New Mirrors. Less Smoke?

06/10/2010
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I’ve never been shy about my contempt for standardized tests and the data derived from them.

If you’re in a hurry, I’ll save you time by saying that my opinion is not at all changed by the new way the New York City Department of Education is going to figure what all the numbers generated by their multitude of tests mean when it comes to measuring school effectiveness.

It seems that the NYCDOE has realized that their metrics for reflecting school effectiveness for the past couple of years were based on smoke, not that they’d ever admit that publicly.

The formulas used to determine whether or not a child or aggregate of children made or didn’t make a year of progress during a school year were, to put it gently, completely worthless at best, and thoroughly misleading.

All the pressure, sweat, hours, anguish and anxiety teachers, principals, parents and, students dedicated to that year of progress were all spent in pursuit of ephemera.

The re-drawn chart comparing the various gradi...
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Nothing makes a person dedicated to a job like finding out that the back-office folk who wouldn’t know what to do in a classroom if they could find their way into one were all piling wool in front of our eyes.

We know this now because the NYCDOE is introducing a new way of measuring progress that is more complex, less comprehensible, most likely not any more reliable, yet – somehow – liberating.

Starting this year the progress of any student will only be measured against the progress of other students who scored the same as they did the previous year.

The annual progress of a student who scored a 1.75 on our four point scale in the ELA test last year will only be measured against the progress of other students across the city who also scored 1.75 on that same grade’s ELA test last year.

If there are ten other students who scored a 1.75 on that test, and this year our boy scores higher than six of the others, he will be in the 60th percentile and will be considered to have done well in relation to his peers.

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If he scores higher than only one of his peers his teachers need to figure out why they’re not more effective.

This, roughly, is the brief explanation of the new system my principal gave my colleagues and I today.

He said it was the short version. He also said it was all he could give us because the rest is a bunch on statistical jargon explained in a thirty slide PowerPoint that not even he, a very smart man, understood completely.

But he also said that one side effect of the new system for figuring student progress is that it allowed us to stop worrying about annual progress for the school and each of its subgroups.

That liberates us to do more of what most of us became teachers to do, focus on the individual child.

That is an unintended consequence of this new system of mirrors reflecting back what we accomplish.

And this set of mirrors comes with much less smoke disguising what we see.

Is this what progress looks like?

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I Like To Watch

05/07/2010
Magnifying glass and reflection
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The last time I got to watch another teacher teach was when I was a student teacher six years ago.

Back then I really didn’t know enough to observe what was happening and understand what I was seeing.

Today I finally got the chance to watch an excellent teacher teach a social studies lesson.

This was very useful to me because I now have the background and experience to really look at what was going on — and what was not happening —in front of me.

I wish this had happened a couple of years ago.

It is happening now because my principal says my one teaching weakness is my classroom management. He is being kind.

Very kind.

Classroom management is something I completely understand in theory and I even know the dance steps, but I can’t seem to keep from tripping over my two left feet.

I know I have to set up good procedures from the beginning and stick to them, but I never seem to have the right ones.

This year has been especially difficult because I was out the first month of school with my knee injury and the kids had lots of opportunity to develop bad habits. I also was teaching general education classes for the first time.

The best thing about watching another teacher work is that I am able to compare what I saw to my own practice, and I am man enough to admit that compared to Mrs. A, I have absolutely dreadful class management skills.

Realizing that is the first step to improving.

Mrs. A was masterful in the way she not only managed a class with several difficult students but actually got those 8th graders to think independently in the process.

I came away with lots of management techniques and a new process for analyzing photographs, posters, and other documents.

I also came away with a strong desire to watch other teachers teach.

There is a current movement to greatly increase the amount of time teachers-in-training spend student teaching and I am all in favor of that.

But I also think that a few years after being certified all teachers should be required to observe one or more colleagues for a few days.

I know I’m ready to sacrifice some prep periods to do that.

Are you?

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Do We Really See What We Claim To?

04/20/2010
Distorted Reality
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My last post inspired a blog post by Diane Lauer on her blog titled “Seeing with Our Hearts as well as our Eyes” I commented on her post. She urged me to post my response on my blog. Here is is:

Thank you for the honor of quoting my post. I’m glad it inspired you because that is what I — and all teachers — try to do; inspire further thought.

Part of the problem of human perception is that we use short-cuts, our minds fill in the gaps of what we think we see according to the patterns of our past experience. Those gaps are not always filled accurately and we’re not perceiving what is actually there.

It is one thing to use past experience as a guide to perceiving present situations, but it is a completely different thing when the perception is not based on any prior experience.

