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The Failure of American Schools
June 15, 2011 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Joel Klein wrote an essay in the Atlantic about the reasons for the current problems in the primary educational system.
posted by reenum (79 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
The problem is, for the people who have the power to change this, this is not a failure.
posted by Legomancer at 8:15 AM on June 15, 2011


Let me guess....it's about grading teachers? More standardized testing? Doing more with less?
posted by spicynuts at 8:16 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The net effect is that we’re rapidly moving toward two Americas—a wealthy elite, and an increasingly large underclass that lacks the skills to succeed.

Hasn't this been pretty much the stated goal of the elite for the past 30 years (or more)? I'd say it's not a problem, it's "Mission Accomplished"!
posted by briank at 8:17 AM on June 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Who better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft?

Am I missing something here?
posted by Trurl at 8:18 AM on June 15, 2011 [11 favorites]


Let me guess....it's about grading teachers? More standardized testing? Doing more with less?
You left out "Release the creative power of the free market."
posted by Thorzdad at 8:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


To me, watching the documentary about the NYC pre-school system, The Lottery, was eye opening. At about the 1:05 mark, you can see a parent at a school board meeting, saying, "You are not welcome here. We will not welcome you here." She's referring to the Harlem Success Academy, which tried to open a second campus. Charter schools DO work. When parents block them, it's the children who suffer.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:21 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Let me guess....it's about grading teachers?

You left out "Release the creative power of the free market."

The "money" quote, as it were:

Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands. ... Those teachers and principals whose students do well should get substantial merit pay; those who don’t should be fired.
posted by Trurl at 8:21 AM on June 15, 2011


I see -- not Joe Klein, the political reporter who wrote "Primary Colors,", but JOEL Klein, the chancellor of the NY school system (who no one has heard of).
posted by msalt at 8:23 AM on June 15, 2011


And from the article, about Harlem Success...

At the individual school level, the differences can be breathtaking. One charter school in New York City, Harlem Success Academy 1, has students who are demographically almost identical to those attending nearby community and charter schools, yet it gets entirely different results. Harlem Success has 88 percent of its students proficient in reading and 95 percent in math; six other nearby schools have an average of 31 percent proficient in reading and 39 percent in math. And according to the most-recent scores on New York State fourth-grade science tests, Success had more than 90 percent of its students at the highest (advanced) level, while the city had only 43 percent at advanced, and Success’s black students outperformed white students at more than 700 schools across the state. In fact, Success now performs at the same level as the gifted-and-talented schools in New York City—all of which have demanding admissions requirements, while Success randomly selects its students, mostly poor and minority, by lottery.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:23 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


"You are not welcome here. We will not welcome you here." She's referring to the Harlem Success Academy, which tried to open a second campus.

Actually, I have no idea what that scene was about. There's no context. What kind of meeting was this? None of us have any idea. What did the parent want? What were her objections?

To a large degree, that whole trailer was strange. While Harlem Success Academy seems like a great thing, as far as I can tell, that trailer had the look and feel of an advertisement.
posted by deanc at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


JOEL Klein, the chancellor of the NY school system (who no one has heard of).


well, to be fair, he's probably never heard of you either.
posted by dubold at 8:32 AM on June 15, 2011


The students are the product in the school system, not the customer. As long as that holds true, it will never really change.
posted by COD at 8:36 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Those teachers and principals whose students do well should get substantial merit pay; those who don’t should be fired.

Can someone please explain this to me? How do you differentiate between a teacher who is lucky to have a well behaved classroom and one that has a nightmare situation that is beyond his/her control?
posted by repoman at 8:36 AM on June 15, 2011 [15 favorites]


Accountability, in most industries or professions, usually takes two forms. First and foremost, markets impose accountability: if people don’t choose the goods or services you’re offering, you go out of business. Second, high-performing companies develop internal accountability requirements keyed to market-based demands. ... Those teachers and principals whose students do well should get substantial merit pay; those who don’t should be fired.

Just like what happened on Wall Street.
posted by Legomancer at 8:36 AM on June 15, 2011 [19 favorites]


Teachers in non-union states are able to fire lousy teachers at a higher rate than in states where teachers have union representation. The rate is still too low across the board, and there may be other factors in these different rates, but, still, this is one fallacy in this union-bashing article: there are other reasons making it hard to fire under-performing teachers.

One is that students are tested mostly in math and literacy. Leaving aside the question of the dubious efficacy of these standardized tests, where does that leave the social studies and science teachers? (And the dwindling number of language teachers, music teachers, art teachers...)

Evaluating teachers is a tricky business. Front-loading salaries is a good idea, which has been implemented in many districts. Noting that the link between poverty and learning is a powerful one is more than just an excuse for teachers. Did I become a much better teacher when I moved from an urban school in one poor neighborhood to a school with only a small percentage of students on the free lunch program? Well, according to my students' test scores I did.
posted by kozad at 8:39 AM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


By recruiting teachers mostly from the middle and bottom of their college classes, as America has done for decades now, not only did we not get the talent we needed, but we also fostered a culture where excellence and merit don’t matter.

A very good friend of mine who went to Standford law (top of class) and American University undergrad (top of class) wanted to be an elementary school teacher. What prevented her from teaching? They told her that she had never taken astronomy in college - and even when she told them she would take it in night classes, they said no to her. They said that it was a union issue. I am a big fan of unions, and protecting workers, but there needs to be space to allow passionate and talented potential-educators into the system.
posted by anya32 at 8:40 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The fundemental problem with schools is that schools are prisons for kids. The rest of this is just debate on how to incarcarate them.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2011 [22 favorites]


President Obama was on to something in 2008 when he said: “The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of [students’] skin or where they come from. It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.”

