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Evaluating the Teachers

Unlike New York City teachers, most Americans have no say in how their employers evaluate their job performance. The process, if there is a "process," usually emerges from an obscure H.R. task force that bases its guidelines on whatever trendy corporate gobbledygook some associate vice president read in the latest issue of Human Resources Executive.

Once the process reaches its lofty conclusion, the employee has to live with the consequences. A glowing evaluation may mean a raise and promotion. A scathing report may trigger demotion or even termination. The processes are not necessarily fair. Bosses often use them to justify whatever they wanted to do all along. Good bosses treat their people fairly. Bad bosses exploit their power for petty politics.

There are some remedies. In cases of contractual violation, discrimination, or whistleblower retaliation, employees can sue. Many large companies also have appeals procedures. But in most cases, the whims of the boss and the vagaries of the process determine the employee's fate. That's just the breaks.

But the breaks are not good enough for New York's teachers union. It has spurned a deal that would bring $450 million dollars of state and federal funding to the system because it rejects the city's proposed evaluation process. The union insists on more extensive appeals procedures and a sunset clause that would end the system in 2015. If a deal is not reached by midnight tonight, the city will lose the funding.

Like other cities, New York's teachers have long enjoyed greater protection from their employers' processes and their bosses' whims than most American workers. The arguments for extra protection for teachers fall into two categories: appeals to academic freedom and criticism of the evaluation processes.

Academic freedom has a terrific ring to it, but it has little to do with today's teachers. The concept goes back to the mid-twentieth century when university professors often faced retaliation for their academic ideas. To a lesser extent, primary and secondary schoolteachers also faced discrimination for their political orientation during the Red Scare, as did many Americans. But in 21st century New York, the rationale is preposterous. New York teachers do not risk dismissal because of their political views any more than the rest of us. Academic freedom is irrelevant.

As for the evaluation process, the bugaboo is the Terrible Standardized Test. Test-driven evaluation has inherent flaws that I will not defend. But in the proposed process, test scores account for only twenty percent of a teacher's score. Classroom evaluations account for sixty percent; local considerations account for the last twenty. This process is almost certainly imperfect, but it seems at least reasonable. More importantly, it seems much less arbitrary than the average evaluation process that most American workers have to live with.

But why should New York's teachers suffer just because most workers lack the same level of protection that they have historically enjoyed? If there were no disadvantage to such protections, than this would be a fair argument. But there are two very big disadvantages:

  1. Underperforming New York teachers are very difficult to fire. That means that bad teachers are permitted to continue teaching New York's children.
  2. New York's teachers lack incentive to improve their teaching. Yes, I'm sure that there many self-motivated teachers who need no other incentive than love for their students, but I'm equally sure that there are many teachers who would work harder with the same economic incentives that other workers have.

Imagine for a moment that you are the owner of a company. To succeed, the company has to reward good performance and penalize poor performance. You work hard to put together a coherent evaluation process that spares your employees from some of the whims of your midlevel managers. But the employees reject the process, jeopardizing the entire company, which to be honest, is not exactly the brightest star in the industry.

Now stop imagining. If you pay New York taxes, then you are an owner. These people work for you. They are asking for protection that you yourself do not have--protection from being fired except under egregious circumstances after extensive appeals procedures. Not only is such rigorous protection bad for students in itself; the union's demands also threaten to take $450 million from your school system. If you care about your schools, you should be angry.

If you are a New York teacher, hear me. I know that it's not an easy job and that you're working hard. I applaud your efforts. I support your demands for higher pay, better training, more supplies, and anything that makes it easier for you to do your job. If you're burdened by a bad principal, I encourage the city to replace him or her. But I cannot protect you from being rewarded or punished based on your performance, even if the evaluations are often unfair. The teacher's union serves many worthy purposes. Shielding teachers from evaluation is not one of them, not by a long shot.

Michael Wolraich is the author of Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual

I just got here.

We must reward the good and punish the bad.

And there are limits that government (County, State & Feds) can reach contributing to pensions.

Ten percent one way or the other depletes government coffers.

I am a union adherent but there are limits.

My son asked me:

Was I really a bad child?

No, I said.

We sat down at the dinner table and you did not throw food and you were not belligerent and when I dictated that you would go over there and your sister would go over here; I mean I had not problems.

