Education in the United States
From Academic Kids
Education in the United States occurs under a highly decentralized system with funding and curriculum decisions taking place mostly at the local level through school boards. Educational standards are generally set by state agencies. The federal government of the United States, through the U.S. Department of Education, is involved with funding of some programs and exerts some influence through its ability to control funding. Accreditation of schools is accomplished by voluntary regional associations of educational institutions. There are also non-entrepreneurial schools that are private. Schools in the 50 states primarily teach in English, while schools in the territory of Puerto Rico teach in Spanish.
Education terminology in American English is somewhat different from Commonwealth English. In informal speech, Americans usually put the grade number first as an ordinal number ("12th grade") as opposed to the Commonwealth usage of putting the grade number after the word grade as a cardinal number ("Grade 12"). The Commonwealth usage is used in the U.S. only in formal contexts. Kindergarten is usually not capitalized when it occurs after the first word in a sentence.
Americans capitalize the full name of a postsecondary degree when written out in full with reference to a specific field—for example, one always writes "Bachelor of Arts"—but not when referring to generic classes of degrees. Thus, bachelor's degree, master's degree, and doctorate are usually written without capitalization.
Currently, the United States has a relatively educated and literate population. As of 2003, 76.6 million students are enrolled in nursery through undergraduate collegiate study in the United States. Of these, 72% aged 12 to 17 were judged academically on-track for their age (enrolled in school, at or above grade level). Of those enrolled in compulsory education, 5.2 million (10.4 percent) were attending private schools. Among the country's adult population, over 85% have completed high school, and 27% have received at least a bachelor's degree. The average salary for college graduates is $45,400, exceeding the national average by more than $10,000. Literacy is estimated at 97%. Template:Ref
There are no mandatory public preschool or crèche programs in the United States. The federal government funds the Head Start preschool program for poor children, but most families are on their own with regard to finding a preschool or, in the alternative, child care. There is a chronic nationwide shortage of quality preschools because most parents simply cannot afford better.
In the large cities, there are often upper-class preschools catering to the children of the wealthy. Because some upper-class families see these schools as the first step towards the Ivy League, there are even counselors who specialize in assisting parents and their toddlers through the preschool admissions process.
In the United States, all students must attend mandatory schooling starting with 1st grade and following through 12th grade (first grade is not the same as kindergarten, which is often not compulsory). In practice, parents may educate their own children at home (although not widespread), or send their children to either a public or private institution, though almost all students enter the public schools because they are "free" (tax burdens by school districts vary from area to area). Most children enter kindergarten at the age of 5 or 6, depending upon eligibility requirements in their district, and leave compulsory education at the age of 18 when their senior year (Grade 12) of high school ends. Students attend school for around 8 hours per day, 185 days per year. Most schools have a summer break period for about two and half months from June through August. This break is much longer than the one students in many other nations receive. Originally, "summer vacation", as it is colloquially called, allowed students to participate in the harvest period during the summer. However, this is now relatively unnecessary and remains largely by tradition; it also has immense popular support. Some groups think that children should stay in school longer, but there is little momentum from this angle.
Elementary school (Kindergarten through Grade 4/5/6)
In most districts, kindergarten through Grade 6 provides a common daily routine for all students except the most disadvantaged and sometimes gifted students. Students do not choose a course structure and remain in a single classroom throughout the school day, with the exceptions of physical education (more commonly known as P.E.) and music or art classes. Sometimes sixth grade is made part of middle school, a practice which is becoming more and more common.
Education is most thoroughly unstandardized at this level. Teachers receive a book to give to the students for each subject and only a brief overview of what they are expected to teach. In general, a student learns through extremely rudimentary algebra in mathematics, grammar and spelling in English (or language), and a year of state, U.S., and world history. Science varies widely from district to district and is one of the most undertaught subjects; most elementary teachers have a degree in English or education.
Middle school (Grades 5/6/7 through 8)
"Middle school", "junior high school", and "intermediate school" are all interchangeable names for schools that begin in 6th or 7th grade and end in 8th, though they may sometimes include 9th grade as well. The term "junior high school" and the arrangement beginning with 7th grade are becoming less common.