That is flat out, 100% wrong. It all starts with the parents and the home environment. It that is bad the kid is 80% doomed to fail. Some rise above it for sure, but most don't. And the best teacher in the world can't teach Algebra to a kid that is hungry because his family can't afford breakfast, or tired from sleeping on the floor of a homeless shelter.
posted by COD at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2011 [34 favorites]


Joel Klein? For a second I thought that was Joe Klein, a/k/a/ Joke Line.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:45 AM on June 15, 2011



That is flat out, 100% wrong. It all starts with the parents and the home environment


well, i don't know the rest of the quote but 'teacher' could refer to their parents. Parents should be just as much teachers to their kids (and I'm not talking in a philosophical sense here..I'm talking about reading, ritin, rithmetic) as their school teachers. You are correct in your assessment, I'm just not sure whether Obama was being a tool or being more subtle.
posted by spicynuts at 8:47 AM on June 15, 2011


By recruiting teachers mostly from the middle and bottom of their college classes, as America has done for decades now, not only did we not get the talent we needed, but we also fostered a culture where excellence and merit don’t matter.

I have a Math Education degree. I was told several times by my Math teachers that I was too good at it to waste my time teaching and by my Education teachers that math wasn't important.
posted by Legomancer at 8:48 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


You are correct in your assessment, I'm just not sure whether Obama was being a tool or being more subtle.

My kids have never been to school - homeschooled all the way - so I totally get the parent as teacher thing. Although really, it's parent as facilitator. The kids mostly teach themselves. However Klein is totally using the quote to make the point that school teachers are the single most important factor in a kids education, and that is wrong. I agree that without more context, we don't know what Obama really was saying though.
posted by COD at 8:52 AM on June 15, 2011


As a physician I can't help but be appalled at what we expect from our teachers, while in parallel we are expecting healthier outcomes and cheaper care in medicine, when it should be clear to anyone that our society is getting insidiously more stupid as it gets less healthy. In both situations, the person charged with fixing it hasn't got a prayer, but could tell anyone where the real change needs to start - with the individual, with the home, with the parents, with self-discipline - all of which are evaporating assuredly over time.
posted by docpops at 8:56 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Totally disagree with the whole concept of educating children. First we labour to PRODUCE these maggoty little leech-broods, then we are forced to bread, water and coddle them in our OWN HOMES, and now we are expected to TEACH them things? Don't you realise this means that they will grow up ready to REPLACE US?

My point here is that we adults are in charge of the world, and I think we're doing a pretty bang-up job. Sure - the economy is a horrible catastophe, the natural enviroment is about to give up and die, and there's that whole constant raping-and-murdering-one-another thing we all do at both an individual and national level. These are valid criticisms of our reign - don't get me wrong. I myself often get jolly miffed when I think about these very topics. But do you people SERIOUSLY think that CHILDREN would do a better job of running society? HA HA HA HA HA! It's an idea so preposterous one would only expect to hear about it in a comedic television series.

Let's just keep these ignorant midgets where they belong, either working down the mines or as an amusing song-and-dance troupe in the orphanage. LONG LIVE THE ADULTOCRACY! WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 8:57 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


The fundemental problem with schools is that schools are prisons for kids. The rest of this is just debate on how to incarcarate them.

I'm reminded of Pauline Kael's review of High School - a documentary by Frederick Wiseman of Titicut Follies fame:

... so familiar and so extraordinarily evocative that a feeling of empathy with the students floods over us. How did we live through it? How did we keep any spirit? When you see a kid trying to make a phone call and being interrupted with "Do you have a pass to use the phone?" it all floods back—the low ceilings and pale-green walls of the basement where the lockers were, the constant defensiveness, that sense of always being in danger of breaking some pointless, petty rule.
posted by Trurl at 8:58 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


But I will add that as there are tremendously shitty doctors out there working next to the best ones, we have seen the same things in the schools. It is frightening how bad some of our educators have been in the elementary schools, but also how profound an impact a couple good ones can have in under a year on your kids success.
posted by docpops at 8:58 AM on June 15, 2011


Who Better to lead an educational revolution than Joel Klein, the prosecutor who took on the software giant Microsoft?

Oh, I don't know, maybe a teacher?

Also, The shit about the Harlem Success Academy (and all the other Success Academy franchises that are popping up all over New York) is that they just kick out all the students who don't perform. That's really how they get such great numbers.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:01 AM on June 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


President Obama was on to something in 2008 when he said: “The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of [students’] skin or where they come from. It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.”

"Who their teacher is," however, is based in part on: how much money they have (wealthier school districts have more money for teachers and supplies); who their parents are (having a single or two parents who have to work extensive hours to feed the kids may be correlated to not as much support/guidance at home (grandparents and extended community do a lot)); where they come from and the color of the student's skin have correlations to income and school systems in this country (Brown v. Board has been dismantled by school busing and opportunity cases - today, schools have returned to the same segregation levels as pre-Brown)."
posted by anya32 at 9:02 AM on June 15, 2011


sorry, stray quotation mark at the end of that.
posted by anya32 at 9:03 AM on June 15, 2011


Man, it's a crazy coincidence that the solution to our problems is always "break up the unions and pay working people less". I mean, it's almost like there's a political motivation behind the debate. But, no, I guess I'll just keep reading random editorials that happen to tell me to break up unions, and pay working people less.
posted by droob at 9:03 AM on June 15, 2011 [19 favorites]


So this dude is all "fire teachers!" "continue to test a lot every year!" and, amazingly, "let great math professors develop software to teach math, so we don't need so many teachers". Basically, bigger class sizes, more precarity and less face time with students.

It's funny - everyone had a terrible teacher, and everyone assumes that teacher was shielded by a corrupt union, and everyone would like that teacher to be fired, so everyone assumes that getting rid of the unions is the way to do this. But in non-union workplaces there's always plenty of awful employees who don't get fired.

