Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Where Will You Put Your Energy?

I received an email from a teacher opposed to engaging in the PLC process at her school. She took the position that the concept represents an experiment and that she should not have to participate in experiments. Her rational is, "How do we know that this process works better than the old ways?" She suggested that she be allowed to continue to work in isolation and that the school use her students as a control group for the experiment.

Here is my response:

I would not allow a teacher to opt out of the PLC process under the guise that his or her students are going to serve as a control group. There is already abundant research that says the "old ways" of teachers working in isolation, following their own pacing, assessing what and how they want, and intervening (or not) dependent on their personal preferences are not effective. There is abundant research that says working collaboratively, having teams establish and implement a guaranteed curriculum, creating common assessments, and developing a schoolwide plan for intervention is in the best interests of students and leads to better results. We don’t need to conduct experiments in each of the schools in each of the 15,000 school districts in the United States before we act on what has already been clearly established as best practice. So, unless this teacher could present some clear and compelling research to support the old ways (which she can’t), she must join her colleagues in acting in the best interest of her students.

I also ask her to reflect on the results of the "old way" of schooling last year in the United States.

  1. For every 100 students who entered high school four years ago, 30 had dropped out before graduation. We rank 21st out of the 27 industrialized countries in terms of dropout rates. Those dropouts will earn 33 cents for every dollar a college graduate makes over their lifetime and 66 cents for every dollar a high school graduate will make. They will live a shorter life, they will be less employable in a volatile job market, and their children will have only a 1 in 17 chance of earning a college degree.
  2. Of the 100 students who entered high school, 47 will enter college. One-third of them will need remedial courses. Thirty percent will not return to their college for the second year. We rank near the bottom of industrialized countries in terms of college dropout rates.
  3. Throughout almost all of the second half of the 20th century, we ranked first in the world in terms of percentages of young adults (aged 25 to 34) with a college degree. By 1995 we had dropped to second. By 2008 we had dropped to 11th.

What the "old way" has done best is give us one of the highest dropout rates in the world, for both high school and college. Instead of this teacher wanting more evidence that the PLC process will be beneficial, she should provide some evidence to justify continuing with a process that has proven over time to be so ineffective.

My challenge to this teacher is this: I can show you the research in support of doing what you are being asked to do. In the absence of contradictory research and in the face of the evidence of the impact of the "old ways" on our students, how can a professional justify ignoring the evidence? It is time to put your energy into making our new process work rather than defending the status quo.


Chris Jakicic

J Brent,

When I think about why I became a teacher, I realize that it had as much to do with helping students who weren’t motivated as it was to help those who were. In fact, helping an unmotivated student might actually be more satisfying for me! Unfortunately, all students don’t come to us ready to learn or motivated to learn, and we have to find ways to reach all of our students.

One of the ideas you suggest is that we have to make our instruction engaging to students. Student engagement increases when they are learning about topics that interest them, that require them to think, and that will have meaning in their future. In a Professional Learning Community teachers work collaboratively to design effective lessons that will assure students learn. The team examines different instructional strategies and chooses those that are most successful for students. Working in isolation can be extremely difficult because teachers are limited only to those ideas they personally have.

Teachers who operate as Professional Learning Communities problem solve by examining best practice research. Involving students in their own learning is clearly one of those best practices. Royce Sadler suggests that we help students be able to answer three questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? How can I close the gap? Teachers who help students individually answer these three questions see students become more involved in learning as well as more successful. Teachers who make their learning targets clear help their students achieve those targets. They do this by writing targets in student friendly language, by showing students what quality work looks like, as well as what poor quality looks like. Formative assessments help teachers know exactly what students do and do not understand. Equally as important is that formative assessments should help students understand for themselves what they do and do not know. Having students track their own progress is one way teachers can make sure that students are aware of how they’re doing. Finally, students close the gap between where they want to be and where they are right now when teachers provide descriptive feedback to them. Research proves that providing feedback is one of the most effective strategies teachers can use. Students who are given feedback during the learning process and who are allowed to improve their work as a result of that feedback, will continue to improve.