At this time, students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take classes from several teachers in a given day, unlike in elementary school where all classes are with the same teacher. The classes are usually a strict set of a science, math, English, social science courses, interspersed with a reading and/or technology class. Every year from kindergarten through ninth grade usually includes a mandatory physical education or P.E. class. Student-chosen courses, known as electives, are generally limited to only one or two classes.
High school (Grades 9 through 12)
High school runs from grades 9 through 12. Some school districts deviate from this formula. The most widely seen difference is to include 9th grade in middle school, though it is a relatively old practice which is disappearing. In high school, students obtain much more control of their education, and may choose even their core classes.
Basic curricular structure
Students in the United States, unlike their counterparts in other developed nations, do not begin to specialize into a narrow field of study until their sophomore year of college. At the high school level, they mostly take a broad variety of classes, without special emphasis. The curriculum varies widely in quality and rigidity; for example, some states consider 70 (on a 100 point scale) to be a passing grade while others consider it to be 75.
The following are the typical minimum course sequences that one must take in order to obtain a high school diploma; they are not indicative of the necessary minimum courses or course rigor required for attending college in the United States:
- Science (biology, chemistry, and physics)
- Mathematics (usually three years minimum, including algebra, geometry, algebra II, and/or pre-calculus/trigonometry)
- English (four years)
- Social Science (various history, government, and economics courses, always including American history)
- Physical education (at least one year)
Many states require a "Health" course in which students learn anatomy, nutrition, and first aid; the basic concepts of sexuality and birth control; and why to avoid destructive substances like illegal drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol.
High schools offer a wide variety of elective courses, although the availability of such courses depends upon each particular school's financial situation.
Common types of electives include:
- Visual arts (drawing, sculpture, painting, photography, film)
- Performing Arts (drama, band, orchestra, dance)
- Shop (woodworking, metalworking, automobile repair)
- Computers (word processing, programming, graphic design)
- Athletics (football, baseball, basketball, track and field, swimming, gymnastics, water polo, soccer)
- Publishing (journalism, yearbook)
- Foreign languages (French, German, and Spanish are common; Chinese, Latin, Greek and Japanese are less common)
Additional options for gifted students
Not all high schools contain the same rigorous coursework as others. Most high and middle schools have classes known as "honors" classes for motivated and gifted students, where the quality of education is usually higher and much tougher.
If funds are available, a high school may provide Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, which are special forms of honors classes. AP or IB courses are usually taken during the third or fourth years of high school, either as a replacement for a typical third-year course (e.g. taking AP U.S. History as a replacement for standard U.S. History), a refresher of an earlier course (e.g. taking AP Biology in the fourth year even though one already took Biology as a freshman), or simply as a way to study something interesting during one's senior year (e.g. AP Economics).
Most postsecondary institutions take AP or IB exam results into consideration in the admissions process. Because AP and IB courses are supposed to be the equivalent of freshman year college courses, postsecondary institutions may grant unit credit which enables students to graduate early. Both public schools and private schools in wealthy neighborhoods are able to provide many more AP and IB course options than impoverished inner-city high schools, and this difference is seen as a major cause of the differing outcomes for their graduates.
Also, in states with well-developed community college systems, there are often mechanisms by which gifted students may seek permission from their school district to attend community college courses full-time during the summer, and during weekends and evenings during the school year. The units earned this way can often be transferred to one's university, and can facilitate early graduation.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all American states must test their students statewide to ensure that they are achieving the desired level of minimum education. The Act also requires that students and schools show "adequate yearly progress." This means they must show some improvement each year. An example is the TAKS test in Texas.
In some schools, most course credit is earned through midterm and final examinations (at the middle and the end of the semester). These tests have been criticized for not evaluating a student's knowledge correctly, while being granted too much weight in the calculation of the student's course grade (as opposed to shorter quizzes or extensive long-term projects which may provide a more comprehensive picture of a student's grasp of the material). Because midterms and finals are usually the most important tests, any errors made will be magnified. Most attempts to ban these types of tests in the United States have been unsuccessful.
During high school, students, usually in their junior year (grade 11), may take one or more standardized tests depending on their postsecondary education preferences and their local graduation requirements (some students choose not to take the tests at all). In theory, these tests evaluate the level of knowledge and learning aptitude they have attained.