I often hear that spending more money per-pupil doesn't solve the problem. Does anyone have good information about how that money per-pupil is spent? And precisely which problems it doesn't solve, ie is it impossible to reduce class-sizes, or impossible to get enough computers or impossible to improve math comprehension, etc etc?
posted by Frowner at 9:04 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


COD -- I was amazed to read that Obama quote, and disappointed to see that Klein recites it approvingly. They both seem to smart to believe it, and usually too sincere to mouth unbelievable platitudes. What makes a good school good is, overwhelmingly, the school's reduction of children whose parents are unable or unwilling to support their education below the critical mass where attempting to remediate such children's deficits overwhelms all other missions. The means of exclusion vary -- and even high poverty charter schools do so by excluding those who can't or won't apply for the lottery -- but that's still the bottom line.
posted by MattD at 9:09 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think he said anywhere in there that they should get rid of the unions entirely. However, his points about the backloaded pay system and other perverse incentives do seem to help explain the problem America has with recruiting and developing good teachers.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:09 AM on June 15, 2011


I think he's got some good points. This story struck me

When we replaced many large, failing high schools with more, much smaller schools, many of the new schools had only a handful of kids who wanted to take rigorous Advanced Placement courses, which can earn students college credit. Several good online programs teach the necessary course content. But in New York state, you cannot get high-school credit unless you’re taught by a live teacher (a requirement referred to as “seat time”), and these small schools didn’t have enough students to bring in an AP teacher. I approached our State Education Department in Albany, which had the authority to waive the seat-time requirement: if a kid could get college credit for passing an online AP course, surely she should be able to get high-school credit as well.

As soon as the UFT heard that we had requested a waiver from the state, it faxed us a letter saying, “The elimination of seat-time requirements needs to be negotiated,” making clear that if we tried to proceed, this would be war.

At least in NY, the union is dedicated to keeping its members employed and dues paying, even if they're sex offenders, even if they spend years in the "Rubber Room". Not a positive sign for any meaningful discussion of reform.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:12 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


was amazed to read that Obama quote, and disappointed to see that Klein recites it approvingly. They both seem to smart to believe it, and usually too sincere to mouth unbelievable platitudes.

For those of us, like Obama, Klein, and myself, who went to good schools and had supportive demanding parents, the biggest determinant of how much we learned was the quality of the teacher, so when someone makes this argument to us, it conforms with our own experience and seems totally believable, even if the data says otherwise.
posted by deanc at 9:18 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Company Overseen By Joel Klein Poised To Clean Up With $27M No-Bid State Contract.

I'm sure it's just coincidence, though.
posted by armacy at 9:18 AM on June 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


This article is so full of bullshit I could use it to fertilize Arlington National.
Starting in 2006, under federal law, the State of New York was required to test students in grades three through eight annually in math and English. The results of those tests would enable us, for the first time, to analyze year-to-year student progress and tie it to individual teacher performance—a metric known in the field as “teacher value-added.” In essence, you hold constant other factors—where the students start from the prior year, demographics, class size, teacher length of service, and so on—and, based on test results, seek to isolate the individual teacher’s contribution to a student’s progress. Some teachers, for example, move their class forward on average a quarter-year more than expected; others, a quarter-year less. Value-added isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s surely worth considering as part of an overall teacher evaluation.
Just how in the hell do you "hold constant" all the other factors? You can't. "Oh, but at least it's something!" So fucking what? Bad stats are bad stats. It's not like a bad carrot where you can just lop off the 90% that's useless. They're bad. Like the parable of the Emperor of China's nose. A guy wants to know how long the Emperor of China's nose is, but no commoner has ever seen the emperor. So he asks everyone what their best guess is and averages the results.
As a result, even when making a lifetime tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher's impact on student learning.
No, that's not what it means and that's so wrong and based on such asinine logic that I can't even call it a conclusion.
The result: whether you work hard or don’t, get good results with kids or don’t, teach in a shortage area like math or special education or don’t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you’ve been around for another year, in which case you get more.
Let's rephrase this using the same stupid logic:

The result: whether your kids are troublemakers or you lucked into a class of angels, whether you get a class with parents that are engaged in their kids' learning or couldn't give a rat's ass, no matter what the subject matter is (because all subject matter is important… unless you've got some genius way of determining what's more important to civilization: music or math? physical health or writing ability?), no matter if you're in a poor community or a rich one, you get paid the same. And in another year, you get paid more, because we value teachers and want them to be able to continue to make a fucking living wage so they can continue to teach.

I could keep eviscerating this piece of garbage's piece of garbage, but I've got better things to do like contemplate my navel lint.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:27 AM on June 15, 2011 [14 favorites]


Klein is part of the elite that thinks all the rest of us are lazy idiots that just need more aggressive top down management. His contempt for teachers and school communities is really breath taking.
posted by efbrazil at 9:32 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Schools are funded primarily from property taxes. Surprise, surprise, this leads to inequity.

Since directly redistributing propery taxes evenly would be tremendously unpopular, I'd suggest cutting property taxes, and then raising income taxes to a matching degree, and fund schools more evenly from this coffer, rather than small per district-pots.
posted by spaltavian at 9:37 AM on June 15, 2011


Does value-added testing reflect teacher quality? The correlation between poverty and learning outcomes. You know, actual data and research might enlighten the debate.

Also, if unions are so evil, why does Massachusetts have such good education outcomes despite being unionized?
posted by idb at 9:38 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Charter schools DO work. When parents block them, it's the children who suffer.

A study [.pdf] released in 2009 by Stanford found that "17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference."

So, um, no.
posted by the_bone at 9:40 AM on June 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


So, um, no.

I was referring specifically to Harlem Success, which outperforms almost everybody.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


And from the article, about Harlem Success...

The thing about "Success For Al,l" which is the program followed dogmatically by Harlem Success, is that it is built around an almost totally programmed school day. Principals brag that at any give time in the day they know exactly what each teacher is each classroom is saying. You can imagine that the "core competency" and "what is on the exam" become essentially the same thing.

The reason the community member was likely so opposed to Harlem Success is that it is built on the idea that poor (minority) kids need a fundamentally different kind of education than other kids. Now why would that be? Try imposing SFA at a comfortable (white) middle-class suburb and see how long you last.

