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Posted at 10:33 PM ET, 09/15/2010

Is that so, Chancellor Rhee?

By Valerie Strauss

So, it turns out, the problem with school reforms in Washington D.C. -- which contributed to the defeat of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary -- wasn’t that some of them were punitive and nonsensical. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said in an interview today that the people just didn’t get it.

It’s the people’s fault, actually.

In an interview that Rhee did today with Nora O’Donnell, a reporter for MSNBC and a conspicuous fan of Rhee’s, the chancellor concedes that “we didn’t do as good a job as I think we could have in communicating why we were making the decisions that we did that sort of led people to be suspicious.”

It’s a communications failure, as it were.

She further suggests that people didn’t like the reforms -- which include linking teacher pay to student standardized test scores (a terrible idea) and increasing the number of standardized tests kids must take (another rotten idea) -- because they were hard.

The people just don’t want “hard” reform.

“Reformers across the country knew when the mayor and I took these aggressive reforms on that it was going to be tremendously difficult... People need to see how hard the work is.”

To the extent that Fenty’s fate was tied to Rhee’s performance, it would be wise to remember that communications lapses were the least of her problems. Failing to tell the truth on a number of occasions about major efforts is more to the point, as is pushing forward some reforms that make no sense, the biggest one her IMPACT teacher evaluation system. Overstating success was another issue, as my colleague Bill Turque (who has given us fair and really smart coverage of Rhee's tenure) wrote in this story.

Of course Rhee made some tough decisions that had to be made, including starting the process of fixing special education, helping to get textbooks and other resources into classrooms on time (though the problem is not completely fixed) and pushing ahead to identify bad teachers (though her method was lousy). She concluded a historic labor pact with the dysfunctional Washington Teachers Union that gave some D.C. teachers the highest pay in the nation, a recognition by Rhee that teachers deserve to make more money than they do. Test scores are up over the course of her tenure (though the achievement gap remains very large and test scores shouldn't be considered a measure of much of anything).

In this interview, Rhee also said that she feels “somewhat bad and guilty” that Fenty lost in part because of her reforms. She shouldn’t. Fenty knew, or should have known, what he was getting into when he selected her.

What she might feel somewhat bad about is still refusing to understand that a lot of people rejected her reforms not because they didn’t understand them, but because they didn’t like them and in some cases thought they were harmful.

If Rhee does reach some agreement with Vincent Gray -- the man who defeated Fenty and is all but certain to be elected mayor in November -- which results in Rhee’s continuation as chancellor, it will almost certainly require that she acknowledge what really happened.

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 15, 2010; 10:33 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  adrian fenty, d.c. schools, gray and fenty, is reform dead?, michelle rhee, msnbc, rhee, rhee and blame, rhee interview, school reform, vincent gray, will rhee stay  
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I get this. Thank you for articulating what a lot of us having been feeling but just couldn't pin down.
I get it!

Posted by: Peppered | September 15, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

The real losers after yesterday's election weren't Fenty, Rhee or anyone else that has been working on making the schools in DC better - instead, it is every resident of Washington DC that is outside the tree-lined enclaves of upper Northwest. For the most elite of Washington's residents, the sad state of DC's school system doesn't mean a great deal; after all, St. Alban's and Georgetown Prep still have multimillion dollar endowments and offer a superb education at a hefty price.

The real losers last night will be every resident of Washington, DC that sends their children to public schools. This was an election about tough choices - getting behind a teacher's union whose only intention was to preserve their own jobs and pensions - or instead to move forward in making the tough choices needed to really improve the school system. DC residents unfortunately chose the path of least resistance, and in doing so have secured their role as chosen the path of least resistance - and turned back on needed reforms that were slowly but surely digging DC out of dark abyss that is the school system.

So did Michele Rhee's reforms play a significant part in Fenty's defeat yesterday? Absolutely. But clearly the status quo wasn't working, and in order to make changes you sometimes have to upset the status quo - and the people who are fighting to keep it that way.

Posted by: lkw15 | September 15, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Rhee should quit and take her talent somewhere else. DC simply does not deserve her. The author does not understand the meaning of a "small success" in the place like DC. Rhee's efforts will not be abandoned either. Enough people has tasted the fruit of success and they will fight for what Rhee has done. Majority of the parents with kids in school like her reform. What more need to be said?

Posted by: indi2 | September 15, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss,

What do you know about effective teaching and reform? What experience do you have in the classroom or with moving student achievement. Test performance is an effective measure when it is based on value added growth as comparing one student to another. If you examine the IMPACT system you will find that teacher evaluations are not based on student scores on standardized tests--in fact, they are based on how much students have grown since their last assessment. Are you asserting that it is "a terrible idea" to assess teacher effectiveness based on if their students are growing from one year to the this a joke?? Where do you send your students to school?