The SAT and ACT are the most common standardized tests that students take when applying to college. A students may take the SAT, ACT, or both depending upon the college the student plans to apply to for admission. However, not all students move on to postsecondary education, and may not need to take the tests.
Education of students with special needs
In the United States, education of the mentally retarded, blind, and deaf is structured to adhere as closely as possible to the same experience received by normal students. Blind and deaf students usually have seperate classes in which they spend most of their day, but may sit in on normal classes with guides or interpreters.
The mentally retarded are required to attend the same amount of time as other students; however, they are almost always in separate classrooms for the majority, if not all, of the school day. These classes, commonly known as special education or special ed, are run by specially trained teachers. Depending on the degree and severity of any mental or physical problems, these students may participate in normal classes and activities, often under the care of a devoted guide. Larger districts often are able to provide more adaquate and quality care for those with special needs.
Some students are identified early on as having dyslexia or being significantly slower learners than other students. Sometimes these students are able to attend special sessions during the day to supplement regular class time; here they often receive extra instruction or perform easier work. The goal of these programs, however, is to try and bring everyone up to the same standard and provide equal opportunity to those students who are challenged.
College or university
Postsecondary education in the United States is known as college or university and usually consists of four years of study at an institution of higher learning. Like high school, the four undergraduate grades are also called freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years. In contrast to secondary education, such grades are not assigned or described by numerical designations. Students must apply to receive admission into college, with various difficulties of entrance. Schools vary in their competitiveness, but on the average, public schools are more lenient and private schools are more rigorous. Admissions candidates often, especially in prestigious top-tier schools, have the same test score and class rank level and universities often look at extracurricular activities during the admissions process. Also, many colleges consider the rigor of the courses taken, and not simply the grades earned. Certain test scores, class rank, or other numerical factors hardly ever have required levels, but often there is a threshold below which admission is unlikely.
Once admitted, students engage in undergraduate study, which consists of achieving a bachelor's degree. The most common method consists of four years of study leading to a Bachelor of Arts (BA), a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, or sometimes (but very rarely) another bachelor's degree such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). Some students choose to attend a "community college" for two years prior to further study at a college or university. A community college is run by the local municipality, usually the county. Though rarely handing out actual degrees, community colleges may award an Associate of Arts (AA) degree after two years. Those seeking to continue their education must transfer to a four-year college or university (after applying through the same admission processes as normal freshmen, see articulation). Some community colleges have automatic enrollment agreements with a local four-year college, where the community college provides the first 2 years of study and the four-year university provides the 3rd and 4th year of study, all on one campus. For example, the University of Houston System has partnered with community colleges in neighboring cities to provide bachelor's and master's degrees in cities that are only served by community colleges. The community college awards the associate's degree and the university awards the bachelor's and master's degrees.
Postgraduate study, conducted after obtaining an initial degree and sometimes three to four years of professional work, is one to three years leading to a Master's Degree (MA), Master of Science (MS), or sometimes other master's degrees such as Master of Education (MEd) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA). Three or more years after the completion of a master's degree, students may earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or other doctoral degree, such as Doctor of Arts, Doctor of Education or Doctor of Theology. Some programs, such as medicine, have formal apprenticeship-like procedures like residency and internship which must be completed after graduation, before one is considered to be fully trained. Other professional programs like law and business have no formal apprenticeship requirements after graduation (although law school graduates must take the bar exam).
Entrance into postgraduate programs usually depends upon a student's undergraduate academic performance as well as their score on a standardized entrance exam like the GRE (graduate schools in general), the LSAT (law), the GMAT (business), or the MCAT (medicine). Many graduate and law schools do not require experience after earning a bachelor's degree to enter their programs; however, business schools often wish to see several years of real-world work experience. The vast majority of students never attend postgraduate courses and, after obtaining their bachelor's degree, proceed directly into the work force.