I recall sitting in a class in college for chrissakes and the students at this university were throwing things and completely ignoring the professor and he had no goddamn control over that class.

I recall on several occasions visiting my children's schools and giving lectures and one particular class I had to somehow continue whilst some idiot kept attacking me. I managed to calm the situation but this fine teacher obviously had lost control of his class a long time before I ever appeared there.

And there are thousands of different perspectives on this mess.

I used to be in love with 'tenure' but I lost that love a long time ago.

The problem has to do with the issue of examining 'results'.

It is funny but I just spent four hours reviewing one of the best films I have ever viewed; which means nobody bothered to see it.


I am a member of netflix.

Adrien Brody is exceptional in his characterization of a substitute teacher.

I was going to do a blog on this; sometime?

Teaching involves protocols directed by the government; it involves talent that cannot be taught; it involves strict exercise from the teacher...

This is so damn complicated.

Do parents show up at PTA meetings?

I think I was terrible with regard to this imperative for parents; but I recall giving more than a few days of my time to lecturing.

If you can, catch Detachment and remember that these people we hire to work at close to minimum wages in some parts have to assimilate the local cultures and local rules and local laws and local texts and local regs that make no sense.

Oh my kid got an 'f' in science in the sixth grade so it must be the teacher's fault?

Well how much time did you take the time to help your own kid with his homework?

Oh my kid hit another kid with a rock in Kindergarten so it must be the teacher's fault?

Well how much time have you spent with your kid regarding the story of Cain?

(And I am no fan of the Bible!)

W Bush presented this 'no child left behind' which only greased the hands of charlatans with big bucks who Xeroxed meaningless (at least in some cases) tests.

I am ranting and raving again.

This problem is so complex.

And I am happy to have our leader bring it to the fore.

Let us discuss this!


This part of your rant struck me with related personal memories:

I recall sitting in a class in college for chrissakes and the students at this university were throwing things and completely ignoring the professor and he had no goddamn control over that class.

That was similar to my geometry class in high school .The teacher was a really sweet lady, really she was, but had no control . This was a vanilla middle class high school with none of the greaser hoods enrolled in Geometry class. These were all just nice middle class white kids acting up because the teacher had no control.

I got the school award at graduation from middle school for Algebra, so  it's not like I had no ability in math That alegebra teacher was a tough old broad that everyone thought was a pill, including me, looked and acted like a warden in one of those B movies about women's prisons, but I still loved Algebra

Then I got to high school and I spent Geometry class cracking jokes and laughing, sometimes hysterically, with the guy across from me, from day two maybe, while others did the same or worse.. I managed a B or something like that but that's because she graded leniently to cover up how everyone in her class was not really learning geometry. That teacher was a nice lady but she was not a good teacher.

When I got to Trig the next year I could make neither heads nor tails of it because I didn't understand geometry. I didn't need a decent grade, though, or to sit down and learn it and get remedial help because I had piled up credits going to summer school to get the hell out of high school early and left before Trig's second semester for college. The colleges weren't even going to see the Trig grades so I just ignored the class, maybe got a C- or D.. So I really don't have much math capability beyond algebra and am handicapped that way.

Now I believe/know that there is big difference in the kind of thinking needed for alegebra and the kind needed for geometry, and I probably wasn't predisposed to the kind of thinking for geometry, and was highly predisposed to talent in algebra, but still if I had had a better geometry teacher I would have a lot more math knowledge.

The moral of the story: my geometry teacher was a really nice lady but a really lousy teacher. I believe only a couple of kids in her class learned geometry that year, only the ones that really really wanted to learn it despite the teacher's incompetence, and did so from their textbooks at home. I think standardized testing would have caught her and gotten rid of her or gotten her the help she clearly needed learning how to control a class.

Another moral: as Forrest said, life is like a box of chocolates. I have very  fond memories of making jokes and laughing hysterically  in Geometry class. I went into work unrelated to geometry, and when I have to struggle with  related things like, home repair contractors, there are other ways to do this now with the internet.wink


Yeah, you get it! But how are we supposed to legislate 'it'?

I do not know.

As an aside, I am just astounded at what computers do today. Triangulation is such an art. How far away is that star anyway?

