As educators and policymakers reimagine K–12 education in the post-pandemic era, there is a growing awareness that the harrowing events of the last two years should serve as a catalyst for radical new approaches to how we educate our children. Students have been traumatized by the sudden closure of their schools, by the illness and death all around them, by their lack of access to the internet for school, and by the constant reminders of racial injustice. Consensus seems to be forming around three important and overlapping goals supported by solid research evidence about needed changes to education policy and practice, beginning now:

  • First, schools need to become more student-centered and attentive to the whole child because students need academic, social, and emotional support to learn and thrive.
  • Second, education policies must place less emphasis on standardized testing as the primary measure of school accountability and student achievement.
  • Third, our educational system must become overtly anti-racist to address the on-going inequities that play out along racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

This report picks up on these three goals and takes them even further, demonstrating their inter-connectedness and how, combined, they create an important road map for the future of our educational system and our democracy. In fact, none of these goals is new to the field of education. Rather, they are all supported by the research on child development, brain science, learning theory, pedagogy, and policy. Experienced educators know these lessons well; the very best teachers—the ones we remember into adulthood and who inspire us to reach our highest potential—focus on the whole child, enable students to learn key concepts by connecting them to their own experiences, know the role that culture and racial identity can play in a student’s educational experience, and understand that intelligence and ability can never be measured by a single test score. This is just good education—what we should want for all of our children.

Unfortunately, for the last thirty-plus years, education policy making has been dramatically disconnected from this knowledge and from what millions of Americans know to be good teaching and good schools. Due to this disconnect, the policies of the last three decades intended to hold schools accountable for student learning and foster between-school competition and privatization, and have had the following dismal results:

  1. Failed to close the “achievement gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
  2. Narrowed the definition of academic “achievement” to mean scores on a handful of standardized tests, the contents of which are only known by the test makers.
  3. Increased stress and anxiety levels for students forced to prepare for these high-stakes tests, leaving less time for a focus on their social and emotional development or engaging subjects such as social studies/civics education, writing, the arts, and physical education.
  4. Exacerbated racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation between schools and districts through winner-takes-all school choice plans and school rankings based on scores from racially biased tests.

Clearly, it’s time to abandon these outdated policies and seize the post-pandemic moment to create a new progressive  and anti-racist educational reform strategy informed by the research evidence and the experiences and expertise of educators to achieve the goals stated above. This report is a call to action, therefore, for a much-needed return to more progressive, student-centered educational strategies, which could easily be integrated with multiple anti-racist education reform approaches embraced across the country at the grass-roots level, namely critical multicultural education, culturally relevant pedagogy, and ethnic studies. We argue, therefore, that demonstrating the philosophical and pedagogical links between progressive education, given its long history in the United States, and anti-racist education approaches can help build consensus around the future direction of an educational system that has been pushed too far away from its knowledge base on how students learn. Thus, we underscore how the implementation of harsh testing and accountability policies is antithetical to what we know our students and our racially divided nation need right now.

As educators and policymakers across the nation contemplate our schools’ post-pandemic future, the knowledge and experiences of our profession create a much-needed road map to a renewed education system that is student-centered, educates the whole child, and is anti-racist and culturally sustaining for all students. In fact, we argue that it is impossible for educators to be student-centered and focused on the whole child, including social and emotional needs, without also being anti-racist. This report shows the conceptual and practical connections across progressive and anti-racist educational strategies that should be central to the goals, purposes and accountability measures of a post-pandemic education system in the United States.

Looking Back to Move Forward

Throughout the history of American education, educators who identify as “progressive” emphasized the importance of hands-on, project-based learning tied to students’ experiences and focused on developing the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of children’s personalities. According to John Dewey, one of the founders of progressive education, the central philosophy of this approach emphasizes the importance of the participation of the learner.1 He argued that there is no greater flaw in a traditional, teacher-centered form of education than its failure to secure the cooperation of the students in constructing the purposes of their study.

In the ebb and flow of American politics, progressive education has historically been repudiated during more conservative eras, such as the Cold War and the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration’s A Nation at Risk2 report created a backlash against the more student-centered educational strategies popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The post-1983 reform movement—the one we are still living with, in many respects—was focused primarily on increasing “outcomes,” mostly measured via test scores at the expense of more progressive approaches to education. Conversely, progressive education thrived during the early-twentieth-century progressive-era struggle for human rights in which it was born, and again during the 1960s Civil Rights-era struggle for racial equity. This synchronization of progressive education and eras of social change makes sense given that two essential elements of progressive education are (1) Respect for diversity by recognizing each child’s cultural identity, interests, ideas, and needs, and (2) the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables participatory governance and a focus on the common good.

Today, as we look forward to the post-pandemic future and toward another potentially progressive era in U.S. politics in general and in the field of education more specifically, a return to more student-centered progressive education strategies that are updated and anti-racist should be the natural progression.3 We already see very powerful, grassroots efforts emerging all over the country to push our schools in this direction—from parent- and activist-led liberation schools like the Liberation School in New York City to school districts in Washington State committed to providing anti-racist and student-centered professional development for all of its teachers. Building on this grassroots momentum to affect broader changes to the educational system is what is needed now.

The central point of this report, therefore, is to issue a call to action amid the prospect of a much-needed return to more progressive education policy and practice, which could, if done inclusively, connect to multiple anti-racist education reforms taking place across the country to address deep-seated issues of race and culture with our schools’ curricula and teaching. The three anti-racist educational approaches we focus on and connect to progressive education through their historic roots and present-day applications are critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining pedagogy, and ethnic studies. As we will explain below, each of these approaches have different origins and histories, but they overlap and reinforce each other at the school and classroom level, and they all include aspects of a progressive education approach. Furthermore, each of them also relates to the three COVID19-era goals noted above and can assist progressive educators in bringing their strategies into the twenty-first century.

