News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Parents, do you know where your teachers are tonight?

Parents, do you know where your teachers are tonight?

Moline, Ill.--South Dakota ranks 25th among the 50 states for firing teachers, according to a series of stories running in the The Dispatch, a Moline-based newspaper. There is some specious statistical reasoning involved in the rankings, but we’ll look at that later.

In the last six years, South Dakota has fired 20 of its 9,245 teachers. The yearly breakdown is:

2001: 7

2002: 1

2003: 1

2004: 2

2005: 3

2006: 6

Reporter Scott Reeder ( says the Small Newspaper Group, which owns The Dispatch, filed 50 Freedom of Information requests with the departments of education in all the states and built a database of suspensions and revocations of teaching certificates. In all, he says, the newspaper group filed 1,500 Freedom of Information requests at almost 900 government agencies and received 100 percent compliance with the requests.

That compilation from Freedom of Information requests is more astounding than the matter of teachers getting fired, at least for South Dakota. There are two reasons.

The first is that South Dakota has no state Freedom of Information act. According to the Better Government Association, South Dakota ranks absolute last in freedom of information and access to government. Journalists and those of us who try to get information from government agencies in the state run up against a stone wall of refusal and resistance. Two years ago, the state put a freeze on vital statistics, claiming that it needed to do so to prevent identity theft. So, why can an out-of-state newspaper obtain data about teacher firings when our in-state journalistic organizations are constantly complaining about being unable to obtain government information?

The second reason the Small Newspaper Group’s project is somewhat astounding is that familiar claim of South Dakotans that they have the strongest work ethic in the nation. I have always been puzzled about the basis for that claim. I have worked many places and in many circumstances, and I have often witnessed people who work harder and smarter. One of those places was at The Dispatch where I worked as an editor many years ago. Those were exciting times because of the diligence, the resourcefulness, and the team efforts of the staff. I cannot but wonder if those people worked in South Dakota whether government agencies would successfully sit on information. I doubt it.

But back to the firing of teachers. Our neighbor North Dakota ranks 18th with 12 of 8,027 teachers fired in the last six years. States with the highest rate of firings are Utah with 235 out of 22,147 teachers and California with 3,075 out of 304,311 teachers. States with the lowest rates are Virginia with 25 fired out of 90,573 and Illinois with 51 out of 127,669 fired in the last six years.

Most of the firings appear to be sexual violations. Incompetence and misconduct of other forms are also cited as reasons. However, the first articles in the series did not break down the reasons by category.

An argument advanced in the series is that low firings are a result of a lack of effort in ferreting out the poor performing and misbehaving teachers, and there is some anecdotal evidence cited in support of that contention. Some states have investigators who examine charges made against teachers. Others don’t. Some states are more aggressive in dealing with the charges; others go very slow.

The reasoning that states with low rates of firing are failing in policing the teaching force is a bit specious, It assumes that there are incompetent and predatory teachers lurking in abundance out there and the miscreant educators are not exposed because the administrations are not making the effort. It fails to examine the differences of intensity of the teacher education programs and the credentialing process in various states. It also fails to account for the number of bona fide charges against teacher and the number of false charges.

I have sat on review panels in the discipline of professors and about half of the incidents required disciplinary action and about half were false charges. Students do make up charges when they have vindictive motives against their teachers. And there are teachers who do things that disqualify them from the profession.

The answer to the problems with bad teachers is to sharpen due process in dealing with charges and make the credentialing process thorough and accurate.

But I am pondering how Mr. Reeder and his colleagues got that information out of South Dakota.

Simultaneously posted at KELOland blogs.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States