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When Research Goes to Market, Is It a Good Thing for Education?

Susan Notes: The authors take an in-depth look at the conflict of interest among researchers, publishers, and Reading First. Read this and you'll see why we should now refer to Reading First as ReadingGate. There's conspiracy, conflict of interest, and coverup.

NOTE: This is one of two reports. The first precedes this one.

By Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks

In the early 1970's, when he was a 21-year-old grad student at the University of Oregon, Doug Carnine began conducting research in reading. It took him several years to realize that no one was listening.

"It was a waste of time," he said in a recent interview. "I was shocked that the whole field operated without regard to experimental research. That's why I shifted into changing policy."

The shift was evidently successful. At 57, Carnine now finds himself a trusted education adviser to the Bush administration. Before that, he advised California and Texas, under then-Gov. George W. Bush, on the restructuring of their state reading programs - both of which served as models for Reading First.

At Oregon, he directed the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (NCITE). His goal was not only to create a more welcome climate for reading science in academe, but to win the hearts and minds of publishers - in other words, to create a market for scientifically-based reading research.

But publishers were reluctant to change, Carnine found, until policy forced them to. "They would fund whatever was popular," he said. "But I've found that if there's accountability for results, then there's interest in improving results. And if there's interest in improving results, then there will be interest in quality research on how to do that."

As the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) investigates the Reading First program for possible conflicts of interest see story , Carnine's experience illustrates that the tension between research and commerce in the program was there from the beginning, and was perhaps inevitable.

"Our field is a lot like medicine and pharmaceuticals," said Louisa Moats, the director of literacy professional development for Sopris West of Longmont, Colo. and the author of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), a widely-used program in Reading First schools. "There is a close relationship - sometimes too close - between the people who do research and the people who bring products to the market."

But Moats said that while there needs to be "checks and balances," it would be wrong to discourage researchers from developing products.

"What if these people weren't doing anything commercial, then where would we be?" she asked. "We would be right back where we were 10 years ago, when all this good research was going on and no one ever used it."

The Blank Stare

It was roughly ten years ago that forces in research, policy and trade converged to form what would ultimately become Reading First. When Carnine was invited to California, he said the notion of scientifically-based reading research (SBRR) drew blank stares and rolled eyes from publishers.

"A senior editor told me, 'We're in business to sell books, and we have to meet the needs of political leaders and state officials,'" he said. "Research, he told me, was just another thing to pay attention to that didn't do us any good."

The alarm bells first sounded in 1992, when scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were provided for individual states for the first time. California's students scored second to last in reading; only Louisiana was lower. Critics seized upon California's 1987 adoption of a "literature-based" reading curriculum, also known as "whole language." They said that students scored lower because the instruction of phonics had been minimized in California's schools. With phonics, students learn how to read by first sounding out letters, then combinations of letters, and ultimately short passages from "basal" (or basic) readers.

California became the newest chapter in a debate almost as old as the public school system. The whole language approach was officially implemented by New Zealand, the country with the highest literacy rate in the world. The philosophy holds that children learn to read and write by absorbing and imitating the language around them. Students, in this view, learn phonics in the context of stories and their own writing. Teachers using this approach favor the use of actual children's literature over the basals preferred in phonics programs.

The criticism of whole language was both practical and historical. The literature-based philosophy seemed to ignore that reading and writing developed tens of thousands of years after human speech. Phonics advocates hold that reading does not come automatically to children. The focus on literature, they argued, was likely to lose students struggling to comprehend basic written words.

Those seeking to overhaul California's reading curriculum said that the use of phonics would not improve reading achievement if teachers could introduce it how and when they pleased. It needed to be "systematic and explicit." California adopted more scripted reading programs that sometimes diminished the traditional autonomy of the teacher. Whole language supporters derided what they called "drill and kill" phonics and worried that such programs would destroy student interest in reading.

A Public Health Problem

With the two sides dueling in California, across the country in Washington, D.C., research conducted for the National Institutes of Child Health and Development (NICHD) helped bolster the public policy case for systematic and explicit phonics. Reid Lyon, a developmental neuropsychologist at NICHD, became the unofficial "reading czar" of the Bush administration. He sounded a persistent drumbeat for phonics - in California, in Texas, and later, in the halls of the U.S. Congress. He was particularly successful in shifting the terms of the debate from obscure pedagogical issues to the realm of public health.