Strength in Unity: Bringing Together America’s Rich Traditions of Education for Social Justice

As conservative critiques of educators who are teaching their students about the history of racial oppression in the United States mount, the growing number of educators, parents, and students who believe such a critical analysis should be an important aspect of our schools’ curriculum need to come together to show a united front in favor of a more anti-racist education.4 By mapping the lineages of progressive education in connection to various anti-racist education strategies, we seek to further support today’s anti-racist education movement by demonstrating the underlying relationships between these different but overlapping approaches. Although progressive education has, in recent years, been pushed out of the public schools by the test-based accountability movement and thus, is thriving mostly in private, independent schools, the evidence of its positive impact on students and their ability to learn can and should impact future reforms in public education.5

Interestingly enough, given the origins and philosophy of progressive education, this would not be the first time that progressive educators have had a racial justice mission. Still, in the more recent shift of progressive education into the private school sector, where it serves a more affluent and predominantly white student population, some of its history of addressing racism has been lost.6 Interestingly enough, as these more privileged, private schools have attempted to implement more anti-racist teaching of late, they have faced opposition from some of the parents who can afford these expensive private schools.7 But the potential return to a more student-centered, progressive education approach in public schools cannot and should not happen without progressive educators and policymakers building a bridge to those developing the most successful anti-racist teaching approaches. If connected and combined, progressive and anti-racist educators, policymakers, and activists pushing for the post-pandemic goals stated above can create a movement for education reform that cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, each approach to education will become stronger in unity with the others. Progressive educators, for instance, can learn how to expand the “whole child” model in a way that pays adequate attention to the racial and cultural identities of students from educators who teach under the frameworks of critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education, and ethnic studies. Amidst the continued fight against anti-Black violence and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and Latinx communities, addressing racism and racial oppression in our society through how and what we teach students is as urgent as ever.

We argue, therefore, that demonstrating the historic links between progressive education and anti-racist education approaches can help build consensus around the future direction of an educational system that has been pushed too far away from its knowledge base. As noted above, harsh testing and accountability policies are antithetical to what we know our students and our racially divided nation need, and there are many powerful models of school accountability and student assessments of learning that are more authentic to the diverse understandings and interpretations of knowledge that students develop through their own experiences. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples of students—of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds—who learn and excel without being subjected to high-stakes standardized tests. For instance, the New York Performance Standards Consortium consists of thirty-eight schools in New York City, Rochester, and Ithaca that are all exempt from the state exams, boasting the motto of “Teaching over Testing,” and demonstrating high standards, rigorous curricula, and high levels of student engagement learning. 8Another powerful example of a consortium of schools and districts trying to expand their definitions of student learning and success beyond test scores is the Massachusetts Consortium of Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), which also stresses performance assessment, such as portfolios.

Thus, we have the professional knowledge, models of possibility, and growing political awareness needed to address systemic racism in our schools. This report helps us take the next step toward fair, just, and meaningful education policies to meet the post-pandemic educational goal.

The Rationale for Connecting Progressive and Anti-Racist Education Strategies

Race has been central to the history of American education. Despite so-called “colorblind” arguments that race and ethnicity should not matter in a field theoretically dedicated to helping all students succeed academically, the reality is that both the process of learning and the knowledge gained in formal education settings is as much cultural as it is cognitive. For instance, a 2018 report released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine called “How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures“ notes that culture plays an important and complex role in shaping how people learn. Cultural influences shape individuals from the beginning of life. Research and theory from diverse fields have contributed to an evolving understanding that all learners grow and learn in culturally embedded contexts, and this affects how they answer test questions.

In other words, everything humans learn is filtered through their cultural lenses. This means that students’ family and community backgrounds and experiences shape the way they interact with and interpret anything they learn in school.9Education psychologists and brain researchers understand this, as do many excellent educators steeped in their professional training of how people learn. Unfortunately, the vast majority of education policymakers seemed to have missed this critical link between learning, culture, and the understandings that students bring with them to school.

Related to this central concept of the links between learning and culture is the racialized way in which a cultural hierarchy of race and ethnicity—with white, Eurocentric views at the top—has informed the curriculum, standards, and accountability systems within our educational system since its origins. Looking back to the very beginning of the U.S. educational system, we know that our “public” schools were, in actuality, our “Protestant” schools, designed to assimilate the children of Catholic immigrants—mostly Italian and Irish children—into Anglo- and German-centric understandings of the world. In response to this education-based assimilation effort, Catholic immigrants pushed for the opening of the Catholic school system that, at the time, was a defiant form of resistance to Protestant cultural domination.10 The nineteenth- and twentieth-century Native American boarding schools are another, far more brutal example of Protestant elites using education as a process of cultural assimilation, domination, and genocide of Indigenous children to maintain the power to define what it means to be educated.11

While the remnants of this Protestant–Catholic divide still exist, the history of this nation since the mid-nineteenth century to today—including the emancipation of formerly enslaved Black people and the increase in immigration from Central America and Asia—have led to new forms of cultural domination through school curriculum and practices. Much of this form of educational erasure was predicated on a framing of Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx cultures as “deficit,” and formal school curriculum as both counter to these deficient cultures and as the official measure of intelligence and ability. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has taught us, the valued culture of a society—the culture and norms of the most affluent and powerful and, in the U.S. context, white people—become a form of “capital” in that those who learn these cultural markers as children through their families possess the conditioning and behavioral cues that will be most rewarded in schools and in society.12

As our educational system has evolved, these blatant forms of cultural domination through curriculum, teaching practices, and assessments of knowledge have become more subtle and insidious, and are now embedded deeply in the questions asked on standardized tests, required readings, evaluation rubrics, and teacher expectations.13 Meanwhile, efforts to desegregate public schools have resulted in processes of re-segregation within school buildings as these mechanisms of cultural hierarchies are used to sort and measure students.14 The political and pedagogical failures of school desegregation policies—despite their positive impact on test scores and mobility for thousands of students of color—have paved the path for a new wave of school integration efforts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century that are more focused on inclusive curriculum frameworks and students’ pedagogical and socio-cultural experiences within schools.15

The Current Status of Integration and Anti-Racist Education Efforts

In the last thirty years, court-ordered school desegregation has receded as federal courts have dismissed hundreds of orders to desegregate local districts. Instead, more of the movement for integration in public schools across the country has come from the bottom up—from local activism and educator-led efforts to address issues of racial inequality at the school and classroom level. Instead of just focusing on the numbers of students from various racial/ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups that are present in schools and classrooms, advocates, practitioners, researchers, and policymakers are beginning to think more deeply about what needs to happen within schools with respect to teaching and learning to truly foster the academic, civic, and socioemotional benefits of attending diverse schools.16 IntegrateNYC—a youth advocacy organization in New York City—calls for a “curriculum that teaches students about their history, encourages them to express themselves and be proud of their culture” as part of their larger framework for real integration.

