Righting the Wrongs of the Elementary Education System: A Conversation with Education Journalist Natalie Wexler
Author of The Knowledge Gap
Release Date: August 25, 2020
Natalie Wexler is the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System—and How to Fix It (Avery, 2019). She is also the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades (Jossey-Bass, 2017). Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.
The American elementary education system continues to value so-called reading comprehension skills over knowledge, when in fact those skills are largely dependent on knowledge. Low-income students continue to struggle while children of educated parents with higher-income levels acquire more academic knowledge and vocabulary outside school, giving them an additional advantage over their more disadvantaged peers. In the past twenty years, a regime of high-stakes reading and math tests, intended to address educational inequity, has only exacerbated the problem. But there is much that schools can do to provide all students with access to the kind of knowledge that can boost outcomes on tests and in life.
Join us for this special conversation with Natalie Wexler, education expert and author of the recently-released book The Knowledge Gap. We will explore the question of learning equity and ways we can "right the wrongs” that continue to impact equality in learning.
Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.
Natalie Wexler: Comprehension is not just a matter of reading. It is inextricably linked to learning. The more you learn about the world, the better reader you are, the better comprehender you are. Knowledge of the topic doesn't just help you understand what you're reading, it also helps you acquire new information about the topic. The kids who start out with less knowledge of vocabulary are going to be limited to simpler texts, and they are going to be less likely to acquire new information from those texts. And, unless schools step in and start building their knowledge and vocabulary, those kids who start out behind fall farther and farther behind every year.
Narrator: You just heard Natalie Wexler, an education journalist. She is the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System and How to Fix It, and is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here's your host, Pam Austin.
Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning in Dallas, TX.
Today, we are honored to have with us Natalie Wexler, educational journalist and author of The Knowledge Gap, recently released on August 4th in paperback. Welcome, Natalie. Thank you for joining us today. We are so pleased to have you with us.
NW: Well, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
PA: Oh yes. So, you have quite a distinguished career in education. Tell us a bit about yourself. How you got started in education?
NW: Well, education has been an interest of mine, I'd say, for the past 10 years or so. My mother was a teacher. I've been a student. I've always have had some interest in education. I live in Washington, DC and there is a lot of education reform activity here. Almost half the kids are in charter schools. About 10 years ago, I just got very interested. It seemed like an incredibly important issue to me. And, specifically, what has been called the achievement gap, essentially the gap in test scores and other education outcomes between students at the upper and lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.
I had a background in journalism and saw that there was a lot of stuff going on that really wasn't getting covered by the news media. So, I started writing about it, and I also did that because for me writing about something is a way of really figuring it out and learning about it. So, I was sort of killing two birds there and I stumbled across…As I was writing about what was going on locally, but I came to realize, and I think we'll talk about this in a minute, that there was a big issue that that was underlying a lot of the other problems we see in education that wasn't really getting talked about, and that was really more of a national issue. So, I stopped writing about things locally and started writing more on a more national level.
PA: Your new book, The Knowledge Gap, released in paperback on August 4th. Reiterating that. What drew you to writing this book and why is it titled The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System?
NW: Well, so as I said, I was trying to figure out, why is there this gap? And, like many people, I was focusing on high school because that's where everything seemed to fall apart. That's where the test scores were lowest and stubborn and the gap was widest and the kids seem disengaged and everybody for 30 years or more has been asking, "What is the problem with high school?" That was the question I was asking.
Then, somebody, a veteran educator explained to me…I'm not sure I would have figured this out on my own because it just really, in a way it was right in front of me, but I wasn't seeing it. What she explained was the problems that become so apparent, so obvious in high school don't begin in high school. Actually, they have a lot of their roots in elementary school, which I had been told, and it seemed to me that it was the bright spot in education reform. That's where the test scores seem to be improving.
But, I was not the first one to discover this. Other people, I eventually realized, had been concerned about this for a while, but the way we teach elementary school and, specifically the way we teach reading, is really setting kids up for failure later on. I'm specifically talking about the way we approach reading comprehension. We had a lot of problems with the way we teach the other aspect of reading, decoding, and there's been more attention paid to the phonics versus whole language debate, that kind of thing. But the reading comprehension approach, I would say the problems with that are even more widespread and better hidden. The problems really are that it is approached as though reading comprehension was a set of skills or strategy. Comprehension skills and strategies.