Motivation is intrinsic. Good teachers know how to increase student ownership and accountability to increase their motivation.

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V. Hinchman

I have found that there are two basic types of people in education (pretty much in any occupation) - those who welcome change and those who do not. That's not to say that change is always for the good or that change is always needed. Change is scary and very difficult for some people. If you ask someone if they enjoy struggle and the unknown, I cannot imagine anyone saying, "Why yes, I love struggling and feeling uncomfortable at work." But, in this case, change goes hand in hand with education. How can it not? Our world is changing daily - look simply in the area of technology. The advances in technology is unbelievable and students, teachers, parents, school systems better be on-board with technology in order to stay informed and current with employment opportunities and everyday interactions in the world. Well, initiating Professional Learning Communities in schools requires change. Change in HOW we interact with our colleagues and change in WHAT we share with our colleagues. I understand that it is uncomfortable to ask to change how you have taught for 33 years, but we must do what is needed for student learning, not what is best for us (the educator). In the long run, doing what is best for the students will come back around (I believe) and prove best for the educator as well. I have the opportunity, as an administrator, to go into classrooms and see what is happening. I see amazing lessons from the experienced teachers as well as the first year teachers. Sometimes I see things I just have to share. I would love for the teachers in my building to have the opportunity to discuss student assessments and these wonderful teaching strategies and see the correlation between the two. Remember the old saying "two heads are better than one" - well, you better believe it! I have just completed a class on PLC's and I am hooked!! I see the value in working together as a team for the good of ALL students. Is it going to be easy? Nope! Is it going to require hard work on all of our parts? Absolutely!! And finally, who stands most to gain from the PLC endeavor? EVERYONE!!
Thank you for all of the interesting comments - food for thought!!

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I found this blog very interesting. Jbrent, you made several interesting points and I agree with you on most; however, because of the changing generations, I do feel that collaboration could possibly benefit this generation. I agree that every strategy that we are trying now will not be tested until years to come. Honestly, I do not feel that there is a right or wrong way, it just depends on each unique situation. For example, a teacher's personality, her students, her administration, and overall satisfaction are all factors in how that teacher reaches her students. Isolation could very well work for some teachers. As you mentioned, we did not have collaboration implemented years ago and we seemed to end up fine. Years ago, students actually feared their parents and teachers, today they fear neither, which makes our goals more difficult to achieve. Today's generation is very interested in entertainment versus the value of a good education and learning does start at home. More effort is needed from home. Interesting Views! Thanks for sharing.

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I am a new teacher and have just become aware of the importance of a Professional Learning Community. I think it is essential that teachers break out from their isolation and become a team player. There is so much to be learned from our colleagues. It is great to assemble with my peers and share strategies and concerns and feed ideas off of one another. The teacher who preferred to work in isolation sounds like someone that is set in their ways and has taken her eye off the prize. Sticking with the “old ways” is like beating a dead horse. She may not be comfortable stepping “out of the box”, the teacher and her students have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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I do not understand this teachers way of thinking. Nor do I understand not having the drive to better yourself as a professional. I go to and am part of as many PLC meetings or groups as I possibly can. I always want to know more, other teachers, trainers and administrators can bring uniques ideas. I feel it is always good to have input from peers...I cannot imagine not wanting to participate. Overall, being a teacher is about looking at data and we all know what data says about PLC's!

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I cannot even imagine any teacher being opposed to PLCs. I am new to teaching (4th year) but I am not new to life (47th year). There is no time I can recall in my life, professional nor personal, when isolation has proven effective in problem solving. A culture of collaboration is an ideal teaching (and learning) situation. As teachers, we know that collaboration expands and strengthens student knowledge so why would it be any different for teacher growth as well? PLCs cannot be forced meetings; all teachers have enough of those. Certain supports are needed for successful PLCs: quality ample time (not an hour at the end of the day), a variety of provided structures (teachers will not magically have meaningful conversations), a variety of activities that are immediately usable (we don't need any more notebooks full of great but unworkable ideas), be school-based (one size does not fit all as each teacher/school has unique needs), and be on-going and sustained. Research shows that PLCs are not experimental but a proven method for which teachers can reach every student.