That is what happens with standardized tests and in any other situation where the person or people drawing conclusions based on the data presented to them do not have prior experience with the particular students whose exams generated that data.

A teacher knows her students and knows that student A has a stomach ache from the tension high stakes tests generate, that student B’s parents just got a divorce, that student C’s brother got shot last week and that there isn’t any food in student D’s home because his parents got laid off and the first unemployment check hasn’t arrived yet. The person looking at their data, the classes data, and the school’s data doesn’t know any of this and neither does anyone walking into the classroom for the first, second or third time.

Only the teacher, particularly in consultation with students’ prior teachers, has the intimate knowledge and background necessary to make the data make sense. Arguments that exam data is not about particular students and are aggregations fail because an aggregation based on defective data is as worthless as the data it is based upon.

It is the curse, or more likely the gift, of the human condition that we are not perfect and any single test may catch us in brief but spectacular moments of imperfection. That snapshot is valuable only that it verifies our being human, and it is my fervent hope that we don’t need to spend the money, time and anxiety standardized tests cost to realize that.

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Using the Wrong Camera Creates a Bad Picture

04/14/2010
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It’s not like teaching doesn’t have enough frustrations.

After all, teachers go to work every day ready to inspire, challenge, guide and enjoy the children for whom we have been given responsibility.

We take this responsibility seriously.

We learn as much as we can about whatever it is we are assigned to teach.

We come in early or leave late. Some hardy souls do both.

We take work home most nights and we bring the work back in the morning.

We take work home most weekends.

We bring the work back on Monday.

We teach our curriculum, but we do more.

We model behavior.

We resolve disputes.

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We listen.

We provide shoulders to cry on and tissues to dry the tears with.

We buy the supplies that the taxpayers don’t provide but that our students need.

We buy snacks and lunches for the kids.

We feed mouths as well as minds.

We feed spirits as well as bodies.

We help build our nation.

We help build all our tomorrows.

Okay, so maybe not all of us.

I know there are teachers who have given up but still show up and collect a paycheck.

I know there are some teachers who should not be in a classroom.

There are even some who should not be allowed near kids.

How many? I don’t know. No one knows.

That’s not really true. Other teachers know.

We know because we are in the building with them.

We know because we see them teach, or not teach.

We know because we know what a good teacher looks like, how a good teacher works, the things a good teacher does.

I don’t want to work with bad teachers, with teachers who have given up, or with teachers who never should have been given the job.

No good teacher wants to work with those people. They just make our job harder.

We’re the ones who have to clean up their messes, help their students succeed in spite of the teaching they got last year.

Should incompetent teachers be fired? ABSOLUTELY!!

I’m a strong union supporter, a proud (at least most of the time) member of the United Federation of Teachers, but I still say bad teachers need to be fired.

I also know that almost no one not in a school on a day-to-day basis can spot a bad teacher if one should fall from the sky and hit them on the head.

You see, there is no real external measure of good or bad teaching.

Some of my students made great progress last year. That doesn’t make me a great teacher and more than that some of the students in the same classes didn’t make any progress makes me a bad teacher.

Things just happen that way sometimes.

I’ve seen teachers seem to work wonders one year and not be able to motivate any students the following one.

The only things that changed were the students. One year you get a self-directed driven group and the next you get a class that makes slackers look hyper-motivated.

You take a snapshot of the first class via a one-shot standardized test and that teacher looks great. Take the same shot the next year and that same teacher seems incompetent.

The problem isn’t the teacher. The problem isn’t even the students.

The problem is the camera.

Old Camera...yuk
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Teaching isn’t the kind of thing you can capture in a snapshot.

That applies to bad teaching as much if not more than it applies to good teaching.

Judging the quality of teaching from a one-shot snapshot standardized test is like reviewing a movie director’s career based on one frame from one movie.

Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are many more good ones.

The problem is that most people aren’t using the right lens, the right camera to get the contrast right.

What’s worse is that most people are happy to use that standardized test still camera.

Making a movie is just too hard, too much work, I guess.

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Sticks and Stones… Yeah, Right

03/22/2010

It happened again.

I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Why, I’m sure she didn’t even give it a second thought.

That is the crux of the problem.

We don’t give the words we use a second thought, at least not when we say them out loud.

When we write we choose our words carefully, aiming to get just the perfect nuance, the right shade of meaning.

When we write we recognize the power of words, how choosing one instead of another shifts meaning in subtle or overt ways. We use dictionaries and thesauri in tandem to aid us in our search for precision in language.

I do, and I am confident many other writers, cognizant of the complexity of our mutt-like English language, do as well.

