Monthly Archives: April 2014

Deceptive reformy tricks: the “we heart all schools!” fallacy

When Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled her ridiculously dysfunctional “One Newark” plan, she said this:

“Together, public and charter school leaders have agreed to something quite profound – to move beyond individual priorities and achieve a true coalition to fight for equity and excellence for all of Newark’s families.”

When Paymon Rouhanifard unveiled his “Camden Commitment” plan, he advertised it by saying this:

“We should aim to build a rich tapestry of schools – district, charter and renaissance — where the goal is to hold all schools to the same high standard.”

Steve Perry, critic of “raggedy-ass” schools and union “roaches” everywhere and principal of Capital Prep, a magnet school in Connecticut, said this:

“I am not a proponent of any particular classification of school. I care not if it’s a charter or a neighborhood school. I really don’t care. I want you to have a choice.”

And last week, Michelle Rhee tweeted this:

 

In case you didn’t know, reformers love all kinds of schools!  They just want kids to be successful! They just want all kids to have access to a great education!

Sounds good, right?  Sounds reasonable?  How can anyone argue with that?

Here’s how. It’s disgustingly hypocritical for people to say they support neighborhood schools–and at the very same time promote “school choice” as an “escape” from district schools that are “failing” because of the very presence of charters and the flawed, punitive policies which disproportionately punish schools with minority, economically/socially disadvantaged, and special-needs students.

Let’s consider this theoretical scenario: what would would happen if a district–say Newark, for example–shut down all traditional public schools and only operated charters?  Seems like that’s where many districts, where neighborhood schools are being shuttered and charters are popping up everywhere, are heading–right?

Would anyone–even charter advocates–want such a scenario?

At first glance, perhaps; but actually, the answer is NO.  NO, NO, NO, NO, NO.

Why? Because charters whose “success” fundamentally depends upon their ability to cherry-pick their students, counsel out kids who can’t cut it, and escape the regulations to which district schools are subject would have nowhere to send the kids they don’t want. Charters would have to deal with entire populations of cities that are crippled by the effects of poverty–and they’d have to serve even the neediest, most troubled, and most at-risk children. No exceptions.

They couldn’t have that, could they??

(See herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, hereherehere, here, here, here, here, and here if you’re unfamiliar with the extent to which charters cherry-pick kids, implement disciplinary practices that wouldn’t be tolerated in real public schools, have high attrition rates, employ more inexperienced teachers, and play by their own rules. And, guess what: there’s plenty of research to suggest that even when they pick their kids and counsel out the ones who can’t cut it, many charters STILL don’t perform better than public schools.)

Reformers depend on the tired old “portfolio of great schools” jargon to promote their choice agendas. They need it.  Their collective cause, and deceptive advertisement of “choice” as a panacea for society’s ills, depends on it.

So it’s easy to ultimately conclude this: if proponents of choice allow charters to play by their own rules to project an illusion of “success”–and if just enough starved-of-resources neighborhood schools (no nurse? no counselors? no art, music, recess?) remain to serve as dumping grounds for the kids charters don’t want, reformers can use those district schools as “proof” that charters are superior.

It’s like comparing an old, neglected hospital that’s devoid of necessary resources–and has to somehow serve every single person who walks through its doors–to a new, well-staffed, well-resourced hospital that can only take patients who can be treated easily. (Everyone else goes to the old hospital, of course.)

It’s like a bully publicly saying, “we all need to get along!”–and then privately and purposefully persecuting his victim but still maintaining the illusion of camaraderie.

It’s like a big sister pinching her little brother until he cries–and then using his tears to claim that she’s the better and more well-behaved child.

These modern-day “reform” practices reek of the elitist approach Ayn Rand had to education: that it should be turned over to private enterprise–and that the poorest of the poor would be the only ones left in the few remaining “government schools” that weren’t turned over to private entities.

So that’s right, Cami Anderson, Paymon Rouhanifard, Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry, and all your reformy friends: keep saying you’re for “great schools” no matter whether they’re charter or district. Keep ignoring that comparisons among such schools are not valid since district schools serve all children, while charters and magnets do not. Keep ignoring discussions about charter and magnet attrition rates, as doing so is a purposefully deceptive way to manipulate graduation/college acceptance statistics. And by all means: keep a handful of district schools–devoid of the resources that have been shipped to charters–open so kids who can’t or won’t cut it in “choice” schools have a place to go when you don’t want to deal with them anymore.  

But just remember this: when a school’s “success” depends upon the exclusion of any children–and when a school’s “success” comes at the expense of any children–“success” is not success at all.  It’s failure that affects the population as a whole.

And that’s despicable.

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Newark teachers: want to work for Eva Moskowitz? (No?)

Well isn’t this nice: public school teachers in Newark got a solicitous email today from Success Academy–delivered to their Newark Public Schools email accounts–encouraging “excellent teachers and school leaders” to apply for charter school positions in middle schools in Harlem and the Bronx. (The following was copied and pasted directly from the email, but the “learn more and apply” link attached to the email directs here.)

ARE YOU READY TO JOIN THE MOVEMENT?

Success Academy is the largest, highest-performing charter school network in NYC, providing a world-class education in some of the city’s most underserved, low-income neighborhoods. In addition to English, Math, Science, and History, our groundbreaking middle school core curriculum includes Computer Science, Chess, and Fitness. With a program centered on critical and creative thinking, we ensure our scholars are prepared for success in high school, college, and life.

What sets Success apart?

· Scholars rank in the top 1% in math, top 7% in English, and top 2% in science among all schools in the state

· All teachers receive over 400 hours of professional development and unparalleled support

· Experienced teachers have the opportunity to become Leadership Residents developing curriculum and teacher training programs

We are growing rapidly and seeking excellent teachers and school leaders for our middle schools in Harlem and the Bronx.