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I am a new teacher and have just become aware of the importance of a Professional Learning Community. I think it is essential that teachers break out from their isolation and become a team player. There is so much to be learned from our colleagues. It is great to assemble with my peers and share strategies and concerns and feed ideas off of one another. The teacher who preferred to work in isolation sounds like someone that is set in their ways and has taken her eye off the prize. Sticking with the "old ways" is like beating a dead horse. She may not be comfortable stepping "out of the box", the teacher and her students have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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Its amazing that there are still teachers out there that feel the best way to teach is in isolation. I have to admit I am a new teacher and have been taught the importance of collaboration amongst your peers. Even without that being stressed in my studies it seems like common sense to learn from your peers and work together. After all you and your peers have a common goal; to reach every student and help them be successful. I have participated in several different "types" of PLC meetings and those in which every member participated were often the most beneficial in that each person has something unique to offer as well as a different way of viewing things. I also think that it is horrible that a teacher wouldn't want the best for their students but are ok with simply being a "control group."

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Professionals should want to grow and flourish in thier carrer. Professional Learning Communities is a way to do this. My Elementary school requires each grade level to meet once a week and plan together. This is valuable time to discuss what the students are learning and what they are not. Each grade lelvel uses common formative assessment which allows teachers to discuss what areas the students need extra help on. Teachers can then break down thier students into groups and help them based on thier needs. It even could be a good oppurtunity for teachers to take groups of kids from other classes to help them. Since a teacher might be better at teaching the lower or higher level students than another.
Allowing teachers to meet frequently will help each grade level succeed. Our school offers half day planning once a tern (four times a year) and like I said before weekly team planning afterschool. Each Friday we are required to send notes to our principle that answer four questions. 1) What will the students learn?, 2) How will we know if the student has leanred?, 3)What will we do if the students do not learn?, 4) What common assessment is being used? Along with team planning our school has monthly curriculum and data meetings to review the progress in the school.
Professional Learning Communities is a great "NEW" approach to teaching. Teaching cannot be sucessful if you are on your own. Collaborating with colleagues can give you a brand new idea and experience. I wish people would be open to new ideas. It is beneficial for the students, and that should be what each teacher wants.

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j brent

I have mixed emotions about how far a teacher is expected to make each student successful. Research is wonderful but is only is limited to here and now. The changes we make or programs we implement can not be tested until years to come. It is through hindsight we gain a better understanding of our mistakes.

Collaboration, seeking expertise of successful professionals is very much needed, however; never before in history have we worked with a bunch of students who are more interested in gameboys, Wii's, Playstations, technology, and unmotivated. Parents baby their children instead of giving them responsibilities. Yet, I as a teacher am accountable for the student not learning. Research on professional learning is wonderful but dropout rates have changed because society has changed. You can not compare the past to the current in some areas because the past did not face the issues teachers face today. Society has made an about face and education is no longer valued. Education is now a requirement; in the past education was a privilege and that my friend is the difference. It was a privilege to go to school and educate pulled you out of poverty. Now poverty is about enjoyment and no worries; which leaves no desire for change. Hardships are what made people want an education. Hardships gave motivation to over come and pull out of poverty. Poverty people have no incentive to pull up and out of poverty. They are taken care of so they have no need to change.

I can seek professional direction, reflect on how to implement changes in curriculum, growth, and presentation but I can not change the mind set of the values of education in families of poverty. The value of learning starts at home. I have the student nine months of one year, the parents has the student for a life time. If education is not valued by poverty families as Ruby Payne presents in her book on poverty then changing the mind set of the child is next to impossible. The child in poverty values socialism, here and now. Education means leaving the nest and that is not excepted by poverty families. To leave the nest they must virtually leave home and never turn back.

