...]

The arrogance of "teacher advocates" continues to astound me. This idea that all other professions are somehow below that of Teaching. That, yes, we can subject a bridge or fighter engineer to the demands of having the team's work evaluated, but teachers, no.

We test a programmer work at a dozen levels starting with every line of code up to seeing if the aircraft can complete a dive while deploying chaff and imaging a silo and rebooting the flight control processor all at the same time. We toss frozen birds at airframes to see if they withstand the pressure.

Yet ask a teaching staff to prove that 50% of their fourth graders can read Horton Hears a Who? How dare the business elite shove this nonsense down the throats of the ever suffering teaching profession, nobler and smarter than all others?

Nasty, nasty, nasty business people. Offering solutions to the public schools? You'd think they were public or something.

Dickie45,

Good to see you back. Hope your holidays were enjoyable and you had the opportunity to recharge your batteries over the winter recess.

I am aware that there are college courses available for a number of these professions. What I probably should have included in my post was that most people I know in these jobs got their training primarily through apprenticeships. There could be some out there but I have not met any electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc., with an associates degree in their field.

brian

Since principals evaluate teachers, it seems pretty important that they have classroom experience.

Diane

Dear Diane,

I was taken with your discussion of remediation in college, and your listing of all the recent voices questioning a "college for all" society. I think you nicely expressed the gravity of the situation and its systemic nature. I certainly don't take the issue of underpreparation lightly -- I've spent a fair amount of my career working on that issue -- but I do think we need to challenge the various assumptions underneath the arguments put forth by people like Charles Murray or the anonymous Professor X. I feel awkward doing what I'm about to do, for I hate it when people push their blog on other people's blogs, but you and your readers might find of interest some entries that I wrote on Professor X's Atlantic article and on the topic of remediation in college. You can find them on mikerosebooks.blogspot.com. There are four entries in all posted in June and July 2008. As always, I want to say what a big fan I am of Bridging Differences. It is always full of wisdom.

Universities have only vague ideas of what is “bad writing” and “good writing;” indeed each university typically sets its own standard for what is acceptable or not. In short whether a student is “prepared for college” is something of an arbitrary standard.

Whether a student needs remediation or not is typically dependent on how well they do on a particular standardized test as a college senior. Such tests (e.g. the SAT, but also many others) typically focus on the writing conventions which are most easily examined on multiple choice test, and essays that can be easily graded with a standardized rubric. It is not the worst measure, but does lack a certain precision irrespective of statistical claims to the contrary. Emphasis on the mechanical aspects of writing also tends to ignore the artistry in good writing.

My own anecdotal impression after 12 years of college teaching in sociology is that students are arriving at my public university have better writing skills than in the late 1990s. They are better at writing well-formed paragraphs, there are fewer sentence fragments, and even fewer run-on sentences. They are pretty good at doing a one-subject five paragraph essay, but not so great at writing an analytical essay integrating factual knowledge with theoretical generalizations. Ok, so the latter problem gives me something to teach, so it is all to the good.

I suspect that the improvements that are in the writing competency I see are the result of a lot of labor-intensive writing instruction undertaken during the last 10-15 years in the high schools. My understanding is that English classes have become smaller, and larger number of students are taking AP classes where analytical writing is practiced. This is all to the good, and my college classes benefit. But from what I know of research methods, I know that such qualitative improvements can be measured only with some imprecision. Likewise, just because they cannot be measured precisely, does not mean that improvements have not occurred.

Universities have only vague ideas of what is “bad writing” and “good writing;” indeed each university typically sets its own standard for what is acceptable or not. In short whether a student is “prepared for college” is something of an arbitrary standard.

Whether a student needs remediation or not is typically dependent on how well they do on a particular standardized test as a college senior. Such tests (e.g. the SAT, but also many others) typically focus on the writing conventions which are most easily examined on multiple choice test, and essays that can be easily graded with a standardized rubric. It is not the worst measure, but does lack a certain precision irrespective of statistical claims to the contrary. Emphasis on the mechanical aspects of writing also tends to ignore the artistry in good writing.

My own anecdotal impression after 12 years of college teaching in sociology is that students are arriving at my public university have better writing skills than in the late 1990s. They are better at writing well-formed paragraphs, there are fewer sentence fragments, and even fewer run-on sentences. They are pretty good at doing a one-subject five paragraph essay, but not so great at writing an analytical essay integrating factual knowledge with theoretical generalizations. Ok, so the latter problem gives me something to teach, so it is all to the good.

I suspect that the improvements that are in the writing competency I see are the result of a lot of labor-intensive writing instruction undertaken during the last 10-15 years in the high schools. My understanding is that English classes have become smaller, and larger number of students are taking AP classes where analytical writing is practiced. This is all to the good, and my college classes benefit. But from what I know of research methods, I know that such qualitative improvements can be measured only with some imprecision. Likewise, just because they cannot be measured precisely, does not mean that improvements have not occurred.

Sorry for the repeated messages from me. I have been sending them from my cellphone, which is new, and sometimes I make errors. I guess I pressed Post too much.

One of the comments says that young people who want to enter a trade have to go to community college to learn algebra because it isn't taught in high school. That makes my point, doesn't it? We are now requiring college degrees--two-year or four-year--for what were once jobs that did not require a college degree. I have often gone to elementary schools or middle schools where the kids are constantly told that they must go to college--in some cases, they are told that they "will" go to an Ivy League school. What is the point of creating unrealistic and unrealizable expectations?
Diane

There is a paradox in all of this: that the more we tell children that they will all go to college, the worse we actually prepare them for college. Of course there are qualifications and exceptions to this, but the paradox still holds.