Kozol is notorious for his critique of SFA[pdf]. But, the thing is, regardless of whether you love or loathe Kozol, ed reform is rife with 'magic' claims i.e. "SUCCESS FOR ALL", and there is a strange amount of grant money for buying programs and consultants given the general lack of funds for other things.

The problems with the public schools are political rather than pedagogical. For me that's the unavoidable truth. Problems of race, problems of class, problems of economics...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:46 AM on June 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Also, if Klein is calling the NYC public schools a failure "not remotely where it needs to be" after 8 years as king, why does he get to blame "FECKLESS POLITICIANS, RECALCITRANT UNIONS, MEDIOCRE TEACHERS" instead of himself? Typical CEO attitude... if only we gave business executives more power in our society, then all our problems would be solved.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:56 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The US spends one of the highest amounts per individual, and yet its system doesn't do well compared to many other developed nations. This point is constantly used to argue for more socialized health care; why shouldn't it argue equally well for a more privatized school system?
posted by shivohum at 9:59 AM on June 15, 2011


Teacher here so, yeah, I'm biased.

Children and parents are not customers of the school system, NOR SHOULD THEY BE. The customer of a public school system is the community - THE PUBLIC. Anyone who spends any time at all in the public schools figure out very quickly that after about 5th grade 99% of the parents don't care what their children learn. They want a GRADE. They want me, the teacher, to give them a good grade for all kinds of reasons that have very little to do with learning. When parents and children see themselves as customers of the schools, then most interactions regarding teacher expectations degenerates into "THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT".
It's not a great mystery why teachers can't get students to meet high expectations.

When kids win scholarships and spelling bees we put their picture on the front page of the paper. When they fail, we blame the teachers.

The onion got it right. Are tests biased against students who don't give a shit?

I'm not saying that there aren't problem teachers or schools out there(there are), but let's frame the discussion properly.
posted by sciencejock at 10:01 AM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh, BTW, rereading the comment I made upthread before I took my car to the garage, I got it backwards. NON-UNION states fire FEWER teachers than UNION states. In other words, bashing unions for keeping ineffective teachers in the classrooms is just one more of Klein's Mulligan stew of "solutions" that makes no sense at all. Charter schools, online courses: not always ideal answers to making public schools better places for our children, either.

I've been teaching steadily for twenty-five years, after off-and-on teaching between financially dubious artistic positions for another ten years before that, and this much is true: the bureaucratic restrictions, the revolving doors of ever-changing curricula and pedagogical solutions, the increasing demands on our time due to larger class loads, the eroding of professional autonomy, and the increasing disrespect of the profession have made teaching a little less fulfilling every decade. I could go on.

It's still a great job, though, in that it is different every day, it is intellectually satisfying - for some of us, anyway - and while it doesn't lead to riches or vacations in Europe, it pays well enough and provides good benefits. The frustrations are mounting, though, and the perception that businessmen can run schools better than educators has not proven to be the case. What a surprise!
posted by kozad at 10:02 AM on June 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


If there's a money quote, I'd go with this one: By recruiting teachers mostly from the middle and bottom of their college classes, as America has done for decades now, not only did we not get the talent we needed, but we also fostered a culture where excellence and merit don’t matter.

And if I were trying to solve problems in the schools, I'd give up on figuring out how to fire underperforming teachers from the current generation and spend more time figuring out how to build the next generation properly from the start. Make the position a position that sane, qualified people would want to enter, or... else.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:14 AM on June 15, 2011


Am I the only one who feels that the more I read about school reform, the less I know about school reform?

On the one hand, whenever I read about ideas to attract more talent to the teaching field, and merit pay for the great teachers, it sounds like a really good idea to me. But the same people who champion those ideas, which sound like common sense to me, so often follow those common sense proposals with other ideas that sound like well-disguised union busting. And, given all the ridiculousness in Wisconsin, I'm feeling pretty fucking skeptical of the intentions of people who want to put all the blame on the unions and the teachers. But the inability to reward the best teachers, and get rid of the worst teachers does seem like a problem to me.

I'm also completely of two minds when it comes to testing. It seems like well thought out standardized tests ought to be the sort of data that students, teacher, principals, and administrators covet. (It also seems like our current standardized tests aren't well designed, but let's leave that aside for the moment.) It's reasonable to me that we should test our students, and it's reasonable that student outcomes should be reflected in teachers' pay. How, then, do we avoid the situation where evaluation of students and teachers leads to a vicious cycle of teaching more and more to the test?

And last, I think it's really interesting, and a huge oversight, that Klein talks about increases in the supply of college graduates between 1960 and 1980, and how important that is for the middle class without discussing external economic factors. I can't help but wonder if the causality runs in reverse as well: having a strong middle class is good for education, as much as having education is good for lifting people out of poverty. The timeline of the decline in college grads seem to correlate pretty well with the timeline of decline in American manufacturing jobs. It seems like the rapid inflation in college costs and the increasing fragmentation of earning capabilities in the country means that this will be a bigger problem in the next few years.

The more I read about the problems facing education, and the lack of agreement about what reforms are even needed, the more cynical I become about our ability to actually solve any of these problems.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 10:18 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, Florida is now offering a free, open-enrollment virtual school alternative to its public school system, available to all Florida students through an online enrollment process. Parents can now enroll children in the virtual school, and that satisfies all state and federal legal requirements for the child to be enrolled in and attending an accredited school. No specific idea on whether or not there will be specific performance expectations along the way, or on how standardized testing fits into it, but it's very brazenly an attempt to cost-control brick and mortar public schools out of business.