Posted by: teacher6402 | September 15, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

The more Rhee talks, the more we realize that she can't even speak standard and professional English.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 15, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

"The real losers last night will be every resident of Washington, DC that sends their children to public schools."

Well, sadly, they were already losing WITH Rhee. She was selling them the promise of reform, while the policies she was Rhee-ming educators with will never result in significant or permanent advances in educating the District's children.

There are a lot of educators who already "lost" because of the needlessly punitive (and possibly illegal) tactics she used to fire district employees to make herself look effective.

I remember seeing Rhee interviewed by the Newshour a couple of years ago and thinking that she as one big-talking, smooth-talking snakeoil salesman, but a neophyte as a manager.

If she had any integrity at all, she would work through the transition period without compensation. She has already ripped of the District and wrough havoc in the lives of so many people with her fake 'reforms', wihtout any REAL results to show for it.

Posted by: VirileneManly | September 15, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Linda, what is your point? Are you playing race card? BTW, the teacher union is mainly responsible for the lousy school system in DC for years. The less they talk, the better. I am glad you are retired.

Posted by: indi2 | September 15, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Completely out of character, Linda sounds racist from her comment above.

Valerie on the other hand, well Valerie simply sounds jealous of Michelle Rhee with all the attention she has garnered over the last three years.

You forget Val, IMPACT was brokered through collective bargaining. Both sides, administration and teachers, had to agree on what was negotiated. In most collective bargaining there is give and take; you concede on some issues and get what you want on others.

And as someone above queried, what qualifies Valerie to be the expert as to what is or is not effective in education?

Posted by: phoss1 | September 15, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

IMPACT was most certainly not brokered through collective bargining. DCPS teachers have no say in how we are evaluated. The first that most teachers heard about IMPACT was our first day of school, when we were given books about how we were being evaluated using this rubric. Our administrators couldn't answer questions about it because they had only seen it for the first time the previous week, and parts of the rubric were changed in April of this year (after the teachers involved should have been evaluated on that part of it).

I actually like IMPACT as part of an evaluation process, but to call it a collectively bargined process is just plain wrong.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | September 15, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse


You need to express your concerns to George Parker, et al and the minions that represent the DC teachers. You, as a teacher, are paying their salaries.

It's good to hear you like IMPACT. That means you're probably doing a commendable job and have nothing to hide. Keep up the good work. You also stand a chance to benefit from it financially.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 15, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I was referring to Rhee's use of the word "hard" when she meant "difficult." The word was emphasized by Strauss so I understood that she noticed it too. I know this is nitpicking but Rhee never seemed to speak in a professional manner. Yes, that bothered me.

I don't know what people mean by accusing me of playing the race card. In what way?

All (yes, all) countries that have excellent educational systems have citizens who value it. All American communities that place a high value on education also have excellent schools. This is a matter of record, and not just opinion. Therefore, I think it's safe to conclude that people who don't value and respect teachers and schools are the cause of our less-than-stellar educational system. And BTW, these individuals almost always have children who are underachieving. Do you want your child to do well this year? Say positive things about his school and his teacher. If you feel you can't support his school, search for an alternative because bashing schools and teachers is very detrimental to your child's education.

I'm glad I'm retired too. Really glad.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 15, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I hate to break it to you, Linda, but hard = difficult. Look it up in the dictionary. Just because you think "difficult" sounds better in this case, doesn't make the use of "hard" incorrect.

Posted by: iciw | September 15, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse


Furthermore, comparative words, such as "less," are not usually hyphenated in compound adjectives. I see that you have done so. Not very professional.

Posted by: iciw | September 15, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

Thank you. This is fabulous.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 15, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Hey Linda,
I think some people are just having a bad day. Good job

Posted by: mamoore1 | September 15, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Hip hip hooray! Thank god she's a goner. Fenty gave himself his own guilty verdict when he patted himself on the back for being of the "new breed" who runs govt like "private enterprise" on Morning Joe yesterday, and Rhee is part of that unfortunate Wall Street model, when it comes to education.

There is one problem for us anti ed deformers, in having her tenure cut short: that is, it will leave an "if only" dangling out there... "If only she had had the time to work her reform magic! Now the public will never get to see the pot of gold at the end of the Rhee rainbow.

That "if only" will allow her witless, adoring fans to keep believing she was the superwoman everyone was waiting for, to borrow from that profoundly silly but harmful documentary about to debut with its fresh new round of teacher hating, union bashing and public school dismantling... coming to a theater near you! May it tank like Fenty. And Rhee.

