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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/22/2011

The meaning of Michelle Rhee

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Mike Rose, who is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of "Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us” and "Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America."

By Mike Rose
No one involved in education – probably including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – has the media profile of Michelle Rhee, ex-chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools. For those of you who don’t follow the politics of school reform, and might know of Ms. Rhee only through, her appearances on Oprah and in Waiting for Superman, let me offer a brief history.

Ms. Rhee, who had taught school in Baltimore for three years through Teach for America and founded an educational non-profit called The New Teacher Project, was selected by then-Mayor of D.C. Adrian Fenty to run the D.C. schools – and to shake them up. Rhee did so, famously firing a number of teachers and administrators and closing some schools. She also negotiated a new contract with the teachers union.

The media loved her – young, attractive, spunky (she used words like “crappy” and “suck”), and determined, she was all over TV and radio and made the cover of Time Magazine holding a broom to sweep clean the district. When in 2010 the voters turned out Mayor Fenty, in part because of Rhee, and she resigned soon afterward, her popularity only seemed to rise. More OpEd pieces, more interviews, and lots of rumors about what next large urban school district she would run. Instead she has started a non-profit education reform group called Students First.

I don’t know Michelle Rhee. I don’t know what she’s like personally, off-stage. So what I’m going to write here concerns the public Michelle Rhee, the persona she offers to the world with, one can assume, forethought and strategy. There have been two recent events that have been much discussed and that might tarnish this persona and that I think are revelatory about some of the features of contemporary school reform – for which Ms. Rhee is a powerful symbol.

The first event. An independent arbitrator ruled that the District of Columbia must rehire 75 teachers who Chancellor Rhee fired during their probationary period in 2008. The dismissals were improper, said the arbitrator, because Rhee did not provide a reason for the terminations. The teachers had “no opportunity to provide their side of the story.”

There is much to say here: the violation of due process, the hardship these teachers endured, the significant burden the ruling places on the already burdened district. But I can’t help but think as well of the irony that teachers in D.C. never felt they were heard by Chancellor Rhee (or, for that fact, by Mayor Fenty), and that the arbitrator cites Rhee’s not giving teachers a chance to speak on their own behalf as the “glaring and fatal flaw” in her action. So the broom that sweeps clean – the brash and decisive kick-ass-and-take-names persona that the media celebrated – in fact operated improperly and ended up causing her successor a whole heap of trouble.

Here’s the second event, and it has gotten a lot of attention in the blogosphere. When Michelle Rhee was applying for her chancellor’s post in D.C. she stated on her resume that when she taught in Baltimore, she raised her students’ test scores in two years from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile. It is a sign of her appeal that Mayor Fenty and then the media didn’t balk.

Or was it just that they know so pitifully little about education? That kind of gain, even if Mother Theresa were teaching the class, is not credible. But it passed, and it resurfaced here and there as part of the developing mythology surrounding the dynamic Chancellor.

A short while ago, a blogger posted an analysis of the test scores from the school in Baltimore where the young Ms. Rhee taught. Though scores weren’t broken down by teacher, the overall scores were sufficiently modest to make the kind of gain Ms. Rhee cited statistically unlikely. It is possible that Ms. Rhee had those astronomical scores, and they were averaged out by several classes that were entirely in the hole by 40 or more points. Possible, but a quite unusual occurrence. A few weeks ago, Ms. Rhee said that if she were applying again, she would word the claim differently. The chancellor who put such stock in standardized test scores has some difficulty representing the scores from her own classroom.

So what might these two events mean for the reputation of Ms. Rhee? Probably not much. She has extraordinary support from very powerful people and a remarkable ability to work the media. In a recent column in The Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss noted that the test score flap is beside the point and put her finger on the big issue: What did Michelle Rhee accomplish during her 3 and 1/2 years as Chancellor? The jury is still out on that question, though as has been happening in the reform environment of the last decade, initial big bang initiatives and events turn out to be disappointing – or worse have unintended consequences. Witness the reversal of Chancellor Rhee’s firing of those 75 teachers. (For a damning assessment of her tenure, see Leigh Dingerson’s The Proving Grounds.)

