The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 2 (Summer 2015)

The Common Core and Democratic Education

Johann N. Neem

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 2)

David Coleman, a former McKinsey & Company consultant and the current president of the College Board, is one of the key figures behind the recent Common Core State Standards initiative. He has been described as “an utterly romantic believer in the power of the traditional liberal arts,” and Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2013. He is also a former Rhodes Scholar “whose conversation,” Dana Goldstein wrote in The Atlantic, “leaps gracefully from Plato to Henry V,” and who has “advanced degrees in English literature from Oxford and classical philosophy from Cambridge.”1

At least on paper, Coleman is precisely the sort of person you would want in charge of a national standards initiative. But when outlining the kind of education he wants for American children, he sets his sights much lower than you might expect. When asked in 2012, for instance, why he chose to become the College Board’s new president, Coleman responded that he believed that the organization could “help the movement towards agreement that college- and career-readiness is the goal of K−12 education in this country.”2 That phrase, drawn directly from the Common Core standards, reflects a diminished understanding of democratic education.

Coleman’s fellow business leaders have been more explicit. Chris Kershner, a member of the Dayton (Ohio) Area Chamber of Commerce (and a Common Core advocate) put it this way: “The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a work force in the future.”3 For Kershner, there is little doubt about whose interest public education should serve.

We Americans once saw public education as something more than just preparation for the work force; we saw it as a means of preparing citizens and developing human beings. The Common Core signals an absence of one understanding of education, but also the presence of something else. To understand this something else, we must look to recent history.

From Charlottesville to the Culture Wars

The national standards movement began in September 1989 at a two-day summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, when President George H.W. Bush and forty-nine state governors agreed that the country needed to establish clear national goals and hold schools accountable to them.4 To that end, President Bush put together the National Education Goals Panel, a body of six governors, four members of the administration, and four members of Congress. The panel concluded that higher academic achievement should prepare students for “citizenship, further learning, and productive employment” through engagement in “challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography,” and by teaching students “to use their minds well.”5

The Bush administration urged implementation of national standards and testing in five core areas of study: English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. In 1991, Congress authorized the president to form the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, which in turn offered three reasons to improve education standards: “to promote educational equality, to preserve democracy and enhance the civic culture, and to improve economic competitiveness.”6

To develop national standards, the council called for the creation of a coordinating body composed of public leaders, educators, and members of the public, in keeping with the belief that public education has civic, academic, and economic purposes, as well as multiple stakeholders. President Bush took action, working with the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring together teachers and professors who could formulate the standards.

On taking office, President Bill Clinton had every intention of continuing Bush’s work, but then things fell apart. The National History Standards Task Force, set up by Clinton’s predecessor and co-chaired by education professor Charlotte Crabtree and history professor Gary Nash, released a report recommending a focus on “both the nation’s diversity exemplified by race, ethnicity, social and economic status, gender, region, politics, and religion, and the nation’s commonalities,” as well as encouraging students to understand “our common civic identity and shared civic values.”7 The op-ed pages went wild, beginning with former NEH Chair Lynne Cheney’s characterization of the standards as offering “unqualified admiration for people, place, and events that are politically correct” at the cost of “traditional history.”8 Crabtree and Nash released their own response to what they called a “right-wing assault,” arguing that the standards reflected the state of the field and that democracies have an obligation to teach history in a way that includes all people.9

A similar debate took place over the standards for English proposed by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English in 1996. The very first one recommended that students “read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world,” in order “to acquire new information, to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace, and for personal fulfillment,” but there was little about what might constitute America’s literary tradition.

Another of the English standards called for students to “develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.”10 Conservatives balked at what they perceived as the relativization of English into dialects (although the report recognized that “some varieties of English are more useful than others”).11 By seeming to embrace multiculturalism, the standards opened another front in the culture wars.