Where is the starting and stopping point of what is required of an educator? I am to educate a student not take on the role of a parent to the child. There is a fine line in educator and parent and what is required of a teacher in today's society.

Drop out rates have nothing to do with how curriculum is presented. It has to do with the values of the student. The motivation of the student. Motivation comes within each of us.

Teachers need to learn how to implement more hands on activities, more appealing lessons to students but we can not compete with the glamor of parties, good times, "life is just a big party" theory, and video games. School is more than entertaining a student into wanting to learn. Core basics are skimmed over and the emphasis is on appealing to our students through fun and games is emphasized. Our students need reality not more entertainment. Educators are not "God" we can not change a person. A change within a person must come from within. All we can do is encourage the student to understand the need for education and provide activities that will promote motivation.

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Randall Squier

There was a question concerning how to support teachers who have no one else teaching the same content in a building. This is a challenge for many schools in our area and state where county and regional schools do not exist. We started by creating a network with a neighboring school who has the same demographics and goals as a learning community. Our high school teachers spent a ½ day getting to know their counterparts and talking shop. This allowed for congenial relationships to be formed and trust to develop. Emails were exchanged. Our next step will be to have departments meet though video conferencing using a common assessment as a conversation starter. We will follow this up with other live and virtual meetings. This is exciting for our teachers, since, they can say I have someone who is walking in my shoes that I can now talk shop with.
With technology and the simplicity of setting up video conferencing, your teachers don’t have to leave the building and can build relationships with teachers miles away. For a rural school such as ours, this puts us on a level playing field with the larger suburban with departments of 30. If it is important you will find the time and a school willing to do this.

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Rick DuFour

In response to jjokeeffe2009:

Wow. There is no research to support the idea that if schools create structures to provide students who experience difficulty with extra time and support for learning that students learn at higher levels? This will come as a shock to many researchers.

There is over 30 years of research that links adult expectations - assumptions about the likelihood of student success - with student achievement (Brophy and Good). There is over 30 years of research that schools that are organized to convey high expectations are more effective in terms of student achievement (Georgiades and Fuentes, 1983; Edmonds, 1978). And as one of the key researchers on the link between high expectations and student achievement concluded, "Today, high expectations for success will be judged, not only by the initial staff beliefs and behaviors, but also by the organization’s response when some students do not learn” (Lezotte, 1991).

Benjamin Bloom's research on mastery learning in the 1960s established that if all students were to learn some students would need additional time and support for learning. Bob Marzano's (2003) meta-analysis of research on school-level factors that impact student learning concluded that "opportunity to learn has the strongest relationship with student achievement of all school level factors" and that the schools that have a profound impact on student achievement "provide interventions that are designed to overcome student background characteristics." Some students will require a greater opportunity to learn, will need more time and support than others, and the most effective schools ensure that they receive it. Doug Reeves (2006) in his 90/90/90 studies of high poverty, high minority, high achieving schools found that those schools "implement a plan for timely and decisive intervention when students don’t learn." In their study of school districts that were able to double student achievement Archibald and Odden (2009) found that those districts "extended learning time for struggling students." A decade of research by the Southern Education Board (2000) into "things that matter most in student achievement" concluded, "extra help and time are important if they are designed to help students meet the standards of high-level academic courses....schools that improved most required students to get extra help when they performed poorly on tests."

I could also offer research from outside of education by people like Kerry Patterson (2008) who found that the people most effective in changing the behavior of others identified the specific behaviors vital to the person's success. They then coached and taught the behaviors, provided incentives for the behaviors, and aligned the structures of the organization to support the behaviors. In short, they were not indifferent to how others acted but purposefully set out to "make the right behavior easier and the wrong behavior more difficult." This is precisely what schools do when they create systems of timely and directive intervention that require students to do the work necessary to succeed in their classroom. The traditional default position of schools has been, "if you would rather not do your work, you won't have too. We will fail you." We have a century of evidence that allowing students to choose this option, to elect to be irresponsible, does not teach them responsibility or lead to their success.

