State Superintendent Questionnaire: Robin Fleming

Fourth in a series.  There is one new candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, David Spring, and I will be reaching out to him as well.

Ms. Fleming's Facebook page.
As a native Washingtonian raised by a single mother, who had a brother with Down Syndrome, and who attended eight different schools before graduating from high school, I understand struggle. As an educational researcher and published author with a doctorate in Educational Policy and Leadership (with an emphasis on school finance and multicultural education) I understand educational research and policy.

As a school nurse who for 13 years worked with some of our most vulnerable students, and with families, teachers and administrators, I understand what it is like to be in the trenches.

I have lived in the world of policy now for more than four years, working collaboratively with internal partners at OSPI and with the many state and community partners I have nurtured during my long career of building coalitions and partnerships to implement programs in schools and to advocate for needed policy changes in education and health. I have the skills, experience, relationships, and the depth and breadth of knowledge to effectively lead OSPI into a new future – one ripe with challenges and opportunities that I can and will effectively navigate. 
1. Why are you running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction and what do you believe the role of the superintendent is to public education in Washington State?

I am running for SPI because I have the unique breadth and depth of skill and experience necessary to effectively address the significant and urgent challenges presented by insufficient school funding, a teaching workforce crisis, and an increasingly diverse and vulnerable student population. I also possess interdisciplinary expertise in education and health that is critical to recognizing and acting upon timely opportunities – ones that others lacking this dual focus would either miss altogether, or not understand how to effectively negotiate. For example, expansion of Medicaid in our state, and the recent rescinding of CMS’s “free care” rule provide potentially substantial opportunities for federal funding for school health services in our state – funding that could potentially save our education system millions of dollars and provide services important to promoting student attendance, learning, and graduation.

I believe the role of the SPI is to support, guide and lead all those engaged and invested in our state’s educational system -- in collaboration with the Board of Education and the Professional Education Standards Board. While the agency is charged with administering basic education programs and overseeing K-12 education in the state, the SPI role itself is in many ways dependent upon the values and priorities of the office holder. In my administration, the overarching emphasis of this position will be to protect and advocate for equity for all students in ways that are transparent, intentional, evidence-based, measurable and effective. In my view, equity is the lens through which all decisions and proposals – including those regarding testing, evaluation, curriculum and instruction, professional development, parent and community engagement, and others – are made.

The SPI is charged with ensuring that districts receiving federal funding are compliant with IDEA and other federal civil rights laws. The SPI also is charged with collecting data on a number of indicators – many of these data are federally proscribed. I believe that OSPI should intentionally collect and evaluate data to help determine the causes of – and to provide effective and just responses to – dismal graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and academic disparities that lead to opportunity gaps. In addition, OSPI should work closely with University of Washington and other educational researchers who provide qualitative research that inform these issues. Not all questions related to student inclusion, school engagement and academic performance can be addressed with quantitative data, which seems to be the default setting for evaluating these issues.

Because the ability to educate children and youth is conditioned in large part on their early childhood experiences and opportunities, OSPI as an office, and the SPI as a leader overseeing education in Washington State, have a significant stake in collaborating with community members, the Legislature, and other state agencies to support young children, families and communities with the resources necessary to promote safety, security, and brain health and development in young children.

2. What do you think is the number one concern with special education in this state? What is your view of the OEO's report on special education? What would you do, specifically, to improve special education in this state?

In my view the primary concern with special education in Washington State is the general lack of broad provision of access to general education for special education students. Students who receive special education services should be better integrated into general education environments. There is currently specific work being done at OSPI to address this that I support; I will be able to discuss details of this plan when it is released publicly in June.

In addition, I believe the suspension and expulsion rates for special education students are too high. While some special education students have behavior disorders that place them at risk for acting in ways that can precipitate suspensions and/or expulsions, there needs to be mechanisms in place for continuity of instruction and appropriate supports for these students. In addition, some, but not all behavior disorders can be prevented (and many can be much more effectively addressed) if diagnosed and treated as early as possible. This requires intentional and focused collaboration of the type recommended by the OEO report.

I believe the OEO report provides an excellent and well-represented overview of the state of special education, the limitations of a regulatory emphasis on improving special education, and provides solid recommendations, including the establishment of a Blue Ribbon Commission. My only suggestion for improvement of this proposal would be to increase stakeholder engagement to consider improving educational access and outcomes for other vulnerable groups of students. Many special education students belong to more than one vulnerable group (poor, ethnic minority, and bilingual students, for example) and these considerations cannot be addressed most effectively in separate silos.

3. What is your position on charters schools personally? What would be your view if you were elected superintendent and there was a charter law in place that did not support your role under Article Three, Section 22 of the state constitution?
I am opposed to schools that are funded with public money, yet do not receive public oversight and governance. It is well established in the research literature that charter schools draw critical funding and resources away from existing public schools, often damaging the students left behind while conferring negligible benefits (some charters have worked well, and others have been disastrous) for the students attending charters. I believe we can greatly improve our existing schools by making smarter and sustained investments in them, and in the communities in which they exist, not by splintering them apart.

