What If Montessori Education Is Part of the Answer?
The corporate executive drops a child at the Montessori preschool, cuts a healthy check for tuition, then goes off to a seminar discussing the daunting prospects for educational reform.
The school board member bemoans the fact that the board cannot get down to the nitty-gritty of reinventing schools until it can quiet down the angry delegation of parents on the waiting list for the district's Montessori magnet school.
The college of education is positioned on the cutting edge of teacher education, spotlighting a professor who has discovered cooperative learning, another who promotes manipulatives for teaching math, another doing whole language, another consulting on multi-age grouping. A couple of miles away, a Montessori-education trainer, who has been doing all of those for more than two decades, checks her account books to see if her center will be able to pay this month's salary.
What's wrong with these pictures?
You need not embrace the notion that the "Montessori Method'' holds the cure for all that ails American education to regret that it has never been given a fair chance to prove just how much it can do.
We talk about needing systematic rather than piecemeal reform. The Montessori approach is integrated across the curriculum and through the ages from preschool through elementary. The benefit may be greatest for those children from chaotic homes. By creating respectful, stable, and integrated learning environments for children from early preschool through the elementary years and beyond, Montessori schools can provide a sense of order in an otherwise disordered world.
We talk about reforms that meet the test of the marketplace. Montessori education has succeeded in the marketplace with almost no governmental support and almost no support from this country's educational establishment. Today about 3,000 independent schools and about 130 public schools--some starting with preschools, some reaching 8th grade--describe themselves as "Montessori schools.''
Where Montessori education has been accepted in the public sector, it often has been as a desegregation tool. The "Montessori Method,'' painstakingly developed by Maria Montessori in the early years of this century, was built on the needs of the neediest children. It is the advocacy of white, middle-
class women that revived the movement and kept it alive in the United States. Thus, for city school systems like those in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, and Milwaukee, Montessori schools become an obvious strategy: Montessori magnets, if done well, are effective with the neediest and draw children of the middle class.
Nearly everywhere it has been implemented in the public sector, the waiting lists are long and the signs of parents' approval are clear.
Is it out of line to ask if there is some larger contribution this approach could make?
Expansion of programs is limited by several factors, including the shortage of trained Montessori teachers, the up-front costs of starting a program, and, most important, the discomfort key players--both Montessorians and those in the public sector--have in making the leap of faith necessary to move forward.
Some background on the Montessori movement is important. Here's a quick tour:
Maria Montessori, born in 1870 and the first female physician in Italy, focused her attention on the way young children learn. Her approach was scientific and inductive. She watched and developed materials and procedures that built on children's capacities and proclivities. She was a system builder before the term was used. She looked to develop an approach that worked on a given day and provided a basis of continuity that would work with children years later. In the implementations I have seen and admired the most, the teachers create a structured environment for learning, making extensive use of standardized didactic materials. Materials are designed to be self-correcting, emphasizing children's contact with learning rather than the judgments or interventions of teachers. The entire curriculum is linked in many ways--including materials that are used at different levels of sophistication as the children grow. The experience is built upon the intellectual and spiritual potential of the children and their connections to other people and the natural world.
By 1914, Montessori had written about her successful school in Rome and her vision. With some assistance from the American media, she became a celebrity, traveling to the United States for lectures and consultations. Even then, Americans were looking for panaceas.
Montessori was not a compromiser. Her distrust of others to carry on or interpret her work may have preserved her method's purity, but it undermined its effectiveness in the United States.
The American educational establishment would have nothing to do with her "all or nothing'' offer. In a 1914 book, The Montessori System Examined, William Heard Kilpatrick gave American educators carte blanche to reject the approach out of hand. They did for almost 50 years.
As the approach withered in the United States, it survived reasonably well in the rest of the world. Then in the early 1960's, Nancy Rambusch, now a professor of early-childhood education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and a band of other mothers led a revival.
In essence, they countered a major objection to Montessori's method--Montessori herself. They were committed to taking the principles of the approach and adapting them to the American experience. Montessori had died in 1952, but those who had risen to protect her work and, some would say in the process elevated the woman to the status of a cult figure, no longer had a monopoly. The principles she espoused--not simply her personality and extrapolations of her archival material--would play a vital role in the Montessori movement in the United States.