There are a whole bunch of them. Finding the main idea, making inferences, comparing and contrasting, etc. The theory is that if kids just practice those skills on books that are basically easy enough for them to read on their own and they just get better and better at, say, finding the main idea, that later on they'll be able to use that skill to build knowledge, acquire knowledge from their own reading. So, they'll be able to find the main idea of maybe a passage on an end-of-the-year reading test or maybe a textbook in high school. Really there's not much attention paid to the content of what kids are reading and not much effort to have them acquire any particular information or knowledge about things like history or geography or science. In fact, especially in the last 20 years, reading and math scores have become so important in a lot of schools and especially schools where test scores are low. There's been a real marginalization of those subjects like social studies and the arts and science because the idea is we've really got to focus on these reading comprehension skills. That's what's being tested.
The thing is, that doesn't match up with what cognitive scientists have discovered about how reading comprehension actually works. What they've discovered is that reading comprehension really is not a skill like riding a bike. You just keep practicing it and you get better at it and you can get on any bike and ride it. You can apply your skill of finding the main idea to any passage.
What is more important than some kind of abstract skill is how much the reader knows about the topic. The more you know about the topic you're reading about, the easier it is for you to do things like find the main idea or just understand it and acquire new knowledge from what you're reading. What that means is that if we want to boost kids' reading comprehension, we should be doing the opposite of what we've been doing. We should be immersing those kids in knowledge of the world, academic knowledge, history, geography, science, etc., from as early as possible. We're not doing that, and that really lies at the root of so many other problems that we see.
PA: All that, just hearing your comments here, Natalie, and the question that really came to mind is: Are we setting kids up for success? Because as you said, comprehension, doesn't just happen. We have to give students something in order to latch on to an understanding and gain that new knowledge, that meaning from texts. You know, there's a large part of the book in regards to building knowledge and how snowballing knowledge contributes to what we call the Matthew effect. Tell us what the Matthew effect is. So, tell us a little bit more about it and its connection to the knowledge gap.
NW: Sure. Yeah, the Matthew effect is a reference to the gospel of St. Matthew and specifically to the line that can be translated as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This has been applied to reading to explain what happens as kids go through school. Basically, the idea is that the kids who start out with more academic knowledge, knowledge of the world, sophisticated vocabulary, they're the rich and they get richer because they are able to, from the beginning, to read more complex texts, and they're also able to acquire more additional knowledge, additional information vocabulary from what they're reading. Because knowledge of the topic doesn't just help you understand what you're reading, it also helps you acquire new information about the topic. Then, they've got even more knowledge and vocabulary, and so they can then read something even more sophisticated and acquire yet more knowledge and vocabulary. It's kind of a virtuous cycle for them.
But the kids who start out with less knowledge in vocabulary, especially in our system, this leveled reading system, which limits kids to books that they can read themselves…The kids who are starting out with less knowledge and vocabulary are going to be limited to simpler texts, and they are going to be less likely to acquire new information from those texts. It's been said, knowledge is like Velcro. It sticks best to other related knowledge. So, they don't have that other half of the Velcro. Unless schools step in and start building their knowledge in vocabulary, those kids who start out behind fall farther and farther behind every year. So, what happens, really, school is supposed to reverse and address the inequities that kids bring with them to school.
But what we've been doing is just making those inequities worse. Those kids are falling farther and farther behind every year they stay in school relative to their more advantaged peers. This narrow curriculum, this focus on reading and math that I mentioned, that continues sometimes, often I would say, in schools where test scores are low through middle school. So, kids can get to high school without ever having had any systematic exposure to history or geography or science or anything but reading and math.
Teachers in high-poverty schools, and this is not just high-poverty schools, but I think that's where you see the problem in its starkest terms. So, teachers have told me they've had kids at all levels of ability, but they have also told me it's not uncommon to get kids arriving at high school and even leaving high school who really don't know some very basic things. Who don't know the difference between a city and a state or a country in a continent. Who can't find the United States on a map of the world or their hometown on a map of the United States, and who really don't have a sense of history, a sense of historical chronology.