Perhaps it’s my old English major background surfacing, but I can’t help but see the firing/rehiring and test score episodes – and the very creation of the public Michelle Rhee herself – as emblematic of the weaknesses of current school reform.

There is the unflagging search for a miracle cure, a highly potent structure (small schools, charter schools), or technology (value-added measures), or figure (Ms. Rhee) that will do what past reformers were unable to do – and will be able to do it in any setting.

There is the technocratic faith in the machinery of standardized tests – and a vindication when the test scores rise. But the rise in scores frequently turns out to be temporary or in some way manipulated. Remember the “Texas Miracle?”

There is a belief in the tough, bold outsider, the gunslinger who will come in and clean things up. These gunslingers are often young, smart, quick on their feet, and very, very assured. But what comes with this character – a very appealing character for Americans – is a disdain for anything already in place, an unwillingness or inability to find the local good and take the time to learn local history. This attitude and bearing fits also with the technocratic dismissal of the old and the embrace of the new. A bad mix: the righteousness of the gunslinger with the naïve belief in the latest technology of reform.

The above suggests a Manichean view of the world; there are good guys and bad guys. You’re on the side of the good – and these days the bad are older teachers, teachers unions, ed schools, and pretty much anyone not on your reform wagon. Ms. Rhee is fond of saying that she and like-minded peers are in this “for the kids” and everyone else is simply looking out for their own adult self interest.

And finally there is the media savvy of the reformers. They are masterful at framing the debate, demonizing their critics, creating appealing narratives that touch a chord in the national consciousness. The public Michelle Rhee is a creation of this media machinery. But as my friend John Rogers, the director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, pointed out to me, she equally represents the danger of the celebrity reformer – a creation that brings with it impossible expectations. The miracle cure embodied.

The sad thing, and at the end of the day it is sadness I’m left with, is the degree to which Michelle Rhee gave herself over to this celebrity machinery, a machinery that will amp up one’s most attention-grabbing qualities, indifferent to the consequences to one’s self or anyone else in the way.

There is a scene in John Merrow’s PBS feature on Michelle Rhee and described in his new book, The Influence of Teachers, in which Chancellor Rhee is talking with members of Merrow’s film crew and casually announces that she is about to fire someone – and asks the crew if they would like to tape it. Fire someone on video. The person’s dignity is stripped away. But so is the humanity of Michelle Rhee.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 22, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Michelle Rhee, Mike Rose  | Tags:  d.c. public schools, michelle rhee, mike rose, new teacher project, school reform, standardized tests, students first, teach for america  
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Mike Rose is really too kind to Michelle Rhee, and to the media elites and lazy education reporters and writer who heaped praise on her.

Anyone who has followed Michelle Rhee and her tenure in the DC schools knows several things: (1) she is a shameless self-promoter, (2) it's always more about her than "the kids," (3) she pushes a top-down, business-model approach to "reform" that has no research foundation and that usually males things worse, (4) she is an autocrat who rewards loyalty and punishes dissent (5) she is a charlatan, and (6) she is a proven liar.

But boy-oh-boy is she popular with the corporate crowd. They have to blame somebody for the mess(es) they caused, and teachers and public education make the perfect whipping boys.

For a more pointed perspective on Michelle Rhee, see what Bob Somerby has to say at The Daily Howler:

That Michelle Rhee continues to promote herself (and to receive unwarranted acclaim) and to travel the country preaching her brand of corporate "reform" under the the perverse title of Students First proves that she still has no humanity.

Nor does she have any shame.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 22, 2011 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee is by far the most significant superintendent in the history of America. Why? She did something that only others talked about- she fired ineffective educators, she developed a system to reward effective educators, she designed an evaluation system to hold people accountable and she didn't apologize for it. People have talked about doing it- she did it!

