Bad teachers: Which states are keeping track and which aren't

Only seven states got an 'A' in a USA Today survey of teacher background checks, transparency on teacher disciplinary actions, and how states handle sharing information about teachers' misconduct.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor.
Report card for a struggling student in Lawrence, Mass. A USA Today survey of how well teacher misconduct is tracked and shared, showed Massachusetts among 10 states getting an "F."

When bad teachers are fired or disciplined, how easy is it to track them?

Only seven states got an “A” in a USA Today survey that ranked states across the nation on background checks, transparency on teacher disciplinary actions, mandatory reporting laws and how states handle sharing information about teachers' misconduct with other states.

The survey indicates there are big gaps in info about teachers and points to a need for better coordination in collecting and sharing information about the misconduct of teachers. It refers to America’s process for vetting teachers as “a loosely-connected patchwork of state laws and procedures, inconsistent practices by school districts and state officials, and wide variations in who’s accountable for what and how accountable they are.”

The federal government doesn't maintain a national database of teachers who have permanently lost their licenses. The concern being that teachers can get a new job teaching in one state, after documented misconduct in another.

Here's how the reporting system works now, according to USA Today:

Education agencies in every state voluntarily report to a privately run database operated by the non-profit National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification [NASDTEC] when they take a disciplinary action against a teacher for anything from minor infractions to serious cases of physical or sexual abuse.

An examination of records about teachers disciplined in all 50 states found more than 1,400 cases where a teacher permanently lost his or her license but was not listed in the NASDTEC database.

“The National Education Association supports a great public school teacher for every child. Every state now requires background checks for teachers, and nearly all of these involve fingerprint-based checks of the FBI database," says Alice O’Brien, general counsel at the National Education Association in an email to the Monitor. "The key is making sure that those existing state laws are followed. NEA has supported those efforts and supports the provision in the recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that prohibits the transfers of school employees if there is probable cause to believe they engaged in serious misconduct.”

Some may find the state-to-state USA Today report card results surprising.

Alabama, for example, got an "A." But it also holds the distinction of being the state where school employees were accused or convicted of sex crimes with students more frequently than in any other state on a per capita basis in 2014, according to records compiled by a former chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Education

The USA Today grade reflects the state's record of transparency.

“We are certainly pleased to have our processes highlighted, ... our local superintendents and their staff members deserve a large share of the credit for reporting incidents of misconduct in a timely manner. This allows us to act swiftly to pursue action against educator credentials when required,” writes  Assistant Coordinator for Background Review, Alabama State Department of Education, Corey Martin in an email to the Monitor. 

But Massachusetts and 10 other states flunked.

In an e-mail response to questions about the survey, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education writes, "Massachusetts takes student safety seriously and shares information with NASDTEC about educators' licenses that were revoked or suspended, and we also check NASDTEC updates against educators in our database. Massachusetts has already taken state-level action to improve background checks on educators, as illustrated by changes that began in 2013 and expanded the required state background check to include having educators' fingerprints checked against a national criminal database." 

Grades were given to states based on how thoroughly they check an applicant's background before issuing a teaching license; whether the state shares complete licensing and disciplinary information about sanctioned teachers publicly; if it reports its own sanctions effectively to a nationwide database and if the state has laws mandating that educators, schools and school districts report misconduct to the state.

The USA Today report card by state:

A: Alabama, Hawaii, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, and Vermont. 

B: Arizona, California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington.

C: Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

D: Connecticut, Indiana, Rhode Island, Missouri, Mississippi, Nevada, Virginia, Utah, and Wyoming.

F: Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Washington D.C., and West Virginia.

“What this survey points to is deep flaws and inconsistencies in what we track and how we act on it nationally and to highly variable standards and in some cases a lack of standards,” says Paul Reville, director of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in a phone interview. “We need to set national standards for the protection of children, rather than allow for this kind of widespread variability that this survey uncovers.”

According to the report, Virginia got a "D."

Dr. Warren Stewart, a retired Virginia school superintendent, former classroom teacher, principal and recently retired Norfolk school board member who sat on the Virginia teacher licensure panel for four years says in a phone interview, “My initial reaction is that anything that I could get as a superintendent, or as a colleague teacher, that would continue to give me assurances that my colleagues were the best possible person to work with the children that I was working with would be something that I would welcome and want.”

While the survey reports that Virginia does have a mandatory system for reporting teacher misconduct, the state got the “D” for having little teacher data online, background checks left up to individual districts and only sharing some teacher misconduct with other states.

Mr. Stewart says. “I can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want the best possible information on which to feel comfortable with their colleagues. To me it’s a no-brainer. We need a better, more uniform system.”

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Pennsylvania, a state that got a “B” from the survey says in a phone interview, “All states should run the same type of background check and not only in your own state, but across state lines. Don’t “pass the trash,” is what people call it.”

Ms. Palm adds that her concerns extend beyond potential sexual predators to the physical abuse of children, particularly those who are disabled or have special needs. 

“It’s a worrisome thing we have our radar up about sexual abuse, but we haven’t been talking about physical things that happen to children in the classroom,” she says. “You could have things happen to a child in a classroom that were one shade from death and not considered child abuse. We should all have a heightened sense of what is inappropriate, particularly physical abuse and kids with disabilities. That issue in particular is off people’s radar.

Mr. Reyville at Harvard concludes, “Obviously everybody’s now apprehensive about additional federal responsibility and accountability, however, there are times when children’s safety is at risk when it’s appropriate to have certain things managed at the national level.”

“It would appear from what’s being reported that simply managing that through a voluntary system isn’t working out so well,” he adds.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story omitted Vermont from the state listings.]

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