To conservative critics, such standards proved that most academics and educators could not be entrusted with designing a balanced curriculum. Not surprisingly, those academics and educators thought the same of their critics.12

The Origins of the Common Core

Although initial efforts under Bush and Clinton failed, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) continued to seek national education standards. Hoping to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, they turned in the following decade to business leaders, like-minded foundations, and testing companies. In 2008, Gene Wilhoit, the CCSSO executive director, and David Coleman, the future architect of the Common Core, traveled to Seattle to meet Microsoft founder and leading philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. Soon thereafter, the newly created Gates Foundation awarded more than $200 million to the cause, including funds for policy groups, academics, and studies. The movement also won the backing of the man who would become president: Senator Barack Obama.13

Once the NGA and CCSSO decided to move forward, they hired Coleman’s own organization, Student Achievement Partners, to develop the standards. It was clear from the beginning that the standards would be designed in-house, with little input from the academic community. The people appointed to the standards working group were overwhelmingly from the business and testing worlds: Out of ten members, only one was a professor. Four came from the testing organization ACT, one from Student Achievement Partners, one from Pearson–America’s Choice, three from the College Board, three from Achieve (a nonprofit directed by governors and business leaders to promote education reform), and one from the communications firm Vockley-Lang. While there would be more academic input through feedback groups and validation committees, it was clear where the real power was vested.14

Behind the decision by the NGA and CCSSO to turn to the business world was a new set of ideas about governance, reliant on the insights of what is called “agency theory.”15 In their 1976 article “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs, and Economic Structure,” economists Michael Jensen and William Meckling argued that in any organization in which ownership is separated from direct control, owners (as principals) must delegate authority to employees (their agents) who have their own competing interests.16 The problem is exacerbated when it comes to skilled professional work, because professionals—teachers, doctors, professors—have traditionally exercised discretion and judgment.17

According to agency theory, principals must devise tools to align agents’ interests with those of their principals, including close monitoring, economic incentives, and market accountability. When applied to school reform, agency theory recommends that teachers’ remuneration be tied to external measures of success (such as test scores) and market accountability bolstered through national scorecards or school choice.18 Nowhere is agency theory’s influence on education reform clearer than in New York City, where, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, the public schools were granted autonomy in return for achieving specific performance goals. If schools failed, they would be sanctioned or shut down.19

Under agency theory, professionals are treated as rational actors seeking to maximize their utility by responding to carrots and sticks, but there is no accounting in agency theory for how, absent strong professional communities, the goods they stand for—education, medicine, law, journalism—will be sustained. In short, without the moral and political resources of professionalism, the purpose of public education is at risk of being manipulated by managers to ends foreign to it.20

And that is exactly what is happening. Under the first Bush administration, the civic, human, and economic purposes of public education were front and center in discussions of national standards. Every student deserved access to high-quality subject matter: “Students,” ran one Bush-era report, “sometimes have not been introduced to literature because the focus has been on basic skills.”21 Studying “literature” would “enrich life experiences, increase employability, and enhance communication.” Such study served egalitarian ends.

The Common Core got rid of all this, whittling away the democratic and human purposes of education, until all that was left were the basic skills. The opening paragraph of the standards for “English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” co-written by David Coleman, limits the standards’ goals to “college- and career-readiness.”22 Only in the final paragraph of the introduction to the standards do the authors acknowledge that learning to read and write well has “wide applicability outside the classroom and work place,” including to the enjoyment of literature, the parsing of data, and the preparation of people for “private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a republic.” These other outcomes are not presented as goals, however, but as the “natural outgrowth” of work force readiness.

Widening the Gap

The Common Core’s strength is its emphasis on engaging texts seriously. In one of his more (in)famous comments, Coleman has mocked educators for caring more about what students think than about teaching them to read and write effectively: “As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel.”

But making arguments to what end? When Coleman talks about preparing students for the “world,” it is clear that he means the working world. “It is rare in a working environment,” Coleman continued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’”23 One Coleman critic has responded that while employers may not care about the personal and civic lives of workers, in a democracy “citizens have a sincere interest in what other citizens have to say.”24 Empathy matters.

