Tom Zirpoli: Don’t use short cuts to solve teacher shortage | COMMENTARY

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I’ve spent most of my professional career preparing new teacher candidates and providing professional development for current teachers seeking new skills, additional certifications, and graduate degrees. I’ve done this work at the University of Virginia, where I completed my own graduate education, at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I prepared special education teachers for eight years, and for the last 26 years at McDaniel College, where I worked with hundreds of pre-service teacher candidates and current teachers seeking professional development.

The teacher shortage in our nation has been a growing concern for many years, long before the pandemic made things worse. Colleges like McDaniel College where more than 70% of teachers receive their certification, once had large graduate teacher education programs, but have seen significant decreases in enrollment over the past 10 years. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, “Between 2008 and 2019, the number of students completing traditional teacher education programs in the U.S. dropped by more than a third.”


According to The Center for American Progress, “Nine states saw declines of more than 50 percent” while “enrollment in education programs fell by 60 percent in Illinois, nearly 70 percent in Michigan and 80 percent in Oklahoma.”

More alarming than the teacher shortage is how some politicians are responding to the shortage. In Florida, for example, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to allow military veterans without college degrees to become certified teachers. Politicians like DeSantis believe that anyone can teach and, thus, have lowered the standards for teacher certification. This does little to address the teacher shortage and devalues the field. This leads to less interest in the teaching profession, not more.


When some politicians don’t respect teachers or education in general, and they are not willing to sit down and listen to teachers and hear their concerns, they are unlikely to solve the shortage issue and simply make things worse.

There are many good alternative teaching certification programs that meet the high standards we should all want for our children’s teachers. For example, in Minnesota we ran a program that provided teaching skills to community professionals who were interested in teaching as a second career. A scientist at the General Mills plant in Minneapolis, for example, might be interested in teaching high school science. This person would have all of the science degrees and knowledge necessary to teach high school science, but not have the teaching skills, which our faculty provided during a one-year program that accommodated the person’s work schedule. It was a win-win program that provided professional science teachers for local high schools and a second career for many professionals.

Math and special education seem to be two especially difficult positions to fill. Math teachers have always been in short supply, according to Dr. Skip Fennell, retired math education professor at McDaniel College and a nationally recognized scholar. He warned that “short cuts” in preparing teachers are counterproductive and he is “worried about the profession” because of politicians like DeSantis.

Christopher Koch, president of the Council for Accreditation of Education Preparation, is also worried. He said that teachers are being “undermined and disrespected like never before in history as we see many states implementing short cuts and lowering standards in response to the need for more teaching candidates.”

Finding qualified special education teachers has also been a long-term struggle for many schools. These folks require a higher level of expertise, usually at the graduate level, above and beyond the role of a general educator. Also, the number of students receiving special education services in America has increased significantly, outpacing school districts’ ability to find needed education specialists.

Solutions to America’s teacher shortage follow the same rules as solving other professional shortages. It begins with higher pay. Faced with a nursing shortage during the pandemic, hospitals increased pay to nurses significantly, implemented hiring bonuses, and increased schedule flexibility. In response, we have seen a jump in nursing school applicants, and some predict a surplus of nurses in a couple of years. What we don’t see are politicians suggesting that veterans, on the basis of their military training, can be placed in hospitals to replace nurses.

Some school districts are experimenting with a four-day workweek for teachers. According to Jacey Fortin and Eliza Fawcett writing for The New York Times, “In Missouri, 25 percent of all districts will be on a four-day schedule this fall. The condensed week is common in New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and South Dakota, and is beginning to emerge in other states like Texas.” For smaller school districts without large budgets to increase teacher pay, a four-day workweek may be very attractive.

Lastly, politicians should stop using negative rhetoric toward teachers for political gain. Allow teachers to do their jobs. Also, parents should stop attacking teachers and school administrators at school board meetings. Parents may know their own children but being a parent does not make someone a professional educator. We should not want the curriculum wishes of a few loud parents to dominate the curriculum for millions of our nation’s school children.


Tom Zirpoli is the Laurence J. Adams Distinguished Chair in Special Education Emeritus. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at