"In the academy, there's a big push to accept a broadness, so that everybody's view is taken into account," said Lyon, who left the federal government in July. "That's well and good for literature and history. But when you're dealing with human beings and their welfare, going with the flavor of the month is simply wrong."

Carnine's use of public policy to leverage change in curricula turned out to be a successful strategy. The reading initiatives in the nation's two largest state school systems led textbook publishers to place a greater emphasis on research.

SBRR got an even greater push with the 2000 findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP). The 14-member team spent two years reviewing existing research on reading and concluded that the most effective reading instruction involved phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency and comprehension.

Lingering Doubts

The goal of the panel, according to member Timothy Shanahan, a reading researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was "to end a war." In broad policy terms, it did just that. With the advent of Reading First passed as the centerpiece of George W. Bush's signature education reform package in 2001- national reading policy would rest firmly on the shoulders of the NRP. But the report also sparked lingering doubts on the role commercial publishers played in framing the debate.

Panel member Joanne Yatvin, then a school principal in Oregon, wrote a minority opinion that accompanied the NRP report. In an interview, she said that Reading First should not have been based on the panel's findings. "The National Reading Panel did a partial job," she said. "There were too many topics of concern and interest and traditional involvement in the teaching of literacy that were never examined."

She also noted that the NRP report expressly cautioned against commercial programs because of their rigidity.

Others noted discrepancies between the 449-page final report and a 32-page summary that most non-specialists read. For example, Elaine Garan, a literature-based theorist and professor at California State University-Fresno, noted in her 2004 book In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit, and Education Collide that the NRP summary said, "Across all grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell." The full report, on the other hand, said: "The effect size for spelling [for children in 2nd through 6th grade] was not statistically different from zero ... [Phonics was] not more effective than other forms of instruction in producing growth in spelling." Skeptics also noted that the summary was written in part, and promoted by, Widmeyer-Baker of Washington, D.C., the same public relations firm that represents curriculum publisher McGraw-Hill. Widmeyer-Baker also produced a video about the panel that showed students using McGraw-Hill's Open Court Reading program.

Concerns about commercialization heightened in early 2002, when ED introduced Reading First to states in a series of Reading Academies. Presenters flashed a series of slides that gave examples of programs that would meet Reading First's requirements for core, intervention and supplemental programs. The programs highlighted included Harcourt's Trophies, Houghton Mifflin Reading, and Open Court Reading - now among the most widely-used texts in Reading First schools.

Regardless of whether anyone had a financial interest in the programs cited, the academies left the impression on many in attendance that ED had endorsed such programs. In its second of its four applications for Reading First funds, Louisiana, for example, gingerly referred to some programs as being "on the USDOE list." The concerns were so widespread, in fact, that then-ED Secretary Rod Paige wrote a letter seeking to assure states and districts that there was no such list.

The Outsourcing of Technical Assistance

Despite its size-roughly $1 billion a year, $6 billion total by 2007-and ambitions, Reading First had a remarkably small staff at the department. In addition to an assistant, the program essentially consisted of two people: Director Chris Doherty and Sandi Jacobs, a senior reading specialist. Susan Neuman, a well-respected professor known for her groundbreaking research on reading difficulties among inner city students and ED's new assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, was another visible presence in the early days of the program.

ED had designed Reading First so that the bulk of heavy lifting fell to outside corporations. In fact, Reading First may be one of the most-heavily outsourced programs in the history of the department:

*A contract for $4 million went to the American Institutes for Research of Washington, D.C., to monitor states for compliance with the program.

*Two contracts worth $14 million and $3.4 million were awarded to the RMC Research Corporation of Portsmouth, N.H., to provide technical assistance to states on Reading First. After first overseeing consultants directly, RMC ceded primary responsibility to three ED-funded regional centers located at universities in Florida, Oregon and Texas.

*An additional contract went to RMC to oversee the creation of an eight-member assessment team at the University of Oregon that reviewed 29 tests for use under Reading First.

