Can Montessori Work in Public Schools?

Some people have the mistaken idea that the Montessori method is strictly for wealthy or privileged children. Unfortunately, due to the cost of materials and training for the teachers, Montessori is often relegated to the private sector. A growing number of school districts, however, are paving the way for Montessori in the public schools.

As I see it, offering Montessori programs in the public school environment takes the teachings back in the direction of their origin; after all, the first Children’s House was set up in the slums of Rome for any child who wanted to attend. According to the
Washington Post
, there are currently 250-300 public Montessori schools in the U.S., attempting to put the groundbreaking ideas of Dr. Montessori within reach of some of society’s most marginalized young people.

This effort hasn’t been an easy one. Here are some pros and cons:

5 Benefits of Montessori Public Schools

1) Nullifying NCLB: Ask a government official whether No Child Left Behind has been a success and he or she is likely to say yes, pointing to documented higher test scores. Ask a teacher and you hear a different response:

“The consequences especially for minority students are more and more tragic,
and you see it in the data,” says Sylvia Bruni, assistant superintendent of the Laredo, Texas, Independent School District. “We have enormous dropout rates in my community – as many 30 percent of all students. Statewide there’s a marked decline in the number of students who are prepared for higher education.”

NCLB has had disastrous consequences for countless young people, and the Montessori method, with its non-competitive, confidence-building environment, could be the perfect antidote to this.

2) New Respect And Less Stress For Teachers: As one of you commented on a recent post about standardized testing, the environment in the public school around testing time is extremely stressful. Teachers are obliged to attend endless meetings devoted to extracting higher test scores from their students. Faculty know the consequence of a poor school rating will be public shaming and funding cuts. What a peculiar environment!

Prizes and punishments shift the whole purpose of education in a poor direction and can leave teachers feeling trapped instead of valued and respected. If Montessori public schools were able to go the whole nine yards and break ties with teaching to the test, instead developing other opportunities for students to display their growth, our schools might be calmer, pleasanter places.

3) Being True To Dr. Montessori’s Vision: The Washington Post article, cited earlier, points to the enrollment fees of a Massachusetts Montessori private school: tuition is $9,190 through sixth grade and $12,160 for seventh and eighth. These costs are going to deprive most of America’s children of the benefits of a Montessori education. It isn’t that the program isn’t worth the investment. The simple fact is that most people can’t afford it.

Making Montessori education a public school standard means that more children can benefit from the Montessori method.

4) Benefits For the Child:
It is difficult to briefly sum up the revolution that could take place in the minds of children who discover that, suddenly, the teacher is no longer the main player in those long school days they put in, week after week, month after month, year after year. Suddenly, they have become the reason their school exists!

Imagine the difference you would experience if one day, going to work at an unpleasant job was no longer about serving a boss, but rather, exploring everything you love in order to make a positive contribution to society. How might this affect the way you feel about yourself, your life and your world?

5) Healing Society: Children are extremely fortunate if they have been a part of a quality Montessori program. But when they grow up and go out into the world, they will be meeting with all of the children who have been done a disservice by current traditional educational methods. They will be meeting scarred people who didn’t do very well when they were run through the competition mill. These people may be bitter, angry, violent.

How much better and safer might our world be if all children were given the gift of a Montessori education? Montessori public schools are a powerful first step in that very right direction.

5 Montessori Public School Challenges

1) Lack of qualified teachers: In the U.S., Montessori public elementary school teachers are required to attain both state certification as well as Montessori teacher training. This requires a major investment of both time and money on the part of the teacher. The result is a shortage.

2) Lack of funding:
Montessori schools have to buy very specific, special equipment and classroom materials. Again, this requires an investment, and in poorly funded schools, it can be hard enough to get traditional textbooks or supplies of paper and pencils. Finding the budget for all of the Montessori materials can be difficult.

3) Student Adaptation:
Public school children accustomed to teacher-focused education can have a difficult time transitioning to the child-focused environment of a Montessori classroom. Montessori students are expected to work on their own, with minimal adult direction. Public school students who come into a Montessori program mid-way in their school career may feel frustrated by what is being asked of them and may take up a problematic amount of the instructor’s time simply because they are unskilled at self-directed work.

4) Clash of Ideologies:
Maria Montessori believed that children learn everything they need to know at their own pace, provided that a conducive learning environment is created for them by a respectful adult. The majority of today’s parents were raised in a school system that taught them to believe the point of education is to see where one ranks amongst one’s same-age peers.

There is an evident clash between educators striving to foster intelligent, happy children and parents who are mainly concerned with test scores, school rankings and national averages. A Montessori public school is unlikely to remain true to the method if community and government-level pressure demand that premium focus be put on teaching to the test.

5) Lack of Public Support:
Critics of the Montessori Method often cite the fact that typical Montessori private school students (Caucasian, middle class, of educated parents) are likely to do well in life no matter what type of education they receive. At present, there is a lack of concrete data concerning how public school Montessori students from diverse backgrounds are faring in comparison to their peers. The public has yet to be given a highly-publicized reason to widely adopt Montessori public school programs.

My concern is that this circumstance is unlikely to change. So long as test scores rather than the emotional and intellectual development and happiness of children remain the grounds for comparison, I am dubious about what Montessori educators could prove that would be of genuine value. Even data demonstrating that Montessori students test higher doesn’t really tell us what kind of lives the students go on to live.

It’s an Uphill Climb, But It’s Worth It

Many of my customers are public school teachers and administrators. This lets me know that lots of different school districts are committed to implementing Montessori. Hopefully, these programs will be successful and lead to an explosion of Montessori public schools.

I can’t help but feel that if Dr. Montessori were with us today, she would be continuing to inspire people to take the method where it is needed most. The thirstiest plants in the garden often show the most remarkable, astounding response when given a little water. Should educators continue to work to overcome the difficulties inherent in offering Montessori in the public schools? My answer is a resounding YES! The potential benefits strike me as worth every effort.

What do you think?