This call from students echoes what education researchers have known for decades: students learn better and more deeply when the curriculum connects to their prior life experiences and their cultural orientations, and when pedagogy allows them to learn from each other. In fact, this fundamental idea about how students learn best has served as a foundation for several strands of curriculum and pedagogy since the beginning of the twentieth century, including the four strands we have selected in this report. They include progressive education, multicultural education, ethnic studies, and culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education. Yet, in the past two decades, the shift to a test-based approach to holding schools, educators and students accountable has ultimately diverted funding, focus, and resources away from efforts to foster curricular and pedagogical changes that support a culturally sustaining and anti-racist approach to education.17 This test-based approach to accountability was thrust upon the educational system as the student population served by our public schools became increasingly racially and ethnically diverse and no longer predominantly white and non-Latinx, even as these standardized measures of academic achievement failed to account for multiple ways of knowing that relate to culture and background, or the pre-existing racial and social-class inequality embedded in the system.18

As noted above, the result of this heavy emphasis on standardized testing along with market-based school choice policies has been greater racial, ethnic and socio-economic segregation.19 Testing measures that correlate with race and class lead to a system in which parents with the most means to choose “good” schools—usually white and affluent parents—will consistently choose schools with more white and affluent students in them.20 In addition to this test score divide, we see a growing racial and ethnic divide in the types of curriculum and pedagogy that different schools offer and different parents seek. For instance, white and affluent families will pay a high tuition rate to get their children into an elite private progressive school, while ethnic studies and culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education are seen as approaches to educating students of color.21 At the same time, the heavy emphasis on testing within the public school system has meant that far too many students of color spend their school days preparing for standardized tests and lack access to more student-centered and project-based approaches through which they can become more engaged, enhance their critical thinking skills, and come to see the cultural and social assets of their own communities.22

A Eurocentric and/or test-based approach to curriculum and pedagogy is harmful to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but it is especially problematic for students of color. Research finds that the overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many such students to disengage from academic learning.23 By the time they reach high school, students of color are not only aware of a Euro-American bias in curriculum, but they can describe it in some detail, and view it as contributing to their disengagement.24 Racism in schools also has consequences for white children, who acquire a distorted sense of cultural superiority; continue to misunderstand, reject, or fear people of different cultures, languages, or cognitions; and are denied the full breadth of the human experience.25

The irony of this curricular segregation and a heavy reliance on standardized tests that validate the divisions across race and class lines is that good teaching is good teaching and there are many key components of progressive education, critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education, and ethnic studies that they all share. But if the different constituents for each of these approaches were connected more tightly through their common tenets and understandings of child development and learning theory, they could work together to support each other in the political space to change policies and conditions for more effective and emancipatory education of young people.

We argue that it is time for advocates of progressive education, critical multicultural education, ethnic studies, and culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education to work together to push for a united reform movement that will attract enough educators, policymakers, parents, and students to convince policy makers to support meaningful changes to the current, problematic accountability system.

Similarities across the Four Approaches

As we consider each of these four educational approaches—progressive education, critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining pedagogy, and ethnic studies—and their unique and distinct histories, it is important to take a moment and highlight the thematic similarities across the group of them:

  • All embrace a student- or child-centered approach to education that begins with getting to know students for who they are and where they are from.
  • All embrace a stronger connection between home, community, and school, seeing education as contextual, and some form of educating the “whole child,” recognizing that child as centered in a family, community, and cultural understanding of the world.
  • All have a history and mission of addressing inequality within the educational system and in society more broadly by shifting deficit-based narratives about some students.
  • All require careful training of educators and thoughtful curriculum development that elevates the role of the educator to that of a professional.
  • All are grounded in an understanding that schools should be transformative and that, through the emancipatory potential of education, they should transform society in general.

In considering the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic noted at the start of the report—the need for less emphasis on testing, the need for a more student-centered approach, and the need for an anti-racist agenda in education—it is clear that drawing educators, policymakers, and other supporters of each of these movements together would be helpful in moving our schools toward a post-pandemic era.

However, what our previous research with parents and school leaders has taught us is that these four educational approaches are too rarely seen as connected and reinforcing. They have different histories, different advocacy networks, and different geographic and institutional locations across the country and types of schools.

Table 1
Overview of the Four Approaches
Progressive Education Multicultural Education Culturally Relevant/ Responsive/ Sustaining Pedagogies Ethnic Studies
Beginning of the Movement Late 1800s and Early 1900s 1970s 1990s 1960s
Constituent Divisions Seen as more in demand for white, liberal, and, often, affluent families, and has been implemented across the United States Historically had a more diverse base of constituents but lost momentum as school desegregation policies started to fade. Taken up more in schools with larger shares of Black students and has had more widespread implementation in the Midwestern and Northeastern regions of the United States. Historically tied to the Chicano Studies movement in the K–12 context and is more popular in the Western and Southwestern regions of the United States
Key Principles – Attends to the whole child
– Builds community and care among students
– Emphasizes collaborative problem-solving
– Encourages social justice, and a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others
– Develops a student’s intrinsic motivation
– Provides opportunities for active learning
– Facilitates personal development of students, particularly in the area of racial and ethnic identity and self-esteem
– Uses fair and effective approaches to individual differences in learning styles
– Uses cooperative learning
– Includes multicultural representation in the total school environment
– More dynamic or synergistic relationship between home/community and schools
– Facilitates academic success
– Affirms student’s cultural knowledge and experiences
– Sustains within-group and shared cross-group cultural practices
– Develops student’s critical consciousness, through which they challenge the status quo
– Challenges the reproduction of essentialist categories of race, class, and gender
– Deconstructs structural forms of domination and subordination
– Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary
– Recovers and reconstructs counter narratives and cultures

Too often, these four approaches are separate camps of educators working on each, which has splintered the advocacy for them in this political moment of standardized curriculum and testing. We argue that if the different constituents for each of these approaches were connected more tightly through their common tenets and understandings of child development and learning theory, that they could work together to support each other in the political space to change policies that would make the educational system less dependent on and defined by standardized tests and making schools more effective and emancipatory experiences for young people. Below we provide an overview of each approach.

