The Montessori Method: Could Public Schools Change Over?

Montessori, as an educational method, tempts many parents with its student-driven focus. In the Montessori Method, the child becomes the architect of his own education. Education is tailored to the individual student. This all sounds so much better than the one-size-fits-all education of most public school settings with their Common Core Standards. But for most parents, public school is all there is: all they can afford. And the Montessori Method isn’t available in most public schools.

The good news is that this reality is beginning to change. Since 2012, the Montessori Method has spread to more than 400 public schools. This means that more children than ever before have access to this innovative educational method, no matter how much money their parents make.

If you’re a parent, you might have read up on different education models. Some of these methods have come and gone, while others have lasting appeal. The Look Say reading method lasted a good thirty years. The Whole Language Method so popular in the early 1990s, eventually lost ground to the Phonics Method. New Math and the Open Classroom were short-lived education fads.

But the Montessori Method, at over 100 years old, is still going strong. Despite its advanced age, Montessori remains a progressive educational method that is used in countries all over the world. Sometimes schools adopt some of the principles of the Montessori Method, using them alongside other more traditional methods. Other schools, for instance public schools and charter schools, have embraced the Montessori Method in full.

To date, there are more than 4,500 certified Montessori schools in the United States and more than 20,000 worldwide. There is no doubt that this educational method is popular. But whether or not the method results in improved learning outcomes and social and emotional development has proven difficult to measure.

Nonetheless, we do know that some of the most innovative thinkers in business and entertainment, for instance Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia; chef extraordinaire Julia Child; and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, spent their early years in Montessori schools.

On the positive side, a 2006 paper published in Science Magazine, by Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest found that Milwaukee students in two age groups, 5 and 12, did better in Montessori schools than in traditional public school classrooms. The children in this study were assessed with the Woodcock-Johnson test for cognitive, academic, social, and behavioral skills. Researchers found “… significant advantages for the Montessori students in these tests for both age groups…”

According to the report, “Montessori students [especially those in the 5-year range] proved to be significantly better prepared for elementary school in reading and math skills than the non-Montessori children. They also tested better on ‘executive function,’ and their ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems.”

On the social and behavioral tests, the researchers found the Montessori students were more likely to engage in “emotionally positive play” with peers of the same and different age groups, were less hostile, and exhibited a “greater sense of justice and fairness.”

In the older groups (age 12), the Montessori students wrote essays that demonstrated greater creativity and complexity. Like their younger counterparts, the 12-year-old Montessori students had a greater sense of community, felt a need to help others, and tackled unpleasant social situations with more positive methods.

Milawaukee Study Naysayers

Looking at these results, one might wonder why the Montessori Method is not the standard method used in the U.S. public school system. A partial reason is that some say the Milwaukee study wasn’t large enough to be conclusive, since it focused on a single school. The naysayers also say the Milwaukee study is “plagued by methodological and statistical problems” so that it can’t be said to prove its claims.

Lillard and Else-Quest defend their study by saying that the school in question is one that is faithful to Montessori standards. That means, they say, that the results can be generalized to apply to all Montessori students in schools adhering to proper Montessori standards. Assuming we accept this reasoning, we have to wonder: if the Montessori Method leads to better outcomes, why aren’t more public schools using this method?

Falling Test Scores

After all, traditional methods have been less than successful. The traditional public school education has led mainly to falling test scores and the Common Core Standards nightmare. Don’t our children deserve better?

The answer is that it’s not so easy to introduce the Montessori Method into the traditional public school classroom. There are many reasons why this is so.

It’s Familiar

We’re used to the current educational system. In the traditional classroom, the teacher teaches in units. The class learns a subject, is tested as a whole, and the teacher then moves on to new material according to a schedule.

In a Montessori classroom, teachers become the architects and facilitators of each individual student’s learning program. The teacher evaluates each student, designs an individualized educational plan, and creates learning materials and work specific to each student. There are no tests or assessments. Learning is hands-on, active, and independent.

A student in the traditional classroom may be bored, having mastered the material before the teacher is ready to move on to the next unit. Another student may be left behind, as the teacher moves on to teach the new unit, as the student may not yet have fully mastered the material.

A student’s success in the Montessori classroom is based solely on mastery. A student moves on to new material and concepts only when he has mastered the material or concepts he’s working on.

Key Unlocking Colorful puzzle world
Marie Montessori believed that each child had an innate curiosity that could be unlocked with the right tools and environment.