Yet, they're expected to read and understand a textbook on world history. It is not that these kids can't learn those things. They're perfectly capable of learning those things. It is just that no one has taught them those things, and it is unrealistic to expect them to learn all of those things in the four years that they're in high school. It can be done, but it's really, really difficult.
PA: Right, exactly. You illustrated so well the value of that academic language. I love your Velcro analogy, by the way.
NW: Well, I can't claim credit for it. I stole it from somebody else, but I'm glad you would like it.
PA: Definitely. In your article featured in The Atlantic, Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong, you mention a little girl who can't read the word Brazil, but she's given a task to answer reading comprehension questions about it. The little girl was drawing clowns on her paper because she couldn't read the direction, which was to draw conclusions. With these types of academic misunderstandings and misconceptions, why is the focus so targeted on reading comprehension rather than basic reading skills?
NW: It's kind of a comical story in a way, but it's really also a heartbreaking story that this was a first-grader. She didn't even know that she had this sheaf of papers face down on her desk that she was supposed to be reading, which was a long article about Brazil. I walked into this classroom and I noticed…I'd been there for 10 minutes…I noticed this little girl was drawing stick figures the whole time I was there. So, after 10 minutes or so I knelt down and said, "What are you drawing? And she said, "Oh, I'm drawing clowns." And I said, "Well, why are you drawing clowns?" And she pointed to this piece of paper that she was drawing on the head, running down the left side of it, a list of reading comprehension skills and strategies, and one of them was draw conclusions. She said, "You see, it says right here, draw clowns." And she pointed to draw conclusions.
There are two different things going on there. One was that she couldn't read these words. But even if she'd been able to read those words, if you've never heard of Brazil and even if you can decode that word, you're not going to be able to draw conclusions about an article, about a place you know nothing about.
I think we have screwed up, as I said, on both aspects of reading. On the decoding side as well as the comprehension side. I think what's going on, on the decoding side is that teachers often feel that they are teaching phonics. They've heard that's a good thing to do and they're covering it. But, and I'm drawing on the work of another education journalist here named Emily Hanford, who has had a series of radio documentaries about how decoding is taught. Often what happens is teachers have not…This is not the fault of individual teachers. Let me be clear. They haven't gotten adequate training in how to teach decoding. They'll mention phonics, but they may be teaching it in an unsystematic manner, sort of as things come up, and that's been shown not to work very well. They also may be encouraging kids to guess at words because that's how they've been trained. But it's much easier to guess at words than to sound them out. And, so, if you give kids that option, they may never learn to sound the words out.
PA: They do go the easier route.
NW: That's right. But what really needs to happen is that while we are teaching kids to sound out words in a systematic, coherent way, we need to be simultaneously building their knowledge of the world through listening, through having them listen to read alouds and discuss the content, not the skills, not let's learn how to make an inference, but what is actually going on in those books.
The reason that's so important is that kids…For two reasons, really. One is kids need to hear written language read aloud because written language is almost always more complex than spoken language. If kids are eventually going to understand written language when they're reading on their own, they need to become familiar with the particular syntax, like maybe the passive voice, the particular vocabulary, the words like although that you don't hear in conversation. That you only hear in written language. The other reason why it's important to be reading aloud to those kids and preferably not just on random topics, but spending a couple of weeks on the same topic to give them a chance to absorb information and vocabulary. The thing to bear in mind is that kids can take in a lot more sophisticated information through listening than through their own reading. That's true on average through middle school.
If they are listening to texts that introduce sophisticated concepts, sophisticated vocabulary, and then discussing them using that vocabulary, that information, that vocabulary gets lodged in their long-term memories. When they go to read about that topic, they will be in a much better position to understand what they're reading because the information will be at least somewhat familiar. So, that's what we really need to do. We need to do both for those things simultaneously, but on different tracks. We can't limit kids to gaining knowledge from what they can decode themselves because that's going to hold them back. That's not the way to build their knowledge.