Progressive Education and Its Potential Contribution to an Anti-racist Education Movement

As we noted above, progressive education was the educational phase of the larger political and social progressive movement in U.S. politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At an historical, post-Emancipation Proclamation moment and a period of massive immigration into the United States, the definition of what it meant to be an American was expanding and shifting. Thus, the progressive political movement, as historian Lawrence Cremin reminded us, was a “vast reformist, humanitarian effort to apply the promise of American life—the ideal of government by, of, and for the people—to the new and puzzling urban-industrial civilization that was coming into being at the turn of the century”.26

Progressive education therefore began as progressivism in education: an effort to improve the lives of an increasingly diverse student population through the schools. In the minds of the progressives, Cremin writes, this meant several things, including broadening the program and function of the school to include a direct concern for health, for vocation, and for the quality of family and community life.27 But it also meant tailoring instruction toward a much more diverse student population, and thus changing the very meaning of education itself to be more centered upon the students, their experiences, and their communities.28

The promise of progressive education, therefore, was that everyone could participate in the building of a new American culture grounded in both the sciences and the arts. In fact, Jane Addams, the founder of the Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house for recent immigrants who were poor, said, “unless all men and all classes contribute to a good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth having.”29

Thus, the most consistent core tenets of progressive education have been and continue to be the following:30

  • Attending to the whole child: Concern with helping children become not only good learners but also good people.
  • Community: A conviction that children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning.
  • Collaboration: There’s more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving—and, for that matter, less focus on behaviors than on underlying motives, values, and reasons.
  • Social justice: Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others.
  • Intrinsic motivation: An emphasis on promoting long-term dispositions rather than just improving short-term skills.
  • Deep understanding: Organized around problems, projects, and questions—rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines.
  • Active learning: Students play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum, formulate the questions, seek out (and create) answers, think through possibilities, and evaluate how successful they—and their teachers—have been.
    Taking kids seriously: Progressive educators take their cue from the children—and are particularly attentive to differences among them

From these tenets grow classroom practices that have defined progressive education over the years include open classrooms, cooperative learning, multi-age approaches, whole language, and a curriculum focused on the social world around us.31

Thus, the central themes that informed and shaped much of the progressive education movement were inclusion and equity through broadening traditional, white Protestant understandings of school, curriculum, and pedagogy. Within these more general commitments to inclusivity and social uplift, progressive education, from the very beginning, meant different things to different people. But for John Dewey, one of the key founders of progressive education, progressive teaching approaches would transform the role of education in a democratic society by equipping all people to live intelligently and sensitively in an increasingly diverse and increasingly industrial society. In a 1902 speech to the National Education Association, Dewey stated that education must provide a “means for bringing people and their ideas and beliefs together, in such a way as will lessen friction and instability, and introduce deeper sympathy and wider understandings.”32

As a strong supporter of the labor movement and the rights of workers, Dewey’s goal of democratizing education through student-centered approaches to teaching was to foster greater participation and voice among people of different backgrounds to build a better society. 33Although there are numerous differences of style and emphasis among progressive educators, those who shared Dewey’s convictions believed that democracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives.34

Black Progressive Educators at the Forefront of Progressivism

These democratic principles of progressive education and their connection to social justice agendas were nowhere more apparent than in the schools for Black children led by Black educators in the Jim Crow era.35 During this time, in the early twentieth century, when separate schools based on race were required by law in the South and existed by intent in the North, the professional network of Black educators so well documented by historian Vanessa Siddle Walker, were in many ways the most progressive educators of all.36 They were simultaneously teaching Black students how to participate fully in a democracy in which they could not yet participate while teaching them that the oppressive segregation they faced outside school walls should not define them. Walker tells of Southern Black schools with elaborate systems of democratic governance in which students were elected to the different branches of government and enacted school policies as an example of how Black progressive educators modeled truly democratic systems in states where Black residents did not yet have the right to vote.

Similarly, in the North, as Daniel Pearlstein notes in his historical writing on the Harlem Renaissance and its impact on education, the progressive educators who took the spirit of progressive education to its fullest emancipatory potential were the Black teachers and school leaders who were at the forefront of Harlem’s artistic and cultural movement:

Black progressive educators simultaneously built upon the capacity of Black children to construct their own understanding of the worlds and instilled a humanity that enduring structures of oppression sought to deny. In their attentiveness to particularities of Black experience, Black Renaissance artists, intellectuals, and educators were the authentic pioneers of the educational frontier.37

Because Black progressive educators were called upon to not only be progressive in pedagogical strategies, but also to teach their students about the potential progressive, anti-racist future they should envision even amid systems of oppression, it was the Black progressive educators who took progressivism to its highest potential in terms of its democratic and social justice focus.