For those unfamiliar, Success Academy is a charter chain founded by former NYC council member Eva Moskowitz, a Harlem native and graduate of New York City’s Stuyvesant High School.  In Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Steven Brill describes Moskowitz’s educational experiences at Stuyvesant and her reflections about those experiences:

Stuyvesant is New York’s star high school, from which an outsize portion of students, like Moskowitz, cruise into the Ivy League.  But to Moskowitz, many, if not most, of the teachers were anything but stars.  She thought half of the teachers were incompetent and vividly remembers math and science classes where “the students, who were all gifted, literally carried the class.  The teachers were cruising on the students’ talent,” she says.  “I remember one of the kids taught the rest of us physics, while the teacher sat there drunk…it was easy to be a teacher there.”

Oddly enough, and despite what Moskowitz herself describes as an education she got without any help from teachers, Moskowitz still managed to attend the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins–and now she makes almost $500,000 per year as CEO of the Success Academy chain. (So student success really isn’t about teachers at all? Teachers aren’t important? It’s really about social or socioeconomic status? It’s really about privilege? It’s really about intellect? If Moskowitz could learn despite incompetent and drunk teachers, can’t anybody? Or is Moskowitz just some sort of superior species? I’m confused.)

So as if on some sort of noble crusade for justice, Moskowitz decided to open Success Academy–a network of schools that the CEO claims was designed to ensure that all children have access to a great education. Here’s Success Academy’s mission:

Our mission starts with building world-class public schools — engaging, academically rigorous, economically efficient — and proving that all children from any background can thrive in a truly great school. But equally important, we are dedicated to serving as a catalyst for other reform initiatives across the country, and changing the public policies that prevent so many children from having access to the American dream.

Public schools? The American Dream? Stop right there.

The implication inherent in Success Academy’s mission statement is that traditional public schools actually keep children from realizing the American Dream: you know, the idea that anyone, regardless of background or status, can be successful in America.

And the operative word there is “anyone.”  It’s curious that Success Academy purports to advocate for “children from any background”–yet, as Diane Ravitch notes, Success Academy does not serve New York’s neediest students and has high attrition rates among the students that it actually does accept:

They are not the most disadvantaged kids in New York City. Harlem Success Academy schools have half the number of English Language Learners as the neighboring public schools in Harlem. The students in Success Academy 4 include 15 percent fewer free lunch students and an economic need index (a measure of students in temporary housing and/or who receive public assistance) that is 35 percent lower than nearby public schools.

Moskowitz’s Success Academy 4 has almost none of the highest special needs students as compared to nearby Harlem public schools. In a school with nearly 500 students, Success Academy 4 has zero, or one, such students, while the average Harlem public school includes 14.1 percent such students.

Moskowitz said, referring to the students in her schools, “we’ve had these children since kindergarten.” But she forgot to mention all the students who have left the school since kindergarten. Or the fact that Harlem Success Academy 4 suspends students at a rate 300 percent higher than the average in the district. Last year’s seventh grade class at Harlem Success Academy 1 had a 52.1 percent attrition rate since 2006-07. That’s more than half of the kindergarten students gone before they even graduate from middle school. Last year’s sixth grade class had a 45.2 percent attrition rate since 2006-07. That’s almost half of the kindergarten class gone and two more years left in middle school. In just four years Harlem Success Academy 4 has lost over 21 percent of its students. The pattern of students leaving is not random. Students with low test scores, English Language Learners, and special education students are most likely to disappear from the school’s roster. Large numbers of students disappear beginning in 3rd grade, but not in the earlier grades. No natural pattern of student mobility can explain the sudden disappearance of students at the grade when state testing just happens to begin.

It’s curious that a network of “public schools” would exclude so many children–but it’s clear that Moskowitz has a very important illusion of “success” she needs to maintain.  (And by “success,” I mean “high test scores.” Read here about Upper West Side Success Academy telling a parent that the school can’t serve her special-needs child–or here about teachers being forced to focus almost exclusively on test-prep.) 

Need even more evidence that Success Academy doesn’t operate as a traditional public school?  A Manhattan judge ruled that NY State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli can’t audit the chain.  Yes, Moskowitz is so invested in Success Academy’s illusion of “success” that she’ll file lawsuits to keep her financial business under wraps.  (She’ll also cancel school, load all her kids and teachers on to buses, and force them to participate in demonstrations to support her cause…but that’s another story.)

So I suppose it isn’t surprising that Success Academy is recruiting in Newark, especially since hundreds of teachers will soon be unemployed as a result of the massive layoffs State Superintendent Cami Anderson announced in February.

But what’s particularly ironic, and supremely disturbing, is that charter expansion in places like New York City, Chicago, Newark, and Camden is what’s causing the massive layoffs in traditional public schools.  It’s chains like Success Academy that direct funds away from district schools, leave the neediest students without resources, and force staffing reductions in and closures of real public schools. And Success Academy has the nerve to recruit in an area being destroyed by the very policies and practices charter chains promote?

Kudos to the Newark teachers saying “NO” to Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy–and to those choosing the “unsubscribe” option at the bottom of the email.

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Dear Star-Ledger Editorial Board: Stop it. Cami needs to go.

When I saw the title “Cami Anderson takes a hit in Newark’s school wars: Editorial,” I thought for a second that the Star-Ledger’s days as premier Anderson apologists might be coming to an end.

And then I actually read the editorial.

Referencing Newark’s religious leaders’ “scathing rebuke” of the State Superintendent, the Star-Ledger Editorial Board concluded that “the politics around [Anderson’s] school reform effort have become untenable.”

The politics around her reform effort have become untenable?  Not her reforms themselves?  (Does that even make sense?)

The immediate problem with this editorial is that its authors label Anderson’s Two Newarks One Newark plan as a “community relations effort.” Given that Anderson’s goals include firing veteran teachers, importing Teach for America corps members, closing neighborhood schools, and turning Newark’s children over to private management companies, I’d say the “community relations effort” label is a ridiculous misnomer.

