The Montessori method of instruction is an educational innovation that has been highly praised since its conception over 100 years ago by Dr. Maria Montessori (“History of Montessori Education and the Movement”). The method promotes student independence through peer learning in mixed age classes, freedom in choosing what activity to work on, and long periods of uninterrupted time to work in the classroom (“Introduction to the Montessori Method”). Dr. Montessori’s first school, Casa dei Bambini, was opened in a low income neighborhood in Rome, and as the method has spread to every continent excluding Antarctica, it has continued to be employed as a means through which to advance diversity between different types of learners, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds (“History of Montessori Education and the Movement”). The Montessori method was introduced to the United States shortly after its’ founding in the early 1900’s, however it didn’t obtain lasting popularity until a revival in 1960, led by early childhood expert Dr. Nancy Rambusch (Pace)(“History of Montessori Education and the Movement”). By the 1970’s the Montessori method was hailed as an educational innovation with the potential to provide an alternative to students who did not function optimally in a traditional classroom setting (Stevens) and experienced growing popularity with middle class suburban families (Whitescarver, Cossentino 2584). This growth lead it to became part of the “War on Poverty” movement, and was seen as a constructive way to promote desegregation in urban schools through utilization as a magnet option (“Growth of Public Montessori in the United States:19745-2014”). With the creation of charter schools in the 1990’s the method continued to grow in popularity as an alternative to traditional schools, and in the past fifteen years, an estimated 290 public Montessori schools have opened (“Growth of Public Montessori in the United States:19745-2014”). In light of the method’s growth in the public sector, and its perceived potential to address issues of educational inequality, how successful has public Montessori been in addressing issues of educational inequality over the course of recent decades?
American Montessori Society. “Montessori: Valuing Diversity with Andrew Solomon.” Online Video clip. Vimeo. Vimeo, 29 July 2014. Web. 20 April 2016.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed her method to reach underserved children by putting focus on the individual and value on the differences between students. The Montessori method embraces differences between students, be they race, socioeconomic status, ability, or other (“Montessori Success in Minority Communities“). The objective of this method, along with its focus on building executive functions, makes it a promising reform for combating issues of equality in America’s schools, at least in theory. Research into the effectiveness of public Montessori school’s ability to remedy educational inequalities is new, but researchers have observed both strengths and weaknesses in how well the method has worked to serve minority and low income students. Although there is a possibility for the Montessori method to be successful in addressing issues of educational inequality, there are problems with the application of the method in the public sector which continue to obstruct this potential. Among these problems are the availability of Montessori options to minority and low income students and persistent issues with the treatment of minority students and families in public Montessori classrooms and communities.
The East Dallas Community Schools (EDCS) manages two Montessori charter schools that serve higher numbers of low income and English language learner students than the rest of the state. In an area where the graduation of the local public high school is 50%, of the third grade alumni of EDCS 94% graduate high school, and 88% go on to college on average (East Dallas Community Schools Newsletters). However, not all public Montessori options offer this same high quality experience to underserved students. Public Montessori schools, particularly charters, are becoming less available to minority students, resulting in a vital way in which Montessori schools are not as effective as they could be in addressing issues of educational inequality. About 6% of of public schools in the United States are charter schools, while 41% of public Montessori schools are charters (“The challenge of a desirable school choice” 31). Montessori charters have been increasingly popular in recent years, and are now even slightly exceeding magnet options (“The challenge of a desirable school choice” 31-32). These Montessori Charters are often less racially and economically diverse than district and magnet school, and over 60% of these charters enroll less than 40% minority students and have less than 40% of their students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, which is an important indicator of the number of students living in poverty (“The challenge of a desirable school choice” 32-33).
“As a group, Montessori charter schools enroll a higher percentage of white students and a smaller number of black, Latino, Asian and free- and reduced-lunch-eligible students than Montessori magnet and district schools,” writes education researcher Mira Debs in her forthcoming article The challenge of a desirable school choice: Public Montessori between Social Reform and Elite Schooling (32). Debs calls upon Kevin G. Welner’s “dirty dozen” concept to explain the inequitable techniques employed by charter schools that are making a growing number of public Montessori options less available to minority and low income students (“The challenge of a desirable school choice” 34). Lack of English as a second language materials, not offering programs like free busing and or school lunches, are all ways that charters can keep themselves from being more available to minority and low income students, however there are also techniques that are unique to charter Montessori schools. Because of pedological differences between Montessori and traditional classroom methods, many Montessori schools require that students have prior experience with the method before elementary school, and do not allow students to enter the school after a certain grade. If there are no free public Montessori preschool options available to families, this can bar them from accessing or being eligible for public Montessori later on (“The challenge of a desirable school choice” 35).