Unfortunately, this legacy of Black progressive educators was lost when so many Black teachers were fired after de jure segregation was declared unconstitutional in the South and the Harlem Renaissance was crushed under the weight of the ongoing highly concentrated poverty and segregation of so many Northern urban neighborhoods, created by the segregation of Black migrants from the South into overcrowded and under-resourced neighborhoods. As Diane Ravitch notes in her historical analysis of the mid-nineteenth-century urban schooling, many of the white teachers who were brought in to teach in the overcrowded public schools in Black communities dealing with an influx of Black migrants from the rural South were racist, and shared the “general belief of educators and the public that racial differences in intelligence were innate, real and fixed.”38

Thus, even after the formal Jim Crow laws of the South were being dismantled, schooling conditions of Black students in northern urban communities fed a long history of distrust between Black parents and white educators that has fractured support for progressive education in the Black community. Indeed, so much of the rationale behind the federal No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, which increased the testing mandates and associated consequences for all public schools, was framed in terms of the accountability that was needed to assure that Black students and other students of color received the education they deserved.39 This bipartisan support for a test-based system of accountability, which was soundly supported by civil rights organizations and lawyers in the early 2000s in an almost desperate effort to finally ensure students of color were provided a quality education, has been the force that has pushed progressive education to the margins of public education. Thus, ironically enough, despite the central role of Black educators in making progressive education truly progressive, the racist practices and systemic oppression within public education that followed the heyday of the Black progressive education movement led Black parents and advocates to support reforms that undermined the vision and mission of truly progressive schools.40 But the intellectual and social justice connection between progressive education and the Black community can be reignited through a deeper connection between progressive education strategies and the more recent move to provide culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy via multicultural education or ethnic studies curricula.

Progressive Education Today

Given this history, many parents and educators in the current U.S. context think of progressive education as something that elite and expensive private schools do. And to a large extent they are right.41 The recent history of U.S. public education policy—the emphasis on standardized testing noted above and related punitive measures that force schools to focus on learning as a very deductive process, namely one that thinks of knowledge as something that exists outside of learner and is distributed by a teacher, as opposed to knowledge being experiential and gained through students’ personal experiences and investigations—has been antithetical to progressive approaches to education.

While much of the progressive education movement flourished in the private and not the public sphere—dating back to the early twentieth century42—the public education testing policies of the last thirty years have pushed the most progressive educators aside and forced many of them to leave the public schools altogether. This segregation of progressive education strategies into the private education system is unfortunate at this moment in history for several reasons, not least of which is the anti-racist roots of progressive education.

In a city such as New York, which once housed hundreds of public schools employing thousands of educators who were trained in and inspired by a progressive educational approach, the accountability policy regime has been devastating to the teaching profession. If we think of progressive teachers as those best versed in both the art and science of teaching, as many of them are, the virtual elimination of progressive education public schools has marginalized and diminished the number of teachers who maintain this professional knowledge, knowledge that is tightly grounded in the research literature on child development and learning theory. Furthermore, the authors know from their own work in New York City, in which we organized a popular professional development institute for educators who want to learn about anti-racist education strategies, that a growing number of progressive educators today are eager to learn more about how to become more culturally responsive and sustaining in their practice. Those who see the philosophical links between the two approaches will help to lead today’s reform movement to renew and synthesize the many lessons the progressive approach has to offer.

How Critical Multicultural Education Can Transform Schools and Society

The multicultural education movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which included many progressive educators from the prior era, grew out of a similar need to address the changing racial composition of schools during the school desegregation movement. This approach to education understood that racial equality was not only about student “access” to predominantly white schools, but also the need to address curriculum and whose history and stories were centered in what stories were told. Thus, multicultural education approaches center sociocultural issues in schools—namely, issues about whose culture is valued—as well as the curriculum and teaching strategies. Recognition of the de facto white-centric curriculum and pedagogical strategies drove a new movement to change the entire system of education, not just the racial makeup of the schools, a movement centered on an understanding and respect for differences, which reached its peak in the 1980s as The Nation at Risk report was creating a backlash against it.

An underlying philosophy of multicultural education is that different students have different life experiences and cultural communities, and thus different ways of knowing and seeing the world. Advocates of the approach believed that this principle should guide the work of schools and the curriculum and teaching within the classroom. Thus, the word “cultural” as part of the word “multicultural” is not an accident. Predating the National Academies report noted above, which located culture as the center of understanding and thus of learning, multicultural education advocates have researched the ways in which cultural experiences shape learning experiences.43

Advocates of multicultural education, therefore, promote the personal development of students, particularly in the area of racial and ethnic identity and self-esteem; the use of fair and effective approaches to individual differences in learning styles, including cooperative learning that enables students to work together on projects to build on each other’s strengths and funds of knowledge based on their different cultural backgrounds; and the achievement of multicultural representation in the total school environment.44 Geneva Gay notes that multicultural education, and pedagogies that have evolved from it, have the potential to advance desegregation and racial/ethnic equality because, when fully evolved and applied correctly, they address many of the sociocultural aspects of racially/ethnically diverse classrooms that previous non-curricular reforms have failed to address.45

Different branches and approaches to multicultural education include different levels of engagement with the work—with some approaches going deeper into critiquing structural forms of racial oppression, similar to the work of Black progressive educators.46 Christine Sleeter defines five different approaches within multicultural education as a movement:47

  1. The Culturally Different Approach, which attempts to raise the achievement of students of color by de­signing culturally compatible education programs. It emphasizes this over rais­ing students’ self-concepts or addressing structural barriers to economic access.
  2. The Human Relations Approach, which focuses on sensitivity training that naturalizes “difference” but does not address the ways in which some cultures and understandings are privileged in schools and institutions.
  3. The Single Group Studies Approach, which is related to ethnic studies (discussed below), and includes such programs as Black Studies, Chicano Studies, and Women’s Studies. This approach takes the concept of multicultural education one step further by explicitly teaching students about the history of each group and the oppression that group has faced in the past and the present, as well as the culture the group developed within oppressive circumstances. Sleeter sees its major limitation as being its focus on only one form of oppression, such as racism, while ignoring others (such as oppression based on gender and class).
  4. The Redesigning Schooling Approach, which is most commonly subscribed to by multicultural education advocates in the United States and includes redesigning schooling for a more equal society.
  5. The Multicultural and Social Reconstructionist Approach, which is the most critical in thinking about the transformation needed in education and teaches directly about political and economic oppression and discrimination, and prepares young people in social action skills.

As noted above, it is this last approach to multicultural education that is the most critical: moving beyond the “foods, fairs, and festivals” approach to embracing “diversity” and thinking about schools and the curriculum they teach as sites of transformation and broader social change. Much like the original progressive education movement described above, which focused on educating students for democracy and demographic participation, this more critical multicultural education approach considers schools and their students within a broader political and social context.