How might we instill in an eighth grade student the importance of triangulation?

I get so damn mad at these creationists who claim to be...what? 

But all we have to do is get these students to be in awe of distances and architecture and

chemistry and physics and the ultimate?

Maybe in Cheyenne things are different than in NYC.

Maybe in Minneapolis things are different in Houston.

Culture has a habit of overcoming reality.

Whatever reality is.

But damn, when we deny Newton, what is left?

This is just a wonderful comment on your part.

I hereby render unto AA the Dayly Comment of the Day Award for this here Dagblog Site; rendered upon all of you from all of me.

No kidding.

From all of me! 

Mr. Day: My mother thanks you. My father thanks you.  My sister brothers thank you. And I thank you!

Oh my kid got an 'f' in science in the sixth grade so it must be the teacher's fault?

I was thinking about an analogy but couldn't fit it into my piece. Suppose kids had the right to appeal their grades? Those grades can make a big differences in their lives after all--what with college admissions being what they are. A friend of mine in high school who thought that our English teacher did not like him once submitted the exact same paper that his sister had submitted two years earlier as a test. He got a B. She got an A. In the comments, where the teacher criticized his writing, she praised his sisters' writing. I doubt that this example is an isolated act of bias. Anyone who has taught knows that grading can be incredibly arbitrary even by the best teachers. 

But despite the flaws inherent in student evaluations, you cannot restrict teachers' authority to evaluate them. You cannot have students appealing to a board and initiating a two-year review process when they flunk. Teacher know this, they know that someone has to have the authority to reward and penalize student performance however arbitrary. But when it comes to their own performance, their union representatives take a different attitude.

I hesitated to write this piece. I feel uncomfortable criticizing unions, especially the teacher's unions that get so much abuse these days. But what the hell are they thinking? It's precisely because of stunts like that this that they get so much abuse. I think that the New York union and teachers' unions in general need to seriously rethink their missions. I don't blame them for the failings of the New York school system, but with this kind of attitude, they sure as hell aren't helping.

You cannot completely keep our faith in Equal Protection safe...

I wrote a while ago about a tenth grade teacher of mine.

I read a book on Atomic Bombs. Most probably Fail-Safe

And the teacher approached me out of the blue and accused me of having some one else write the simple essay.

I was lost?

I had no idea how to respond to this slander.

You can have a b- or an f

Those were my choices.

Of course, as an attorney I would have appealed! ha

I am not in favor of failure.

But what the hell does that mean anyway?

But like those children mowed down in Ct, we need to really think about this.

Now Minnesota students are not in the same tribe as Nevada students.

This is so goddamnable complicated.

And there was a beauty and a wonder in the old suburban racist model.

We had the cleanest school rooms and the most advanced (1950's advanced) education available at the time.

But we had no diversity and we were confronted with propaganda that was immense to say the least; and which I only discovered once I entered the University which right wing pricks like Santorum would lavel as communistic?

Every teacher knows this?


Every teacher does not know nothing. But a majority of teachers do know many things.

What the hell was the question?


By the way, I must underline why I like this blog site. You are a good man Michael.

Like other cities, New York's teachers have long enjoyed greater protection from their employers' processes and their bosses' whims than most American workers. The arguments for extra protection for teachers fall into two categories: appeals to academic freedom and criticism of the evaluation processes.

I would expand the foregoing to more accurately state: "Unlike most American workers who are not protected by a union, teachers in New York and in a dwindling number of American cities enjoy the protection of a labor union, and as such are entitled to due process and are shielded to a greater extent from arbitrary employer action that is more likely in public education where employers lack a profit motive, are often staffed pursuant to principles of nepotism and political or other strains of favoritism (and not by merit), and thus are far more prone to arbitrary conduct."

I don't represent teachers Michael, and I really don't want to be in a position of defending every decision UFT or NYSUT makes, but somehow I keep returning to the question I posed in a similar thread a few months ago, which is whether you have any evidence that non-union teachers in America's public schools have a better track record than their unionized brothers and sisters.

Cheers buddy.