It's tragic what ideological radicals and opportunistic lobbyists have done to the public school system locally and beyond over the last couple of decades, IMO. I know a lot of ed reform folks mean well, but ideologically-blinkered myopia, lack of administrative accountability, and political radicalism are costing our nation dearly in terms of the quality of what's left of the public education system. And it would be foolish for anyone to go on pretending at this point that the agenda of the leading edge of the Republican party establishment isn't dead set on dismantling as much as possible of America's once proud compulsory, equal-opportunity-oriented public education system. Now we're coaxing the middle class--who can afford computers and internet connections more readily--out of the public schools as fast as we can. It's a betrayal not only of core American values (as idealized if not always observed), but of the legacy of generations of Americans who sweated and toiled in our cotton fields or fought and died on our battlefields. Compulsory, institutionalized public education is one of America's greatest historical institutions, and to see it under assault from so many different directions and under such intense political pressures almost makes me lose hope for the future.

But we'll patch things up eventually. If we're lucky, maybe we'll only lose a couple of generations of kids.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Scott is cooking up an education proposal that would expand an existing voucher program designed for low-income and disabled kids, opening it to all students. The result would be that instead of public school funds filtering through the unionized public bureaucracy, it would go with the students, who could use the money to enroll in the school of their choice—public, private, charter, or virtual.
See how this works? Union political funds overwhelmingly go to support Democratic political candidates. Come next election cycle, those funds will be drastically reduced, since many state employees are being let go and more education dollars are being funneled to charter schools and to virtual school enrollees' parents' beer budgets.

Fewer funds for union political activity (especially considering this in light of the recently senate-approved prohibition on the use of union fees for political activity in Florida) means a greater GOP political advantage come election time. That's worth dismantling a constitutionally mandated high-quality public school system for, right?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:31 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


First graders doing algebra.

With that out of the way, one thing I want to point out with teacher firing stats... The numbers will always be misleadingly low because in many places a teacher being fired means that they teacher will find it almost impossible to find another teaching job.

As such, most districts chose merely to not renew a teacher's contract rather than to fire them outright.
posted by drezdn at 10:34 AM on June 15, 2011


I live in a non-diverse suburb of NYC. Behavioral problems and student motivation is not a significant issue in my district. Joel Klein's perspective is much different than mine. Where he complains he cannot use test scores to evaluate teachers, my district is fighting the ridiculous state mandate created to glom Race to The Top money that require quantifiable measurement. We recognize that a teacher's value cannot be measured by test scores alone. That is an easy position when our state regents scores average over 90%.

But, and there is always a "but" comes down to what Deep Throat taught us. (Not that Deep Throat.) Follow the money. The only way my district can keep its present course is if you assume an ability or willingness of the taxpayer to keep on paying more, a lot more, every year.

In my district, teacher raises have been over 7% a year for the last 10 years. That includes both salary raises and "step" raises (here another year raises as Klein characterized them). Our school budget has doubled in that 10 years. My property taxes have also doubled. The percentage of the budget that goes to compensation (salary, health care, pension) has increased by 12% (68% of budget to 80% of budget). Transportation costs are tied to CPI and have gone up in lockstep with the CPI. Transportation is 5% of the budget and debt service is another 5%. That totals 90% of the budget. That leaves 10% for the students. Textbooks, classroom materials. special ed services, paper, pencils, everything else needed to run a district is 10%.

In order to continue paying for built in compensation raises and the state pension plan that is a defined benefit plan that guarantees a 8% return, the residents of the district will either need to raise taxes next year by 8.5% or cut teachers and other staff. It would take cutting 50+ teachers out of just under 400 in order to keep compensation costs the same.

The district residents are no longer willing to support tax increases more than a percent or maybe two. This year's budget passed with slightly over 53% of votes approving. The district suggested to the teacher's union that if they take a pay freeze, that is, keep salaries as they are this year with no raises whatsoever, then it could protect all full time teacher jobs. The union said, "Nuts." It has chosen to eat its young in order to keep the raises coming in for the older or longer serving members.

The losers are the kids with larger classes and less electives from which to choose and the newer teachers without jobs. Winners are the more experienced teachers who get their raises. Oh, the average teacher compensation is my district is $97,000/yr.

My district offers a terrific education to its students. I think we have the best overall teaching staff in the county. With per pupil spending of about $26,000 (Total budget divided by number of students in the district) we are also near the top. It the past, this growth has been fueled by rising real estate values. That is a thing of the past. Now, the real estate taxes of which 70% goes to the schools are out of line in relation to housing value. Taxes are more than the typical mortgage payment.

There is a problem. It has nothing to do with what a teacher is "worth" It comes down to what a taxpayer can afford to pay. The problem is that there are no "bad guys" in this. The teachers certainly earn their pay and deserve to be compensated. The taxpayers who have not had raises themselves in years and with 10% unemployment cannot afford to pay even though most would want to pay. The wildcard in my district and I think in all similar districts are the empty nesters who pay the taxes but don't send their kids to schools. They will vote down school budgets without the foresight to consider property values. They consider their wealth as their cash on hand rather than their total assets.

Something or someone has to give. Regrettably, to date, it has been the students who give.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:40 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wow, that article was awful. I'm so glad that people on this post have torn it apart.

Merit pay is expensive, and when you take away job security and autonomy (f'r instance by requiring teachers to spend more time on subjects their students will be tested on), you make the job less attractive to top talent and, therefore, have to pay more to attract it.

A system that reduces benefits and increases teaching loads in order to pay more in bonuses to top performers is a system that rewards people who can put in the hours and follow the curriculum, which is not at all the same thing as a system that rewards effective teachers.

You'll get more competitive people to teach if you make teaching into a race, I guess. But those people already have career paths that are far, far more lucrative than teaching. Teaching is never gonna pay as well as banking, so what's left to attract good people? Stability, respect, (relatively cheaper) perks and benefits, and the sense of having accomplished something with your life.
posted by subdee at 10:41 AM on June 15, 2011


Are L.A. Charter Schools Screening Out Special Ed Students? (As a former LAUSD teacher, I could have said "Fuck yeah they are" before reading the article.)
posted by the_bone at 10:49 AM on June 15, 2011


There was a study not too long ago that purported to show that experience is not much of a factor in teacher effectiveness. One theory why is that in today's top down, state mandated curriculum environment, teachers have little opportunity to apply their personal creativity and expertise to the job. We've turned teaching into a factory job.