Knowledge also matters. The arts and sciences offer students ways to make sense of the world they inhabit. For Coleman, however, these intellectual goals are secondary to career skills. In his essay “Cultivating Wonder,” he begins, “So much depends on a good question.” The right question “invites students into a text or turns them away.” The standards must “come to life,” which can only be made to happen by exploring “specific questions about particular texts.” He aspires to help students “pay attention,” to get under the surface of a work and truly understand it.25 So far, so good. But what do these standards look like in practice?

In an online lesson on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Coleman does not allow students access to historical context or any other framing. To him, there is only the text, and nothing should interpose itself between the student and the text. The idea is to enable students to deal seriously with the words before them, to do what he calls “the hard work of reading a text closely, carefully, and well.”

Such an approach ought to elevate, even ennoble, texts. But Coleman seems to care little about the impact that a good, close reading might have on students as people and citizens. Reading King is important because it develops, as Coleman puts it at the beginning of his lesson, “a college- and career-ready skill”—not because of King’s insights into the human condition, Christianity, or American history. From the perspective of college- and career-readiness, the content is arbitrary.26

Coleman’s invitation to engage texts is undermined by his presumption that instrumental skills matter more than the particular ends to which they are devoted.27 By ensuring that King’s letter is read in isolation from its historical context or larger conversations, Coleman does not allow students to learn much from King’s message. Far from ennobling the text, Coleman has dismissed what the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” might teach us.

This approach has similarities with that of the American progressive education movement, whose champions criticized traditional academic subjects for being irrelevant to students—or, as John Dewey put it in his 1916 Democracy and Education, “so much material to be studied.” The curriculum had to be made child centered and relevant to a diverse student body. For some progressive reformers, this meant a more intense focus on vocational education, but for others, including progressive education’s heirs in today’s schools of education, the primary aspiration was to empower students as democratic citizens.28

In her examination of progressive education’s legacy to twentieth-century American education, historian Diane Ravitch criticizes schools’ “flight from content and from knowledge.” By denying students access to the insights of the arts and sciences, Ravitch worries, American schools will widen the “gap between the educated haves and the poorly schooled have-nots.”29 The same criticism applies to the Common Core.

Evidence of Emptiness

The debate between skills and knowledge is older than the Common Core. The Common Core’s approach to reading and writing hearkens back to the Renaissance, when new teachers called “humanists” emphasized literary skills (grammar, rhetoric, and logic). Renaissance humanists believed that the study of ancient texts taught students “to write and speak well,” skills vital for employment in church or government and for preparation for the higher university studies of law, theology, and medicine.30

Well before the Renaissance revived interest in ancient texts, the ancients themselves debated the relationship between skills and knowledge.31 In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates argues with Gorgias, a famous sophist and rhetorician. Socrates claims that all speech worthy of its name is shaped by knowledge: Doctors speak about medicine because they know medicine. This, Socrates continues, is equally true for “the other arts and sciences,” which are “concerned with the subject belonging to the particular art or science.”

Gorgias, favoring rhetoric, responds, “You don’t have to learn the other arts and sciences, only this one [rhetoric], and you’re on par with the experts.” In turn, Socrates wonders whether one should go to a doctor who understands how to persuade people but does not understand medicine. To Socrates, speech cannot be an independent art because it depends on knowledge.32

In The Ideal Orator, an influential text for Renaissance humanists, the Roman statesman Cicero claims that oratory requires both knowledge and rhetoric. To Cicero, oratory is “something greater, and is a combination of more arts and pursuits, than is generally supposed.” The world has few orators, Cicero avers, because it is impossible to be a good orator “unless [one] has gained a knowledge of all the important subjects and arts.” Without knowledge, Cicero argues, “the orator’s speech will remain an utterly empty, yes, almost childish verbal exercise.”

Society needs philosophers (Cicero wrote that he “would prefer inarticulate wisdom to babbling stupidity”), but not everyone must become one. Instead, a liberal education would develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions or virtues necessary to use philosophy’s insights to inform action in the world. Unlike the pure philosopher or sophist, the ideal orator “unites wisdom and eloquence,” knowledge with skills and virtue.33 That remains a worthy aspiration for the graduates of our public schools, some of whom will become philosophers and scientists, but all of whom are human beings and citizens.