The powerful links between curriculum and social reconstruction was a centerpiece of this more critical and socially conscious form of multicultural education. James Banks notes that the most effective way of transforming the educational system, and in turn, the society, focuses on the knowledge construction process.48This dimension, Banks argued, demonstrated how cultural assumptions, frames of reference, and perspectives influence how knowledge is constructed in ways that legitimize institutional inequality. Thus, the goals of multicultural education are to develop oppositional knowledge and liberatory curricula that challenge the status quo and sanction action and reform, providing a means for students to become effective citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society.49

In this way, multicultural educators, like the Black progressive educators before them, place a much stronger emphasis on issues of race and ethnicity and culture than many progressive educators do, which makes multicultural education a bridge from progressive education to more recent anti-racist education approaches, such as culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining pedagogy and ethnic studies.

Culturally Relevant/Responsive/Sustaining Education: Connecting Progressive Education Strategies to Anti-Racist Work

As the desegregation policies of the 1960s began to be dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s, education scholars began grappling with new models, separate but related to multicultural education, for teaching students of color and students from historically marginalized communities under the understanding that the current education models were at times perpetuating inequities within the classroom. As part of this effort, Gloria Ladson-Billings put forth a framework for culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) that focused on the teachers’ positionality and intention in the classroom.50 Ladson-Billings, and those whose work is influenced by her, examined the deep cultural biases in schools that manifests in teachers’ pedagogies and the discipline practices that are commonplace across classrooms and schools.

At its heart, CRP, much like progressive education, builds bridges between home and school by centering the background knowledge, experiences, and understandings of students in the lessons and methods of classroom teaching. Culturally relevant teaching is imagined as a pedagogy of opposition and a form of critical pedagogy that is committed to collective empowerment—a tenant that is mirrored in the movement for ethnic studies. In her work, Ladson-Billings highlights three criteria of CRP:

  1.  academic success;
  2.  students develop or maintain cultural competence; and
  3.  students develop critical consciousness, through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order and a framing of students and their families as deficient.

Therefore, teachers who utilize CRP in their classroom actively work to use an assets-based lens when working with their students and when engaging with their students’ families and communities.

As it became more popular, particularly in areas of the Northeast and Midwest and particularly in schools and districts serving large numbers of Black and Latinx students, culturally relevant pedagogy remained focused on the intersection between school and home-community cultures and how that intersection relates to the delivery of instruction in schools.51 As an evolution of this idea in recent years, culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) was put forth by Django Paris and welcomed by Ladson-Billings after a reflection on the need for CRP to evolve to meet the needs of students in today’s classrooms and schools.52 CSP builds on CRP’s aim to affirm students of color and aims to foster linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the goals of a democratic society.

Additional scholars have also advocated for different pedagogical models since the inception of CRP that seek to address sociocultural factors in the classroom, like CRP was intended to do. Some of these models focus on the home-to-school connection, as CRP does, while others expand on the application of even earlier concepts of critical pedagogy aimed at promoting concepts such as civic consciousness and identity formation.53 Furthermore, some scholars have also applied concepts found in CRP and multicultural education to specific grade levels, content areas, or contexts.54

In fact, the movement for culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education has gained such momentum that thirty-six states now have requirements related to culturally relevant or culturally competent teaching in their state accountability plans, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).55 Additionally, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE)—the largest school district in the country—adopted a culturally responsive–sustaining education model in the fall of 2019 following the New York State Education Department’s earlier release of the Culturally Responsive–Sustaining Education Framework that same year. Among other changes, this framework calls for “curricula and pedagogy that are academically challenging, honor and reflect students’ diversity, connect learning to students’ lives and identities, challenge students to be critical thinkers, and promote student agency to end societal inequities.” As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, the call for anti-racist and culturally responsive-sustaining education has continued to grow as teachers grapple with how to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and the continued fight against anti-Black violence in the United States.

Most recently, Bettina Love, following the tradition that Ladson-Billings envisioned where educators of Black children could work in opposition to an oppressive education system, put forth an anti-racist teaching model that urges educators to take on an abolitionist framework for teaching and advocating for students beyond the classroom. 56 In thinking about how to move forward with these ideas as schools resumed this past fall amid the pandemic, Love urged educators to “return to teaching in schools with a deeper understanding of how racism and capitalism limited our reach in offering all students the resources and instruction they needed and deserved before and after schools closed.”57 She warned that without a continued push from educators and all stakeholder to continue in the “direction of progress”, the education system would inevitably return to the same model that has historically underserved and harmed students of color generally and Black students in particular.

Ethnic Studies in K–12: Reclaiming History for Social Transformation

Related to all of the above, but distinct in its own right, the Ethnic Studies movement for K–12 education has its roots in two parallel developments in education: (1) the history of student protests in the 1960s and 70s, including Black and Latinx student activism for equal educational opportunities; and (2) the creation of hundreds of ethnic studies (and women’s studies) departments and programs in higher education institutions across the United States. By the early twenty-first century, the nexus between these higher education scholars and their schools of education working closely with local youth activists and educators to develop K–12 curriculum, especially on the West Coast, fostered a grassroots movement allowing the ethnic studies movement to flourish and take hold in K–12 school systems in the Southwest and Western areas of the country.

While ethnic studies is generally a West Coast and Southwestern strategy for anti-racist education, this past December, Connecticut passed a state law making it the first state in the nation to require every public high school to offer a course in African-American, Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies by the fall of 2022. Now a graduation requirement in many school districts across the states of California and Oregon as well as several school districts in the Southwest, ethnic studies K–12 curriculum attempts to challenge the reproduction of essentialist categories of race, class, and gender and reconstructs the counter narratives, perspectives, epistemologies, and cultures of those who have been historically neglected and denied citizenship or full participation within traditional discourse and institutions.58 Further, academic rigor is not compromised but rather heightened through applied critical consciousness, direct and reflective action, and the growing of transformative leaders.