In an interview, Neuman explained that ED did not have the scientific expertise at the department to properly oversee every aspect of the program. "Technical assistance is something the federal government never does well," said Neuman, now back at the University of Michigan. Part of the rationale may have been a distrust of Title I, a program many researchers (and more than a few department personnel) blamed for the downward slide in reading scores. When she was secretary, Neuman was fond of saying, "Title I is the Chevy, and Reading First is the Cadillac."

During these early days of the program, various department personnel met with representatives of the major publishing companies - and some of the smaller ones - to urge them to beef up their programs and to reflect a greater emphasis on SBRR. It was a clear echo of Carnine's earlier work with NCITE. By all accounts, the meetings were informal and well-received.

One of those meetings was a lunch in Washington involving the department and representatives of Scott Foresman of Livonia, Mich., publishers of a major basal textbook. Accompanying Scott Foresman officials was Sandy Kress, a close presidential adviser and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, who had become a lobbyist for Pearson, Inc., Scott Foresman's parent company. The meeting was unremarkable save for the appearance of two faces then-relatively unknown in the nation's capital: Ed Kame'enui and Deborah Simmons, professors and longtime colleagues of Carnine at the University of Oregon. Along with Sharon Vaughn, a reading researcher at the University of Texas, the pair had just signed with Scott Foresman to produce a new basal, scheduled for release in 2007.

In an interview, Simmons, now a professor at Texas A & M University, recalled that Scott Foresman was "starting to build a new program" and that the purpose of the meeting was to "learn from the department the kinds of expectations they had" under Reading First.

The Research Market

Neuman recalled another lunch with Randy Best, the president and founder of Voyager Inc. of Dallas, Texas, which was quickly making inroads in Reading First's supplemental and intervention market. "I remember Randy said that what you want is for programs to push the marketplace to encourage better programs," she said. "Instead of four big basals, you'd have a wide variety to choose from - that if one didn't quite work, others might do better."

That hasn't happened, in Neuman's view. "The marketplace has gotten narrower, rather than wider," she said. "That's the travesty."

Critics of Reading First's implementation say the roots of the problem lay with the program's structure. Within a year of meeting with Scott Foresman and Voyager to discuss ways to make their products adhere to SBRR, the department designated the designers of those companies' products as leaders of the SBRR advocacy effort for states and districts involved in Reading First. Kame'enui and Simmons were named co-directors of the Western Regional National Reading First Technical Assistance Center at the University of Oregon. Vaughn became the director of the Central Regional National Reading First Technical Assistance Center at the University of Texas.

In addition to their work on the upcoming basal, Kame'enui and Simmons had worked on an earlier intervention program for Scott Foresman. The pair, in addition to Vaughn and Roland Good, another University of Oregon professor, helped design one of Voyager's most successful products, Voyager Expanded Learning.

ED officials declined to let reporters interview Kame'enui, who is serving through 2007 as the commissioner of the National Center for Special Education Research, about possible conflicts of interest surrounding his role in Reading First. But financial disclosure statements he was required to file upon joining the department indicate that his association with Scott Foresman was quite lucrative. He earned between $100,000 and $250,000 in royalties last year, according to the documents, although it was unclear whether the funds stemmed from the upcoming basal or the earlier intervention work. Simmons and Vaughn both indicated that they receive no royalties from Voyager, but were paid fees as research advisers.

Spokespeople for Scott Foresman and Voyager declined several requests to answer questions for this article.

In addition to his work for Scott Foresman and Voyager, Kame'enui chaired Reading First's assessment review team and, with Simmons, co-authored a widely used "Consumer's Guide" to help states and school districts select programs under Reading First. In her book, Garan describes a presentation she gave in which she used color transparencies to explain the "vested financial interests of the 'scientific researchers' and their connections to government policy."

"When I came to Edward Kame'enui," she wrote, "I ran out of colors. He has financial links at so many levels."

In interviews, both Vaughn and Simmons indicated that, as consultants, they were rarely asked questions related to their products; if they were, they said, they refused to answer them.

"If an RF director would ask me about products, I would steer them to independent reviews such as those located on the websites sponsored by Oregon Reading First and Florida Reading First," Vaughn said in an e-mail. The reference, however, is circular. The Oregon Reading First list was partially devised by Kame'enui and Simmons.