By favoring skills over knowledge, the Common Core reduces education to sophistry. Common Core advocates might respond to such criticism by claiming, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it in a 2013 speech in Washington, that the standards “are the goals,” whereas a curriculum “is what teachers teach.”34 This distinction, while useful, is also questionable. Given the Obama administration’s embrace of high-stakes testing, the skills required by the Common Core may well push out other aspects of the curriculum; indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening and that textbook companies are designing new curricula geared to the Common Core. Because test scores appear to be objective, school leaders know that parents use them as a proxy for quality. Schools will teach to the test even if it means, as Mike Rose has written, diminishing “our definition of human development and achievement—that miraculous growth of intelligence, sensibility, and the discovery of the world—to a test score.”35

In our effort to evade the culture wars, we have instead embraced a managerial understanding of education shaped by agency theory and the priorities of business leaders. The Common Core offers students instrumental skills divorced from the purposes for which those skills might be used. In their book Winner-Take-All Politics, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that partisan gridlock helps those with economic power.36 The same may be true for cultural gridlock: It leaves the economic as the only common ground for policymakers to invoke. Agreeing on little, we have reduced our national aspirations to “college- and career-readiness.” Those words are evidence of a deeper emptiness.


  1. Dana Goldstein, “The Schoolmaster,” Atlantic Monthly, October 2012. See also Joy Resmovits, “David Coleman, Common Core Writer, Gears Up for SAT Rewrite,” Huffington Post, August 30, 2013;
  2. Frederick Hess, “Straight Up Conversation: Common Core Architect and New College Board President David Coleman,” Education Next, June 4, 2012;
  3. Valerie Strauss, “The Quote That Reveals How At Least One Corporate School Reformer Really Views Students,” Washington Post (online edition), August 27, 2014;
  4. For most of the narrative that follows, I rely on Maris Vinovskis, The Road to Charlottesville: The 1989 Education Summit (Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel, 1999), 34; and John F. Jennings, Why National Standards and Tests? Politics and the Quest for Better Schools (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998), 94. See also eds. Carl F. Kaestle and Alyssa E. Lodwick, To Educate a Nation: Federal and National Strategies for School Reform (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 92; and Lawrence J. McAndrews, The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965–2001 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 133–66.
  5. Jennings, Why National Standards and Tests, 14.
  6. National Council on Education Standards and Testing, Raising Standards for American Education (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 1992), 3.
  7. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience: Grades 5–12 (Los Angeles: University of California–Los Angeles, 1994), 3; Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 275.
  8. Lynne Cheney, “The End of History,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994.
  9. Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Knopf, 1997), Chapter 8. See also Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 429–52; Jennings, Why National Standards and Tests, Chapter 7; and James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), Chapter 8.
  10. International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English, Standards for the English Language Arts (Newark, DE, and Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996), 3, 16, 21–22.
  11. Ravitch, Left Back, 437–38.
  12. Diane Ravitch, “Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned into the Testing Movement,” The Death and Life of the Great American School System (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 15–30; Ravitch, “Education after the Culture Wars,” Daedalus 131, no. 3 (2002), 5–21.
  13. Lindsey Layton, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution,” Washington Post, June 7, 2014; Valerie Straus, “Gates Gives $150 Million in Grants for Common Core Standards,” Washington Post (online edition), May 12, 2013; See also Anthony Cody, The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation (New York: Garn Press, 2014), Chapter 14; Ravitch, Death and Life, Chapter 10; and Donald Zancanella and Michael Moore, “The Origins of the Common Core: Untold Stories,” Language Arts 91, no. 4 (2014), 273–79.
  14. Information on the committees can be found at the website of the National Governors Association in a release titled “Common Core State Standards Development Work Group and Feedback Group Announced,” July 1, 2009; See also Mercedes Schneider, A Chronicle of Echoes (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2014), 173–83; Joy Pullman, “Five People Wrote ‘State-Led’ Common Core,” Heartlander Magazine, June 7, 2013;