Public vs. private schools
Primary and secondary education
Unlike most other industrialized countries, the United States does not have a nationalized educational system. Thus, K-12 students in most areas have a choice between free taxpayer-funded public schools and private schools. Private schools charge varying rates depending on geographic location and religious status. For example, some churches will partially subsidize a private school for its members. Some people have argued that when their child attends a private school, they should be able to take the funds which the public school no longer needs and apply that money towards private school tuition in the form of vouchers; this is the basis of the school choice movement.
Although they are free to all students, most public K-12 schools are moderately underfunded by their respective governments, and can only afford to employ teachers with bachelor's and associate's degrees. Class sizes vary widely; some states achieve average sizes of less than 20 students, but class sizes can run as high as 40 or 45. It is widely believed that large class sizes contribute to discipline problems and a poor learning environment. Meanwhile, the physical infrastructure tends to be in various states of decay, and wealthier districts are often more advanced and better prepared than students in private schools. In poorer districts, teachers often must buy materials for their students out of their own salaries.
In contrast, private schools usually maintain high quality facilities and a sufficient number of teachers to keep class sizes lower than in public schools, generally around 15 and usually capped at 20. This is possible partly because private schools pay their teachers less (often about 80% of the public school pay scale) and partly because private schools are at liberty to refuse any more students after they have reached their full capacity, whereas public schools are required by law to give education to anyone who signs up. As a result, admission is competitive, often based on university entrance exams like the SAT.
Some private schools charge high tuition, aggressively recruit faculty with advanced degrees, provide a challenging and varied curriculum, and promote themselves as the route to the most prestigious universities (see prep school). Discipline also tends to be stricter in private schools than in public schools, as persistently unruly students may be permanently expelled from their campuses (and forced to return to the public school system).
Colleges and universities
A few states (like California and Arizona) have two separate state university systems. The more prestigious one is usually known as "University of [state name]" and its faculty are expected to conduct advanced cutting-edge research in addition to teaching, while the less prestigious is usually known as "[state name] State University" and is focused on quality of teaching and producing the next generation of teachers. Some states have experimented with the two-tier framework and then returned to a single, unified public university system.
The vast majority of students lack the financial resources to pay tuition up-front and must rely on student loans and scholarships from their university, the federal government, or a private lender. All but a few charity institutions charge tuition to all students, although scholarships (both merit-based and need-based) are widely available. Generally, private universities charge much higher tuition than their public counterparts, which rely on state funds to make up the difference. Because each state supports its own university system with state taxes, most public universities charge much higher rates for out-of-state students. Private universities are generally considered to be of higher quality than public universities, although there are many exceptions. The absence of state funds tends to drive private universities to offer better services to students.
Annual undergraduate tuition varies widely from state to state, and many additional fees apply. A typical year's tuition at a public university (for residents of the state) would be about $5,000. Tuition for public school students from outside the state are generally comparable to private school prices, although students can generally get state residency after their first year. Private schools are typically much higher, although prices vary widely from "no-frills" private schools to highly specialized technical institutes. Depending upon the type of school and program, annual graduate program tuition can vary from $15,000 to as high as $40,000. Note that these prices do not include living expenses (rent, room/board, etc.) or additional fees that schools add on such as "activities fees" or health insurance. These fees, especially room and board, can range from $6,000 to $12,000 an academic year (assuming a single student without children). Template:Ref
Unfortunately for most students, costs are rising and state appropriations for aid are shrinking. This has led to debate over funding at both the state and local levels. For instance, from 2002-2004 alone, tuition rates at public schools increased by just over 14%. This is largely due to dwindling state funding. A more moderate increase of 6% over the same period for private schools also occurred. Template:Ref
The status ladder
American colleges and universities are notorious for being somewhat status-conscious. Their faculty, staff, alumni, students, and applicants all monitor unofficial "rankings" produced by magazines like U.S. News and World Report and test preparation services like The Princeton Review. These rankings are generally sorted by prestige, which in turn is often based on factors like brand recognition, selectivity in admissions, the generosity of alumni donors, and the volume of faculty research.
In terms of brand recognition, the most well-known university in the United States is Harvard University. Harvard alumni are prominent in American business, education, science, law, government, and media; but more than this, Harvard has become entrenched as the "top" school in the public mind. It has been featured in numerous movies (e.g., Legally Blonde, Soul Man) as the ultimate example of the academic "ivory tower."
