Public Schools Embrace Montessori Movement

By Deborah L. Cohen — December 13, 1989 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Propelled by a timely combination of “child-centered” principles and cachet among parents, the 90-year-old Montessori movement is undergoing what some describe as a “renaissance” in public schools.

Although private schools remain the primary settings for Montessori instruction in the United States, the philosophy and methods identified with the movement have spread rapidly in the public system during the 1980’s.

First embraced by public educators in the mid-1970’s as a theme for magnet programs designed to spur desegregation, the approach is now being used in about 110 public schools in 60 districts. Some 14,000 pupils were enrolled as of last year.

Many districts are expanding their programs into additional classrooms and schools, and five to seven new districts begin programs each year, according to the North American Montessori Teachers Association.

“It’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to Montessori,” said Sandra Sommer, principal of the Sands Montessori School in Cincinnati, which offered the first magnet program based on the approach.

Ms. Sommer and other proponents say the “renaissance” is helping extend Montessori’s benefits to a broader mix of students, and they argue that public
schools can supplement those benefits with distinctive resources and programs of their own.

“Public schools can play a gigantic role in revitalizing the Montessori movement and propelling it into the 21st century,” said Paula Biwer, principal of the public Mitchell Elementary School in Denver.

But some educators, particularly in private schools, worry that bureaucratic constraints and a lack of Montessori-trained teachers will mean public schools adopt “Montessori in name,” without fully adhering to the movement’s principles.

Said Tim Seldin, headmaster of the Barrie School, a private Montessori school in Washington: “Many [public-school programs] I see are being run by people who are very sincere in what they are trying to do. But they are being asked to compromise to such an extent that my fear is that when they are finished compromising, what they are doing is not going to look very much like Montessori.”

Internal Debates

What Montessori should look like, however, is subject to debate even among Montessorians.

The two major professional groups in the field differ on the extent to which Montessori methods should be adapted to today’s society, and dozens of different associations provide teacher training.

“One of the reasons Montessori hasn’t taken the world by storm,” said Mr. Seldin, is that “Montessorians love kids and hate each other.’'

Association leaders call such claims exaggerated, and say they are working separately and together to promote the movement’s spread into the public sector. But they concede that their efforts are relatively recent.

“The Montessori community has done a less than admirable job of promoting itself,” said Paul Epstein, coordinator of the Montessori magnet program in Prince George’s County, Md. “It’s probably the most incredibly well-kept secret of education.”

‘Child-Centered’ Model

The “secret” is based on the work of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and biologist born in 1870 who first worked with children labeled as retarded and then with the children of poor families in inner-city Rome. Her observations, which played a key role in the emergence of developmental psychology, led her to conclude that children learn best in environments that respect and support their individual development.

Maintaining that children’s first six years are the most critical for learning, Dr. Montessori promoted a holistic approach that would begin children’s education at an early age. She envisioned such education fostering social and emotional growth and physical coordination as well as cognitive competence.

The physician proposed a “prepared environment” of multi-sensory materials laid out in an ordered sequence that would allow children to both enjoy and succeed at learning. The method relies heavily on practical skills and hands-on learning; it incorporates activities ranging from simple tasks, such as sorting beads and learning to work buckles and buttons, to complex arithmetic and cultural studies.

The materials are designed to help children gain an understanding of whole processes, rather than piecemeal concepts, and allow teachers to assess their progress and diagnose problems by observation without formal tests.

The Montessori model groups children not by grades, but in multi-age clusters that correspond to developmental stages and allow interaction and modeling among younger and older children.

The methods are designed to stimulate children’s independence and self-directed learning, with teachers serving as guides.

“It’s the original child-centered program,” observed Mr. Epstein.

Revival in 1950’s

Montessori methods were introduced in the United States as early as 1912 and reached about 200 schools before World War I. But the approach fell out of favor until the mid-1950’s, when it was revived by parents dissatisfied with current educational practices and by educators seeking an educational model that would apply the theories of child development advanced by Jean Piaget.

In the 80’s, the emphasis on early-childhood education and the emergence of the school-choice movement have further bolstered the popularity of Montessori ideas among school-savvy parents.

Educators estimate that there may be as many as 4,000 schools bearing the Montessori name in the United States, ranging from programs in church basements to college-preparatory schools. Although the method is most commonly practiced in preschool and the early grades, some schools have extended it to the junior- and senior-high levels.

The American Montessori Society, founded in 1960, represents more than 700 schools. The U.S. branch of the Association Montessori Internationale--an international association founded in 1929 and based in Holland--represents 130 schools. The a.m.s. generally supports efforts to adapt and update Montessori methods, while the a.m.i. has sought to preserve the original model as closely as possible.

The Training Challenge

While only about two dozen public schools are officially recognized by either the a.m.s. or the a.m.i., many public-school teachers have been trained in programs accredited by those groups. Some of the more established public programs hire only Montessori-trained staff members.

But some schools are instituting programs too rapidly to ensure that teachers and administrators receive proper training first, experts warn.

“The most important crisis we are facing is that the programs may expand in advance of our community’s ability to maintain the supply of Montessori teachers,” said David Kahn, executive director of the North American Montessori Teachers Association.

“Our biggest challenge right now is to be able to train teachers who can implement Montessori programs in the public sector without jeopardizing standards,” added Virginia A. McHugh, executive director of the U.S. affiliate of the a.m.i.

While the training formats of the major associations differ, both require extensive preservice training beyond traditional teacher certification.

Teachers “have to be very motivated” to seek the training, because there is “no great salary benefit,” noted Dennis Schapiro, editor of The Public School Montessorian, a quar8terly newsletter he founded partly in an attempt to address parents’ concerns about the shortage of teachers in public programs.