But, her most significant achievement was that she shifted dialogue in the country about education reform. Unions are being asked to make concessions like never before (i.e. Wisconsin). Teacher preparation programs at the college and alternative levels are rethinking their approach to teaching and learning and everyone from philanthropists to the Secretary of Education is listening.

Now, Rhee has once again showed how she makes lemonade out of lemons. Forced to resign she started a nation political action committee which places students at the forefront and intends to raise a billion dollars to influence political shifts.

Michelle Rhee made lots of mistakes. Many great leaders and CEOs do. But, she changed our conversation from what's great for adults to what's important for students.

If this is her only legacy then it will have been a powerful one!

Posted by: teacher6402 | February 22, 2011 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss posts a critical piece on Michele Rhee? I'm shocked.

What's next, a smear of Bill Gates? A disparaging column on charter schools? A dismissive rant on holding teachers accountable?

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

With all due respect, and she doesn't deserve much it any of it, Michelle Rhee is the poster girl for failed education reform.

The biggest gains scores in DC came in the very first year of her tenure, and are arguably attributed more to the changes made by her predecessor than to anything that Rhee did (or could have possibly have done given her hiring date). Each preceding year the gain scores were much smaller and in a number of cases regressed.

Rhee covered over a testing scandal that likely would have made the scores appear even worse.

Besides her adoption of a reform model that doesn't work, and her dictatorial management style, Rhee's worst transgressions were her lies. There were lies about her personal accomplishments (those fantasy-land "miraculous" test scores in Baltimore), and there were lies about her policies (the budget "shortfall" and teacher firings even as she hired hundreds of brand-new teachers).

Rhee has never made "lemonade out of lemons."
She's made a lot of money (and celebrity) from promoting a fictitious story, and from pushing a make-believe reform agenda. Rhee quit teaching, presumably because it was too hard and she was not good enough at it, to seek cushier work. Rhee quit her job in DC even though she was just reaching its critical juncture. She continues to lie about her record....and apparently so do others.

Michelle Rhee has helped to set genuine education reform back a decade or more, even as she pushes for conservative policies that undermine public education.

That's a powerful legacy, but hardly one worth applauding, and hardly one that is good for a democratic society.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | February 22, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

"The machinery of standardized tests" is to education reform what collateralized debt obligations are to the economic melt-down. Michelle Rhee is the Alan Greenspan of corporatized school reform: deluded, brimming with hubris and a self-serving megalomaniac. I'm with Dr. Democracy... Mike Rose is too kind.

Posted by: Incidentally | February 22, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

ooops....should have read, in the first sentence, "...doesn't deserve much IF any of it..."

And should have said, the the 2nd paragraph, "Each SUCceeding year..."

Posted by: mcrockett1 | February 22, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Add to the curiosity of claims made by Ms. Rhe this analysis from a well respected educational researcher:

The Rhee DC Record: Math and Reading Gains No Better Than Her Predecessors Vance and Janey
Author: Dr. Alan Ginsburg, Director of Policy and Program Studies, U.S. Dept. of Education (Retired)

Former DC Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee has gained national attention for her tough but controversial reform policies focused on large-scale firing of DC teachers. Her teacher policies have been widely cited as a lever that enabled Rhee to produce an unprecedented turnaround in low DC students’ scores. Notably, Rhee has been featured on the cover of Time magazine with a broom symbolic of sweeping out ineffective teachers and a movie, Waiting for Superman, has been made that included her perceived historic DC success. Based on these perceived extraordinary DC test score gains, she is spearheading a national effort StudentsFirst to raise a billion dollars to replicate nationally her DC policies that include references to her "unprecedented growth" in DC student outcomes.

Experts are divided over the merits of Rhee’s tough teacher policies. Critics have cited their potential to weaken teacher morale and that “teachers deserve respect, not condemnation” (McGuire, 2010). Others see teacher firings and polarization as a necessary price for student progress (Rotherham, 2010). Therefore, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of Rhee’s policies to determine just how much better DC students progressed under Rhee than under her predecessors.