As for the “worthwhile” reforms the Star-Ledger insists should be celebrated:

  1. “She negotiated a teachers contract that’s innovative.”  Is the S-L referencing the Zuckerberg/merit pay part of the contract?  You know, the one about which Jersey Jazzman has written extensively–and labeled as a “big fat scam” that betrays the contract to which the NTU agreed in good faith?
  2. “She’s giving principals more autonomy.”  The S-L must be talking about principals other than the ones who were suspended for standing alongside parents to voice their opposition to school closures.
  3. She’s “removing ineffective teachers aggressively, within tenure restraints.” Is the S-L talking about the massive layoffs–which will essentially rid the district of teachers who have devoted their careers to the children of Newark–Anderson announced in February? Has the S-L forgotten Anderson’s quest for a “waiver of equivalency” to circumvent state law and ignore years of service? (And, while we’re on the subject, when will the S-L evaluate Anderson’s method of teacher evaluation?)
  4. Anderson promotes “hugely popular” charters while at the same time “making sure they take their fair share of low-performers.”  Please tell us, S-L Board: who are the “low performers”? I assume they’re not the students who require a self-contained setting, since none of those students will go to charters–they’ll all be funneled to district schools.
  5. “She’s recruited the best charters to take over the management of some failing schools.” Best charters?  By whose measure?  And are these “best charters” the ones who bought (public) property in Newark for well below market value?  The ones that can opt out of the Two Newarks One Newark plan?

So ultimately, the S-L says, Anderson’s failures in Newark are actually the fault of her critics(!):

Something does need to change, though, about the lack of “meaningful and credible” public engagement, as the clergy put it. To be sure, Anderson’s opposition deserves a lot of the blame for this, too: The head of Newark’s school advisory board allows meetings to turn into raucous shouting matches — even encourages it. That’s inexcusable. Newark has a deeply rooted hostility toward outsiders, and Gov. Chris Christie, who appointed Anderson, is unpopular in the state-controlled district. It’s not clear that any politician could handle this gracefully.

It seems that the S-L finds community dissent to be offensive. Instead of engaging in “raucous shouting matches,” the parents and students in Newark should just shut up and deal with the school closures that will disrupt their lives, I suppose.  They should just shut up and deal with the rift the Two Newarks One Newark plan is causing in the community.  And they should just shut up and deal with outsiders buying up taxpayer property and barging in to schools during instructional days to plot their takeovers.

Right.

Astonishingly, the S-L does assign some blame to Anderson herself:

Yet Anderson needs to do better. She’s failing at the politics. She has given up on attending meetings in Newark and in Trenton, a tacit acknowledgement that she has lost effectiveness in the public debate. This means she is unable to make her case when controversy arises, as it has with the recent suspension of several principals.

At times she seems politically tone-deaf, awarding her leadership team pay raises this year, even during layoffs. She didn’t distribute a detailed budget to the school board in time for a public hearing, and has alienated too many of her natural allies. She needs to recognize this failure, engage more and change the way she does business.

But, says the S-L, she’s only failing at the “politics” and the “way she does business.” She’s not failing because Two Newarks One Newark is discriminatory, both for students and teachers.  Or because it fails to address the underlying societal problems that cause so many of Newark’s students’ struggles.  No: it’s because those pesky “opposition” people have made it hard for Cami to do the job that Cory Booker and Chris Christie recruited her to do: dismantle the public school system in Newark.

The S-L would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks Newark’s schools can’t be improved, yet they end their editorial by saying that by avoiding city meetings, Anderson is “playing right into the hands of people who don’t want to change a thing about Newark’s failing schools.”

Perhaps the S-L Editorial Board should revisit mayoral candidate Ras Baraka’s Education Blueprint, which is a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to improve Newark’s schools. Maybe then the Board would (finally) understand just how damaging Anderson’s reforms are–and how a Baraka win in May will improve the education of all of Newark’s students.

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Rowan University: what the hell are you thinking?

On April 9th, Rowan University announced that Governor Chris Christie, arguably the most anti-public education governor in New Jersey’s history, will deliver the keynote address at the commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2014:

Glassboro, NJ – Rowan University announced, today, that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and State Senator Donald Norcross will be honored during this year’s Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony, scheduled for Friday, May 16. In his report to the Rowan Board of Trustees, President Ali Houshmand informed the Board members that the Governor had accepted his invitation to deliver the keynote address to the Class of 2014. The Board later approved a resolution to bestow honorary degrees on the Governor and on Senators Sweeney and Norcross.

“We are excited that Governor Christie has accepted the invitation to address our graduates at this year’s ceremony,” said Linda Rohrer, chair of the Rowan University Board of Trustees. “And Rowan is proud to award honorary degrees to the Governor and to Senators Sweeney and Norcross. For decades, state leaders have proposed changes to improve New Jersey’s higher education system, but it took the foresight and perseverance of these three to make a profound difference in higher education, health care and the economy of our state. Together, they have created a legacy that will benefit generations of New Jersey residents.”

Before we get into the political implications of Rowan’s invitation to Chris Christie, it’s important to look at Rowan University’s history–particularly its contribution to teacher education in the state.  This comes directly from Rowan’s website (emphasis mine):

Rowan University has evolved from its humble beginning in 1923 as a normal school, with a mission to train teachers for South Jersey classrooms, to a comprehensive public research university with a strong regional reputation.

In the early 1900s, many New Jersey teachers lacked proper training because of a shortage of schools in the state that provided such an education. To address the problem in South Jersey, the state decided to build a two-year training school for teachers, known then as a normal school.

In September 1923, Glassboro Normal School opened with 236 students arriving by train to convene in the school’s first building, now called Bunce Hall. Dr. Jerohn Savitz, the institution’s first president, expanded the curriculum as the training of teachers became more sophisticated.

Despite the rigors of the Depression, the program was expanded to four years in 1934, and in 1937 the school changed its name to New Jersey State Teachers College at Glassboro. The college gained a national reputation as a leader in the field of reading education and physical therapy when it opened a clinic for children with reading disabilities in 1935 and added physical therapy for the handicapped in 1944. The college was one of the first in the country to recognize these needs and was in the forefront of the special education movement.

Although the University shed its formal “Teachers College” title decades ago and has greatly expanded its programs of study, its reputation as one of the leading schools for future educators has remained–which is all the more reason for current students, alumni, and educators in the State of New Jersey to be intensely offended by Rowan’s decision to invite Chris Christie to speak at its graduation ceremony.