PA: I've got another question for you, and it's based on building knowledge, of course. Is building knowledge a bigger issue now, especially after students have been outside the classroom for so long due to the COVID pandemic?
NW: Absolutely. We know that the roots of this knowledge gap lie in students' experiences outside school. Basically, kids who have more highly educated parents…It's not really about poverty per se. If your parents are highly educated but don't have a lot of income, you'll probably be OK, but there just aren't that many families like that out there in our society. If you're coming from a highly educated family where you're getting exposed to sophisticated vocabulary and knowledge of the world at home, that puts you ahead. If you're not, you're going to rely on school for that. Of course, with this current situation, kids are home 24/7. So, the kids whose parents have more resources are in a much better position to be…Even if it's not planned or deliberate…They're in a much better position to be acquiring knowledge in vocabulary at home and setting themselves up for success in reading comprehension.
Whereas the other kids, the kids whose parents don't speak English or whatever, they are unfortunately falling farther and farther behind every day. I felt a tremendous sense of urgency about this issue when I was researching and writing the book for the past year. But, in the past few months, my sense of urgency has just skyrocketed because we cannot afford to waste any more time. There are things that schools can do even in a remote learning situation to build kids' knowledge. And what I discovered…I talked to a bunch of parents about their experiences with remote learning, and they told me what's coming home from school is even more sort of watered down and more focused on reading comprehension skills even than what goes on in the classroom. Their kids don't want to do those worksheets.
These are passages on topics they don't know anything about. The questions sometimes are so easy, they're ridiculous, or they don't make sense. Find the main idea of a passage that doesn't have a main idea. What these parents have told me is that they either junked the worksheets or they supplemented the worksheets by nourishing their kids' curiosity, finding things online or books that were about things their kids were interested in and focusing on that content. Schools can do that too. Just get some books together and have teachers record read alouds and ask kids questions about the content rather than the skills. I imagine that will do a lot, especially with younger kids, for their motivation and engagement.
PA: Great. That oral language plays such a key role. That opportunity for engagement and discussion and collaboration. You mentioned in your work that the Common Core State Standards make a bad situation worse. How is that so?
NW: Well, I want to qualify that. I think the Common Core standards have been a double-edged sword. Some good things have resulted from them and some not-so-good things. The basic problem is that if you look at the standards like any ELA, virtually any ELA standards, they look like a list of skills. Students will be able to connect a claim to evidence in the text or whatever, and they don't tell you what text. They don't talk about content at all. However, there's some language in the supplemental materials to the Common Core that says, if you want kids to meet these standards, you have to start building their knowledge early using a content-focused, coherent curriculum. Very few people have read that language in the supplemental materials. What has happened in most places I would say, is a kind of a marriage of the pre-existing comprehension skills-focused approach with other aspects of the Common Core that were more obvious, like the call to have elementary students read more nonfiction.
We've had new skills, like the skill of reading nonfiction or text features. The skill of identifying nonfiction text features. But the comprehension skills-focused approach doesn't work that great when kids were just reading simple fiction, but it worked better there than it will if they're trying to read nonfiction. Why? Because nonfiction, generally speaking, assumes more background knowledge than fiction, especially children's fiction. Just applying these skills, you may know what a glossary is or a table of contents, these text features, but that's not going to help you understand a book about the solar system if you've never heard of it. This has been going on in a lot of classrooms, this skills-focused approach combined with more nonfiction, and that's a big problem. And that's what was going on with this article about Brazil that I saw this first-grader trying to read or not trying to read.
The other side of that, the other edge of that sword, the good part of the Common Core, is that some people did read that language in the supplemental materials about how you need a knowledge building curriculum to meet these standards. And that has led to the development of six or eight elementary literacy curricula that focus on content rather than these largely illusory skills and that do aim to build kids' knowledge about history, geography, science, the arts, etc. So, there's been some bad stuff and some good stuff.
PA: Well, I tell you, your insight into looking beyond the standards themselves, I applaud you for that. Because yes, the appendices are chock full of really, really good solid information. There's a chapter in The Knowledge Gap titled, Unbalanced Literacy. You refer to Lucy Calkins quite often. Why do you think concepts of balanced literacy continue to thrive in the U.S.?