And, respectfully, and really so, the more I think about what has happened here, the more it just feels so familiar.  Once again, a union is being blamed for the misfortune of the greater populace.  All I can say is (and you know where I am coming from), there has to be a lot more to this story than the union's disregard of all that money for the sake of its selfish, petty demands.  What happened between the city and the union?  Who said what, promised what, etc.?   What about trust in pressure negotiations?  Was there any?  It just seems too perfect to attack the union; I just can't based on experience accept this black and white version of the events leading to this.


P.S. Then again, I think you chose a really good article to link to.  ABC did a nice neutral job.

Bruce, I don't go around blaming the unions for America's problems. I don't go around blaming the teacher's unions for the schools' problems. But I blame the teachers' unions for this problem. The New York union has been fighting tooth-and-nail against weakening the tenure system all along. I don't particularly care how undiplomatic or inflexible the city was in its negotiations. The union may care about that, but I do not find it important. What I care about is that the union is on the wrong side of this issue.

Just saw this.  Never meant to suggest that you were a serial union basher; I was speaking societally fwiw.  Ciao.


I do not. Even if I had evidence that one group were better, I don't know what it would mean because correlation does not entail causation. But there is ample evidence that incentives and disincentives tend to improve performance, which is common sense, no? Isn't that why we get so incensed when executive boards reward underperforming CEOs?

Speaking of evidence, do you have evidence have that school principals are more likely to engage in nepotism than other managers? That teachers suffer disproportionately from arbitrary management decisions? 

No evidence on this side of the tracks either dude.  I guess I would think that private sector folks would be better off with a union too. wink

But I do totally understand the historical bases for organizing in the public sector and favoritism of the sort I describe above was a special motivating factor.



I agree that there is some historical foundation, as I hope I made clear in the piece. But that doesn't mean we have to indefinitely maintain these protections, which are now doing more harm than good.

And I do believe in incentives and disincentives and I don't think that believing as such is incompatible with also believing in robust and healthy labor management relations and collective bargaining.


I'm far away from this issue, no good knowledge or strong feelings, but a couple links look like some different light -

different take on events Bloomberg points at, and who blew up negotiations

- the issue of "high-stakes testing" to satisfy state requirements vs. testing geared to student development and somehow measuring teachers based on progress and where the kids actually started and what teachers are asked to do

Who "blew up" negotiations isn't particularly important to me. The point is that the teacher's union continues to resist performance evaluation and any weakening of the tenure system.


UFT representatives have participated actively in designing the statewide guidelines, which call for a formula that evaluates teachers based 20 percent on students’ annual growth on state tests when available, 20 percent on other locally selected measures of student achievement and 60 percent on classroom-based observations of teacher practice.

At stake is a 4 percent increase, or $250 million, in state funding for New York City schools. In his State of the State address on Jan. 9, Gov. Andrew Cuomo repeated that there would be no extensions on his Jan. 17 deadline, and that without an evaluation plan in place, agreed to by the union and the school district and approved by the state, districts would lose the increase.

End runs and stalls

In the fall, the DOE attempted to implement evaluations in some schools without an agreement, using untrained evaluators. Mulgrew sent a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott on Dec. 19 saying the UFT would meet only to discuss a planning and rollout process for an evaluation system — if one is successfully bargained — but would not continue to bargain the content of the evaluations.

[Bloomberg seems more focused on closing schools. The union supports Cuomo more ]

Nearly half of New York City teachers reaching the end of their probations were denied tenure this year, the Education Department said on Friday, marking the culmination of years of efforts toward Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s goal to end “tenure as we know it.”

In New York City and many other districts, tenure decisions are increasingly based on how the teachers’ students score on standardized tests, as well as mandatory classroom observations by principals or other administrators.

Tenure does not afford any advantages in pay or job assignments, or guarantee permanent employment. Its most important benefit is to grant teachers certain protections against dismissal without justification, including the right to a hearing before an arbitrator. Teachers and their unions embrace tenure as an important defense against indiscriminate or politically tinged hiring and firing.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city teacher’s union, said that he had always supported a “rigorous but fair” process of granting tenure. But, he said, large numbers of teachers were quitting the profession early in their careers, a sign that the city had not yet figured out how to help them succeed.

According to the union, of the 5,231 teachers hired in the 2008-9 school year, nearly 30 percent had quit by the end of their third years. There are roughly 75,000 teachers in New York City schools, the nation’s largest public school system.