This paper examines DC’s mathematics and reading scores on the federal government's independent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) since 2000 for all students and by race / ethnicity. It concludes that Rhee did not initiate the DC schools’ test-score turnaround when she took office in 2007. DC’s NAEP scores had already steadily improved under her two predecessors, Superintendents Paul Vance and Clifford Janey. Moreover, the rates of DC score gains under Rhee were typically no better than the rates achieved under Vance and Janey. The paper calls for a careful evaluation of the long-term consequences of the large-scale firing of teachers before launching a nationwide initiative and suggests examining the effectiveness of policies to improve teacher quality along with teacher accountability measures.

The paper is available at The Rhee DC Math And Reading Record .pdf

Posted by: rastajan | February 22, 2011 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Watched Wendy Kopp (of TFA fame)on Charlie Rose last night, and she affirmed the importance of the quality of leadership in schools, citing one particular school and the principal who led it.

In that light, I'd like to repeat what a number of others have said referencing Michelle Rhee's brand of leadership:

If a general running a war spent as much
energy bashing the only soldiers he had, he would lose the war, even though he would say he was doing it for the good of the country.

Yes, we are all sick of hearing about this woman, but as long as she is still "at large, Rhee is a loose cannon.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 22, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

The money line from Richard Whitmire's book on Michelle Rhee and the professional education reform crowd:

"Nobody has a sure-fire plan for saving failing schools, especially high schools, and especially high schools like Dunbar."
page 170

Gee, I thought they did. Michelle led me to think so.

Any suggestions teacher 6402 or frankb1?

Posted by: edlharris | February 22, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

edharris: Could we start out by at least agreeing that Dunbar High School, as Richard Whitmire writes:

"went from being the pride of black America to what Rhee found in 2007, a local and national shame."

I'd say local and national embarrassment and disgrace.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Of course we can frankb1.
Question is why?
Colbert King has a better handle on that than Michelle Rhee.

Then next is what to do about it?
She didn't know.
Selecting what kids can attend ala Friends of Bedford or Harlem Children's Zone, isn't the answer.

Posted by: edlharris | February 22, 2011 1:57 PM | Report abuse

FRankb1- I know that you are not writing to me but I 'd like to respond.
We could also end our discussion about Dunbar agreeing that part of what led to Dunbar's downward slide as a flagship school was educational reform in the 1980s. I went to college then with students who graduated from Dunbar and they were expertly prepared for careers in the STEM fieed. Reform and its reformers have not had an interest in sustaining such programs in this city. Did Michelle do anything for STEM education in this city? Nope. Could we agree that developing (another) music focused arts middle school made no sense given we already have one. And that Ms. Rhee misses more than a few marks for that type of managerial redundancy...

Posted by: rastajan | February 22, 2011 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Notice how frankb1 and teach6402 always show up to play tag team in the defense of Rhee. Must be family members. LOL

Neither were talk about her fraud and/or lie.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | February 22, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse


Neither will talk about her fraud and/or lie.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | February 22, 2011 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Dunbar was full of incompetent administrators, teachers and counselors.

If you read the sub-chapter from "The Bee Eater" on Dunbar High School than you know the depth of that incompetence was absolutely breathtaking.

But union rules and established practice in DCPS required that you work around such incompetence.

Michelle Rhee said no, not on my watch, and she fired inept administrators, inept teachers and inept counselors.

People like Valerie Strauss think that's mean, and a violation of due process. She's very worried about the burden it places on everyone, except for the burden such incompetence places on students.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

The changes Rhee made at Dunbar, continue under Henderson. It is a better school (and learning environment) today than it was in 2007. They fired about half the staff, but will probably need to fire many more.

The WTU will say it's the kids. That they can't learn, that teachers were doing the best they could. And that it's the parents fault too. That is exactly what the WTU has been saying for decades.

Dunbar will continue its Rhee inspired improvements as long as we don't sell the kids short.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Why did Dunbar go downhill?