NW: Well, that's a very good question. I should start by saying that the term, balanced literacy is very slippery. It means different things to different people. But basically it came out of what has been known as the reading wars in the '90s. On one side there was whole language, and this was really about phonics, not so much about comprehension. The whole language people, that view was you don't really need to systematically teach phonics, that kids will just pick up decoding ability if you surround them with wonderful children's literature. And then on the other side were the folks who said, no, actually most kids, or at least half the kids are really not going to become good readers unless you teach them systematically how to decode words. Then, balanced literacy was presented as a sort of truce, a compromise, between these two warring camps.
We would combine the best of phonics, some phonics with good children's literature. But the leaders of that balanced literacy movement, and Lucy Calkins was one of them, really came out of the whole language movement. When it came to decoding, certainly, they really did not fully embrace the idea that you need to teach phonics systematically. I think that is really beginning to change. I think there's more pushback now on the decoding side of things. Even Lucy Calkins has to some extent embraced phonics, although there are those, and I'm not an expert on the decoding side, but there are those that say that the way she is presenting phonics is not going to work that well.
On the other side, what happened with balanced literacy was this embrace of comprehension skills and strategies, which the whole language movement had rejected. They did not really believe in that originally, but teachers…What I discovered when I was doing some research, I wanted to figure out well, how did this come about that the successor essentially to whole language came to embrace teaching these reading comprehension skills and strategies that whole language had rejected. It seems to have been that teachers began to feel like, "I don't feel like I'm doing anything. My kids, I'm just letting them loose in a room full of books. Shouldn't I be teaching them something?" They stumbled upon some research really that started in the 1970s on reading comprehension strategies. What do expert readers do? What are they doing when they really want to understand something, and can we teach inexpert readers to do that? That's what they were trying to do.
Eventually, that got merged with the kind of comprehension skills focus that you used to see in the Basal Readers and that the whole language people had rejected. I say that balanced literacy basically is some combination of teaching phonics in a way that doesn't work very well and a big focus on these comprehension skills and strategies and saying it doesn't really matter. We're teaching reading comprehension. We do not really need to build kids' knowledge. We need to focus on getting them to master these skills and strategies.
I think there are a number of reasons for why that's persisted, but one is that in some ways it's easier than building kids' knowledge. You can just teach the same "skills and strategies" year after year. As a teacher, you don't need to have any particular content knowledge. I think that, that's definitely one reason, but of course there's teacher training, there's the materials that teachers are given. They are all oriented in this way. So, even if a teacher wants to do something different, it's kind of hard to do that.
PA: Right. So, you gave us a clear summary of balanced literacy and what it is. A nice history to go along with it. But something we do understand is that it's not tied to the science of reading. How does building knowledge tie to the science of reading?
NW: Well, that's a good question. I first want to unpack that term, the science of reading. What is meant by that is what the National Reading Panel came up with in the year 2000. This blue ribbon panel was really convened to end the so-called reading wars. The focus was mostly on phonics. That was the focus of the reading wars.
So, they looked at a whole bunch of studies, only ones that met their stringent criteria. When it came to phonics, they came down pretty firmly on the side of yep, you need to teach phonics. They identified also though, four other pillars of early literacy. So, a total of five pillars of early literacy. The fifth one was comprehension. They looked at a bunch of studies of reading comprehension strategies that showed if you do a six-week study and you teach kids a particular reading strategy that you can boost their outcomes on a test at the end of six weeks.
Sometimes when people say, the science of reading, they may mean we should teach those reading comprehension strategies, because look at the evidence. The problem with that National Reading Panel report when it comes to comprehension is that they really overlooked a whole body of evidence on the importance of knowledge to comprehension. They didn't mention that at all. Yes, there are these studies. I'm not denying that. But those studies lasted six weeks, and we teach reading comprehension skills and strategies…Including a bunch for which the National Reading Panel found no evidence…We do that, not just for six weeks, we do that month after month, year after year. There is absolutely no evidence to support that.