It is difficult to hypothesize what my specific response would be if there were a charter law in place that undercut my supervisory role over public education as SPI. There are different scenarios that could occur, each with different nuances that would elicit a response that would serve to uphold the duties of the office.

4. How do you see the role of OSPI in enforcing education-related RCWs and WACs?

OSPI has a duty, as well as explicit regulatory authority concerning compliance with civil rights and anti-discrimination laws (both state and federal). OSPI also is responsible for enforcing regulatory standards for certification for educational professionals and investigates complaints (certification and professional conduct) against them. These duties encompass very wide territories, including special education, bilingual education, student access to FAPE via 504, IDEA and McKinney-Vento laws; as well as Washington state laws and rules including Chapters 28A.640 and 28A.642 RCW and Chapter 392-190 WAC.

As there are 295 school districts in Washington State with widely varying capacities, I see OSPI’s major role as one of assistance and guidance to districts in complying with state and federal laws. This can be accomplished with frequent communication – site visits, stakeholder meetings, issuance of bulletins, memos and policy guides. OSPI can and does respond to frequent inquiries from districts regarding situations that are not explicitly addressed in law, and helps districts to navigate some of these “gray” areas with input, as needed, from other state agencies, the OEO, its own legal department and its Assistant Attorney General.

5. What will you do to protect the privacy of all students in Washington State?

How will you keep their personal information safe (i.e. not accidentally distributed to the wrong people) and, how will you protect them from having personal data collected and sold/used/shared as they go thru their K-12 years?

As a researcher, I am very familiar with strict human subjects requirements in conducting research. As a school nurse, I navigated the world both of HIPAA and FERPA in communicating confidential student health information with school staff and with community providers. As a current OSPI employee who collects and analyzes school health data from more than 90 percent of school districts every year, I am cognizant of the steps need to protect individual identifying information while still collecting the aggregate data needed to improve educational services for students. Maintaining the safety of electronic systems, having strict data collection and distribution protocols in place, and ensuring that districts are aware of their obligations to protect student privacy are actions that can be taken to protect student privacy.

6. How can you, as superintendent, assist parents who are frustrated with the education their children are receiving?

In my experience working in schools, and now at OSPI, the majority of complaints I receive relate to what is lacking – a parent is upset because her or his student is not receiving something the parent believes their student is entitled to receive.

My response to parents who are frustrated with the system is to listen, to assist them in identifying and securing the resources that their children need, and/or to connect them with people who can provide the information they need. Some complaints are specific to situations that are not broadly represented; other complaints – particularly those relating to testing practices, curricula, or the provision of health or special education services in schools – are represented much more broadly. As Superintendent, I would create more robust interdepartmental connection and communication to help better identify and respond to parent concerns.

I might add here that the real frustrations parents/guardians experience can be exacerbated by all-too-frequent plodding bureaucratic responses. It has almost come to be expected that slow customer service and inefficiency are characteristic of government. It doesn’t have to be that way, and in my administration it won’t. Ibegan working in my father’s carpet store at the age of 14, and I was raised with an ethic of customer service and excellence. Despite some procedural constraints, there is no reason that OSPI as an agency cannot respond to our customers by issuing needed guidance in – both internal and external – in a timely and efficient manner.

7. How can educators and education administrators support struggling students without ignoring the needs of students working beyond standard?

There are multiple ways this can be accomplished. Students struggle for many reasons – learning disabilities, health problems, unstable living situations and absenteeism to name a few. Determining the reason for the struggle is important to identifying its solution. Some of these solutions can include before and after school assistance; teacher/paraeducator and/or peer assistance in the classroom; and special education services.

Including struggling students in classrooms with students who need more challenging coursework does not mean that those working on the higher end of the academic spectrum will be denied access to the materials and instructional assistance needed to engage them and promote their success.

I am a proponent of having students grouped by age rather than ability whenever possible. When my own children were in daycare, I intentionally enrolled them in Northwest Center. With about 40% of children developmentally delayed, my typically developing children learned the value and contributions that all people made to their own learning and social development. In turn, they communicated with and taught their peers in ways that were mutually enriching, both socially and intellectually. Research shows that this works for older kids, too. In fact, both research and experience have informed my belief that schools are not just places where students learn to read, write, analyze and experiment, but also places where they become fully human, emotionally intelligent beings whose success in life is equally dependent on that attribute as it is on the grades they achieve or the level of coursework they take.

8. Name three things that are not currently being done that you believe will help close the opportunity gap for students of color.

1. Expand Health Services in Schools

Currently, approximately one-third of Washington State’s 1 million students have a diagnosable health condition. Two students per week commit suicide (and many others attempt or seriously consider it). There are greater numbers of homeless students than ever before. One-fifth of students are immigrants or children of immigrants and suffer poorer health and other educational access barriers. The numbers of students with asthma, life-threatening allergies, diabetes and seizure disorders have doubled in the past 10 years, while nursing services in schools were reduced by half during the same period.