While Professor Henry Higgins bemoans that “One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get,” the rest of us are free to revel in the diversity of words that Dutch, French, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Saxon, German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Italian (itself a motley collection of distinct dialects), and more have contributed to what we commonly call English.

It is that very diversity that allows linguistic precision, and it is that capability for precision that makes it so very distressing when people who should know better use words carelessly.

It is one thing to use an imprecise word when speaking, but quite a different thing when one is writing and, perhaps, has the time to choose words more carefully then read and revise by picking a different word or phrase to better convey intended meaning.

Still, despite the opportunity to do better, I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Perhaps I should say persons because the offending term appeared in a magazine article and this magazine has an editor who might have caught the offending term and suggested an alternative.

That this did not occur leaves me to presume dereliction of duty or, worse, intent.

I will not embarrass the writer, editor or magazine by identifying them, partially because that is not how I operate, but also because the offensive phrase is so commonly used.

Here’s what I’m going on about; just a few simple words:

“Regular education,” or in this specific instance, “regular classroom environment.”

I am known in many corners of the online world as Spedteacher. It’s a handle that takes SpEd, a common abbreviation of ‘special education’ and adds it to my job title.

Perhaps I should call myself ‘Irreguteacher ‘ instead.

The opposite of ‘regular education’ is irregular education. A classroom environment other than a regular one is an irregular one.

All people are different. We all come with a broad selection of abilities and things we’re not so good at doing. How can it be that only a very small group of that overwhelming selection of abilities is labeled ‘regular’ and the rest are implied to be irregular?

In the text for one of the many inclusion-themed t-shirts available from his Nth Degree Catalog (The Home of Wheelchair Boy Jeans) Dan Wilkins explains the problem with the phrase ‘regular education’ much better than I can:

“One of the problems I have with the Special” and “Regular” education dichotomy is that its very existence forces us to label every kid just so we know which box to put him/her in. It gets worse. Then we take all the kids in one of the boxes and we put each of them in their own box and slap another label on it…. perhaps two…or ten. After a while we forget about the kid in each box and just see the box (and all its labels). It gets worse. Inside the box, the kid, misjudges the edge of the box for the horizon and comes to believe ‘that’s all there is…’ In the eyes of everyone, including the child, the kid and the box become one. So much for dreams…the chase is over before it begins.”

There it is.

In general, it is better to call the classrooms most students are in “general education.”

Calling them anything else should be irregular.

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What I Told the White House

03/03/2010
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Today the White House blog asked “What does 21st century education mean to you?”

I don’t normally read the White House blog, but Michael Josefowicz, one of the regular commenters here pointed me to the post.

The White House asked for responses via Facebook, Linked-in or Twitter. I chose the latter, though I found 140 characters were not enough. I used 1120 characters, give or take a few. This is what I told the White House.

.@whitehouseIt 21st C. education recognizes that all knowledge is connected; art, music, social studies are part of math & science emphasis.

.@whitehouselt 21st C education isn’t about a score on a test, it’s preparing a rounded person to accomplish great things.

Then I pointed them to yesterday’s blog posting.

.@whitehouselt Assessment is essential, but it must be appropriate to the learning desired, to the subject matter, & to student needs.

.@whitehouselt Formalized assessment now takes a huge part of teaching time & school resources for very little benefit to students.

.@whitehouselt Emphasis on standardized testing reveals a lack of imagination in assessment & produces lack of imagination in students.

.@whitehouselt 21st C advances should allow individualized teaching & learning. That will require individualized assessment. <more>

.@whitehouselt Emphasis on standardized exams takes imagination/effort from individualized teaching, resources not available to develop it

.@whitehouselt Race To The Top stifles creativity rather than promoting it. Innovation is directed into narrow channels.

I could have gone on, but I had the sense they weren’t really listening.

Maybe I’m wrong about that.

I hope so.

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A New Perspective From the Old

02/22/2010
Hands
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Today is the first day back at school after a week off and I’ve never been as eager to deal with children again.

I spent most of the past week tending to my 85-year-old aunt and uncle who live about an hour away.

He is in good shape and able to take care of himself, but she’s been in hospital or rehabilitation center since taking a nasty fall in late November.

At first the problem was a broken arm.

Now she is losing her mind.

It is odd how many of the same skills I use daily with my students I now use talking to my aunt and uncle.

He’s always been a deliberate person, considering options from every angle before making a decision, but now he processes slowly and remembers less easily, so waiting for him to make a decision requires every bit of patience and gentle prodding I can muster.

My aunt’s once focused mind is now lost in a world of its own creation. Her increasingly bizarre statements show she is no longer the person my uncle married 50 years ago this past Valentine’s Day.

Listening to my aunt is exhausting.