It is important to point out that the PLC process does not call upon the individual teacher to provide the additional time and support essential to help all students learn. In fact, the process is specifically designed to provide the school-wide structures and processes to remove that burden from individual classroom teachers.

So Mr. O'Keeffe is seriously misinformed when he argues there is no evidence to suggest that students learn more when their schools create the structures that provide students with additional time and support for learning in a way that is timely, systematic, and directive. In other missives, Mr. O'Keeffe has stated that schools that are committed to excellence will" let students fail" so they might experience the "abject humiliation" that comes with failure. This is clearly his "personal, philosophical perspective," and he has never made any attempt to provide any evidence or research to support it. Perhaps that is because there is none.

Rick DuFour

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Becky DuFour

Dear McTownsley,

There are several ways you and your math department colleagues could address the "singleton" situation you're currently facing. For example:
1. the three of you could agree to teach one course in common (i.e. Algebra I) and begin to function as a high-performing collaborative team around that course that all students need to be successful in;
2. each of you could create a "job-alike" electronic partnership with a math teacher/team from another high school that serves students similar to yours. You could use technology to facilitate the collaboration.
3. you could function as a math department team, rather than a course specific team. The three of you could work together to clarify the essential outcomes, write common assessments, analyze the results for each course. You could give each other feedback on strategies to implement in the classroom to help students learn at higher levels, and all three of you could work together to intervene for the learning needs of students who are not being successful in any math course.

The following is link to a past blog article that may give you some additional ideas:

We are hopeful you and your math colleagues will agree on a "structural" change that will allow you to experience the benefits for students and teachers in a collaborative culture.

All the Best,
Becky DuFour

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Your answer is very interesting to me. We are trying to implement a PLC process in our system and we're also getting resistance at every level. We are thinking of ways to attract those for whom it is 'scary' to participate. For example, fostering encouragement by peers and demonstrating collaborative behaviors. We are having some success... And we are developing our patience.

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The question of failure as an educational policy is a question of values, not “research.” It is a tautology to claim that when teachers assume more responsibility for learning than their students, the students learn more. This merely begs the question of how far a teacher should go to protect students from their own bad choices and poor study habits. You may advocate your beliefs as much as you wish, but kindly stop insulting the rest of us by depicting your personal, philosophical preferences as scientific breakthroughs.

You PLC-ers have now officially crossed the line between professional insight and oppressive ideology. I have two words for those of you who keep inviting us dissenters to find another line of work: You first.

James O’Keeffe
El Paso, Texas

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I've seen the research and what the costs to our local communities are when students drop out. No other achievement statistic is more telling about the failure of the "old way" than current data regarding dropoutism. How can we continue to allow these mistakes to be perpetuated by insisting that it ain't broke? Clearly our institution is broken and if our communities, states, and nation are to prosper we will do so out of intentional practice, not by merely maintaining the status quo.

We need brave leaders willing to take on those who are not interested in the hard work that must take place to help kids. I think one problem leaders have is they feel like they have to sell reform as a fix that is about working smarter, not harder. I think it is a shame that we're afraid to work harder for those who want to maintain the status quo are the ones I find most resistant to the ideas of change and working harder. My kids are worth my working smarter AND harder. I believe our teachers and administrators are better compensated than they have ever been in our nation's history and I believe our need for them to produce is more critical now than it has been in the last 100 years.

In your post you mention the teacher providing evidence to justify continuing with a process that has been ineffective. We all know that evidence does not exist. I've asked teachers to provide evidence that supports the educational malpractice of giving zeroes and not making kids do the work and they cannot find any research to do so. Again, the reason is because it doesn't exist.

Finally I appreciate the politeness that is offered to the teacher by Dr. DuFour, however in some cases it may be necessary for leaders (which includes other teachers) to encourage teachers who don't want to change, who refuse to accept research, who base their methods on what is comfortable and familiar to look into another profession where the status quo is effective. We need to continuously improve and in some cases we must pursue fairly radical changes to what has always been done.