(See table for state links with prominent consultants.)

Consulting or Advertising?

Even those who stand to gain from Reading First have expressed some unease at Oregon's privileged role. The American Association of Publishers (AAP), a trade association based in New York, contacted the University of Oregon earlier this year about potential conflicts of interest. The programs reviewed in Oregon had a clear marketing advantage, while many others have been excluded from consideration, said Stephen Driesler, head of the AAP's school division. "As an industry we're not trying to create an un-level playing field," he said in an interview.

"Evaluators of unknown credentials used a rating system for which no descriptors have been made available, and in some cases, used criteria for which no research substantiation can be found," the AAP said in a letter addressed to Martin Kaufman, dean of the university's college of education, referring to the Oregon list Kame'enui and Simmons helped devise. "In addition, there is some appearance of a conflict of interest, as the most highly-rated program on the list was authored at the University of Oregon by researchers now associated with the federal technical-assistance center [there]." AAP received no response from Kaufman.

The issue of conflicts of interest can be far subtler than a consultant hawking a product at a public meeting. What about a Web site? A widely-used essay called "Big Ideas in Beginning Reading" and available at the Web site for Oregon Reading First - the site Vaughn points state directors to - contains graphics and text touting Scott Foresman's Early Reading Intervention program, the very one designed by Kame'enui and Simmons.

To some, this is proof that when it comes to SBRR, the tail is wagging the dog. "It's advertising, plain and simple" said Robert Slavin, co-director of Success for All (SFA), one of the three groups that asked the IG to investigate Reading First. "This is a website for a federally-funded contractor that is supposed to be helping states and school districts decide which are the best reading programs for children. It's just so far beyond what should be acceptable in a federal program."

If anything, the consultants' ties to Voyager have yielded greater scrutiny. Several researchers noted that while Reading First monitors have hammered many programs for a purported lack of research, Voyager has escaped serious scrutiny in many instances because of the big names behind it. Earlier this year, Richard Allington, president of the International Reading Association, wrote in the Journal of Reading Recovery that he didn't understand why "so many state Reading First designs support the use of completely unproven interventions" - specifically citing Voyager, among others - while dismissing programs like Reading Recovery, which has also asked the IG to investigate Reading First. "If evidence - scientific research evidence - was the true standard for decisions, then Reading Recovery and other tutoring interventions would be available for every child who could benefit from them," he said.

Voyager was publicly touted by former secretary Paige when he was superintendent of Houston, and President Bush, when he was governor of Texas. Best, Voyager's founder and former president, was named a Bush Pioneer for significant contributions to the president's 2000 campaign. When New York City adopted Voyager Expanded Learning in 2003, Betsy Gotbaum, the city's public advocate, complained in writing about the use of "an untested program still in its developing stages."

"Voyager has produced little results," she said in a letter to Chancellor Joel Klein of the New York City schools. "Research on Voyager programs is rare. When it is done at all, it is almost never conducted by evaluators with no connections to, or financial interest in, the company. The research and claims made by Voyager have been cited to be flimsy and unscientific by several university scholars who specialize in reading curriculum."

The commercialization of reading surely didn't begin with Voyager - or Reading First, for that matter - but the company has taken educational marketing to new and sometimes controversial extremes. In 2001, prior to the enactment of Reading First, Georgia Superintendent Linda Schrenko directed $1.1 million in state funds to Richmond County so underachieving students could use Voyager. She didn't ask the state Board of Education's permission to give the grant, which the board cited as a violation of state rules. A month after the county spent the money, Voyager executives and their spouses gave Schrenko's gubernatorial campaign $56,750, according to campaign records, even though Schrenko was in Georgia and the executives lived in Texas.

Shanahan, the NRP member, recalled being courted by Voyager in 2002, when he served as a reading advisor to the Chicago public schools. A company executive called to invite him, his staff, and their spouses on a "weeklong golf junket" billed as an opportunity to discuss the company's research. "She was pushing what a good deal it was, and how good the food was," Shanahan recalled. "My response was 'What could we possibly need that much time for?'"

"To give you the research behind Voyager," she responded.

