Will the real Montessori please stand up?


Photo: Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report
Not all schools that use the famous name are authentic
By Jackie Mader

At a time when many critics of public schools say young children are pushed into academics too quickly and don’t get much time to play, the Montessori approach appeals to parents – and schools are quick to take advantage of that interest. But many critics have pointed out that “Montessori-inspired” does not guarantee authentic Montessori.

Montessori is not a trademarked name, which means it is a label often given to thousands of daycares and preschools across the country — whether or not they follow the Montessori method. This can mislead parents who are not aware that all Montessori schools are not created equal.

A Google search of preschools in any major city will return dozens of “Montessori” schools, but that doesn’t mean the schools follow the teachings of the method’s founder, Maria Montessori, or feature some of the key classroom tenets of Montessori — like an uninterrupted three-hour “work time” — or have teachers trained by an accredited Montessori teacher-training program.

And even fewer schools are affiliated with an accrediting organization, like the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori International, which some experts say is the only way to guarantee the highest level of authenticity. Out of more than 4,000 so-called Montessori schools across the country, only 1,250 are affiliated with the American Montessori Society (and only 204 are AMS-accredited) and about 220 are recognized by AMI.

For parents, the free use of the Montessori name could mean the “Montessori” program in which their child is enrolled will not provide the type of education they want or expect. And some Montessori advocates say this indiscriminate use of the word is damaging to the Montessori reputation and approach, which has been proven to lead to academic benefits for young kids.

When done right, Montessori programs are led by specially trained teachers who preside over multi-age classrooms in which self-discipline is encouraged and which feature unique materials that aren’t seen in other preschools. Many parents think a Montessori education encourages creativity and benefits children by providing unique teaching methods aimed at respecting young children and giving kids more control of their learning.

Supporters say the Montessori approach gives children the materials and time to learn independently and at their own pace. It strives to teach peace education, help children develop concentration and to learn without the promise of extrinsic rewards or grades.

Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, created the approach in 1907 when she opened the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in a low-income Roman neighborhood. The school, designed around Montessori’s understanding of child development, was meant to provide a unique education to poor children. Montessori believed children needed self-directed activities, special environments and a teacher as a guide rather than a lecturer.

The method spread to America in the early 1900s, but its popularity waned during the 1920s. It was revitalized during the 1960s and grew quickly after one of the nation’s Montessori schools was featured in a Time magazine article titled “The Joy of Learning.” Parents were intrigued by the schools, which seemed to offer an alternative to traditional public schools. Recently, Montessori has received another revival as public Montessori schools have become increasingly common.

While many parents are drawn to the creative nature of Montessori, the method is steeped in order and consistency, which Maria Montessori found essential for helping children learn. There are specific procedures for everything: how to roll up your rug, how to pour liquid from one pitcher to another, how to draw lines on a paper. Materials are arranged on shelves in order of difficulty and students are not allowed to move from one activity to another until they have received instruction.

“Everything has a correct name, everything has a place where it lives on the shelves, everything has an exact way to carry it from the shelf,” said Tim Seldin, president of The Montessori Foundation, who added that this sense of order and focus is what Montessori educators are trying to develop in children. “All of this can feel very, very rigid to a parent who thinks creative chaos is a way for kids to learn. We would argue that’s exactly the way you do not want kids to learn. That does not lead to executive functioning skills.”

Research shows a Montessori education can affect a student’s achievement. One study found students who attend Montessori have higher achievement levels on math and literacy tests than their peers in non-Montessori programs, including private preschools and Head Start programs. Another study, of older students, found that children who attended Montessori schools showed significant differences in story writing and social skills compared to their peers who were not enrolled in Montessori. That study also found 5-year-olds in a Montessori program performed better on academic skills like letter-word identification and math skills compared to their non-Montessori peers.

But authenticity matters. One study compared student gains in classic Montessori programs, “lower fidelity Montessori,” and other preschool programs. It found children in classic Montessori programs had “significantly greater school-year gains” in executive function, reading, math, vocabulary and social problem-solving than their peers in Montessori schools that were not as authentic or schools without any Montessori affiliation.

Many parents may struggle to identify an authentic Montessori school. One of the first signs is association with or accreditation by a group like the American Montessori Society, Association Montessori International or the International Montessori Council, all of which may differ in their requirements for schools, leading to slight variations in accredited Montessori programs. Teachers should be trained in the age group they are teaching through one of the 137 teacher-training programs accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) so they are versed in theory and know how to use the materials correctly. That training time is also when teachers work on their “albums,” or lesson plans.

“You can’t really call yourself a Montessori school unless you have trained teachers,” said Rebecca Pelton, president of MACTE. “They have to practice with the materials; they have to be able to set up the shelves; they have to be able to know how to use the materials in teaching.”

5 things to look for in your child’s Montessori school

1. Trained teachers: Teachers should be trained in the age group they teach by a teacher-preparation program accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education.

2. Multi-age classrooms: Montessori classrooms traditionally feature age groupings of three years, meaning one classroom will serve ages 3 to 6, another will serve first through third grade, etc.

3. Montessori materials: Montessori materials are extensive and grouped into different areas of learning, including sensorial and practical life. Usually made out of a range of materials including fabric and wood, the materials include real objects like pitchers and are meant to be used in multiple ways and at several stages of child development and learning.

4. Three-hour uninterrupted work time: During this time, students direct their learning as they work at their own pace either alone or with peers, while teachers provide individual and small-group instruction.

5. For the most “high-fidelity” schools, look for membership in or recognition by an association like the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori International.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.