If that is true, one interesting idea that develops from that is that we could pay teachers really well for about 5 years, then stop giving raises, essentially encouraging them to move on to another career. Instead of teaching being a career, it becomes the first stop where you make good money for 5 years, and then move on to something else. With the younger workforce, costs could be reduced significantly, educational outcomes improve (if the study holds) and the kids get a better education while the state controls costs.

The mythical win-win result, in theory.

I'd love to see tried somewhere.
posted by COD at 10:50 AM on June 15, 2011


So I have no idea who this guy is or whether his company is corrupt or maybe he is secretly a double-agent from Russia sent here to undermine our school system, but does anyone have specific objections to some of his policy proposals? Things like the iron-clad tenure system and the difficulty of firing bad teachers seem like no-brainers from a reform point of view.

He also makes a compelling case for why the unions' interest does not line up with the interests of the students. Now, it is possible that he has misaligned interests as well, but his arguments details the unions' fight to preserve the universally deplored status quo are also very compelling.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:54 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, as a followup, why is it so hard to design a decent standardized test? I think that if you asked me to write a test to determine if second-graders knew their math and English well, it would take me about a week. Put some basic arithmetic problems on there for the math side, maybe a few word problems, and some spatial-reasoning stuff if you want to get fancy. For English, a range of vocabulary, reading comprehension, and grammar questions (Identify the error in this sentence, if any) seem like they would do the job.

This is off the cuff and sort of flippant, and I'm sure there are deeper problems that you encounter when you try to set up something like that (right?) but I'm wondering what they are.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:58 AM on June 15, 2011


There is a problem. It has nothing to do with what a teacher is "worth" It comes down to what a taxpayer can afford to pay. The problem is that there are no "bad guys" in this. The teachers certainly earn their pay and deserve to be compensated. The taxpayers who have not had raises themselves in years and with 10% unemployment cannot afford to pay even though most would want to pay.

Well, everyone's circumstances are different. In my state, there would be plenty of tax revenue to pay the bills. But it's all been given away in the form of new state-legislatively mandated property and other local tax caps. Schools districts and counties now have less local authority to levy taxes to support the schools--all to save investor owner and commercial property owners a dime.

Not to mention, so that our millionaire governor can establish a new "economic development" agency (one that, incidentally, also "absorbs" several other, once powerful state agencies including what was, many years ago, the Florida Department of Labor, now a largely privatized entity known as the Agency for Workforce Innovation) that gives Scott sole authority to award economic incentives of up to $2 million dollars per award (what's the upper limit? nobody knows, but Scott's been busy redirecting something like $8.5 billion from existing state trust funds into a massive new "economic development" trust fund over which he will have sole authority) to private business interests to promote business development in the state.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:59 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


We don't have enough money to implement Florida's class size amendment or staff our classrooms, but we've got plenty of money to give away at $2 million a pop to random capitalists who want to go into business.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:01 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Also, as a followup, why is it so hard to design a decent standardized test?"

Well, the problem is that if you put together a test that you're then going to base things like teacher compensation, school funding, etc. on then suddenly you have a test that every single teacher is going to have to teach to.

If they screw up and just a few kids flunk it then suddenly a ton of money is going to get yanked and people start getting fired.

The point is, we need well rounded kids. Happy kids. Kids who can think on their feet and are innovative. Our school system doesn't support that and we end up funding (or underfunding) schools just to see whether Johnny knows how to find the topic of a paragraph.
posted by ged at 11:19 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


@Frowner: "Does anyone have good information about how that money per-pupil is spent? And precisely which problems it doesn't solve, ie is it impossible to reduce class-sizes, or impossible to get enough computers or impossible to improve math comprehension, etc etc?"

I'm happy to help, I'm a school board member at a "LUDA" (Large Urban District (Association) -- the name of the group is what they call the districts too around here); what specifically would you like to know? It's easier to break down the entire budget than to math out the per-pupil (which is aggregated across 14,000 students who require varying levels of services, so it's a bit meaningless except as a comparator to other districts, but it doesn't tell you WHY per-pupil spending is higher or lower here or there), but I can do it either way.

Why problems doesn't higher per-pupil spending solve?
*Students who get only 10 meals per week -- federal breakfast and federal lunch, M-F. Nobody feeds them on weekends. We have a number of such students. Snow days are agonizing because we know children go hungry when we can't open schools.
*Ridiculously high student mobility. Our district mobility rate is around 30% (statewide it's around 15%). That means 1/3 of our students move during the school year. They suffer from serious housing instability and all the problems that go with that.
*Lead poisoning. That's a done deal before they get to us and the state quit funding much remediation years ago. We have a very high lead-poisoning rate (I think my county may be the highest in the nation) and it shoots up our "count" of special ed students and behavioral students.
*Early Childhood Education. We're funded K-12. ECE provides clear and significant benefits to our neediest populations and dramatically improves outcomes. Nobody funds it.
*Family situations -- parental drug use, parental abuse, romantic partner abuse. We have kindergarteners who are truant because their parents keep them home to watch even younger children.
*Parents who do not bother to bring their children to school, or do not allow their children to attend. This is a maddeningly intractable problem. I was at registration for one of our high-poverty schools this year and I was honestly shocked by several parents who didn't know what year their child was born and were guessing at the child's age. Seriously. We have lots of awesome and involved parents even in our most impoverished schools, but we also have some real shitty parents who should not be parenting at all.

That's just a few off the top of my head.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:35 AM on June 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


If a teacher knows the subject, cares about her students, and has been teaching for more than five years, we are probably looking at a very good teacher. (The five-year mark? A little arbitrary, but it is the number of years at which half of the teachers have left the profession, and in my opinion is about how long it takes to become a really good teacher.)