There is a robust body of research literature that demonstrates student attendance and graduation rates are improved when school nurses are at schools in greater numbers; that teachers spend more time teaching; that parents spend more time at work; and that health care costs decrease as a result of reduced emergency room visits and reductions in long-term severity of chronic disease. In Washington State, a nurse case management program funded by Title 1D has shown statistically significant increases in reading and math scores for students who receive nursing case management services.

I am currently working with the Health Care Authority on ways to receive potentially millions of dollars in reimbursement for school nursing services as a result of CMS rescinding what was known as the “free care” rule in December of 2014. I am also in the final stages of completing a staff model for school health services for OSPI which will help districts determine what levels of nurse and other health service staffing are needed depending on districts’ student demographics. Many states are awaiting publication of this manual to use as a model to inform their state school nursing services.

2. Levy Redistribution

It is the state’s duty to fund basic education. For items that are not considered to be a part of basic education, districts must pony up the money (and this will be the case for some items even after implementation of McCleary). However, districts that are situated in regions that have a robust tax base can pay for these needed extras while poor communities do not have this ability. As a result, I would propose that a system be developed in which districts with strong tax bases share a portion of levy proceeds to be distributed according to a set of criteria for districts that are not able to raise enough money to adequately meet their needs. This is but one idea: I would work collaboratively with others to produce other ideas to ensure equitable distribution of resources to all school districts.

3. Teacher Workforce.

There is a severe teacher shortage in our state. This year, OSPI has issued more than 38,000 emergency certifications for schools desperate to fill positions. We have had to reduce our standards for teachers out of sheer desperation. This is problematic considering that research shows the number one factor for student success (for students who are healthy enough to learn) is an excellent teacher. We need to put our money where our mouth is, and show that we value excellent teachers by paying them well. I propose a starting salary for teachers of $48,000 per year based on the proposal of the Compensation Technical Advisory Group. Governor Inslee is suggesting $40,000 per year, which is just not good enough. Teachers also need pedagogical flexibility – good teachers are excellent at determining how to teach, how best to present material, at what pace, and at assessing different student learning styles and adjusting their teaching accordingly.

With passage of the ESSA, the pressure to teach to tests is reduced; with the handcuffs off, teachers are now free to innovate, to take charge of their classrooms once again and deliver their best which is what we have entrusted them to do. We need to confine our expectations of teachers to excellent teaching. The demands placed on teachers today are nothing less than that they overcome the effects of poverty, and that they serve as counselors, nurses, and social workers. I have developed career workforce curricula for students, participated on workforce stakeholder groups, and volunteered and raised money for the Martinez Foundation, which provided financial incentives for students of color seeking teaching careers. I have the experience to help recruit for this vital workforce, as well as the energy to bring respect and value back to what is one of the most important professions in our state.

9. How does “EduTech” – the increasing use of technology and learning-based instruction – fit into your view about the future of education?
Technology has a critical role to play in education, and I predict that role will only increase. However, no technology can ever replace a teacher who relates on a human level to students with encouragement, enthusiasm, and heart.

10. What would be the first thing you would seek to change/establish if you become State Superintendent of Public Instruction?
Fully and fairly funding McCleary is at the top of my list.


Watching said…
As a nurse, Ms. Flemming offers a new and refreshing perspective.
z said…
@watching: Perhaps, but as a nurse she also sounds a bit like a carpenter who sees every problem as being fixable with a hammer. She makes some good points here, but overall I'm not super-impressed. I mean seriously, the #1 way we're going to close the opportunity gap is "Expand Health Services in Schools"? Really? That's her carpenter's hammer.

And this comment is truly scary: "research shows the number one factor for student success (for students who are healthy enough to learn) is an excellent teacher"

This is a huge lie, and while I don't have any reason to suspect she is part of the Corporate Ed "Reform" movement, the comment reeks of that. And she throws in just a touch of carpenter's hammer ("healthy enough") to boot.

Her student data answer was weak. She doesn't appear to understand that this field has expanded WAY beyond health data, and moved toward behavioral analysis, tying together with data from disparate sources. Her answer about EduTech was weak, generic, and shows a lack of understanding of how it ties in with for-profit corporate student data collection.

I could go on, but I won't. She seems like a good person, but not someone I would support for this job based on these answers.

Watching said…
Actually, many students loose instructional time due to dental issues.

"And this comment is truly scary: "research shows the number one factor for student success (for students who are healthy enough to learn) is an excellent teacher"

I agree and I don't think she has the skill to run oSPI.

Popular posts from this blog

Tuesday Open Thread

Weirdness in Seattle Public Schools Abounds and Astounds

Anaylsis of Seattle School Board Decision to Bring "Student Outcome Focused Governance"