Chris Christie’s disdain for public education and educators–and especially, the unions to which they belong–is certainly no secret. See here, here, here, here, and here (or just google…you’ll find plenty more) if you’ve somehow missed the many ways in which he’s expressed as much. Chris Christie has slashed funding from the state’s education budget, is a cheerleader for charter expansion that cripples traditional public schools, and has put inexperienced Teach for America alums/cheerleaders like Cami Anderson and Paymon Rouhanifard–products of a program that trains its non-education-major corps members for five whole weeks before sending them into urban classrooms–in charge of the state’s most vulnerable districts. Bridgegate and Sandy Relief Fund scandals aside, does Rowan, a University that built its existence upon its mission to prepare teachers to command classrooms New Jersey’s schools, really feel that Chris Christie deserves to deliver a keynote address at commencement?  Really?!

Also problematic is the University’s announcement that it will not only bestow honorary degrees on Chris Christie, but also on Senate President Steve Sweeney and State Senator Donald Norcross–both of whom have had important roles in undermining public education and demoralizing teachers across the state.  The Norcross name, which screams big money and an inordinate amount of political influence in South Jersey, even appears in the name of a KIPP charter school in Camden.  Let’s not forget the partnership between KIPP and Teach for America–an organization that criticizes and undermines traditionally-trained teachers and teaching programs all over the country.  Again: really?

A change.org petition to Rowan University, initiated by Joseph Nappi to demand that the institution rescind its invitation to Christie, has been signed by over 1,400 people in just a few days. If you haven’t done so already, you should sign and share it.

Because obviously, scores of people in New Jersey and beyond all wondering the same thing: what the hell is Rowan University thinking?

CCSD

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Want to be a teacher on the Island of Sodor?! Not so fast!

 

Double

Sir Topham Hatt: “This is my railway, and I give the orders!” Governor Christie: “We run the school district in Newark, not them!”

 

I, like many parents of small children, endured a stretch of time during which the Thomas and Friends theme song made me want to put my face through a wall.  At one point, our family’s life was so entrenched in the Island of Sodor’s goings-on that our dinner-table conversations centered around the plight of the engines and all the near-catastrophes they sort of caused but then somehow averted. We have Thomas books; we have Thomas toys; we have Thomas videos; we have Thomas bedding; we have Thomas clothing and sleepwear; we have Thomas train whistles (BTW, I do not recommend these at all); and, of course, we have the Thomas train table. Our son loves it all, but sometimes I think back to a time, not too long ago, when I wasn’t consumed by made-up train drama.

But sometimes–especially when I’m particularly overwhelmed with grading/lesson-planning/SGOs/observations, being a parent and a wife, and taking care of a sometimes-vicious cat and a dog on Prozac who scares herself when she sees her reflection in the oven–I sort of wish that I could live and teach on the idyllic Island of Sodor. It is, after all, surrounded by a “beautiful blue sea” that washes up onto “sandy yellow beaches.”  There are also rivers, streams, windmills, and trees with cute little birds living in them. And it seems like there’s always fun stuff happening there: the Sodor animal park got a new giraffe pretty recently, there are carnivals all over the place, and it’s always someone’s birthday.  And poverty on Sodor?  What’s that?

Even the schoolhouse is beautiful; it’s a quaint little brick building nestled at the foot of a rolling hill–with, you guessed it, a train platform at its entrance. Sounds like fun: wake up in the morning, hop on a talking train, travel through a beautiful countryside, and be delivered directly to school–on time, of course–for a fun day of learning, Sodor style.

sodor school 2

 

I wonder if the teachers at that little school on Sodor have to administer benchmark assessments. I wonder if they have to do SGOs.  I wonder if Charlotte Danielson defines for them–on a rubric–what Highly Effective Teaching looks like. I wonder how many kids are in their classes (mostly because I’ve never observed more than like eight kids in the school yard at one time). I wonder if “college and career readiness” via the Common Core is their goal. I wonder if they use Pearson textbooks and Pearson materials that are aligned to Pearson tests–and if the Pearson tests are scored by non-teachers who make $12/hour.  I wonder if 70% of Sodor’s kids fail Pearson tests. And I wonder if Pearson test scores determine whether the Sodor teachers get good evaluations or bad evaluations.

My first instinct, when I pondered these ideas, was that NO–the Island of Sodor is such a perfect place that its inhabitants would never be subjected to such ridiculousness.

But then I started thinking about who’s in charge in Sodor.  And that’s when it turned ugly.

Sir Topham Hatt, the “fat controller of the railway” who evidently also thinks he’s the Dictator of Sodor, is somehow in charge of just about everything that happens on the island.  He’s always “cross,” he’s clearly rich, he bullies everyone, and he wields his power and influence by demanding that the trains (and Harold the Helicopter and Jeremy the airplane, for that matter) cart him and his family around according to his whims. The engines are perpetually petrified of him–especially when he gets pissed off and berates them for causing “confusion and delay.”

 

Helicopters

Can you guess which one of these helicopters is named Harold?

 

It’s pretty pathetic, actually. The hapless trains, who are clearly repressed and afraid to stand up for themselves, are always rushing around to fulfill their boss’s decrees–and their quest in life is to be labeled as “really useful.” Their compliance is rewarded (trains get “special specials” when they do what they’re told without questioning their assignments), dissent is punished (engines are publicly shamed and afraid of being retired and turned into scrap metal), and it’s pretty clear that the trains are subject to what most normal people would view as unfair labor practices.

If the culture of fear Sir Topham Hatt inspires in his engines and their handlers is any indication, the rest of the Island’s workers are probably equally repressed, disregarded, and made to feel as if they’re expendable and easily replaceable–and the teachers who work in that cute little schoolhouse are probably no exception. You know Sir Topham Hatt has instituted some asinine teacher evaluation model that rewards quiet compliance, punishes teachers and students when test scores don’t meet the “really useful” (code for “college and career ready!”) mark, and allows him to get rid of anyone who dares to speak against his authority.

So it didn’t take long for me to discard the daydream of being a teacher on the Island of Sodor.  Sure, the scenery there is beautiful, but so too is the scenery in New Jersey.  We have “sandy yellow beaches” and docks and windmills and rivers and trees filled with singing birds–and our schools are consistently ranked among the top in the nation.  