Measuring these things (Mr. Wilson cares about his students 70%?) is problematic, though.

However, as pointed out every time this topic comes up on Metafilter and elsewhere, the statistical correlation between poverty and student achievement is easily measurable and incontrovertible. Our unwillingness to tackle this problem as a society in favor of diddling around with "blowing up" underperforming schools, inflating the consequences of standardized testing, raving about the rare "Muncie Miracle" schools...well, this gets old after a while.
posted by kozad at 11:40 AM on June 15, 2011


fimbulvetr: "The fundemental problem with schools is that schools are prisons for kids. The rest of this is just debate on how to incarcarate them."

Then, why did the schools of generations past consistently churn out better scientists and engineers than the ones of today? What are other countries doing better that their students are not graduating illiterate?

It's all fine and good to equate education to incarceration, but what's your alternative?
posted by schmod at 12:34 PM on June 15, 2011


"It's all fine and good to equate education to incarceration, but what's your alternative?"

Some Children Left Behind
posted by Exad at 12:43 PM on June 15, 2011


Schools are not prisons anymore than courtrooms are prisons for people on jury duty, or waiting rooms are prisons for people who need to see a doctor, or day cares are debtors prisons for people not rich enough to be stay-at-home parents. Prisons are prisons. Schools are schools. The school-as-prison metaphor is a metaphor--and not even a particularly evenhanded or original one at that--not a statement of fact.

I originally dropped out of university a single semester short of earning my BA in part because a professor's lecture convinced me college was a kind of prison forced on me by involuntary economic exigencies. He was wrong. College is no more prison-like than any other feature of life in a material world in which economic and material resources are unevenly distributed. It's the economic realities of our world that are the most oppressive features, and flawed as the system may be, public schools can and have IMO long played the deciding historical role in improving the economic realities of the American people. The fact that this is even debatable is mind-blowing to me.

Realizing that the school as prison thing was just a stupid metaphor after a few years in the job market without a college degree, I went back to school. Would I have preferred to spend that last semester starting a multi-million dollar business or learning to race stock cars or something thrilling like that? Sure, but that was never my other option. None of my other actual options were any less prison-like. For a lot of people, this would no doubt also be the case down at the primary school level.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:55 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


what's your alternative?

Well, there are some suggestions in the article I linked to. The hard truth is that we (the parents) imprison children in schools every day so we can go to work and to teach them to obey rules, not because it is the best method of teaching or learning.

What makes you think schools of generations past churned out better scientists?
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:57 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


College is voluntary.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:58 PM on June 15, 2011


The hard truth is that we (the parents) imprison children in schools every day so we can go to work and to teach them to obey rules, not because it is the best method of teaching or learning.

No, the not especially hard, partial truth is that schools do also play an important role in socializing kids and preparing them for life in a society that requires them to frequently get along with others on a non-voluntary basis. Socialization of the kind schools provide is a good thing, while it may be arguable we go overboard on the deference to rules and authority side in contemporary schools, we are meant to be a nation governed by the rule of law so that's arguably good preparation for civic life. With or without the public education system, the mere facts of social existence imprisons us all exactly to the same degree and in the same ways, metaphorically, as schools do. This school = prison metaphor is sophistry meant to appeal to the knee-jerk "freedom loving" impulses of people who have trouble thinking things all the way through, not a serious issue worth real consideration or rebuttal.

College is voluntary.

Not according to the argument my professor made. Which is to say, the truth is all sorts of malleable when you start arbitrarily allowing nonsensical propositions like X is really just Y because they both involve a lack of choice. Lots of realities in life entail a lack of choice. That does not make them validly analogous to prison.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:08 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Socialisation, civic duty, getting along with others on a non-voluntary basis etc. has absolutely nothing to do with school. That is called living life. Civilisations throughout history and even in the world today manage to socialise kids without locking them up in age-segregated rooms every day from age 4 till adulthood.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:13 PM on June 15, 2011


Civilisations throughout history and even in the world today manage to socialise kids without locking them up in age-segregated rooms every day from age 4 till adulthood.

fimbulvetr, if you want to establish that civilization where large-scale schooling does not exist in its modern form, you go do that. But for now we are addressing the issue of how a we can teach literacy, math, history, and civics on a nationwide scale to people of all different social classes.

there are some suggestions in the article I linked to.

The article you linked to just repeated "school is prison" and made an obligatory link to the Sudbury Valley School. Yet in Finland and other wealthy western countries, they seem to stick with some variant of the "prison" schools you deride and by all accounts do a decent job. You might not personally like that, but certain tasks are actually quite difficult and require a large amount of discipline to learn before the activities you might call "constructivist" learning are actually in any way useful to people.
posted by deanc at 1:23 PM on June 15, 2011


has absolutely nothing to do with school. That is called living life.

Yes, I see that's an opinion you hold, and I don't, obviously. We've already both made that plain. So are we down to entrenching ourselves and endlessly restating our points of disagreement as if they were arguments already?

To me, "living life" means fully occupying the social, cultural and historical realities you find yourself in. There are much worse, actually oppressive forms of society than ours with its compulsory public education system. In fact, one of the major reasons our system is compulsory in the first place is that too often people are deprived of the opportunities to pursue a formal education by their own family circumstances--and this feature was historically lauded as one that made our education system freer and more egalitarian than non-compulsory systems. Compulsory universal public education also promotes social mobility, by broadening the diversity of our peer groups.