As for which other "top tier" universities form the "top tier" is a matter of debate. It is almost universally acknowledged that the most prestigious universities are the other members of the Ivy League athletic conference on the East Coast, but it is not necessarily true that they offer a better education. The alumni of these colleges also constitute a large part of the faculties at most other universities. Less than 10–15% of those who apply are accepted. Beneath these in status are a small group of elite private universities scattered around the country. After these come the top land-grant public universities, and then the vast majority of universities and colleges (public and private). At the bottom are community colleges, which by law are usually required to accept all local residents who seek to attend and rarely offer anything beyond an associate degree.
Aware of the status attached to the selectivity of the colleges they attend, a student usually applies to a range of schools. Often he or she applies to a prestigious school with a low acceptance rate, gambling on the chance of acceptance. On the other end, a student may also apply to a school he or she feels will almost certainly admit him or her, in case the student is admitted nowhere else. The applicant may refer to this school colloquially as his or her "safety school." A college student may also refer to a rival college or university as a "safety school" implying that the other school's standards are lower than those at the student's own school.
As for community colleges, some status-conscious people are embarrassed to admit that they are going to attend one. In general, community colleges have a relationship with 4-year state universities and colleges which enable students from community colleges to transfer relatively smoothly to these universities. They usually have a group of classes for which credit is guaranteed to transfer to the 4-year college so that it will fulfill the graduation requirements for a bachelor's degree.
This "ladder" is not absolute, however. Some non-Ivy League private universities, such as MIT and Stanford University, can rival Ivy League schools in prestige, especially in newer or more specialized fields of study. Likewise, some elite public universities, such as UC Berkeley, are comparable to their private counterparts (usually in terms of graduate education and research, but not necessarily in terms of undergraduate education). There are several dozen small private liberal arts colleges (like Amherst and the Claremont Colleges) which are renowned for their small class sizes and high-quality teaching, and can often offer an educational experience superior to that at larger universities.
There is no absolute correlation between prestige and quality of education (albeit, there may be a general one), and most schools are better in some areas than in others, for which other universities may offer better courses themselves. As with many issues concerning education in the United States, the status ladder is controversial.
Contemporary issues in the United States
See also: Education reform
Major educational issues in the United States center on curriculum, funding, and control. Of critical importance, because of its enormous implications on education and funding, is the No Child Left Behind Act.
Curriculum in the United States varies widely from district to district. Not only do public schools offer an incredible range of topics and quality, but private schools may include religious classes as mandatory for attendance (this also begets the problem of government funding vouchers; see below). This has produced camps of argument over the standardization of curriculum and to what degree. Some feel that schools should be nationalized and the curriculum changed to a national standard. These same groups often are advocates of standardized testing, which is mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Aside from who controls the curriculum, groups argue over the teaching of the English language, evolution, and sex education.
The largest problem facing the curriculum today is probably the teaching of the English language. Apart from the fact that it is spoken by over 95% of the nation, there is a strong national tradition of upholding English as the de facto official language. However, up to 28 million Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children are now living in the southern United States; of these, only half speak english fluently. Of these, up to 10% do not speak english at all. This has created the problem of teaching to the children of these immigrants. While a few, mostly Hispanic, groups want bilingual education, the majority of school districts are attempting to use English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to teach Spanish-speaking students English. In addition, there are threats to the "integrity" of the language itself. A growing number of African-americans are speaking a semi-dialect (consisting primarily of slang and redistributed accents in words) called Ebonics. This leads to further argument over if, where, and to what extent to combat the development. Template:Ref
In 1999, the School Board of the State of Kansas caused controversy when it decided to eliminate testing of evolution in its state assessment tests. This caused outrage among scientists and average citizens alike, but was widely supported in Kansas. However, intense media coverage and the national spotlight convinced the Board to eventually overturn the decision. Today, such controversies are not much better. Not surprisingly, most scientific observers stress the importance of evolution in the curriculum and dislike the idea of intelligent design or creationist ideas being included. Appropriately, religious and family values groups lead the charge behind including the teaching of creationism in the public schools. While a majority of Americans approve of teaching evolution, a majority also support at least the mention of intelligent design and/or creationism in the curriculum of science courses. Template:Ref
Today, sex education in the United States is patchy at best and nonexistent at worst. Because of the huge controversy over the issue, many schools attempt to avoid the study as much as possible in Health classes. The popular media has presented an image that does not exist; there are few specifically sex ed classes in existence. Also, because President Bush has called for abstinence-only sex education and has the power to withhold funding, many schools are backing away from any mention of birth control or contraceptives. However, a majority of Americans want complete sex education in the schools. The American people are heavily divided over the issue. Template:Ref
Funding in the United States
- Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog. —Samuel Clemens, 1900
Funding for schools in the United States is a delicate and muddy issue. The current controversy stems much from the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act gives the Department of Education the right to withhold funding if it believes a school, district, or even a state is not complying and is making no effort to comply. However, federal funding accounts for little of overall monies received by a school. The vast majority comes from the state government and from local property taxes.