Thanks goodness our education policy in NJ isn’t arbitrarily imposed on the state’s children and teachers by a dictatorial leader like Sir Topham Hatt who knows nothing about education!

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TFA: let’s better serve special needs students–but with zero tolerance and no excuses!

In what appears to be a veiled acknowledgment of its own shortcomings AND a predictable jab at traditionally-trained teachers and traditional schools, Teach for America has announced its new “Special Education and Ability Initiative,” a project led by veteran educator 28-year-old Rachel Brody, who has a whopping “six years of teaching and instructional coaching” experience.

The initiative will focus, in part, on expanding Teach For America’s regional special education advisory partnerships – to help both special and general educators have a greater impact on studentsThese* collaborations are critical for the communities in which Teach For America serves – according to the U.S Department of Education’s 2013 “Teacher Shortage” report, low-income communities across the nation suffer from a lack of special educators. (*Typo is as it appears on the TFA site.)

A week after Brody’s post appeared on TFA’s website, the organization’s CEO, Matt Kramer, published a Huff Post piece pushing the initiative–and citing a personal anecdote to suggest he understands the struggles of special needs students:

My memories of my own education primarily revolve around the ways I wasn’t learning — disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework and reading no books. I couldn’t maintain focus on what a teacher was saying for more than a few minutes, and I couldn’t read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Even the slightest distraction — noise from a television a few rooms away — would render me completely unable to concentrate.

It’s great that Kramer, despite “disrupting classes, skipping lectures, doing no homework, and reading no books,” was able to go on to make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year as President–and now CEO–of Teach for America. And in his Huff Post piece, he says that “the 5.7 million students in special education settings nationwide deserve every chance to reach their potential.”  Yes; I know few who would disagree with that statement.

But while it may seem at first glance as if TFA is attempting to address its gross failures to prepare college grads for the challenges of teaching in urban settings (you know, the failures corps members have decried again and again and again), one glaring problem remains: Teach for America adamantly supports the very charter schools that are notorious for harsh “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” policies which disproportionately affect minority and special-needs students.

In September of 2013, EduShyster discovered and published a leaked document which detailed TFA’s role in charter expansion in Chicago.  In response, TFA’s Josh Anderson posted a damage-control piece insisting that TFA is simply “pro-great schools”–and he cited the Noble Network of charters as examples of success:

In 2012, just over half of elementary students in Chicago’s public schools met the state’s bar for proficiency. And yet, across the city, individual classrooms and even entire schools are making real progress. As believers in the power of public education, when we see these kinds of settings, we hope they’ll grow – that, through them, more kids will get the kinds of opportunities every single kid deserves. In Chicago, that group of great schools includes a number of charter schools – places like the Noble Network. In 2012, Noble had nine campuses on Chicago’s top ten list of highest-performing, non-selective public high schools (emphasis mine).

So follow this one: TFA loves the Noble Network of charter schools. Matt Kramer is a big-shot at Teach for America (former President, now CEO). Matt Kramer says that as a student, he himself “wasn’t learning,” and uses his own experiences to promote a new TFA special education initiative to help “students who learn differently from the way most schools teach today.”

About which schools is Kramer speaking, I wonder?

Hold that thought for a minute and consider this.

How would a Noble charter deal with a student like Kramer–one who’s disruptive, does no homework, reads no books, skips lectures, and is derailed by the a slight noise a few rooms away?

According to Chicago Tribune education reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, who published a very telling piece on Noble last week, the chain’s “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies are harsh, capricious, and responsible for disproportionally-high expulsion rates–and the charter chain’s advertised “high-performing” label depends upon its ability to drive out “problem students”–perhaps those like Matt Kramer:

AHMED-ULLAH: So basically there’s demerits points. And for every infraction, you get a demerit. And you can get demerits for everything, from being like less than a minute late for school to not having your shirt tucked in, not tying your shoelaces, not having a belt means like four demerits, which means instant detention. It’s a lot of penalty for small, minor things. And the network of charter school says the reason that they’re going after these minor issues is basically, you know, they’re trying to sweat the small stuff. And as they sweat the small stuff, they’re not getting serious discipline issues like violence and fighting and more serious infractions.

YOUNG: And by the way, these statistics that show that there was an increase in discipline was across the board at charter schools in Chicago. But Noble, the chain, had the highest rate. And the Noble superintendent told you not only do they sweat the small stuff, it’s the broken window theory.

AHMED-ULLAH: Right. So Noble is one of the charter networks that had a larger number of expulsions. And the superintendent did say – for the Noble Network of Charter schools – he did say that they have this idea of, you know, the broken window theory. You sort of fix the small things, and you don’t get to the bigger issue of the house breaking down.

YOUNG: But, you know, there’s always the whiff of suspicion around high rates of expulsion and suspension, that a school is pushing out academically behaviorally troubled students to keep stats like attendance and college acceptance high and to kick them out before they can drop out, you know, so to keep dropout low. Is that accusation being levied here?

AHMED-ULLAH: Right. So before I even get to that point, I think what I should point out is that those demerits, you know, they all start adding up. So, for example, four demerits equals an instant detention after school. If you get six detentions, you’d get an out-of-school suspension. If you get 13 detentions, that leads to like $140 that your parents have to pay for a behavior class. And then 36 detentions and repeated violations of their student code of conduct means that you’re facing an expulsion hearing.

So eventually, you could be expelled from the school. Or, you know, your parents are paying so much in fines that they just frankly can’t afford to keep that school, and so they may end up taking you out of the school. And so critics use this example to say that, for example, with Noble, you know, they have really high graduation rates. They have high test scores. And the reason is because they’re using this system of discipline and fines to weed out the most troubled kids, the kids that have the worst discipline issues and that are academically failing.

Last year, Marsha Godard went public with similar issues when she revealed that her son’s Noble charter school had charged the family nearly $3,000 in disciplinary fines for things like having his shoes untied or being half a minute late to class.  Any guesses regarding who profits from this kind of policy?  Here’s a hint:

The Noble Network, a charter school program championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has drawn the ire of students and parents alike for collecting nearly $390,000 in disciplinary fines from low-income, largely African-American and Latino students and their families over just a three-year period. In 2011, the network collected nearly $190,000 in disciplinary “fees.” Noble currently operates a dozen schools in Chicago. 