Posted by: edlharris | February 22, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

@dccousnelor 72- I don't have any problem talking about Rhee's "lie" on her resume...Frankly, it's a non-issue...there's research that shows 85% of people exaggerate on their resume...who cares if she moved achievement from 13%-50% or 13% to 90%...the truth is Rhee may have been a good teacher and she may not have been...the taping of the students' mouth was certainly not a good story to, I don't know...

From my perspective it's what Rhee has done to shift the national conversation in education. Teaching is a hard job. I actually do not believe test scores should comprise 50% of a teacher's evaluation. There is simply not enough evidence to support this as an accurate measure- yet! Nor do I think that Rhee should have made her focus and success/failure about test scores....simply put- it takes years to measure the success of a superintendent and new initiatives and Rhee was never given enough time to see them through...I'm not sure she even wanted to...

Her goal, at least it appears to me, was to shift the paradigm of the education world...instead of having conversations about what teachers do, it's time to focus on what learning they produce for students. No one, not even Rhee's haters, can legitimately argue that our students in DCPS were succeeding. Less than 9% of DCPS graduates finish college within 5 years. The graduation rate is dismal. The violence and crime in the district are horrible. You can't have the best teachers in the country and the worst performing don't need to be an ed reformer to deduce that.

DCPS teachers needed a jolt! Education needed to shift its one dimensional view that teachers are not accountable to student achievement.

Rhee shifted the debate. This is what makes her more than a footnote- This is why Strauss can't stop writing about her. Rhee had IMPACT!

Posted by: teacher6402 | February 22, 2011 5:09 PM | Report abuse

edharris: "Why did Dunbar go downhill?"

As the black middle class moved out of DC, the community gave up on Dunbar (and many other DC public schools).

Folks like Valerie Strauss claimed DC's poor black kids couldn't learn, and that their parent economic situations permanently held them back. They convinced a lot of people.

But then reformers like Michelle Rhee began to challenge that insidious, ugly rhetoric. And research and reporting showed it to be false.

From the Washington Post:

"For years, debates about the quality of city schools revolved around a central question: Does lagging academic achievement -- two out of three students are not proficient in reading and three out of four are not proficient in math -- merely reflect the high number of students who are poor and unprepared for learning? Or are other urban districts with similar student populations better at improving performance?

That question finally has an answer, thanks to an expansion of a federal program that tests student achievement across the country. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, had been reporting results by state since 1990, but in recent years began isolating test scores from selected urban school systems.

Eleven city school districts were tested in 2005, including New York, Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Miami and Chicago, as well as the District. The Washington Post's analysis of the data shows that D.C. students ranked last or were tied for last on every measure. That is true even when poor children in the District are compared only with poor children in, say, Atlanta."

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse


Frank, you didn't answer Ed's question. Be intellectually honest, Frank.

And BTW, you're good at fishing for superfluous information on the net. Could you find some place on the Post or any other leading paper that CLEARLY states "poor black kids couldn't learn"? I don't recall that I've ever read anything from any large media organization that made a claim such as that. It's kinda hard to challenge that kind of "insidious rhetoric" when it has never occurred. However, it is easy to challenge a figment of one's imagination. I remember a famous "ingenious gentleman" who did just that.

Posted by: DHume1 | February 22, 2011 6:05 PM | Report abuse

What kind of leader wants to film themselves firing a person?
If this is the new education reform, I want nothing to do with it.

Posted by: ohiggins51 | February 22, 2011 6:06 PM | Report abuse

DHume, edharris:

I blame Valerie Strauss and a handful of other powerful Upper NW DC limousine liberals.

I'm interested in what you think. Why did Dunbar go downhill?