Following the move of other school districts in the region, the Los Angeles Unified School District—the second largest school district in the country—has gradually implemented an ethnic studies curriculum since 2014 and, in August of 2020, voted to make it a graduation requirement by 2022–23 for all district students, as well as expand the existing curriculum to all grades. This is for good reason, as there is particularly strong documentation with respect to ethnic studies that a curriculum that reflects the experiences of Black, Latinx, and Asian students has a positive impact on student academic engagement, achievement, and empowerment, especially when linked with culturally responsive teaching like the one currently being promoted in New York City, which is grounded in high academic expectations.59

For example, at the end of an analysis of The Social Justice Education Project (SJEP)—a four-semester high school social studies curriculum located in the Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department in Tucson—it was reported that SJEP students’ graduation rates (about 95 percent) exceeded their peers’ in the sites where the program was offered.60 Even more importantly, in interviews, SJEP students consistently credit the program for their academic success. Students overwhelmingly reported that the project made them think more about their other classes, about their future, and about going on to college.61 Similarly, in 2012, while 48 percent of Mexican-American students were dropping out of high school, 100 percent of students enrolled in the ethnic studies classes at Tucson High School graduated, and 85 percent went on to attend college.62

It is important to note that effective K–12 ethnic studies teachers have a culturally responsive orientation. According to researchers who have mapped the central tenets of ethnic studies pedagogy, there are three aspects of culturally responsive pedagogy that are essential to the successful implementation of an ethnic studies curriculum: building upon students’ experiences and perspectives, developing students’ critical consciousness so they can recognize and address inequality, and creating caring academic environments where students feel valued and welcomed.”63 In fact, a recent study on the San Francisco Unified School District’s ninth grade ethnic studies student outcomes at three high schools found that, when implemented through a CRP approach, the ethnic studies course increased ninth-grade attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23.64 These surprisingly large effects suggest that ethnic studies and CRP, when implemented consistently and in a way complementary to one another, can provide effective support for students who have historically been viewed as deficient by a test-based education system.

When reflecting on the impact that ethnic studies had on her education, in the documentary Children Left Behind: Time to Reimagine Education, Desiree Gomez, an eleventh grader at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, California, stated:

[In ethnic studies we talk about things like gentrification, white supremacy, and police brutality… The things that are happening to us are happening in all parts of the world. It makes me want to make a change in the world and make things better].65

Through her testimony, we can see the democratic promise of progressive education realized through the culturally responsive implementation of an ethnic studies curriculum. By intentionally centering the experiences and perspectives of students in the classroom, with attention to their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, teachers are able to work towards a model of emancipatory education that does in fact help us build a better society.

Differences To Be Reconciled and Bridged among the Four Approaches

If these four different approaches are to be woven together to help foster a united vision for a new education reform movement, the differences across them need to be reconciled. These differences, and some potential paths forward, include the following.

  1. Culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education, ethnic studies, and the “transformative” form of multicultural education are efforts to decolonize the curriculum and to critically examine whiteness. Progressive education has historically been less focused on this critical analysis of racial oppression, but many progressive educators use this lens in their teaching today. Progressive educators can and should explore what is to be learned from other pedagogical models about how to incorporate race through a thoughtful and critical lens.
  2. Culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education and progressive education are more pedagogical strategies (how something is taught), whereas ethnic studies and multicultural education are more focused on curriculum development (what is taught). Combining and connecting pedagogy and content more tightly would be beneficial to all.
  3. The four approaches experience racial, ethnic, and geographic divides in terms of constituents. Progressive education is seen as more in demand for white, liberal, and often affluent families; ethnic studies has been more tied to Chicano Movement in the K–12 context and implemented more frequently in the Western regions of the country; culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education has been taken up more in schools with larger shares of Black students and is more frequently implemented in the Northeast and Midwest; and multicultural education has had, historically, a more diverse base, but has lost momentum in tandem with the decline of school desegregation policies.

The unification of these different educational approaches, therefore, is an integration process of its own as we are seeking to connect educational traditions that have histories and cultural contexts of their own. But if successful, such an integration of educators, students, parents, and other activists from these different backgrounds will create a powerful new reform movement to address the post-pandemic goals noted above and free our public schools from their standardized test-based accountability system and the inequality, segregation, and racial hierarchy it perpetuates.

Policy Recommendations

Given the current context and the lessons learned amid a global pandemic, educational professionals trained in the research on how students learn should employ pedagogical practices and curriculum that center the experiences of students’ and their communities, especially those too long excluded from that curriculum. Thus, we come to the following policy and educator practice recommendations, which together create a roadmap for next steps in the way we conceptualize education for young people, in accordance with the three post-pandemic goals we outlined in our introduction.

Federal-Level Policy

At the federal level, the next reauthorization of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the law formerly known as No Child Left Behind and currently titled the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), needs to go further in promoting state and local flexibility when it comes to accountability measures—namely standardized testing. While holding state and local education agencies accountable for providing a high-quality education to all students is important, the way we think about and measure “high quality” has to shift away from a sole focus on standardized testing to include more capacity building and non-punitive measures of assessing what is needed.

ESSA provided a first step in that direction by giving the states more flexibility in how they design their state plans, but it did not go far enough in offering the “carrots” needed to encourage states to shift away from relying so heavily on standardized tests.

State-Level Policy

At the state level, even prior to the next ESEA reauthorization, thirty-six states have already submitted state ESSA plans that include some aspect of cultural responsiveness or competence as pedagogical requirements.66 These requirements are generally found in the state plans under Title II Part A, “Supporting Effective Instruction,” or Part B, “National Activities.” For instance, in the New York State plan, one of the most progressive on culturally sustaining practices, it is stated that the school and district review process with include a “team of reviewers that will examine district curricula to ensure that they are culturally responsive, in addition to meeting with students and their families to learn how the school is delivering culturally responsive educational offerings.”67

Still, even under ESSA with its more flexible framework, most state accountability systems continue to emphasize standardized testing, which tends not to be culturally responsive. The good news, however, is that ESSA has created the flexibility to allow states to reimagine education by broadening their understanding of good schools and good teaching, which is critical in an increasingly racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse nation.