This was the case in Des Moines, Iowa at Cowles Montessori, which is the only public Montessori school in the state. Crowles Montessori enrolls students through a preschool program requiring $167.50 a week in tuition which is double the cost of other public preschool programs in the area. The result has been a 49% decrease in the number of low income students and a 29% decrease in the number of minority students attending Crowles Montessori compared to the district (“The challenge of a desirable school choice” 22).
Katie E. Brown’s article Racial Diversity, Segregation, and Montessori Charter Schools built off of some of the work of Mira Debs, and sought to examine how representative public Montessori schools were of the district’s population. Brown’s research provides further evidence that Montessori charters, which educate 37,926 students, are often racially segregated and predominantly white (2) (11). Only 53 of the 166 Montessori charter schools had populations that were representative of the districts they were serving, whereas the remaining 113 schools (68.07%) had at least one racial group that was over or under represented. In 76 (45.78% ) of the Montessori charter schools in the study, white students were the population to be overrepresented (Brown 13).
Outside of the issues associated with segregation in Montessori charters, there are also problems with the treatment of students within public Montessori schools, as well as with the ability of low income and minority parents to adjust into Montessori communities. These practices leave families disenfranchised from the schools, despite the demonstrated potential for the Montessori method to be a positive innovation for many minority and low income students. Brown and Steele found that rates of disproportionate discipline for minority students in public Montessori schools were statistically significant, like they are in traditional schools (1). Black students in Montessori programs were two to three times more likely to receive out of school suspension than white students, which comparable to the rates in other schools (Brown, Steele 22).
However, the researchers did find that within the district that they were conducting their study racial discipline disproportionality was less striking when compared to the traditional schools of the district (Brown, Steele 22). This finding prompted Brown and Steele to conclude that although disproportionate discipline of minority students persisted in public Montessori schools, there is evidence that Montessori could potentially be a remedy to unequal treatment of minority students, “Montessori schools are not immune to racially disproportionate discipline and should work to incorporate more culturally responsive classroom management techniques. Conversely, the lower levels of racially disproportionate discipline in the Montessori schools suggest that further study of discipline and classroom management in Montessori environments may provide lessons for traditional schools to promote equitable discipline” (Brown, Steele 1).
Education researchers Elizabeth Brown and Molly Makris explore in their article Too Many White Ping Pong Balls: The Difficulty of Diversity Maintenance in Prestige Charter Schools, the growing number of public Montessori schools that fit the description of being a “prestige charter” (E. Brown, Makis 7) which in many ways serves white and high income families better than minority, and low income families. The alternative teaching method, which made Montessori an appealing option for middle class families in some ways makes it less desirable to minority and low income parents. In her article Conflicted fit: Black and Latino parents’ experience in public Montessori schools, Mira Debs found that the experiences of minority and low income parents made understanding the abstract principles of the Montessori method difficult for them. Montessori actives like gardening can be difficult for Black and Latino parents to accept. “I can’t figure out all this motherly, green thumb, nature-loving hippie part of the program,” one Latino parent interviewed in Debs article said, “I’m trying to prepare [my daughter] for modern-day stuff like technology and computers and all these advances in medicine – and they’re planting peas…She can rake, and she can trim bushes, but real-world practical use?” (“Conflicted fit” 18-19). Some Black and Latino parents also held issue with the lack of homework in their children’s Montessori schools, which Debs acknowledges is the case of many parents in Montessori (“Conflicted fit” 19). However, Debs argues that the concerns of minority parents for academic rigor were strengthened by their experiences with “limited educational opportunities” and “their awareness of the discrimination and dangers their children of color might face in the future” (“Conflicted Fit” 19). Debs calls this “conflicted fit,” where parents were fond of the caring Montessori community but still apprehensive about the abstractness of the mission and the perceived lack of attention paid to academic achievement (“Conflicted fit” 14). Debs found that parents who faced conflicted fit in the Montessori schools where their students attended were disenfranchised from the communities and more likely to consider enrolling their child in a different school (“Conflicted fit” 21).
One concern is that some minority families are disenfranchised from schools with high levels of parent involvement, resulting in “parentocracy” where the “the individual needs and preferences of some privileged parents may dominate and supersede the needs and interests of the collective good” (E. Brown, Makris 9). Debs states that Montessori schools and educators need to become more culturally sensitive and understanding of the different perceptions and background of parents in order for minority parents to feel equally empowered in the school communities (“Conflicted fit” 23).