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Your post is right on the money! Sometimes the fear of being seen as ineffective among one’s peers, leads some to this view or position, as they continue to work in isolation. Unfortunately, our students don’t have time for these kinds of unwarranted, unsupported (by the evidence or research) and unhelpful non-solutions. I applaud the many teachers and administrators who have taken steps to focus on the PLC process. Of course, they will encounter some challenges, but nothing that they can not overcome as collaborative teams who are focusing on the right things. As Lillie Jessie always says to her teachers and teacher teams when confronted with challenges, “the answer is somewhere in this room guys”. When working in isolation, the answer may be in the room, but could you be certain? We have too many excellent people in our schools to believe that the answer is not in the room.
If a school who calls itself a Professional Learning Community, and the collaborative teams in that school have a laser-like focus on The Three Big Ideas of PLCs and the Critical Questions of Learning, then they are are always smarter than an individual teacher.
If this teacher’s colleagues are working in true collaborative teams, then she will start to stand out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, right now at this minute, the individuals who may be suffering the most are her students. My hope is that the culture of her school will allow her to make mistakes within the context of the team which will allow for great conversation and deep learning. If the culture allows for mistakes and risk taking and she continues to work in isolation, then her professionalism definitely needs to be questioned and her position as a teacher needs to be evaluated by the administrators.
Finally, it may be easier and more comfortable to work in isolation, but the benefits to students are limited. I will admit that working in collaborative teams can be challenging because you have to learn to “listen” and “share”(isn’t this what we should be modeling in our classrooms anyway, how to work together?), but the benefits to students when working in this manner are limitless.

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Your email response was spot on. I have a question that is somewhat unrelated to this blog post, but very much related to Revisiting PLCs at Work, common formative assessments and the plc model. I teach at a school with three full-time math teachers. Currently, there is not a single class that is taught by all three of us. For example, I teach Geometry and Statistics at my school. No one else does. There is no one to create common formative assessments with; no one to brainstorm teaching strategies with either. Many of the teachers in my building are in a similar situation without much course overlap. How would PLCs look in our context? Thanks in advance.

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Since reading Rick DuFour's first book "PLC's at Work" I have been a strong advocate for collaborate Learning Teams. When I began teaching 20 years ago we had little, if any, collaboration between myself and my colleagues. I became an administrator six years ago for two purposes: to ensure a quality curriculum, instruction, and assessment system was put in place in my district and to put in place professional development that was NOT the "one size fits all" approach we were used to. I taught in isolation, I planned in isolation, and I learned what I learned about teaching and learning in isolation; never sharing my knowledge or ideas with anyone. Not because I didn't want to, but because the opportunities did not exist. So, I immediately set out to implement a Learning Community in the district to deliver effective professional development. I wish I could say that path and journey was easy; much resistance to the idea was found with the secondary teachers. I suspect the person Rick responded to has a secondary background. Rooted in the idea of being a "content expert", many teachers feel insulted and defensive about collaborating. I think it is comes from lack of trust, experience collaborating, and fear of exposure. Schools who collaborate on a consistent basis and discuss curriculum, instruction, assessment, grading, and academic needs of students have higher achievement levels. Individual student needs are met more effectively and efficiently. Increased quality of what we teach, how we teach it, and how we determine student success are just a few of the positive outcomes seen from Learning Teams. Another positive is increased quality and focused professional development. Who knows better the needs of their students than their teachers. Aligned to data and building goals, when focused professional development occurs, student achievement and learning also increase. These are researched and proven as effective means of increasing student achievement. The "old" way may have been comfortable, but the "new" way is a path insecurities are exposed. Change is difficult. When teachers resist it is important to keep moving forward. It may take time, but either these teachers will "conform" or they will move on to a district not progressing, but standing still. Much wasted energy is used by individuals; who really loses here - it is the students!

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