“If New York City hopes to have a great school system, it will need to come up with better methods of helping teachers develop, not only at the beginning but throughout their careers,” Mr. Mulgrew said.
The new system began to take full effect last year, when only 58 percent of teachers gained tenure after three years, and an additional 39 percent had their probations extended [that's 97% - PP]. There is no limit to the number of years the city can extend a teacher’s probation, though officials of the Education Department and the union said they had not heard of any teacher receiving more than three extensions.

The problem is not that teachers aren't properly evaluated and motivated.  The problem is that public school teachers are underpaid and under appreciated.

For example, look at this discussion -- the unionized teachers should not be fighting work conditions that they don't want because, if they do, their schools will lose promised federal money.  Well, if that money is going to higher teacher salaries (or better working conditions for teachers), then the union is working against its own interest.  I'm guessing that the money isn't going to the teachers and if it isn't, the union shouldn't be overly concerned about it.

I think the teachers are right to resist anything that they feel diminishes their working conditions until they're paid at a level that matches the supposed importance of their jobs.

The problem is not that teachers aren't properly evaluated and motivated.  The problem is that public school teachers are underpaid and under appreciated.

Why can't these both be problems?

PS Teachers in general are underpaid, but for the record, public school teachers generally earn more than private school teachers. As for appreciation, the only careers I can think of that receive more outspoken appreciation on a regular basis are soldiers, cops, and firefighters.

…and professional athletes, pop stars, and doctors.

Yes, there's lip service given to appreciation of teachers, but having been in the trenches myself, when you're there you recognize that appreciation as the lip service it is. That most likely also applies to soldiers, cops, and firefighters. If society truly appreciated teachers more, they would pay them more.

That said, I agree with your premise that it is too difficult to get rid of underperforming teachers, and I am unaware of any state that doesn't have a teacher's union. I worked in Georgia, a right-to-work state, and we had a teacher's union that I'm pretty sure everyone joined. It's the only union I ever belonged to. I've got nothing against unions, but in the jobs I've had since, there hasn't been any need for a union. Our teacher's union seemed to be far more concerned with making it hard to fire teachers then the things I cared about — better pay (and hence better teachers) and smaller classroom sizes.

Hey VA, I sent you an email...unrelated...but I don't think you check that account often.

I finally have a moment to reply to comments. If you reduce "appreciation" to salary, then what's the point of even mentioning appreciation. You could just say that they're underpaid, which I've acknowledged. But the unfortunate truth is that appreciation does not equal salary in a market economy.

Not even sure if that's "unfortunate". A lot of motivation theory is figuring out what cranks people's tractors. People work for non-profits at ridiculously low rates because they like the feeling of doing good. Oddly enough, if they were paid more, it might feel like a for-profit activity and they might not feel as good. As Gaultier notes, the price is part of the fashion. What's sad is for teachers to work at lower pay and still feel underappreciated. Few went into that profession expecting to be rich.

Again, I'm having trouble with the word "appreciation." I think that teachers are very much appreciated. I just think that their jobs are much crappier than they should be (of which salary is only one part). But having a crappy job is not the same as being unappreciated.

I've seen people live in desperate poverty, but sheets were all brilliant white, even without a washing machine. An appreciative environment doesn't have to be glitzy, highly-paid - it has to have a feeling of community, of not being under attack all the time. Having done some home schooling and not being that good at it, I appreciate the combination of entertainment, motivation, instruction, insight tutor, disciplinarian, friend and other features that go into the job, along with managing a chaotic group. But there are a lot of backseat teachers out there, people who are assured it's all trivially easy, that the ones in the classroom are just dumb and greedy, and that it can all be run like the bean counting department in the insurance company. (ok, I'm not sure the bean counting dept can be run that easily either). In the 1950's teaching was still a well-respected, professional position. Since then we've just shit on it decade after decade, and it's amazing that teachers persist.

If I were in charge of deciding where to throw more money, but a limited amount, I would spend it to hire more teachers to teach in smaller classes before I would give teachers higher salaries. That would make teaching both more possible and more rewarding. My opinion comes from being married, at one time, to a women when she went from college to the classroom as an idealistic, hard working teacher. She would have been much happier with a more manageable class size. That said, she resented that my union job paid more money than did hers on a yearly basis. She was educated, after all, with a college degree. I pointed out that I had supported her by working nights and a lot of overtime in a dangerous outside job for fifty weeks a year to make a couple thousand more than she made, starting out, working 180 days a year in the classroom.


