How USA TODAY audited the country's broken systems for tracking teacher discipline
Over the course of more than a year, dozens of USA TODAY NETWORK journalists nationwide obtained and analyzed millions of teachers' records from all 50 states, pored over documents in state buildings, schoolhouses and police stations, and chased leads across the country to reveal a startling breakdown in the nation’s system for tracking disciplined teachers.
Through requests filed under the open records laws of each state, our data and investigative reporting team obtained databases identifying millions of licensed teachers and additional data about tens of thousands of teachers who have faced disciplinary actions. In several cases, when states refused to release the data in electronic form, our investigative reporters were able to write computer code to extract the data from their web sites. In some cases, states released the records in hard-copy or other old formats and reporters custom built databases of teachers or disciplinary actions.
The collection of state data, totaling more than 10 million individual records was used for a first-of-its-kind analysis to identify teachers who lost their licenses in one state, but subsequently had obtained licenses to teach in another state. Because of the number of teachers nationwide, errors in almost every state database and the efforts of some states' officials to redact basic identifying information about their teachers and their disciplinary histories, computerized analysis of the records of each state against the records of every other state ended with another daunting database.
That result: thousands of potential cases of teachers who were disciplined in one state, but were holding licenses or teaching in another state. Each of those cases, in order to be reported about, needed to be confirmed by traditional investigative reporting.
USA TODAY NETWORK journalists in local newsrooms across the country interviewed dozens of officials and scoured other records to identify cases where teachers with histories of misconduct moved between states undetected, and to explore weaknesses in the patchwork of state and local policies and procedures used to check the backgrounds of teachers. They were further aided by local television journalists from TEGNA MEDIA, who partnered with us to conduct the background investigations of teachers in more than 40 additional cities coast to coast.
Separately, the USA TODAY NETWORK obtained from several states copies of the private NASDTEC Clearinghouse, a national database of disciplined teachers maintained by a non-profit organization that state educator credentialing agencies rely on to check the histories of teachers.
Although the non-profit organization that maintains the NASDTEC Clearinghouse is not subject to open records laws because it is not a government agency, the USA TODAY NETWORK obtained copies of the database that are in the possession of government agencies in several states.
Our data and investigative reporting team conducted an analysis comparing the discipline records it obtained from all 50 states against the NASDTEC Clearinghouse data, identifying that the clearinghouse — the nation’s only system for tracking disciplined teachers — is missing the names of thousands of teachers who have faced disciplinary action. The missing names include more than 1,400 teachers whose credentials were permanently revoked or surrendered in one state, and more than 200 cases of sexual or physical abuse. Because of the limitations of the analysis, we had to be conservative tallying the number of disciplined teachers whose names are missing from NASDTEC because spelling and other errors in all of the parties' data.
The teachers missing from the NASDTEC Clearinghouse were then checked again by a team of journalists searching the database as education officials might, trying multiple forms of the names and testing the mixing of maiden names and married names for instance, to make sure that the teachers were not in the nationwide tracking database. The team also worked with individual states that wanted to audit their own records, sharing our work and aiding them in determining cases that were missing. The back-and-forth audit work with several states was key to help our team refine its methodology.
Officials in several states have begun to audit or investigate their NASDTEC submissions, and other processes for tracking and checking teacher discipline, as a result of the findings brought to their attention during the course of the USA TODAY NETWORK data analysis and reporting.