The phrase that I prefer to use rather than science of reading, because there is that ambiguity and that confusion about comprehension there, I prefer to call it science of learning. That really is comprehension is not just a matter of reading. It is inextricably linked to learning. The more you learn about the world, the better reader you are, the better comprehender you are. So, there is that wider body of evidence, this science of learning, that I think we really need to start looking at.
PA: Yeah. So, it's all about gaining meaning from texts. Of course, in order to gain that meaning going right back to the idea of having that background knowledge to begin with. So, we would advise educators to really focus on building that background for students so that when they encounter texts, we can guide them through how we gain meaning. Interactive or language, discussion, collaboration. Am I getting that right?
NW: Yeah. I do want to emphasize here that it's not that you can never ask a kid a question like what's the main idea or whatever. It's a question of what you put in the foreground. If you put the content in the foreground, that's when kids do start to develop those abilities to make connections and find the main idea and all of those things we do want them to do. That is part of making meaning from text. But if you put those skills and strategies in the foreground as though they can be applied completely independent of knowledge, that's when you run into trouble.
PA: So, we're looking at integration.
NW: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
PA: Integration within. OK. So, is building knowledge the answer then? I have a feeling you're going to tell me, "Yes," Natalie. And, if so, what do we do next to help fix the learning gap? How do we repair it?
NW: The most effective thing to do is to adopt and implement well, a curriculum that focuses on content, and as I mentioned, there are now six or eight such curricula out there. They are organized. They're all different. I mean, they cover different bodies of knowledge in different ways, and there's no one list of things that all kids need to learn. But the important thing about these curricula is that they are organized by topics. They spend at least a couple of weeks on a topic, and they all have teachers reading aloud to all students from the same complex texts that those students…This is especially true in the early years…That those students could not read themselves and leading discussions about the content of those texts that are being read. Now, if you're in a school or in a system that hasn't adopted one of those curricula, there is still quite a bit that individual teachers can do.
If you're using a Basal Reader and the questions are all about skills. You can come up with other questions that focus on the content. If the Basal Reader is pretty thin on content, as most of them are, bring in some additional texts that are related to whatever's in the Basal Reader and supplement it in that way. That's going to be a little bit more difficult, going to put more of a burden on classroom teachers, and they're not going to be able to control what kids learned last year and what they're going to learn next year. That's a problem because building knowledge is a cumulative process that extends over years and across grade levels. But still, that's going to be better than just focusing on the skills and strategies.
PA: We could probably say the idea of the thematic units. They help to build that knowledge as well. As you were describing what teachers can do, what curricula are out there, that term came to mind. Teachers are very, very familiar with the idea of the thematic units.
NW: Right. I would just add one thing. Sometimes a thematic unit…I have seen themes in curricula that are things like childhood around the world or something pretty broad and vague. That may not work very well because the objective is to have something that's defined enough that repeating, not literally, but you're returning to the same concepts, the same vocabulary repeatedly, and that gives kids a chance to absorb that information. So, I would just add that.
PA: Finally, if you could wave a magic wand and change anything in the world of education, what would you change and why?
NW: Well, I wish I did have that magic wand, but I think I would have to say teacher training, teacher education. I think if we could get that more aligned to what scientists have discovered about how people learn, it could make a tremendous difference. As it is right now, for sort of historical reasons, the way schools of education developed along a different path than the rest of academia, there isn't much communication. There hasn't been much communication between say the department of psychology in a university and the school of education, and they're different cultures really. What happens is that in a developmental psychology course at the ed school, students will be learning something very different from what students in the psychology department are learning in the same course. In fact, the students at the ed school may be learning things that actually go against what scientists have found about how kids learn. If we could get that information in the hands of prospective teachers and practicing teachers, eventually, it could make their jobs so much easier and it could make it so much easier for all kids to learn.
PA: Connecting the research to the educators who are educating the educators. That's awesome. I love it. Well, Natalie, thank you for joining us today. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Please share with our listeners how they can learn more about you and how they can follow you on social media. And where can they buy your book, new to paperback?
NW: Well, probably the best place to get more information is my website, nataliewexler.com. I'm on Twitter @natwexler. The book, which has been out for a year but is new in paperback, is available wherever books are sold, I would say. So, the usual suspects.
PA: Thank you, Natalie. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.
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