I couldn't agree with you more. I left teaching not because I wasn't being paid enough but because I wasn't able to take working with 30+ high-school students at a time. It was extremely demoralizing as well as very stressful. I could barely handle this with the advanced classes. For general and remedial, I didn't stand a chance of retaining my sanity — in case you were wondering what happened to it.

It could be both.  But it seems there's more of a rush to solve the evaluation issue than the pay issue, which is curious.  If I'm in the teacher's union I might say, in the face of this, "you go first."  Solve the pay problem, then we'll discuss evaluations.  What the NYC teachers are getting is, "Let's go evaluations and not even talk about the other issue."

As for comparisons between private and public school teacher salaries, you're right.  But the conclusion to draw is not that unionized public school teachers are being paid above market.  Many teachers in private schools are paid less because they lack the certifications and qualifications to jump ship to public schools. They are, technically less qualified.  This should come as no surprise, though.  Part of the argument for private schooling is that all of these public certifications are bunk that don't make teachers better.  An extreme example of that is home schooling, where the parent outright believes that neither public or private schools are adequate for their children.  My parents taught in public schools.  They could rise a pay grade by obtaining a masters in education.  They sent me to a private school or middle and high school.  There, the teachers could earn more pay by getting a masters in the field they taught.  Totally different philosophies of education.  My teachers were not, by in large, certified to move into the public school system.  Who is more qualified? It depends on what you want.  They are actually in distinct but separate markets.

The evaluation issue is relatively new. Pay concerns have been around for a long time, and NYC has periodically addressed them. Not sufficiently of course, as you can imagine, but they have not been ignored.

But this is neither here nor there. Higher pay and more evaluation are not mutually exclusive, and I'm all for higher salaries for teachers, as I've said. If the unions pushed this hard for more money, they would have my enthusiastic support. But instead of drawing the line on pay, they have drawn it on evaluation. Screw that.

My brother-in-law is a teacher in New Jersey.  He teaches Art to middle school students.  The problem with evaluating teachers like my brother-in-law, besides the subjective nature of Art, is how do you judge someone that sees every kid for only an hour or two, once or twice a week?  He travels to multiple schools every week, since nowadays subjects like Art (and Music) are not considered essential subjects (grrr).  

That said, I agree that the NYC teachers and their union need to be more flexible on this evaluation issue.  You can't win when you're negotiating against common sense.


Teachers are not the only people who are difficult to evaluate. How do you evaluate a middle manager? An insurance claims processor? The difference is that teachers' unions argue that because of the difficulty of evaluation, teachers shouldn't suffer for poor evaluations instead of acknowledging like the rest of us that some managers suck, and evaluations aren't always fair, but that's life.

But education is a political football, and while most of us don't work for unions, half of the interest in education is to kill the union, and the other half is to show how much schools suck even with test scores going up. (Bob Somerby does a pretty good if repetitive job on this, noting that even with the challenges of US demographics and immigration the public schools usually score pretty well, but newspapers et al have to paint it black every time, aggregating results rather than showing gains of sub-groups, or comparing it all to Finland.

Meanwhile, someone like Michelle Rhee can show no progress but they make her a hero. Privatization, vouchers, lower pay, more teachers hours. Race To The Top, just another top-down test-'em-more-and-they'll-soar philosophy.)

If you've got kids ranging from bright to semi-retarded in a zoo-like inner city environment, do you want 60-80% of your evaluation coming from how kids do on standardized tests? Do the people doing auto-scoring understand progress rather than an unrealistic desire to see all children above average like in Lake Wobegon? With all the Math-Science-English focus on these tests, is there even any room for a teacher to try to insert fun, beauty, reflection, inspiration. teamwork, organization...? Facebook is built more on understanding Beavis-and-Butthead behavior than math algorithms and science. Health care is more than actuarial science when care-giving is included.

Diane Ravitch on it yesterday, she basically sez it's all Obama/Duncan's fault:

I must admit I am not surprised that this is her opinion, and after that, I feel this:.indecision

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