My "if only" is quite different from that of the Rhee fans. Mine is... If only Michelle Rhee had been able to stay a few more years, then we would have had the hard, cold proof that her reforms were bogus, the results a big pile of fail.

I have one beef with Valerie's paragraph where she expresses some Rhee positives. Her upping of teacher's salaries wasnt worth the pain it caused... as those teachers who voted for that contract should realize. The money isnt worth the pain, teachers.

Please tell that to Randi Weingarten next time she blows in to your neck of the woods, to work her impasse breaking "magic" ... like she did for DC teachers and is trying to do with the commendable and under-attack United Teachers Los Angeles.

I can only imagine that she is angling to run for Dem office in the not so distant future... given that she is throwing teachers under the Obama/Duncan RttT bus, every chance she gets. Big merit boosts are what she will dangle in front of teachers to get them over the hump into "value added" territory, where you have protections lost... sanity, too.

Do not go there, for your own good. As Randi has proven, union heads arent always our friends.

Posted by: NYCee | September 15, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

Right, DC school is one of the worst in the country and has been so for many years and all we ever hear are excuses why things are the way they are.. basically wide acceptance of why failure has to be the norm. And here comes someone who isn't afraid to rip out the system from its roots and basically start over.

Back to business as usual, huh? Welcome to your future of failure, DC young people. Your leaders are afraid of offending the status quo and the all important teacher's union.

Posted by: cougar91 | September 15, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

“we didn’t do as good a job as I think we could have in communicating why we were making the decisions that we did that sort of led people to be suspicious.”

Like the sneaking behind the parents of students at Hardy Middle School.

Rhee is sounding more and more like Lillian Hellman.

Posted by: edlharris | September 15, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

What a poorly reasoned, factually flawed, backward thinking, low credibility, obtuse commentary! What has happened to the standards of the Washington Post? Shouldn't they strive for reasoned arguments supported with creditable sources encompassing the whole of the issue and only then venturing a position.

Did this author graduate from Glen Beck University? If so, she should be working over at the Moony Times instead of the Post.

Posted by: robl | September 15, 2010 11:48 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how many people who read these WaPo ed blogs actually send their kids to D.C. public schools. Fact is the middle class doesn't really care about improving the performance of low income kids or narrowing the achievement gap. Sounds like Rhee has tried but there are way too many special interests to let any real reform happen.
I now live in Beijing, China. There is an amazing parallel here with migrant school children. We have a growing middle class and here the public schools are generally better than the private schools. The migrant kids can't get into the public schools (for the most part) and the private schools they attend are frequently razed to provide more profitable alternatives for developers. No recourse and the kids are thrown out of school without anywhere else to go. You'll here some noise in the papers about it and nothing much getting done.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | September 16, 2010 1:02 AM | Report abuse

"Majority of the parents with kids in school like her reform."

Actually, the majority of parents with kids in DC public schools disapprove of Rhee's reforms. The Post's poll results make that clear.

And if Ms. Rhee believes that D.C. parents are so stupid that they just can't understand why her reforms were terrific, how can she expect their children to do well on achievement tests?

Posted by: berniehorn | September 16, 2010 1:57 AM | Report abuse

Imagine how embarrassing it would be if Rhee had succeeded in improving the attendance, graduation rates and test scores of DC school children.

Better to be rid of her than face the fact that your children have been short changed for years by teachers and administrators that care more about themselves than about your children.

Now we can get back to normal with 8% of our 8th graders learning math ... and with $75 million to pass around ... now that feels good, very good.

Posted by: cautious | September 16, 2010 3:26 AM | Report abuse

I think the difficult work was in combining schools to save money. That is never going to make anyone happy.
On other educational methods of Rhee's, they just don't make sense.
Not sure why people would accuse Linda of anything. I agree with Linda on educational issues, although, I think the word "hard" is ok in this context.

Also, given what I have read of Valerie's columns, she is quite qualified to discuss teacher evaluation programs.