Even in revived form, the approach could not penetrate mainstream educational policy, although policymakers did take to shipping their children off to private Montessori schools. Some observers question the relationship between this lack of acceptance and the fact that the movement was initiated by a woman and revived by a grassroots campaign made up almost entirely of women.
Over the past 30 years, the movement has become fractionated in the United States. The Association Montessori-International, based in Holland, is the organization Montessori established to protect her vision. It has a branch in the United States. Although it resists Americanization, the A.M.I. is a significant factor in this country and at least four successful public school systems follow its lead closely. The American Montessori Society, founded by Ms. Rambusch, is the largest Montessori organization in the United States and most active with public schools. Dozens of smaller groups and individuals provide Montessori training.
Although a new, voluntary organization was founded last year to accredit teacher-training programs and provide some agreed-upon standards, there is today no single nationally accepted model of a "Montessori school'' or a "Montessori training'' regimen.
Given the difficulty in standardizing Montessori-based education, and the outsider status to which it has been relegated, one thing must be said: If done with any reasonable amount of integrity, it works.
Satisfied parents and young people are the basis for the judgment. Unfortunately, traditional research is not.
Some conventional research has been done, but the best of it is only suggestive. Lacking a standard definition of a Montessori school or classroom, there is no reliability of measurement. Each study of Montessori programs begins with a different set of classroom conditions, making generalizations impossible.
Research problems go beyond that. Children in good Montessori classrooms have usually done quite well on standardized tests, but it appears that they show even greater advantages over their peers when measured years later. This suggests that these children may be building a strong base for later learning, whether or not they reach the year's districtwide learning objectives. For that reason, research would need to be long-term. Also, the goals of a Montessori-based education go beyond the easily measurable. How do you measure the uneven evolution of children who grow into adults who respond creatively to new challenges, resolve conflicts effectively, understand their relatedness to others, and take responsibility for their own lives?
It's not surprising the university-based research community has shied away from Montessori education. By now it is a vicious circle: Few university researchers study the approach, and without research we have no proof that it is effective, no way to justify its place in higher education.
Without formal acceptance, bits and pieces of Montessori's method have become standard fare in schools--manipulatives for math, a literature-based approach to reading, multi-age grouping, a world-view social-science curriculum, emphasis on the developmental levels of children, and structured observation by the teacher.
What is missing in this piecemeal borrowing is the integrated whole.
It is that integration of all the pieces that carries much of the approach's potential--especially for those young people in disintegrating families. And it is our unwillingness to try a total package that has made so limited the potential of Montessori-based education.
But are these times when--for investigation purposes if no other--we ought to consider giving the approach a fair test?
To make it work several things would need to happen:
- Educational leaders and reformers must pledge to give the
approach a fair trial. If a public Montessori magnet exists only to
provide good desegregation numbers, that is one thing. If it is there
to do a remarkable job of educating children, it needs support in
terms of funding, admission policies, teacher training, student
assessment, preschool components, and other factors. The integrity of
the total approach must be respected.
- Researchers must make a commitment not only to study the
phenomenon, but to understand it. That means not only agreement on a
definition of a Montessori school, but a willingness to respect its
aims that goes beyond simple measures of academic
- Concerned educators must forge a common definition of a
Montessori education experience. Ideally, the definition would be the
work of Montessori teachers and trainers, but given the
fractionation, it may require the incentives that can be provided
only by other educators and foundations.
- Montessori teacher-trainers must expand their scope. These educators, now working almost entirely outside major colleges and universities, must bring their work into traditional teacher-training institutions and find a way to expand the number of people qualified to train.
It may not be easy. But why not give an idea that has endured and thrived through decades of challenges the chance to contribute to the solutions we all seek?
Dennis Schapiro is the editor of Public School Montessorian, a
quarterly newspaper, and the director of the Center for Public
Montessori Programs. Both are based in Minneapolis.