Background Checks

How we graded the states on teacher background checks


How we graded the states on teacher background checks

The USA TODAY NETWORK determined America's system for checking teachers' backgrounds is 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.

We found teachers being able to move from one state to another despite documented misconduct, so we set out to determine how well each state screens teachers before they’re licensed and hired.

Our journalists began gathering information from each state about how officials make sure information about misconduct is shared with schools, districts and other states. That may sound like a straightforward process. It is not. Just sharing that basic misconduct information is the foundation of any system that would purport to keep a teacher found unfit to teach in Texas from teaching in Michigan. That foundation is cracked.

Former education officials, parent advocacy groups and government auditors have weighed in on the inconsistencies in the system for decades. We decided it was time to find out where each state stood, what each state was trying to do to keep troubled teachers out of the classroom, and whether they were actually effectively doing the things they said they aspire to do.

The end result: this grading system, which attempts to measure states’ laws and practices and execution of them. We focused primarily on three areas:

1. How thoroughly a state checks an applicant's background before issuing a teaching license (a total of 40 points on our 100-point scale).

2. Whether the state shares complete licensing and disciplinary information about sanctioned teachers publicly and whether it reports its own sanctions effectively to a nationwide database (40 points).

3. Whether the state has laws mandating that educators, schools and school districts report misconduct to the state (20 points).

We started by surveying each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, asking more than a dozen questions about their methods for checking teachers’ backgrounds and how they share information about past misconduct with one another. We didn't start from scratch with those questions. Most were modeled on a similar survey conducted by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, whose ultimate audit about the results gave an overview of what states disclosed, but kept secret each state's individual answers. We added a few questions and modified others to fit what we were seeing in individual cases we were investigating across the country.

Broken discipline tracking systems let teachers flee troubled pasts

If state officials' answers to the survey were not clear, we followed up with additional questions. Even when states’ answers seemed clear, our journalists checked them against state laws, rules and procedures to make sure they were verifiable. Where clarity was lacking, our journalists worked together with state officials to fully understand their system before assessing the system and to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication. In several cases, a state's originally volunteered answer to us indicated we should deduct points, but our own verification and follow-up with state officials caused us to give the state points in areas where they would have lost points based on their own answer in the survey.

Background Checks

We began with a best practice that exists in most states: conducting background checks against criminal histories and work histories, by the state licensing agency, before a teacher is given the credentials needed to secure a job at a school. If those background checks were conducted at the state level, before the license is issued, the state earned 20 of 20 points in our grading system.

If the checks were left to the local school district hiring the teacher, where advocates say the checks can be incomplete, inconsistent or even skipped, a state lost the 20 points. In a few states, the background check protocol was a hybrid of state and local responsibility and the state earned partial points.

States earned 10 more points if their criminal history checks included both state and nationwide records.

And, states earned another 10 points if they checked every applicant for a teaching license against the nationwide NASDTEC Clearinghouse database, which strives to contain a list of every state's disciplinary actions against teachers.

In most cases, states receiving a D or F in our grading system started off with district-level rather than state-level background checks. Advocates and auditors who have reviewed problems over the decades have consistently flagged district-level checks as a potential loophole. In fact, most states conduct the screenings at the state level, often as a reform that was spawned by some past failure. In fact, in North Carolina, where the background checks are left to local control, a recent task force noted "many other states require fingerprint background checks before issuing a license" and recommended North Carolina follow suit because the district-level system "limits the State Board's ability to make a well-informed decision as to the applicant's fitness to be a licensed North Carolina teacher or administrator." You can read the North Carolina report here.

Sharing misconduct information

Because we were learning that those background checks are only as good as the information they’re founded on, and because our investigation found widespread problems with state and national teacher discipline databases, we also wanted to measure how each state shared information about teacher misconduct with the public and with other education officials. A transparent system of sharing records about states’ final actions to suspend or revoke licenses, or otherwise remove teachers from the classroom, is an important backup to the checks that states and districts strive to do. As a byproduct, transparency and effectively-shared documentation can arm potential employers and parents with reliable means of checking into troubled teachers.

We awarded the states 10 points if they said they reported every case of misconduct to the NASDTEC Clearinghouse, making the suspended and revoked licenses visible to other state education agencies. However, we also audited each state’s list of disciplined teachers against copies of the nationwide NASDTEC database obtained from four different states. We deducted five points if we found a case of a teacher whose license a state permanently revoked, a step reserved for the most serious levels of misconduct, missing from the national database. We deducted all 10 points if there were a substantial number of the state's disciplined teachers missing from the NASDTEC database, with an emphasis on teachers whose licenses had been permanently and who's misconduct involved child abuse or sexual misconduct.

In most cases, states that we informed about missing names of disciplined teachers pledged to take immediate corrective action. In cases where states disputed our findings, we worked with state officials to check names one by one. We often found names in the database spelled differently or with mixed-up maiden or married names, among other problems that raised questions about whether a background checker would have flag the person's record. Even in the case of spelling errors that would make it more difficult to identify a teacher, we erred on the side of giving the states the benefit of the doubt before subtracting points. Many states, however, did lose all 10 points in this area because of substantial numbers of missing disciplined teachers’ names.

We awarded states up to 10 points for posting online a searchable database of certified teachers and 10 more points for posting a searchable list or database of teachers who the state had taken disciplinary action against. Many states do both, with varying effectiveness. A smaller number of states, however, got an additional 10 points for taking the important transparency step of posting more detailed documentation behind those state disciplinary decisions: information that would tell the public what the teacher did that prompted the state to take disciplinary action.

Consider Iowa’s explanation for why all its records are online and searchable. “We walk a cautious line in terms of public shaming, but we put the information out there because it should be public and available,” said D.T. Magee, executive director of Iowa’s Board of Education Examiners. “It provides a summary of any sanctions and what violation occurred.”

Mandatory reporting laws

The final 20 points out of 100 were focused on whether the state had laws in place to make sure that teacher misconduct allegations were not kept secret at the schoolhouse or school district level. A state got 10 points for having a law in place requiring schools and districts to inform the state if a teacher had been fired or resigned amid allegations of misconduct.

The other 10 points were awarded if a state had a law in place requiring educators in the classroom to report misconduct they discover. The vast majority of states got all 20 of those points.

Background check report cards

USA TODAY NETWORK surveyed state education officials about how they background teachers and share information about disciplinary actions against teachers in their states. The states’ answers were verified and compared against best practices, and then assigned a letter grade. Read more about it at How we graded the states.

How Oregon Ranks? Overall grade - A - with Alabama, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Vermont.


Background Checks - Strong state-level screenings before licensing

Mandatory reporting laws - Strong mandatory reporting of teacher misconduct

Transparency - Detailed information online about teacher disciplinary actions


Sharing misconduct information - Many teachers' misconduct not shared with other states

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