Yes, folks: Rachel Brody cites, as justification for the “Special Education and Ability Initiative,” a New York Times editorial that criticizes harsh disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect minorities and “disabled” children.  Yet the TFA organization unequivocally supports–and, further, drives the expansion of–charter chains like Noble.  (Let’s not forget about the Success Academy parent who secretly taped the school’s attempt to push her special needs child back to traditional public school. Success Academy’s principal is–you guessed it–a TFA alum. And oh–what about Newark’s Cami Anderson, a former TFA exec, whose “Two Newarks” “One Newark” plan funnels all self-contained classes to district schools so charters don’t have to serve those students?)

Does anyone else see the hypocrisy here?

Until Teach for America stops promoting charter expansion that further segregates urban areas and starves traditional public schools of resources, and until Teach for America stops supporting charters whose harsh disciplinary policies punish low-income and special-needs students, nobody should take the “Special Education and Ability Initiative” (or any other initiative–or the program as a whole, for that matter) seriously.

 

 

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Predictable reform tactics in Camden: close schools, lay off teachers, open charters, import TFA

In March of 2013, NBC’s Brian Williams devoted a segment of Rock Center to the struggles of the citizens of Camden, New Jersey—a city that’s been labeled in recent years as both the poorest and most dangerous in the United States. Williams, who at the time of the broadcast said he’d been studying Camden for a number of years, described the city as one people take “great pains to avoid” because of its many and well-documented troubles.

Just a few weeks ago, CNN reported again that 40% of Camden’s residents live below the poverty line (the median household income is just $26,000), homelessness and unemployment continue to be a problem, and the drug epidemic is so prevalent that police reported a drastic spike in heroin overdoses twice during the month of March.

There is little disagreement that among the most vulnerable citizens in a city like Camden are the children–yet there are many conflicting ideas regarding how to improve conditions for such at-risk kids. An abundance of research exists which shows a correlation between the conditions of poverty and a child’s ability to succeed in school, an observation that seems to be common sense to anyone who has even the most basic understanding of the harsh realities of inner-city life. Just last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Alfred Lubrano, who has written extensively about the effects of poverty, published a column in which he cited a NYU sociologist’s recent findings: that “children living in areas where homicides are committed have lower reading and verbal test scores.” Yet some self-proclaimed education “reformers” effectively minimize–even ignore–the impact poverty has on children living in its grasp.

So what, exactly, should be done to improve conditions for Camden’s children, many of whom are confronted with the realities of poverty, homelessness, violence, and drug abuse each day? Close neighborhood schools, fire hundreds of veteran teachers who have devoted their professional careers to working with high-needs children, and hire a flock of new, inexperienced teachers who’ll probably stick around for a couple of years before they move on to their “real” careers, of course!

At least that’s what Camden State Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, whose successful career in teaching finance began when he joined Teach for America, seems to think will help make things better for Camden’s children. Yes, Rouhanifard plans to lay off nearly 400 district employees–and given that the district has just (without DOE approval) arranged to open charters run by Uncommon and Mastery, we can all assume that with these changes will come a new influx of young, untrained Teach for America corps members.  Just what kids living in poverty need!

And don’t look now, but the Teach for America Greater Philadelphia job posting page just listed lots of positions in Camden, many of which are–shocking!–elementary school Mastery positions. The district is even looking for an Analyst in the Office of Talent Management (that’s TFA-talk) to support the “Camden Commitment” and manage all that “human capital!”

So as typically happens with a charter takeover, 6th grade teachers at Pyne Poynt learned suddenly that they’ll lose their positions when Mastery assumes responsibility for that grade level in the next academic calendar year. (See picture below; the school will operate as a hybrid until the current students are phased out, and 7th and 8th grade teachers will learn their fate in May.) But don’t worry: if you’re a veteran 6th grade teacher at Pyne Poynt whose position cannot be “guaranteed” for the 2014-2015 school year, the district will provide you “assistance with finding new locations,” opportunities to attend “transfer fairs,” and even “resume writing and interviewing workshops.” How courteous of the district!

 

Camden

Back to Mastery for a second. Mastery Charter Schools, along with ASPIRA, runs Renaissance schools in Philadelphia. The charter chain’s presence is drawing criticism from all angles: parents complain that Mastery’s scheduled takeover of Steel Elementary was orchestrated without community notification/input; students complain about its harsh “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies; and PFT president Jerry Jordan calls the district’s funding decisions, particularly the notion that only if parents vote to convert their schools to charters will the district receive an additional $4,000 in per-student funding, “criminally negligent”:

“The audacity of the district’s proposal to the school communities at Marin and Steel is stunning,” PFT president Jerry Jordan said in a statement. “To continually deny these schools much-needed resources as they dangle millions of dollars in front of parents borders on the criminally negligent.”

As part of changes this year to the Renaissance process – which has converted 20 schools to charters in four years – parents get to vote May 1 on whether the schools will become Renaissance charters or remain district-managed. It comes with a caveat, however: Renaissance charters receive nearly $4,000 more per student – money the district said would not likely be available if parents vote against the charter operator and in favor of an in-house transformation plan.

And as charter chains continue to usurp local authority in urban areas across the country, one glaring question remains: why should outsiders–many of whom have very little experience in education–be able to impose sweeping educational changes without community consent in cities whose primary educational problems stem directly from the effects of poverty?

Though the situation in Camden isn’t yet quite as contentious as the one in Newark (primarily because Newark’s schools have been under state control for almost 20 years–and also because Camden’s Rouhanifard is generally perceived to be less abrasive, insensitive, and offensive than Newark’s Anderson), a fundamental similarity between the two cities is glaring: if left unchecked, the combination of charter school expansion and increasing teacher/administrative inexperience will continue to divide and segregate both already-volatile communities.

Children in struggling urban areas will only be truly successful when politicians and policymakers resolve to improve the societal conditions that make it difficult for students to reach their full potential. Importing inexperienced outsiders whose sole task is to raise test scores, often at the expense of real learning, is simply not the answer.

