Dirty Secrets that Certification Doesn’t Expose

Published January 1, 2000

While the National Education Association is pushing to require certification for all teachers in public schools to protect students from unqualified teachers, a recent series of stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicates that students are far more at risk from teachers who are sexual predators than from teachers who are incompetent.

According to state documents obtained by the newspaper, more than 62 percent of the 258 teacher discipline cases in Pennsylvania from 1990-1999 were for sex-related offenses, mostly for deviant sexual intercourse. Seven percent of the discipline cases were for murder and assault, and just 4 percent for incompetence.

If those figures weren’t enough to get the attention of parents and school administrators, the Post-Gazette’s three-part “Dirty Secrets” series offered another startling revelation: 17 states certify teachers without doing a state-level criminal background check, and almost half the states certify teachers without a federal background check. Teachers who commit sexual offenses against students in one state often move with impunity to another, helped along with a recommendation from their former bosses.

The authors of the series, Post-Gazette writers Jane Elizabeth Zemel and Steve Twedt, spoke to experts who made the following recommendations for keeping bad teachers out of the classroom forever:

  • Require federal and state fingerprint checks on all applicants for teacher certification and teaching posts.
  • Remove the statute of limitations on child abuse by an adult.
  • Give school employees access to child abuse reports and registries.
  • Make mandatory the current incomplete Internet posting of the names of educators who have had adverse action taken against them.
  • Require teacher applicants to disclose any prior arrests or outstanding warrants, since background checks reveal only convictions.
  • Require teacher applicants to disclose prior dismissals.
  • Hold school officials accountable for writing accurate recommendations.
  • Create a code of conduct for educators.
  • Make it easier for victims to file lawsuits.
  • Provide better training for student teachers.

Reprints of the “Dirty Secrets” series are available from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at a cost of $1.71, which includes shipping and handling. To place a credit card order, call 412/263-1741 between 9:00-4:30 EST, or send a check to “Dirty Secrets,” P.O. Box 476, Pittsburgh, PA 15230.