Property taxes have been a problem for years; California residents used their state constitution's clause for public initiatives to enact limits on property tax increases by a direct popular vote. Many communities across the country are dealing with what has become a major issue. Many parents of students who attend private school or are home-schooled have taken issue with the idea of paying for an education their children aren't receiving. However, tax proponents point out that every person pays property taxes for public education, not just parents of school-age children. Indeed, without it schools would not have enough money to remain open. Still, parents of students who go to private schools want to use this money instead to fund their children's private education. This is the foundation of the school voucher movement.
At the college and university level, funding becomes an issue due to the sheer complexity of gaining it. Some of the reason for the confusion at the college/university level in the United States is that student loan funding is split in half; half is managed by the Department of Education directly, called the Federal Direct Student Loan Program (FDSLP). The other half is managed by commercial entities such as banks, credit unions, and financial services firms such as Sallie Mae, under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP). Some schools accept only FFELP loans; others accept only FDSLP. Still others accept both, and a few schools will not accept either, in which case students must seek out private alternatives (http://www.alternativestudentloan.com/) for student loans.
All federal funding is provided by the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was up for reauthorization in 2004. Congress has not yet been able to pass a new version because it has been congested with other issues like Social Security and intelligence reform. Also, the reauthorization bill contains controversial measures, one of which would force regionally accredited colleges and universities to accept inbound unit credit transfers from the less prestigious nationally accredited trade schools (once a given student has already gone through the selective admission process). The regionally accredited schools (the vast majority of American colleges and universities) are ferociously resisting this measure because it would force them to articulate specific reasons for denying transfer of unit credit for each class (such as an instructor's inferior credentials or the inadequate amount of unit hours). In turn, the trade schools would be able to drag them into a nasty public debate about "ivory tower" elitism.
There is some debate about where control for education actually lies. Education, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, was and is usually delegated to the states. Currently the state and national governments have a power-sharing arrangement. Furthermore, within each state, there are different types of control. Some states have a statewide school system, while others delegate power to county, city or township level school boards.
Expansion of American education during the late 1800s
In 1870, only 2% of 17-year-olds graduated from high school. By 1900, however, 31 states required 8- to 14-year-olds to attend school. As a result, by 1910, 72 percent of American children attended school and half of the nation's children attended one-room schools. Lessons consisted of students reading aloud from their texts such as the McGuffey Readers, and emphasis was placed on rote memorization. Teachers often used physical punishments, such as hitting students on the knuckles with birch switches, for incorrect answers. Because the public schools focused on assimilation, many immigrants, who resisted Americanization, sent their children to private religious schools.
Between 1880 and 1885, more than 150 new colleges and universities were opened in America. Philanthropists endowed many of these institutions. Leland Stanford, one of The Big Four, for example, established Stanford University in 1885.
Many American public universities came about because of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890. During the rapid westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century, the federal government took control of huge amounts of so-called "empty" land (often after forcing the previous Native American residents into reservations). Under the Morrill Acts, the federal government offered to give 30,000 acres (121 km²) of federal land to each state, on the condition that they used the land (or proceeds from its sale) to establish universities. The resulting schools are often referred to as land-grant colleges, and the most well-known is the University of California. However, there are exceptions, such as Cornell University, which is a private school that also happens to be a land-grant university of the state of New York.
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