Why would this be so? First of all, we dilute the meaning of college by making it "everything for everyone." Second, in our efforts to encourage everyone to go, we focus on boosting self-esteem rather than preparing students rigorously. If only students believed in themselves and felt good enough about their work, they would all want to go to college, right? And since there is a college for everyone, the expectation is actually not that unrealistic. It simply loses meaning.

Literacy coaches and champions of Balanced Literacy still tell teachers not to correct their students' writing unless the student has chosen to bring a given piece to the "publishing" stage (the final stage in the so-called "writing process"). All other writing should be accepted and encouraged as is, so that the student will not develop inhibitions as a writer. I wish I were joking or exaggerating. I am not.

Of course we need to encourage our students, believe in them, support them, assume they are highly capable--but we must also make them tough enough to accept criticism and to do the hard work that will take them to excellence in whatever field they choose. Otherwise we are creating fluffy expectations--not unrealistic in a narrow sense, for yes, they will get into some college--but unrealistic in the broader sense, that their very endeavors (such as "being a writer") will be depleted of meaning.

Diana Senechal

I would not expect much from Arne. Since Arne Duncan didn't know how to lead, inspire and build a strong professional community within neighborhood schools in a systematic way, he along with Mayor Daley and the Chicago Commerce Club came up with the great con, by letting cronies open charter schools. These schools would then cherry pick students and either not accept students with special needs or would squeeze them out. These schools would not be held accountable to the same standard as the neighborhood schools. The Chicago Sun-Times is finally investigating the corruption in the Charter Schools. The teachers are usually inexperienced and not certified teachers. Even the charter school administrators are now anxious since a good portion of their start up money was given by foundations and businesses. With the downturn in the economy, they are worried. Look folks, Arne didn't know how to work the professionals he had available in the classrooms. He could have have implemented a longer instructional day for the students. By the tenth grade, a CPS student has about one academic year less of instruction time then a comparable student in the New York City schools. With a longer school day, teachers would finally be able to meet regularly in same grade and cross team cycles to analyze student work, target areas that need improvement and evaluate the progress in a proven manner to build high performance schools. Truth be told, Arne cut corners and had his marketing team put lipstick on the pig that was his "enlightened" reform policy. I wished Obama picked Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

Spellings is being sued for refusing to produce documents and has two pending federal lawsuits regarding her role in academic fraud at the university level. Arne Duncan has been made aware of this. Two students nearly died over this. Duncan is likely to be named in the suits, because Spellings has refused to fix her problem within the department. the school is located in the bay area of CA. www.educationalfraud.com

Hi Diane,

I read one of your books "Left Back," years ago, and was impressed with your handle on the history of our public education system. I am a 6th grade reading teacher. I also have a BBA in Business Administration.
The idea of a "business model" for schools is one that has definitely been alluded to by many people who think that public schools can and should be run in such a manner. The problem is, most businesses that actually produce goods have some control over the raw materials they use. A company that spends more on raw materials gets better quality finished products, all other factors being equal. Therefore, they probably charge their customers more for their products. Companies that are either unable to put out the capital for top quality raw materials, or companies that are aiming to serve a different market segment might not purchase top quality raw materials. Therefore they are able to charge their customers less for their products. In our schools, we have absolutely NO control over the raw materials WE are provided with. In this case, I am referring to the students themselves. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and of varying degrees of "quality." We are then expected to create a top quality "product", (a literate person, often defined as a college bound person) out of each and every one of them, regardless of said "quality."
In my opinion, common sense would dictate that this is an impossible task if the definition of "literate" means ONLY students who are "college ready." My father quit school in 8th grade to go to work to help his family. In those times, it was possible to get technical training, (which he got in the Navy), and be able to support a family using said training in a variety of vocations. It is STILL possible to do so. Yet, public schools, at least in the 20+ years I have been in the classroom, have insisted that ALL children are college material. This is absurd, as any teacher worth their salt can tell you, and it goes against any grain of common sense. Yes, students in 6th grade (and in all grades) need to be able to read and comprehend what they have read, to write where others can comprehend what they have written, to understand math, science, history, geography and the world around them, and to have an awareness of the arts in order to have better overall lives, but that does NOT mean that all kids should go to college. I am glad that this view is finally making itself known through influential and knowledgeable people like yourself.

"Since principals evaluate teachers, it seems pretty important that they have classroom experience."

I would extend that theory to include CONTINUED classroom experience. Make them sub so many hours each year.

"Literacy coaches and champions of Balanced Literacy still tell teachers not to correct their students' writing unless the student has chosen to bring a given piece to the "publishing" stage (the final stage in the so-called "writing process"). All other writing should be accepted and encouraged as is, so that the student will not develop inhibitions as a writer. I wish I were joking or exaggerating. I am not."

Diane - thanks. I was wondering why my host teacher said THOSE WORDS EXACTLY. I didn't realize she may have been saying stuff from a workshop she attended in which ideas were presented without regards to research.

In teaching writing to fourth graders I was expected to help them write better without actually teaching all the parts and pieces of writing. Because I was a student teacher (just finished in the end of Nov), I couldn't suggest ways of doing it or do my own lesson plans - even if I had research data to back me.

It isn't just our teachers that are messed up, but the whole system of creating teachers.

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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