"What is it?" Shanahan asked.

"The National Reading Panel," she said.

"I think I got that covered," he said gamely. "I helped write it." According to Shanahan, the executive told him that people from Chicago had come the previous year and seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Shanahan resolved to have "a brush-up on ethics" with the district's lawyers (see the sidebar below).

Best sold Voyager to ProQuest Information and Learning, a Canadian education publisher, in 2004 for $340 million, in addition to $20 million in ProQuest stock. He is now working with Lyon on the American College of Education, a for-profit teacher training program.
Neuman's Resignation

Before she resigned as assistant secretary in 2003, Neuman said she raised a red-flag about possible conflicts among consultants to the program. "I said to Chris Doherty that this had to be taken care of ... just because of appearances, if nothing else."

It is unclear if her advice was heeded. Doherty declined to discuss the department's conflict of interest policy with the Monitor due to the ongoing IG investigation. But in an ironic note, conflict of interest issues appear to have played an important role in the murky circumstances surrounding Neuman's departure.

When she resigned as assistant secretary, it was widely reported that she left for personal reasons. Some articles mentioned that, as an academic, Neuman never fit in to Washington's political culture and butted heads with leaders of the department.

But what wasn't mentioned was that shortly before Neuman's resignation, Brian Jones, ED's general counsel, confronted her about approving a series of Early Reading First grants for a commercial curriculum she helped develop before coming to the department.

Neuman declined to discuss the episode. But in an interview with the Monitor, she indicated that she severed her ties with the program before coming to the department. Such a move was not required of her as a political appointee; others, for example, put their royalties in a blind trust before assuming their duties.

According to two current department officials and three others familiar with the episode, instead of examining the grants in the order they were received, which is the normal procedure, officials asked Neuman to first review them for quality - to separate wheat from chaff. At the time, Neuman told others that she had been cleared by department ethics officers to review the grants. But it is unclear whether ED's lawyers knew that in doing so, Neuman would be reviewing her own material. When Jones questioned Neuman, he accused her of violating the ethics agreement she signed upon joining the department.

One person familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named, suggested the incident was politically motivated. "It's like Susan was told to drive her car 100 miles-per-hour and don't have an accident, and by the way, the guy who's judging the race doesn't like you very much."

A current department official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, added: "This very well could have been a 'gotcha' to get rid of Susan."

ED spokeswoman Susan Aspey declined to comment on the episode.

Whatever the reason for her resignation, Neuman was a presidential appointee who signed an ethics agreement as a condition of employment. The process of policing potential conflicts undoubtedly becomes more complex when dealing with federal subcontractors, who are far removed from the department and may not even be considered employees of the government under federal law.

Interestingly, a month before SFA filed its complaint with the IG, Slavin buttonholed Doherty, the program's director, on a commuter train from Baltimore to Washington. According to Slavin, he asked Doherty if he was concerned that authors of major commercial texts were in charge of Reading First's technical assistance centers. No, everyone in the industry was conflicted, Doherty said; ED wanted the best people. The only alternative was to go with "28-year-old assistant professors," Slavin recalled Doherty saying, in which case the department would have no credibility.

So, how should ED address the situation? It may be instructive to go back to California, one of the first states to grapple with the conflict-of-interest problem in reading. California doesn't allow anyone connected to its reading program to be involved with commercial interests for one year prior to working with the state or three years after, said John Mockler, a lobbyist for the AAP and former executive director of the state board of education.

"If you're a consultant for a testing company or a publishing company, you can't participate in the testing process, the advisory process or the review process," he said. "We get rid of a lot of good people that way. But we're not beholden to any particular interest."

The Monitor encourages readers to comment on this special report. If you have thoughts or questions related to any of the articles, contact editor Andrew Brownstein at abrownstein@thompson.com. As an additional service for readers, the Monitor is making available a current list of state monitoring reports and peer reviews of state applications for Reading First. Just click on this link

NRP Member-Turned-Consultant Navigates Tough Conflict-of-Interest Issues

Timothy Shanahan is the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago. For two years, he served as a member of the National Reading Panel (NRP), the congressionally mandated panel whose 2000 report helped lay the philosophical foundations for Reading First. In 2006, he will become the president of the International Reading Association.