Following her participation in the Montessori Public Policy Initiative Retreat in the Fall of 2015, Katie Brown, co-author of Racial Discipline Disproportionality in Montessori and Traditional Public Schools: A Comparative Study Using the Relative Rate Index, shared her impression that the current dialogue about public Montessori expansion was is not adequately addressing greater outreach to underserved populations, “I was struck by the lack of discussion of equity and inclusion. When I looked around the room, I noticed that the group was sorely lacking in representation from Montessorians of color…very little was said about increasing access for students of color and low-income students specifically, and how we ensure that high-quality Montessori best fits their educational needs…I brought up the question of how to diversify the Montessori teacher pool, but my impression is that if I had not, the issue of racial diversity may have gone unaddressed in this session” (“Advancing Montessori Public Policy, Expanding Access and Equity”).
Public Montessori options have grown in recent decades. This expansion of an educational innovation which was formerly a largely private school option, should give low income and minority students greater access to a method that is believed to have far reaching benefits, “including better scores on reading and math standardized tests, more positive interaction on the playground, more advanced social cognition and executive control, and more concern for fairness and justice” (Murray). However, current public Montessori practices are imperfect and do not address problems of educational inequality in America’s schools. In fact, the growing segregation of Montessori charters suggests that the method’s growth in the public sector could be contributing to the backtrack of desegregation in America’s schools. Angela K. Murray of the American Montessori Society advocates for an expansion of public Montessori options so that. “skills that have been the province of the few must become universal” (Murray). The noble goal of Dr. Nancy Rambusch for “the creation of a viable American Montessori educational experience for as many children as possible,” (Whitescaver, Cossentino 2582) may very well have the potential to remedy many of the issues of educational inequality obstructing our schools today. However, first the obstacles facing the method in light of the expansion of Montessori into the public sector must be understood and addressed.
American Montessori Society. “Montessori: Valuing Diversity with Andrew Solomon.” Online Video clip. Vimeo. Vimeo, 29 July 2014. Web. 20 April 2016.
Brown, Katie. 2016. “Racial Diversity, Segregation, and Montessori Charter Schools.” Paper presented at the American Education Research Association, April 12, Washington DC.
Brown, Katie E., and Aimy SL Steele. “Racial Discipline Disproportionality in Montessori and Traditional Public Schools: A Comparative Study Using the Relative Rate Index.” Journal of Montessori Research 1.1 (2015).
Brown, Katie. “Advancing Montessori Public Policy, Expanding Access and Equity.” Montessori for Social Justice. 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 6 May 2016. http://montessoriforsocialjustice.org.
Debs, Mira. “Conflicted fit: Black and Latino parents’ experience in public Montessori schools.” American Education Research Association Annual Conference. Washington D.C. 11 April 2016.
Debs, Mira. “The challenge of a desirable choice: Public Montessori between Social Reform and Elite Schooling.” Yale University Unpublished Paper. 2016.
East Dallas Community Schools Newsletters. National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. 2009-2010. Web. 3 May 2016. http://www.public-montessori.org/sites/default/files/resources/EDCS%20Outcomes%20Charts%20and%20Graphs.pdf.
“Growth of Public Montessori in the United States:19745-2014.” National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. Web. 20 April 2016. http://www.public-montessori.org/growth-Public-montessori-united-states-1975-2014.
“History of Montessori Education and the Movement.” American Montessori Society,. 2016. Web. 20 April 2016. http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/History-of-Montessori-Education.
“Introduction to Montessori Method.” American Montessori Society. 2016. Web. 20 April 2016. http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori.
“Montessori Success in Minority Communities.” Golden Oaks Montessori. Web. 3 May 2016. http://www.goldenoakmontessori.org/Info/PDFMasters/Success_In_Minority_Communities.pdf.
Murray, Angela K. “Expanding Access to Montessori Education: An Opportunity for Disadvantaged Students.” CUNY Institute for Education Policy. 24 February 2015. Web. 3 May 2016. http://ciep.hunter.cuny.edu/expanding-access-to-montessori-education-an-opportunity-for-disadvantaged-students/.
Pace, Eric. “Nancy Rambusch, 67, Educator Who Backed Montessori Schools.” The New York Times. 30 Oct. 1994. Web. 22 Apr. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/30/us/nancy-rambusch-67-educator-who-backed-montessori-schools.html.
Stevens, William K. “Parents Unhappy With Publci Schools Find Alternative in Informal Classes.” New York Times. 21 June 1970. Web. 8 April 2016. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9E0CE2D91339E336A05752C2A9609C946190D6CF.
Whitescarver, Keith, and Jacqueline Cossentino. “Montessori and the mainstream: A century of reform on the margins.” The Teachers College Record 110.12 (2008): 2571-2600. Web. 8 April 2016. http://www.montessoriconsulting.org/publications/montessori_and_the_mainstream.pdf