  15. Charles Kerchner, David Menefee-Libey, and Laura Steen Mulfinger, “Comparing the Progressive Model and Contemporary Formative Ideas and Trends,” in The Transformation of Great American School Districts: How Big Cities Are Reshaping Public Education, eds. William Lowe Boyd, Charles Kerchner, and Mark Blyth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008), Chapter 1; Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 317–26; Kathleen Eisenhardt, “Agency Theory: An Assessment and Review,” Academy of Management Review 14, no. 1 (1989), 57–74. For context, see also Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), Chapter 2.
  16. Michael Jensen and William Meckling, “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs, and Economic Structure,” Journal of Financial Economics 3 (1976), 305–60.
  17. Malileh Mansouri and Julia Adair Rowney, “The Dilemmas of Accountability for Professionals: A Challenge for Mainstream Management Theories,” Journal of Business Ethics 123 (2014), 45–56. See also the thoughtful discussion in Joseph Heath, “The Uses and Abuses of Agency Theory,” Business Ethics Quarterly 19, no. 4 (2009), 497–528.
  18. Kerchner et al., “Comparing the Progressive Model”; see also ed. Paul E. Peterson, Choice and Competition in American Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 29.
  19. Paul T. Hill, “Leadership and Governance in New York City School Reform,” in Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation’s Most Complex School System, eds. Jennifer O’Day, Catherine Bitter, and Louis Gomez (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2011), Chapter 1; Katharine Destler, “Creating a Performance Culture: Incentives, Climate, and Organizational Change,” American Review of Public Administration, published online October 6, 2014, doi:10.1177/0275074014545381.
  20. Beryl Radin, Challenging the Performance Movement: Accountability, Complexity, and Democratic Values (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006), Chapter 4; Donald P. Moynihan, The Dynamics of Performance Management: Constructing Information and Reform (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008), Chapter 7. See also Jon D. Michaels, “Running Government Like a Business…Then and Now,” Harvard Law Review 128 (Feb. 2015); Robert Locke and J.C. Spender, Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance (London, England: Zed Books, 2011).
  21. National Council on Education Standards and Testing, Raising Standards, 22–24.
  22. Common Core State Standards Initiative, Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, 2010;
  23. Schneider, Chronicle of Echoes, 169.
  24. Nicholas Tampio, “David Coleman’s Plan to Ruin Education,” Al-Jazeera America, December 5, 2014; Martha Nussbaum, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), identifies “empathy” as one of the essential dispositions of democratic citizenship, x.
  25. David Coleman, “Cultivating Wonder,” The College Board, 2013, accessed April 29, 2015; Coleman’s approach plays into a decades-old debate among scholars of literature about how to read a text. For context, see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
  26. David Coleman, “Middle School ELA Curriculum Video: Close Reading of a Text: ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’” (Dec. 2012);
  27. A similar critique is offered by Paul Deneen, “Common Core and the American Republic,” The American Conservative (online edition), November 20, 2013;
  28. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 134. On progressive ideas’ influence in schools of education, see David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), Chapter 7.
  29. Ravitch, “Education after the Culture Wars.” For historical discussions of the origins of progressive pedagogy, see Ravitch, Left Back; William J. Reese, “The Origins of Progressive Education,” History of Education Quarterly 41, no. 1 (2001), vi–24; Herbert Kliebard, Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893–1958 (New York: Routledge, 1995).
  30. Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanistic Strains (New York: Harper, 1961), 13; Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).
  31. My discussion relies on Bruce Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1986); and Francis Oakley, Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), Chapters 1−2.
  32. All quotes from Plato, Gorgias, trans. Tom Griffith; ed. Malcolm Schofield (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  33. All quotes from Cicero, On The Ideal Orator, trans. James May and Jakob Wise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  34. Arne Duncan, “Duncan Pushes Back on Attacks on Common Core Standards,” June 25, 2013, US Department of Education;
  35. Mike Rose, Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us (New York: New Press, 2009). There is evidence of declining public support for the Common Core among voters of both parties. See A. Jochim and L. Lavery, “The Evolving Politics of the Common Core: Implementation and Conflict Expansion,” Publius (forthcoming).
  36. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Johann N. Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of Creating a Nation of Joiners (Harvard University Press, 2008).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.2 (Summer 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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