Compromising the ‘Dynamic’?

Apart from the issue of training, Ms. McHugh of the ami-U.S.A. raises the concern that public-school programs may be “diluted just by having to go through bureaucracies.”

While the Montessori model calls for grouping 3- to 6-year-olds, for example, many public schools are able to enroll 3- and 4-year-olds only on a tuition or part-day basis, and others begin their programs at age 5--practices some contend can compromise the Montessori “dynamic.’'

Others argue that public-school programs may be hampered by curriculum and testing requirements, political pressures, and constraints in choosing pupils and teachers well suited to the method.

In a recent commentary in the A.M.I.-U.S.A. News, Michael S. Berliner, who has published several papers on the Montessori philosophy and is executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, warned that public schools’ use of “bits and pieces of Montessori” might “disintegrate the method and its goals” by forcing private programs out of business.

“Why should parents pay the thousands of dollars per year for private school when they believe they’re getting the same thing in the neighborhood public school?” he asked.

But the potential loss of private-school programs is a “secondary concern,” said Musya Meyer, director of the Hudson Country School in New Rochelle, N.Y. She cited the larger “question of ethics” raised by marketing inauthentic programs.

Such concerns are also shared by some public-school Montessorians.

“If you have teachers and staff who understand what legitimate, real Montessori means, then you’re going to be all right,” said Mary W. Jones, a teacher at Washington’s John Burroughs Elementary School, the only public school to receive a.m.i. certification last year. “But there is such a large segment of people out there who have no idea what that means.”

Good Enough for Parents

Many educators involved in the movement say public schools face no greater risk of diluting Montessori methods than do private schools.

The a.m.s., stressed Bretta Weiss, its national director and president of the Council for American Private Education, advises parents to “look at a school, its materials, and the training of teachers” before enrolling a child in a Montessori program. “That wouldn’t relate just to public schools,” she observed.

Because the a.m.i. failed in a 1960’s bid to patent the Montessori name, “anybody can create an early-childhood center and call it Montessori,” noted Ms. Biwer of the Denver district, a Montessori-trained public-school principal who has worked in the private sector.

Many private programs face “problems of training and erroneous personal interpretations” and “sacrifice Montessori principles in order to attract or keep tuition-paying students,” said Jean K. Miller, implementor of a Montessori program at the Greenfield School in Milwaukee.

“In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of private Montessori schools practice [it] in a form that is hardly recognizable,” she wrote in a response to Mr. Berliner’s commentary, “good Montessori practice has survived.”

“The same is possible in public schools,” she maintained.

Others argue that even with their shortcomings, public schools are making important contributions.

“Even though they may not start out with the total training Montessorians see as necessary, the things they have tried have been valuable, and many of them are asking for further training,” said Sylvia Cooper, principal of the Palm Academy, a magnet public school in Lorain, Ohio, that offers a “Montessori-like” program.

While many public programs “do not come close to the standards” demanded by critics, “their test scores are still the best in the city, and kids are doing well and are happy,” Mr. Schapiro noted. “For a lot of parents, that’s enough.”

“Wherever there has been a program, it’s been a successful program,’' acknowledged Ms. Weiss.

“It may be difficult to get public-school requirements to coincide with the Montessori goals and objectives, but it’s being done,” she added. “It only gets into the public schools if parents want it there.’'

Rather than undermining Montessori principles, advocates argue, public schools are helping spread them.

“Having a good public-school program only enhances the work of private schools,” said Ms. Biwer, who noted that the publicity--and long waiting lists--drawn by public-school programs has boosted private schools’ business.

“We put Montessori in front of the public, whereas before no one had heard of it,” said Andrew Martin, principal of the L.L. Hotchkiss Montessori Academy, a public-school program in Dallas.

Public schools, argued Ms. Cooper, also have increased access to the method, not just for “people who can afford it,” but for “the urban child” who was the focus of Dr. Montessori’s initial work.

“We have made it more available to more people, and that’s what Maria Montessori wanted,” Mr. Martin added.

Public educators also maintain that state and local standards can be successfully integrated with Montessori methods--and that computer education, arts programs, and other public-school resources can be an asset to Montessori goals.

Outside the Mainstream

Although Montessori methods embody many principles of “developmentally appropriate” education espoused by national authorities on early childhood, the model has not been widely promoted because “there is no one body that says this is what Montessori is,” said Barbara A. Willer, a spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“Unfortunately, the Montessori movement has been outside of the mainstream in early-childhood education, and that’s regrettable,” added Lilian G. Katz, director of the eric clearinghouse on elementary and early-childhood education at the University of Illinois.

Some also say the movement’s factionalism has undercut efforts to validate the method through research and to ensure adequate training.

The professional groups “ought to get together and decide on how they can best serve the needs of the students,” said Ms. Cooper of the Palm Academy.

While denying that differences among the groups have “hindered the spread of Montessori,” Ms. Weiss conceded that backers of the method ''haven’t been good salespeople.”

But last year, she noted, the board of the a.m.s. made it a priority to extend Montessori to pupils in a range of settings, including public schools.

The profession has made significant strides in defining Montessori goals, Mr. Kahn noted, and recent research has yielded positive results.

A Montessori Public-School Consortium formed last year is hosting a March conference to examine the movement, and the a.m.s. is also planning an April conference on the role of Montessori in contemporary culture.

“I think Montessorians are going to be really soul-searching for a while,” Ms. Katz said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 1989 edition of Education Week as Public Schools Embrace Montessori Movement


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 13, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read