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 6:28 PM | Report abuse

In my experience Rhee changed the conversation about education reform from one of a very big and gloomy confusion created by the No Child Left Behind Act that all public schools are failing to one about her.
If we were having a conversation, as teacher 6402 avers, about "what's important for students, wouldn't we be talking about what the actual state of affairs is in public education and how to learn from its successes to address and correct its weaknesses instead of arbitrarily latching on to the "our schools are all failures" mantra of NCLB and Rhee's equally arbitrary popourri of corporate/market-based "ideas" that go along with it?
I think Mr. Rose has captured Rhee's "meaning" very well but that is different from the ROLE she is playing-- to help the corporate class in its decades long movement to rid the country of any unions. They have been very successful with the trades and manufacturing unions. The unions of public employees are the few left with any real strength. Rhee helped the beginning of weakening them tremendously with her "blueprint" teacher contract and I am sure that Wisconsin Governor Walker, among others who would benefit by the demise of unions in America, is very pleased. The children students of the public employees--not so much. After all, what's MOST important for students is a stable home life which cannot be achieved without a stable income.

Posted by: 1citizen | February 22, 2011 6:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't know why Dunbar went downhill. That's why I ask. It's not a rhetorical question meant to trip up the likes of Miss Rhee.

Posted by: edlharris | February 22, 2011 6:37 PM | Report abuse

The facts show neglect, incompetence and a DCPS system that put the interests of adults ahead of students were to blame.

If you haven't already, you should read the Post's seven part investigative series about the D.C. public school system.

In addition, Q&A transcripts with the Post investigative team are definitely worth looking at:

What is most shameful is that folks like Valerie Strauss (who sends her kids to Georgetown Day) fought common sense changes to DCPS and continue to defend the status quo.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 22, 2011 7:15 PM | Report abuse

"What is most shameful is that folks like Valerie Strauss (who sends her kids to Georgetown Day) fought common sense changes to DCPS and continue to defend the status quo"

Which status quo (current or existing state of affairs.)?
Today, post Rhee?
Or preRhee, 2007?

Posted by: edlharris | February 22, 2011 9:50 PM | Report abuse

The final paragraph, which describes Rhee suggesting to a t.v. film crew that they might film her firing someone, says it all. What a truly weird (add -- incompetent, self-promoting, and vain) woman Rhee turned out to be. It doesn't really matter who the "real" Rhee is. She is responsible for her actions and her conduct in the public arena. She and her backers carefully crafted her public persona and that is the one the public has rejected. Fenty was fired. "Waiting for Superman" was a box-office flop. The verdict is in: The public generally doesn't want a mean girl to make decisions about our children's education. Rhee, like other ideologues in this overheated debate on public education, has wealthy backers, many of whom have an agenda to privatize public education. It's time to turn the spotlight away from this unlikeable character and start dealing with the issues that matter. Stop giving her anymore press and giving her a forum.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | February 22, 2011 10:05 PM | Report abuse

frankb1 -- save your breath. Asking Prof. Dhume1 for substance gets you braying and psychobabblical darts aimed at those who disagrees w him. But those are few, as his rap is impenetrable.

Posted by: axolotl | February 22, 2011 10:30 PM | Report abuse


"I'm interested in what you think. Why did Dunbar go downhill?"

I only have guesses. Without further information, my guess is that separate managerial/administrative undermining factions emerged from the revolving door and "outsiders can fix anything" mentality that came down from high up. Because of this, teacher and administrative camps emerged. The school wasn't unified. Teachers, parents, and administration were out to cripple each other. A mini war of ideas was occurring at the school--one fought over whose vision was the correct one to follow. Some students saw what was happening, noticing the vacuums or the hatred that was forming and decided to also take a stand in their own way (or in some cases to make the the matter turn into a real war zone). From what my sources tell me, all parties had skirmishes of pettiness in this war.

My grandmother would say something like "You got yourself a problem there because you got too many roosters trying to lord it over all them hens while all them Bantams are also trying to kill each other in the process."

It would be easy to blame Rhee or the teachers or any one group, but my guess is that they all drank from Jekyll's well-intentioned but horribly maligned draught.

Posted by: DHume1 | February 22, 2011 11:15 PM | Report abuse

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