These days, he finds himself in demand as a Reading First consultant to states like Colorado, a reviewer of district applications in Georgia and Texas, and a frequent speaker on the NRP's findings. He is also an author for curriculum publishers Harcourt Achieve, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and the Pearson Learning Group. Like several Reading First consultants, he sometimes faces accusations that he has "cashed in" on his government experience. But in the following excerpt from a wide-ranging series of interviews with the Title I Monitor, Shanahan illustrates that it is possible to steer an ethically sensitive course through the narrow waters between policy and commerce.

These issues drive me crazy in my own work. I was on the NRP. If someone wants me to come and talk about the NRP (or things that the NRP studied), or invites me on the basis of the fact that I did that work or I have been recommended on that basis, is it a conflict? In other words, hasn't the government put me in an advantaged spot by inviting me to serve?

Obviously this is a real situation, not a hypothetical - and I have grappled with it. I can think of all kinds of reasons why my efforts could appear to represent a conflict (or more accurately, the potential appearance of conflict), but I have come down on the side that I don't think what I have done is conflicted, and perhaps some of these others are in the same boat I am.

1. My NRP work obviously wasn't about money in the first place since NRP members provided two years of work as volunteers (no payment).
2. There was no quid pro quo: No one ever said or implied that if I did this work for free now, later people would pay to talk to me about it. In fact, for most members of the NRP this hasn't been an issue because it hasn't impacted them in any positive financial way.
3. The amounts of money have not been large for that kind of work. (But this is tricky, since I don't know all the threads of it. For instance, someone invites me to Indiana to give a speech because I was on the NRP and I charge them $2,000. I give the speech and it is well-received, and six months later I'm invited to talk to a group in St. Louis because someone saw me in Indiana. Is my income from the NRP the $2,000, or the $4,000 - the money for two speeches?)
4. The delay in benefits makes me feel safer on it, but I'm not sure why. I didn't get paid for my work on NRP, and I didn't get any of the kinds of payments noted above until approximately two years after the NRP was completed and disbanded. (I was working in a school district and didn't have the time to sell my time.)
5. The people who put me on the NRP are not the people who today recommend that you need to hear Tim Shanahan about that. That separation is important to me, too.

Now I'm getting invited to design reading programs and I'm doing it. ... They might be asking me in the hopes of getting some aura from the NRP for their program, but what can someone do about that? We can't make this a situation where anyone who donates time to the feds or makes any kind of serious commitment to addressing learning needs is going to be suspect then or later.

A Sampling of 25 State Reading First Applications
You need to look at the chart in pdf form .

It lists:
How many times did Did they apply?
Do they use DIBELS?
Are Good, Kame'enui, Moats, Simmons or Vaughn listed as consultants?
Alabama 2 X
Alaska 4 X Institutes to "be conducted by professional development consultants such as
Dr. Roland Good...Dr. Anita Archer and Dr. Louisa Moats."
Arizona 2 X Moats
Arkansas 2 X Good
Connecticut 3 X
Delaware 4 X Moats
Florida 2 X
Georgia 5 X Simmons and Kame'enui
Idaho 3 "Moats and Joe Torgeson reviewed the [Idaho Reading Initiative] prior to [it] being piloted."
Illinois 3 X
Kansas 4 X Simmons
Kentucky 4 X Simmons
Louisiana 4 X "No, but Moats trained one of the LA Reading First personnel."
Maryland 3 X Kame'enui and Simmons
Michigan 2 X
Missouri 5 X
Nebraska 3 X Moats
New Jersey 3 X
New York 3 X Good, Kame'enui, Simmons and Vaughn
North Carolina 4 X Moats and Vaughn
Ohio 3 X
Pennsylvania 3 X Kame'enui, Moats, Good and Simmons, along with Reid Lyon, Rollando O'Connor
and Marci Stein.
Texas 3 "Texas Center for Reading & Language Arts at the University of Texas-Austin,
directed by Dr. Sharon Vaughn, has played an important role in supporting the
Texas Reading Initiative."
Virginia 3 X
Wisconsin 4 X
Source: State Reading First applications available online

— Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks
Thompson Title 1 Monitor


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