More to come on Camden.

*See Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka’s Education Blueprint for an example of a comprehensive, city-based plan that seeks to improve living conditions for all citizens in order to improve children’s educational experiences.

 

 

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Quick: send your kids to charters lest they be “tossed in the lion’s den with the special needs student!”

Today, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by journalism professor Andrea Gabor that essentially describes a “two-tier” educational system: one created by the presence of charters that leaves the neediest students behind. And although many official charter spokespeople wouldn’t dare say it, it’s the practice of driving out children with special needs that accounts for lots of the “success” charters brag about.

Gabor devotes a good deal of her attention to charter school attrition, focusing on the effects “no-excuses” policies have on students with special needs:

Some students with I.E.P.s find charters, which often foster a no-excuses culture, a poor fit, and leave voluntarily. But sometimes there’s pressure: Administrators may advise parents that the school can’t support a child’s disability, or punish kids for even the slightest disciplinary infractions. However it happens, it leads to rising special-needs populations at nearby public schools.

Chrystina Russell, the founding principal of Global Technology Preparatory, a Harlem middle school, says charter-school “refugees” often showed up at her school after Oct. 31, when the Department of Education makes key funding decisions for traditional public schools based on head counts. This means that it can be difficult for the schools to hire additional teachers or support personnel when new students show up (though some funding is updated for special-education students who transfer by Dec. 31).

Global Tech had no post-October transfers this year, but had as many as eight two years ago. Nearby Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science has had about a dozen so far this year.

Global Tech, where more than one-third of the students have I.E.P.s, does impressive work despite the challenges. If special-education kids — most of whom are black and Hispanic boys — are segregated when they get to high school, they are unlikely to graduate. So Global Tech is committed to mainstreaming them in general-education classes by the eighth grade. Instead of suspending disruptive students, the school takes away extracurricular sports privileges and holds lunchtime detentions and meetings with parents. Some of its special-needs students have been accepted to the best public high schools in the city.

Gabor further notes that the charters which push out special needs students are often the very same ones to claim that they enroll the same types of students as do district schools.  Those charters aren’t, however, bound to “most regulations governing traditional public schools,” and their enrollment and financial policies allow them to manipulate the populations they serve.

Gabor ultimately concludes that “if charter schools are allowed to push out existing public schools, they should, at the very least, be subject to the same accountability measures for enrollment, attrition and disciplinary procedures, to ensure that the neediest students are being treated fairly.”

Amen.

Shortly after its publication, Gabor’s piece was flooded with comments, many echoing her sentiments about the misleading nature of charter schools’ “success.”  (Yay to the NYT for actually publishing a piece with this type of content; it seems, given the support for traditional public education voiced in the comments, that it was a welcome addition to the op-ed section.)

But perhaps most interesting is that the few commenters who advocate for charter expansion highlight exactly what’s wrong with charters in the first place: in general, they are publicly-funded experiments in resegregation. And, disturbingly, many people seem to be okay with that.

Here are some comments, copied and pasted from the NYT page, which show that many charter supporters condone the segregation of our nation’s children–whether it be in terms of race, class, socio-economic status, or ability/special needs.  All emphasis here is mine; misspellings and typos are not!

D Jiang Chicago 1 hour ago

The article talks approving about the regular public school’s dealings with its IEP population: “Instead of suspending disruptive students, the school takes away extracurricular sports privileges and holds lunchtime detentions and meetings with parents.” 

What it doesn’t mention is the effect this has on the rest of the already struggling students in the class who have only this one chance for an education – no well-educated parents tutoring them at home, no money for Sylvan.

In a nutshell, this is why parents in poor neighborhoods like charters. They treat the kids kids who behave well right. Publics prioritize the rights of those who can’t or won’t, to the detriment of all.
(Special needs kids who disrupt class are often doing so because the regular classroom environment is extremely stressful for them. I say that as a parent of one such child. ASD kids in particular do not belong in full size classrooms at young ages.)

 

Joel New York, NY 1 hour ago

If charter schools provide a superior educational opportunity to more gifted and/or more motivated students who don’t have the financial resources to look to a private school alternative, that’s a good reason for their existence, not a criticism. Yes, the same result can be achieved in the public school system (e.g., Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech High Schools), but unfortunately much public school education is oriented toward the most challenged students and fails to develop and challenge those who are more likely to succeed. Charter schools help to meet that need.annual raises, and increased pension.

 

islandmommy Staten Island, NY 53 minutes ago

Reading between the lines Ms. Gabor doesn’t want poor people to have school choice. The middle class can move to the suburbs, upper middle class and rich can opt for private school. But too bad for poor people, their high functioning kids should be tossed in the lion’s den with the special needs student (code for violent and disturbed) in the name of equality. The charter system as it stands is imperfect but if it gives even some poor families a choice then it has more merit than the status quo.

And my personal favorite comes from “madrona” from “washington”:

madrona washington 6 hours ago

Why is it okay for a special needs child to ruin educational opportunities for other students? Mainstreaming disruptive or slow-learning students keeps motivated students from learning. Everyone is NOT equal.

Good job, madrona.  Simply stunning.

Equally interesting–but not at all surprising–is that the very few charter-supporting commenters who didn’t condone segregation were the ones who fell back on the tired game of blindly blaming teachers for “failing” schools without putting forth any clear reason (like segregation) for charter “success.” Here’s an example:

Jeffrey E. Cosnow St. Petersburg, FL 3 hours ago

The real complaint is not that “special needs” students are being poorly served by charter schools. 

It is that increasing numbers of parents want to have an actual education for their children, and are causing the growth of charter schools. 

This could mean real competition for public schools. This could be a real problem for all the government teachers. Remember, if enrollment in public schools decreases, as a result of parents deciding that charter schools are better for the children, it could mean early retirement for “veteran teachers”, who have always expected annual raises, and increased pension.

To sum up the pro-charter comments attached to Gabor’s article: we need charters to get high-functioning students away from lower-functioning or special-needs students–and what’s wrong with that?  OR…charters are just better–no further explanation given–because teachers are lazy union thugs.