I think the pro-Rhee, anti-Rhee argument seems to take on a life of its own and often has nothing to do with education. However, educationally speaking, Valerie is correct, Rhee is a quick decision maker, has a sense of urgency, and gets things done. However, if the things she gets done are not useful to the students in the long run, then you are heading in the wrong direction. She also seems to be very adept at alienating those who would have loved to implement her plans, the teachers.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 16, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Truly sad. Sometimes people can be their own worst enemy. The status quo supporters fought so hard to retain their failing school system. They have no new ideas, or solutions. No way will DC public schools attract new talent, they are stuck now with their tried and true failure of a teaching force.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | September 16, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

What has happened is truly sad. Teachers should be paid and evaluated based on their performance, the way it works in the rest of the professional (non-union, non-government job) world. Maybe the Fenty/Gray debate over how the schools should be run shouldn't be seen as a black-white issue, but more of a those to want to keep their jobs no matter how they perform/status quo vs. those who want to give their kids a challenge so they prepare themselves for success in the real world. No one has had the guts to change things in DC until Rhee - and obviously half the city wants their kids to keep going to crappy schools, so maybe they deserve it. Unfortunately, everyone else who wants to live in DC and give their kids a good education will have to fork out tens of thousands for private school, as it has been for decades. If Gray can beg Rhee to stay, maybe one day the future US President will be able to send their kids to public school in DC.

Posted by: minasaywhat | September 16, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

There is an interesting article in the sports section about D'Angelo Hall being asked to assume a leadership position on the Redskins by Coach Shanahan. The article describes how Shanahan has used the outspokeness of Hall to his advantage. That's smart management.

I couldn't help but to think of the troubles as described within the pages of the WaPo concerning Chancellor Rhee and compare her management style to Shanahan's acceptance of Hall and who he was...while recognizing his strengths as well as his faults....and understand how he could use Hall to help his TEAM win.

While, I do not teach in D.C., I have worked under Superintendent's and Prinicipal's whose management style has been similar to, if not worse than Rhee's. The morale in those districts and buildings has been just as destructive to public education as what is being described as the current morale in the DCPS.

These dysfunctional school manager's are generally into power, immature, poorly prepared for their jobs, insecure, and self-absorbed. They generally wanted out of the classroom...and the thought of going back scares them to death...that is why you never see them. Rhee appears to fit this description.

We can blame teacher's until the chickens come home to roost, but in order to address the problems affecting our schools, management, too, needs to be reformed. Criticism is not always a negative and can often be used to reach goals.

Good management is the key to lasting school reform.

I don't know what the "Skin's" record will be at the end of the season, but so far I'm impressed. Shanahan is showing you can be tough AND smart.

Posted by: ilcn | September 16, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Using standardized tests as a measuring stick of children's education is a joke because the standardized tests are a joke. They set the bar so low, a child 3 grades below their actual level are able to pass it. But if the DC children can't even pass that low bar, the use of the standardized test becomes relevant as a metric for DCPS.

Posted by: SpecTP | September 16, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Mamoor and Celestun:

Thanks for coming to my defense. Yes, I was wrong about the word "hard" which I mistakingly thought was colloquial. Anyway, I should have known better than to knock anyone's English because we all make mistakes.

Still, Rhee's language seemed so rough and unprofessional to me. Her words ("Go hard or go home" and "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had sex with children") spoke volumes about her hardness and lack of professionalism. It's difficult for me to imagine why anyone would support this "lady." DC can do better.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 16, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

"Test scores are up over the course of her tenure" didn't test scores drop this year?

Posted by: lacy41 | September 16, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Rhee's right that I don't get it. I don't get why you'd need police escorts for teachers fired due to budget cuts. I don't get why getting Race to the Top money should be a "political" win for the administration. I don't get why testing gains are due to the central office and testing losses are due to teachers. I don't get why you'd reassign a successful principal because parents of children who don't go the school don't like him. I don't get why a national magazine is told a teacher was fired for sexual conduct when parents/citizens are left in the dark. I don't get why a person who made a $34 million dollar accounting error which cost folks jobs supposedly still works at DCPS. I don't get why a school chancellor is answering requests for classroom locks. I don't get that everyone else should be held accountable except the chancellor.

Posted by: Pearlsb4Swine1 | September 16, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Hey Linda, it appears that there a number of sore losers blogging today and they are directing their anger today at you instead of Vince Gray. Don't worry about it, you are highly respected by the overwhelming majority of us.

Posted by: lacy41 | September 16, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, thank you for a "Hard Hitting" blog ...

You state, "If Rhee does some reach some agreement with Vincent Gray, the man who defeated Fenty and is all but certain to be elected mayor in November, that will result in Rhee’s continuation as chancellor, it will almost certainly require that she acknowledge what really happened."

This will never happen, and Rhee is not going to be part of any Gray education reform plan. She didn't even return his call on Wednesday, while she did have time to give extensive interviews explaining how the pace of many of her reform policies begun by mayor Fenty and herself should be increased.

Again ... Three words for Vince Gray to remember ...

General Douglas MacArthur

Posted by: AGAAIA | September 16, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

"test scores shouldn't be considered a measure of much of anything"

A sentence like this doesn't deserve to be in an blog post covering education for the Washington Post. Ms. Strauss should think a little more deeply before she writes.