I’ve always said that I get energy from my students and that is so. Dealing with the elderly, I am discovering, has the exact opposite effect, rendering me  an old battery trying to start a car on a very cold winter morning.

Don’t get me wrong; I am happy to be able to help my childless relatives. I’m the oldest nephew and my uncle, a major figure in my childhood, has remained a reliable guidepost throughout my life.

Even so, dealing with my elderly relatives is far more difficult than dealing with the most difficult students.

I care deeply about my students, and not just their academics. I try to be for them what my uncle was for me; someone I could depend on when things got rough, someone who helped me learn that I did not have to be the person I often saw being modeled for me at home.

I tell my students that all experiences produce learning, but that we have to capture it and connect it to what we already know.

I enjoy working with my students, but I never thought of them as a relief before.

Being there for my relatives this past week has given me a valuable new perspective on what I do every day.

I will try to remain open to the lessons that new perspective offers.

.

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Run Schools Like Businesses? Absolutely!

02/01/2010
Business Plan in a Day book
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I’m about to say something radical.

Okay, it may not seem so radical to you but to the people who have known or read me for some time this will be startling.

Schools SHOULD be run as businesses.

I ran a business for almost 20 years so I think I understand some things about how to do it.

The business leaders who complain that schools should be run more like businesses don’t get it.

They don’t get it so much that I don’t understand how they stay in business.

The people who oppose running schools like businesses also don’t get it.

They think that schools run like businesses will be even more like factories than schools are already.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the folks talking about running schools believe their customers are their product.

All businesses have at least one product. It may be cars, or widgets or accounting services, whatever.

All businesses that want to stay in business also have customers who buy or rent those products.

It is essential, in business and in the rest of life, that products and customers, both essential for business survival, are not the same thing.

Any smart businessperson will be able to tell the product and the customer apart.

Actually, there are a lot of not-so-smart business people who can also tell you what their products are and who their customers are.

It really isn’t that hard to do.

But, somehow, the people who insist that schools should be run like businesses can’t.

They think their customers are their product. I have no idea who they think their customers are.

The school-as-business advocates cling to an industrial model of school.

This industrial model emerged in the last part of the 19th Century and the early-to-mid parts of the 20th century to teach children who grew up on farms, children who grew up in other countries, and the children who grew up on farms in other countries how to be good, obedient, factory workers.

The industrial model of schools taught and teaches how to be in place at the assigned time, not a big farm skill but essential in industry.

The industrial model teaches how to follow directions, also useful in industry.

The industrial model also teaches how to produce on a rigid schedule, and we all know that assembly lines move on a rigid schedule.

Despite all the talk that schools are bad, they actually are exceedingly good at doing what they were designed to do: take in raw youths and produce compliant, punctual workers.

The problem is that our schools are designed to feed students into the industries that America no longer has.

All those jobs that initially moved to Japan and more recently to China, Vietnam and India not only led to the decline of industrial centers like Detroit, Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, they have led to the obsolescence of the American model of education.

Now there are various efforts to “reform” schools in some way.

Most of these efforts, charter schools and the like, are small adjustments in a model that more and more people say needs a major overhaul at the minimum.

In any case, these charter schools have come into existence to give students, guided by their parents, choices about where to go to school.

Competition, it is claimed, will force public schools to become better.

In other words, public schools, private schools, parochial schools and charter schools are all competing for the same student just like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Five Guys are all competing for the same stomach.

Those folks who say schools should be run like businesses still think of the student as their product even though their customer, industry, has fled to the hinterlands and is unlikely to return no matter how compliant the students schools create.

The student who used to be the product of the school system is now the consumer, the customer.

So I think it is now essential to run schools like businesses.

Schools-as-businesses now need to focus on the student, figure out what the student wants, how much of it they want, in what kind of package, and where they want to buy it.

Schools and school systems need to sell themselves to their customers the same way Chevy, Ford and Toyota have to sell to drivers.

Now the problem of keeping students in high school is a marketing and management problem, not a legislative one.

Now creating schools that students want to attend will take more than new packaging and other tweaks.

It will take new products, new formulas and new locations.

This is big.

It’s like the day after Thanksgiving for retailers, now get the customers to come to your school.

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Teacher Gets Schooled

01/26/2010

I’m a lousy teacher.

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
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I’m a great teacher.

I’m also a mediocre teacher.

In the course of a year I’m all of those.

Sometimes I’m all of those in a single 42-minute period.

I’m in my sixth year teaching.

As I learn more and more about my craft I spend more time as an excellent teacher, somewhat less as a lousy one. But when I really look at my practice, I realize that most of the time I’m pretty mediocre.