What we need to see more of at the state level, before and after the next reauthorization of ESEA, is a more concerted post-pandemic effort to support district efforts to implement more student-centered, progressive, and culturally relevant pedagogy, as well as curricula that are more multicultural and reflective of the ethnic and racial heritage of the students. The key components of these new state-level efforts should be the following.

Create new state accountability systems that broaden our thinking about “good” and “bad” schools beyond just standardized test scores.

We will learn from states such as Massachusetts and New York how to do this work. For instance, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Educational Assessments (MCIEA) includes eight school districts striving to build new systems of assessing student learning that emphasizes teacher-created performance assessments in the classroom while broadening the school quality framework that offers a fair and comprehensive picture of school performance while also reflecting what families care about their most in their children’s schools.

Similarly, New York State Performance Standards Consortium, which includes thirty-eight schools in New York City, Ithaca, and Rochester, are bound together by the motto: “Teaching over Testing.” These thirty-eight schools support a pedagogy in which curriculum and pedagogy drive assessment and not the reverse. Founded by one of the most progressive educators of the last century, Deborah Meier, this consortium and its framework for teaching and assessing students fosters the student-centered, culturally relevant instruction that promotes student voice and taps into student’s funds of community knowledge to become a part of the multicultural, ethnic studies-based curriculum. Schools like these are needed more than ever post-pandemic.

Provide state-wide professional development to revamp curriculum and pedagogy.

We know that when teachers engage students in well-planned curricula that center their experience and employ pedagogy that exhibits care for the student that there are positive outcomes for all students. We know that this is not only culturally relevant and progressive—it is good teaching! Thus, it is important that we support educators in learning how to do this work by focusing on places like the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and other examples noted above ,where schools and districts are implementing ethnic studies and modeling culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining pedagogy. There are a growing number of places that offer professional development opportunities focused on these “models of possibility” and the strategies employed in those schools. The Reimagining Education: Teaching, Learning and Leading for a Racially Just Society Summer Institute (RESI), held every July for four days at Teachers College is one such option, but there are others. More consortia and collaboratives of best practices need to be established that showcase lesson plans and curriculum guides that can be borrowed and adapted for local educators.

Prioritize state resources to support educator development in less affluent local districts.

States have a constitutional commitment to provide all the children residing within their boundaries a free and adequate public education. We argue, based on the evidence presented above, that an education that is not student-centered, does not foster social and emotional development and is not culturally relevant or reflective of the histories and narratives of all students is simply not “adequate,” and especially not post-pandemic. Meanwhile, public school finance continues to be too dependent upon the wealth of the local community, which continually results in the students from the lowest-income communities having far fewer resources in their schools. The work we describe above requires resources—for professional development and support for educators, for new curricular materials, books and students learning materials, as well as technology and supplies for the project-based work the students will do. States have a responsibility to ensure that resources are made available to their districts in an equitable manner.

Local-Level Policy

At the local level, school districts and school leaders need to create local guidelines and policies that will support anti-racist education in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, discipline policies, and parent and community engagement. Local efforts should include the following.

Develop the foundation for the reform of curricula and teaching.

The following will be critical: Form a new scope and sequence for each grade level; create new district-level curriculum guidelines that engage parents and community members in writing localized ethnic studies curriculum while providing support for educators to develop new teaching strategies; and participate in the state-supported professional development sessions (see above).

Reform school-discipline policies.

District leadership should also require all schools to develop culturally relevant restorative justice discipline policies to replace harsh policies that promote the school-to-prison pipeline.

Diversify faculty.

In addition to these initiatives, districts need to focus on diversifying their teaching force through community-based “grow your own” programs that encourage students of color who attend their schools to go on to college, major in education, and return to their home school district to teach with their knowledge of, and high expectations for, the students who live there. These “grow your own” teachers of color programs have been incorporated into ethnic studies programs in Texas.68

Appoint district equity officers

All of these local efforts must be supported and sustained by a full-time district-level staff member whose sole responsibility is to work with the school principals and staff to assure that they are making meaningful change in terms of rewriting curriculum and retooling their teaching practices and discipline policies. These district-level equity officers should also engage the local community—especially parents and community advocates of color—to make sure their voices are heard and their ideas are taken seriously in district-level reform.


In closing, we want to emphasize the importance of connecting these curricular and pedagogical strategies in the support of an anti-racist agenda. In our conversations with educators and anti-racist advocates across all four approaches, there is an eagerness to bridge these divides and to create a new twenty-first-century educational reform model that is student-centered, attentive to social and emotional development as well as cognitive learnings, and is anti-racist at its core. Through the unification and merging of progressive education, critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education, and ethnic studies, the advocates and constituents of these different approaches will create a new social movement in the field of education.

In order for this new, united education reform agenda to succeed, however, the policymakers at every level of government must support the efforts of synthesis and implementation. Policymakers can find in this report an overview of the research and rationale to move this new education reform movement to come, and how they can help ensure its success. On the education side, leaders in these different approaches to education at the local, state, and national level should work together to push for the united reform movement that will streamline and strengthen policymakers’ efforts recommended above.

While we do not deny the power of the forces working against a reframing of what “good” teaching is, we believe that connecting what are too often disconnected curricular and pedagogical strategies and uniting the advocates and constituents of these different approaches will create a movement in the field of education that would be powerful and hard to ignore. Furthermore, we argue that there already exists a body of research in K–12 education that supports an argument in favor of putting more resources towards the training of teachers and school leaders in curriculum and pedagogy models that center students and families and that prioritize assessment models that speak to the true benefits of diversity and integration.

As we emerge from a full year of fighting a pandemic, one of its few silver linings—namely, the respite from administering standardized tests for two years in a row—has created the perfect opportunity for a shift in the educational system from the past into the future. Under ESSA, states and local school districts already have the flexibility to make meaningful changes to their standards, curriculum, and testing. As we noted, more than half of them are doing this in a culturally relevant manner. The time, conditions, and rationale are right to merge these four major strategies of education reform into a fully fledged student-centered and anti-racist educational reform movement.


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