And herein, folks, lies the problem: the second “charters are better!” argument (unionized teachers suck) preys upon many people’s ignorance about–or acceptance of–the first (that charters contribute to segregation).

I understand that all parents want what’s best for their kids–and I certainly don’t blame them.  But until people start being real about the reasons for some charters’ “success”–that they don’t play by the same rules and enroll the same kids traditional public schools do–the very presence of charters will continue to pollute the landscape of public education in America and promote the ridiculous assertion that charters are superior to traditional public schools.

 

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Education reform in NJ: like bad reality TV—PART 2

Any networks looking to pick up a new NJ-based reality show? It can be called The Office of the Governor. Rest assured you’ll have no shortage of material.

Because it just keeps getting better here in The Garden State, a place where “emotional” women weep intermittently and unpredictably and close bridges arbitrarily when their “benefactors” breaks up with them.

Yes, all you scandal-addicts: in yet a development that seems as if it could be the basis for an episode of Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of New Jersey or The Bachelor, a lawyer Chris Christie hired with $1 million of taxpayers’ money published a report that “proved” the Governor had no involvement in Bridgegate. (This, in and of itself, is a shocking development. I was absolutely sure the lawyers to whom Christie funneled $650/hour would find the governor to be implicated in the scandal!) Anyway, the report, which was apparently light on “facts” but heavy on drama, depicted Bridget Anne Kelly as a scorned woman who cried a lot and shut down a bridge because of a bad breakup with Bill Stepien:

“Kelly had become Deputy Chief of Staff, assuming the post left vacant by her predecessor, Stepien, who had departed in April 2013 to run the Governor’s re-election campaign. Because Stepien was her “benefactor,” Kelly relied heavily on him during this transition. And at some point after Stepien’s departure to run the campaign, Kelly and Stepien became personally involved, although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking. Around that same time, Wildstein started pressing Port Authority engineers to assess the traffic effects resulting from the dedicated Fort Lee toll lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge.”

So pretty much, Christie and his hired hands said, “OH MY GOD. Bridget Anne Kelly is sooooooo drama, so when Bill Stepien couldn’t take her crazy anymore and dumped her, she called up David Wildstein and they decided to close some lanes on the George Washington Bridge. (BTW, David was a BIG-time loser in high school.) I really have no idea how all the people in my office could have been so deceitful, so I’m going to use more taxpayer money to appoint a ‘chief ethics officer’ who will ‘train staff and monitor their conduct.’ Because these people are completely OOC and I have NO IDEA how any of this happened! Really. I’m appalled.”

Seems like being the epicenter of all this dysfunction got to be a little too much for the governor, so he needed a way out of it, and fast.

And what’s the best way to distract people from Office of the Governor drama? Attack public workers, of course—and align yourself with other people who have the same goal! (Note to the governor: you can use the same tactic when you accidentally call the West Bank and East Jerusalem “occupied terroritories” when you’re addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition. Here’s how: “Whoops! My bad. But seriously, let’s talk about what losers public employees are.”) Christie told Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly that he doesn’t have too much “baggage” to be the POTUS. He also told her that he thinks Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Paul Ryan would be really good candidates for the position. Hey, at least they have a lot in common: they hate unions, hate teachers, hate public workers, hate the middle class, and hate poor people.

Let’s start with Chris Christie’s desperate attempts to screw teachers over (cops and firefighters can be a different episode): In 2009, Christie said, “I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor.” And by “Nothing about your pensions is going to change when I am governor,” he meant, “Sike! Screw you guys.” So he started yelling at teachers in town hall meetings and on campaign stops and claiming that teachers only care about having “generous benefits packages” and summers off, and then he blamed the failures of previous governors, beginning with Christie Whitman, to fully fund the pension system on greedy public employees. Wait, it gets better: after he negotiated increased pension and health care contributions by promising that he’d make the pension payments the state owed, Christie said “sike!” again and changed the funding formula so he could contribute over a billion dollars LESS than he initially promised he’d contribute (after he promised he wouldn’t touch the pensions at all). Even Steve Sweeney, who had a hand in the 2011 pension and benefits reforms–and who actually believed Chris Christie would keep his word…LOL!–is pissed off now. Drama!

And let’s not forget about the union-busting and privatization agendas Christie’s pushing in cities like One Two Newarks and Camden, where the public schools are “failure factories” that produce—what else—failures? (Real nice.) The solution? Close public schools, open charters, and get rid of experienced teachers to make room for new ones–preferably TFAers–who’ll probably only stay for a couple years. (Read: they’re cheap, they’ll leave before they’re vested in the pension system, and they won’t stick around long enough to assume leadership roles in those self-serving teachers’ unions. YESSSS.) And besides: it’s totally fun to watch educators who have devoted their lives to at-risk children in inner-cities get blamed for the failures of politicians and society–and driven out of their positions. Maybe a break from their cushy jobs and a run-in with some hardship’ll learn ‘em to stop being so greedy and selfish.

And speaking of bad teachers, let’s talk for a sec about the Achieve NJ initiative that relies heavily on flawed and untested standardized tests, relies on a flawed model of measuring student “growth,” and promotes and rewards scripted teaching. (You know, the kind that people with barely any experience in or long-term commitment to education can pull off. Look at the “Whole Brain Learning” method that’s being marketed to charters in high-poverty areas. It’s seriously like a supernotfun game show…and who doesn’t want to combine reality shows and game shows?!) On March 5th, dozens of educators and parents testified about the innumerable ways in which Chistie’s reforms are hurting public education, and thousands more submitted written testimony that echoed the public statements. But those teachers and parents should STFU, because businesspeople and politicians are the ones who really know what’s best for kids.

So Bridgegate? Meh. Millions in Sandy relief funds misued or held hostage? Meh. Federal probes? Political favors? Bullying? Meh meh meh.

It’s all those morally-corrupt former Christie administration officials—who the governor, a picture of morality himself, was somehow (gasp) unable to identify—and the corrupt middle-class, unionized workers who are RUINING the State of New Jersey.

Is anyone filming this? Seriously. Between this and Education reform in NJ: like bad reality TV Part 1, there’s enough for at least two full seasons of edge-of-your-seat, can’t-wait-for-next-week drama.

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