There’s been a lot of discussion about teacher quality lately. Atlantic Magazine has an interesting article on the subject.

It seems that despite the billions of dollar spent on curriculum development, technological upgrades, renovated or new physical plants and tons of books, it’s the teacher in the room that makes the biggest difference.

I make the difference.

If you were the parent of a student in my class, or someone from whom I might seek a teaching job, you could, and should, ask me what qualifications do I have to take on this awesome responsibility of teaching.

I have a BS in Education Studies from SUNY/Empire State College and a Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham University GSE, with 4.0 averages at both.

I passed all the exams New York requires and, for good measure, the ones NJ requires, too.

I did 15 weeks of student teaching in a suburban second grade, then another 20 in a multi-grade class at Blythedale Children’s Hospital School.

I also have 40 years of work experiences in a variety of professions and 56 years of (just the one, so far) life experience to draw on for something those extra insights that add so much to lessons.

Impressive, some would say, while others will call it merely adequate. As paradoxical as it may seem, both groups are right.

My qualifications for my job are impressive.

They are also not nearly enough.

Good teachers never stop learning; never stop trying to get better.

I’m fortunate that I have found two different groups of smart, dedicated, generous and talented people who help me learn more about how to do what I do better.

The first group started developing in my rookie year when my mentor, Oksana Kulynych, introduced me to Phil Panaritis and the Teaching American History program in our half of the Bronx. For five years Phil and the college professors he recruits have taught me a tremendous amount of subject content and applied pedagogy.

The second group started developing when I joined Twitter.

Through Twitter I started connecting with what has become my PLN, my Professional Learning Network of teachers, librarians, school psychologists, principals, administrators and others connected to or interested in education.

I’ve been on Twitter for 15 months or so, about as long as I attended graduate school and did student teaching.

I have learned far, far more about teaching, gathered many, many more resources and gotten much more support and constructive criticism on Twitter than I did getting my master degree.

It was a hell of a lot cheaper, too.

Later this week I will travel to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia I will meet some of the members of my PLN at the Science Leadership Academy. Principal Chris Lehmann, along with the teachers, students and parents connected with the school, host Educon, 500 people having a three-day long series of conversations about teaching and learning.

I am tremendously excited about the learning opportunity Educon presents.

I will come away exhausted, my head spinning with more inspiration, more techniques, more knowledge and more questions.

It will take me some time to digest it all, but in the end it all will help me become a better teacher.
My qualifications will be that much more impressive.

But it will not be enough.

It will never be enough.

There’s always something else to learn, something else to try.

I will find it.

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Get Fat For Haiti!

01/23/2010
Bake sale table
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In early October people began noticing that in late June the NYC Department of Education banned most bake sales in schools.

There were exceptions: once a month the PTA could hold a bake sale, but not during lunch periods. In other words, if you wanted to sell cupcakes to kids you had to haul them out of class.

Oh, you could also hold all the bake sales you want after 6PM on any day. Go figure. My school closes at 6PM.

The DOE promulgated the crackdown on cupcakes in an at-best ham-handed attempt to reduce the amount of fat and sugar in student diets.

Apparently the yearly lessons on the food pyramid were not sticking in student heads as much as the daily doses of chips, brownies and Skittles were sticking out student bellies.

I’m not writing this essay to claim that allowing students more time for physical activities such as gym classes and running around the schoolyard during recess would do more to promote student health and reduce waistlines faster than policing pies.

That is far too obvious to bring up.

And I’m not writing this essay to note that many schools are so overcrowded that their gyms are used for classroom space, or that many principals have eliminated gym time so that students are able to receive more minutes of the precious math and language arts test preparation that passes as instruction in many schools.

I’ll save that diatribe for another time.

I’m also not writing to say that my school gives all students gym class at least twice a week, has two certified physical education teachers, and gets kids outside during recess whenever the weather allows it, even though we do all of that.

No, I want to talk about Haiti and the DOE’s reaction to the death, injuries, famine, homelessness and other horrible results of the recent massive earthquake there.

The DOE said it was okay to have bake sales again, even during lunch periods.

But only as long as the proceeds were sent to agencies participating in the relief efforts in Haiti.

Yes, boys and girls, the DOE says you have to find other ways to finance class trips, band instruments, sports uniforms, and all the other things schools once provided.

But its okay to get fat for Haiti.

There’s something particularly disturbing about the DOE’s idea of students swallowing sweets while desperately hungry Haitians swallow dust.

Meanwhile, at my school, students raised over a thousand dollars in three days just by going from class to class and soliciting donations.

And they got exercise by striding down our long halls and climbing up and down stairs.

I think they could teach the DOE leadership a thing or two.

Don’t you?

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