Overall, this is a pitiful article.

Posted by: staticvars | September 16, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Rhee should quit and take her talent somewhere else.

Posted by: indi2

What talent? She has neither the working experience nor the academic background to make most of the statements she makes. I used to work with her type when I was in the Navy. They regularly confused rank with expertise and left things in a confused mess which the experts had to clean up (and of course, they always claimed mission accomplished).

Posted by: jamalmstrom | September 16, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse


Thank you. I think what we've all proven is that despite the recession, this is still the United States where "the people" make the decisions.

Autocratic "chancellors" have no place in our nation's capital or any other American city or town.

DC teachers have had the support of teachers and other citizens from across the nation. Teacher-bashing is not big in the USA. The average teacher spends more of her own money on her class than the federal government and most citizens know it.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 16, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Bravo, Valerie Strauss. Great article, and I agree whole-heartedly.

Posted by: forgetthis | September 16, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I used to be a supporter and defender of Michelle Rhee...until she started doing all of those interviews and all kinds of crazy statements came from that woman's mouth. Shortly after that, the whole budget issue followed in which she was contradicted by Gandhi and Gray and someone got fired for her actions. These things let me know that Rhee was not the eudcation hero I thought she was, but instead she was a person with pathological issues. I'm pretty sure there has to be someone out there who can radically transform DC's education system without displaying signs of mental instability.

Posted by: forgetthis | September 16, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Rhee was arragant and I believe she violated the Hatch Act in the way she supported Fenty during the election. That said she removed some of the dead wood in DC schools, but I'm sure that there still a lot left.

Posted by: almelbe | September 16, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Rhee and Fenty were flawed change agents. They were right to be forceful, but they were arrogant and dismissive of many stakeholders in the city.

That said, let's not lose sight of the real victims and the real culprit here: The victims of the rotten (and I challenge anyone to say it is other than rotten) school system in DC are the children, particularly poor children. The culprits are a corrupt bureaucracy and teachers union.

Good thing for them I'm not in charge; I'd fire everyone in the school system and make them apply for their jobs with everyone else. Let's select the best, regardless of 'tenure.' The value of a teacher's tenure is nothing next to the value of education of a single child.

Posted by: jay4811 | September 16, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

What arrogance and self-importance!

And, to be honest, a strong whiff of racism (i.e., "those people" weren't smart enough to reelect Fenty/Rhee).

What's really galling is, while the Post and Rhee's friends try to intimidate (or con) Mayor Gray into retaining her, she continues to publicly bad mouth him. And she and the Post seem to think that it's HER call whether she goes or stays. It isn't; it's Gray's.

What's with the Post tiresome and idiotic narrative: how can Gray convince Rhee to stay? He's not looking to get Rhee to stay. Gray voters will scream to high heaven if Rhee isn't ejected in the first minute of Day One. She's the reason they voted AGAINST Fenty for goodness sakes.

Major Gray should put HIS people in every available appointed position ... just as Fenty did in the first week of his Administration.


Posted by: broadwayjoe | September 16, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

We - the willing, led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful...that about sums up the situation at DCPS for educators & service providers.

Reform is desperately needed, however, the way its being executed by Rhee/Fenty & blocked at every turn by the WTU is not the way. I applaud her intent but not the methodologies; remember, she's a "chancellor' because she's not qualified to be a superintendent and it shows. If her predecessor Superintendent Janey had been given the same powers & latitude DCPS truly would have been transformed by now.

Unfortunately, the children will suffer while the adults point fingers at each other as the reason why they can't learn.

There are some great principals, administrators, teachers & service providers at DCPS who should be applauded. However, until their equally horrible colleagues are replaced, children will continue to suffer.

We also can't let the parents off the hook...

Posted by: Jigsaw | September 16, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Great article, Valerie. You wrote about how IMPACT and testing are bad ideas but didn't offer any reason why. I guess I can just say your column SUCKED and not explain anymore.

Posted by: jswanson1 | September 16, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

Was this article sponsored by the teacher's unions? I sure sounds like it. For all the critics of Rhee, I have yet to see one that has put forth a better or even implemented it. Michelle A. Rhee is likely going on to bigger and better things, which is why she deliberately attached herself to a losing campaign. DC is hopeless.

Posted by: moebius22 | September 16, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss, you have NO idea what you're talking about. Please do some research on basic education studies and data before commenting on what is or what is not good reform. You sound like a total dumbass.

Posted by: RL67 | September 16, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Give RHEE a custom made DUNCE cap. She's earned it.

Posted by: ambrosiazuila | September 16, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

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