We'd all be a lot better off if most of us didn't have to get locked up for eight or more hour every day working for other people, but that's our social reality and will be for the foreseeable future whether we all go to school every weekday as children or not, so how is it not a good argument that the compulsory nature of school attendance contributes to healthy socialization? Kids do need to learn to accept the fact that real life necessarily entails giving up some degree of personal autonomy and accepting the necessity of public and legal obligations of various kinds.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:27 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know. My wife and inlaws are all teachers in the Ontario public school system. I'm pretty intimately familiar with the curriculum. I have issue with the system of education, not the education of children. Just watching my own children (who will all go to the local public school), they learn far more through curiosity, asking questions, picking up books, and play then they would in the same amount of time through standardised school system. Is the public school system a practical system? Yeah. The sprogs are kept busy while my wife and I are at work. That is why they go there. Not because it is the best way for them to learn.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:41 PM on June 15, 2011


One point I'd like to make in (maybe?) defense of Klein is that the New York City school system is among the best of the big city school districts.

While there are some hard-core failed ghetto schools, in most of those neighborhoods many kids have outs in the form of charter schools or low-tuition parochial schools. In large swaths of the working-class outer boroughs, the public schools do a fine job for families, often immigrants, who tend to have two married, educated parents who set a strong importance on education. There are many gifted and talented elementary schools (albeit not enough), and there are even a few upper-middle-class/upper-class neighborhoods that have good zoned elementary schools. There is a paucity of honors or zoned middle schools which meet a high standard ... but once you get to high school again you get a very robust system of honors and specialty schools, some of which are legendary. The honors high schools are also a great place where the non-immigrant professionals' kids first start to go to school with the Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrant kids -- an important cross-pollination that people in other parts of the country don't get to experience until they get to college.
posted by MattD at 1:44 PM on June 15, 2011


Just watching my own children (who will all go to the local public school), they learn far more through curiosity, asking questions, picking up books, and play then they would in the same amount of time through standardised school system.

My kids are 15 and 17, and have never been to school. They learned everything that is important to them exactly as you described above. They learned Algebra and Geometry because we forced it on them, but they still got to learn it at their own pace, and not an artificially imposed 8-10 week period at school.
posted by COD at 2:42 PM on June 15, 2011


Portugal is an interesting example of a society where education was deliberately limited (by the dictatorship) for fifty years. The population now struggles against a deep ignorance which seriously affects its economy. The future effects of what's being done in our schools horrify me.
posted by anadem at 3:44 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a teacher myself, albeit in the niche realm of ESL abroad.

That said, I'm generally sympathetic to teachers. The farcical grifter Michelle Rhee basically committed fraud in order to ram through anti-union changes in the DC system, although it was a system that desperately needed to change.

So no, we don't need more standardized testing and we don't need to saddle teachers with bureaucratic demands that they teach to the tests rather than to the students.

But what also really needs to change is the racket that is Ed. school. On any American university campus it's an open secret that a PhD in Ed. is always the easiest one to get. Further, the reason we get a new paradigm shifting edu-babble/pop psychology educational "theory" every year is because the racket demands it. Ed. professors need to keep cooking up bullshit educational theories in order to justify their own existence (not to mention their high salaries and cushy tenure).

I've been teaching in various capacities for over ten years. I still have a lot to learn about being an excellent teacher but at the same time, I can tell the difference between an effective teacher and a bad one. The idea that we should front-load teacher pay doesn't seem awful to me, but it does seem strange that we value experience in our doctors and lawyers and engineers but somehow after five years a teacher ceases to improve in her abilities.

Sorry, that's bullshit. I learn something new about my job every day.
posted by bardic at 8:35 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have little to add to what has already been said critical of the article; it just seems to regurgitate conservative talking points. The use of standardized tests to grade the system and its components seems to be based on Lake Wobegone with a vengeance: make all of our children above average-or else! And teachers are not the problem; that is not to say that they are all perfect, but they did volunteer to take what is increasingly a politicized, thankless, relatively low-paying job with the goal of improving our children. I remember one math teacher I had in high school who was very strict (but fair) when it came to making sure you were keeping up with your homework and if you weren't it would quickly become obvious in class. She motivated me to learn more advanced math than all of my other teachers put together. Obviously for me she was an excellent teacher; but there were other students who chafed under her demands, couldn't stand her, and wanted nothing more than to flunk out of her class. So was she good or bad? Did she deserve a merit raise or not?

And what is this concern with mediocrity? My dictionary lists "ordinary" as a synonym for "mediocre". Isn't it reasonable to expect the majority of students to be ordinary? This hand wringing over the state of public education has been going on at least since I was a student in the 1970s, yet we have managed to survive. It seems to me that other than a brief blip in the 1950's when cold war fears that the commies were outpacing us in numbers of scientists and engineers (Sputnik, anyone?) resulted in gains for education, there has always been a vocal constituency in this country that dislikes/distrusts/wants to abolish public education. They need to be shouted down.

For years I have said there are two educational reforms that would make a huge difference. One; put a phone on each teacher's desk. It is ridiculous that the teachers in every school I attended had to go to the office and wait in line to make routine phone calls. Of course there wouldn't be much privacy most of the day, but it would still be good for teachers. The other reform would be to give each teacher (or perhaps every two or three) a classroom assistant/administrative aide/teachers aide or whatever in the classroom. That way there would be another adult there to help with paperwork (and from what I have seen there is a lot of paperwork in being a teacher) testing, discipline, or just so the teacher can go to the bathroom when they need to (teachers actually have an increased risk of kidney ailments due to holding their urine in for long periods, as do surgeons). We call teachers professionals, these are things other professionals take for granted at their workplace.

I liked this article from The Atlantic better.
posted by TedW at 6:52 AM on June 16, 2011


Then, why did the schools of generations past consistently churn out better scientists and engineers than the ones of today?

I'm not sure this can taken as a given.

In part, we see education as a fig leaf for inequality, so we make sure everyone goes to a building called "school" but we don't really give them the resources. In part, today we're more willing to open the franchise of secondary and tertiary education to people who probably won't be scientists and engineers. In the past, we might have just put those kids to work at 16.

I think the elite and the lucky get a better education than was offered in the past; but we also now make a bigger deal out of giving everyone else a shitty education.
posted by spaltavian at 10:27 PM on June 18, 2011


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