Teaching To The Test

In the current public school system, a teacher lectures and students passively listen and take notes by rote. Active, independent learning for the most part occurs only at home, usually while the student is completing mounds of homework. Learning outcomes for the traditional classroom are measured by assessment tests. Because the child’s success is measured according to test scores, the teacher may “teach to the test,” aiming for overall excellence in classroom scores on standardized tests rather than teaching according to a specific student’s needs.

In New York State, for example, all students must pass the Regents exams. High school graduates have to earn a Regents Diploma. Preparing for the Regents requires time–lots of it. In early spring, the curriculum shifts to Regents Preparation and students are drilled, assigned problem sets, practice tests, and problem-solving tips. They’re even taught how to master a timed test.

It’s not a great system. Learning in this case is not active or child-centered, and the critical skills needed for problem-solving and critical thinking for life beyond school, are not developed or even addressed. But switching to the Montessori Method in the public schools would require a massive overhaul of the current system, a system that is familiar, entrenched. For this reason, it is doubtful that the Montessori Method will be widely adopted by public schools, at any time soon.

It’s Expensive

The Montessori Method is expensive. To be certified as a Montessori program, a school must create a space that complies with this method’s guidelines. The school must also invest in the materials needed to outfit classrooms. Montessori certified teachers require two licenses: one through the state and a second through a Montessori association that is qualified to offer certification and licensing. In some cases, experienced teachers must relearn educational methods in order to adapt to the Montessori Method.

For some school districts, the expense isn’t the issue. According to Jane Carol Manner, Associate Professor of Education, East Carolina University, some districts might be willing to absorb the expense that comes with Montessori certification. They do, however, want some guarantee that the method will produce results, for instance successful learning outcomes as measured by test scores. Because the Montessori Method doesn’t subscribe to testing, there can be no such guarantees.

There’s A Conflict: No Tests

There is a conflict between the Montessori Method and traditional classroom objectives. Right now, every child is meant to have the same learning outcomes and schools are supposed to follow a set of standards. In many states, these standards are the Common Core Standards. To be both a public school and a Montessori school, there must be some kind of testing, which of course, runs counter to Montessori guidelines.

How can a Montessori public school hope to achieve results that are similar to those of private Montessori schools, if the curriculum must change to include testing?

Manner raises another real concern. The teach-to-the-test method gives students in the public school system ample practice test-taking time. How can a Montessori student, without that test-taking practice, demonstrate the same results?

students in mixed-age classroom
Montessori students learn in mixed-age classrooms.

It’s Hard To Switch

Students used to the traditional classroom might have difficulty switching to the Montessori Method. Typically, Montessori schools don’t admit older students who haven’t been trained in the Montessori Method. The entire idea of child-centered learning, working alone, working in a mixed-age class, and mentoring other students is foreign to the public school system. If implemented, older students might not adjust well to independent learning and might get stuck in a transitional phase until they learn how it’s done. The Montessori Method also pairs students in a class based on developmental levels, not age. This may be difficult or come as a shock for older students who may suddenly be placed in a class with younger classmates.

In applying the Montessori Method to public schools, it’s clear that there must be a transitional period where parts of the philosophy are overlapped with current practices. A shift from the traditional classroom to the Montessori classroom must evolve in a natural way. A flipped classroom might just be an effective part of that transition.

Schools that adopt flipped classrooms are known to have higher learning outcomes. In the flipped classroom, a teacher assigns short videos and online assignments either through distance learning or a MOOC. Students watch the videos, complete short assignments, and learn important concepts at home. Class time then becomes a space for homework, problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. And instead of playing the part of lecturer, the teacher becomes a facilitator.

In the traditional school system, learning outcomes are low; the high school drop-out rate continues to rise; and students aren’t getting the intellectual, social, and emotional skills they need to functional well in the adult world. We need a more effective educational system. A new model that helps to transition administrators, teachers, and students away from the traditional public school classroom environment over to the Montessori Method, may be just the change our children need to get ahead.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published November 7, 2014, and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.

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  1. The examples of successful people who began their schooling in a Montessori school is very interesting. At the Montessori school that I run, we have seen the same creativity and basis of proper learning being developed in every single one of our children.

    The transition seems very far away. Could it be that teachers today prefer a “no child left behind” system because it is easier for them to generalize their teaching to all students rather than customize the learning experience and material to each child?

    • Good point.. “no child left behind” can be viewed as an easier way of teaching and the Montessori method takes a lot more from the teacher (whether it be time, energy, money, etc.).

  2. “Despite being over a hundred years old, it still remains a progressive method in educational. ” in educational? I think you mean in education. Proofreading!

  3. Your article deserves a comment! Thank you. I would add another reason for Montessori never being a popular choice for public school preschools. The government and legislation would have to support it. But our government consists of elected officials who depend on funding from private corporations that would NOT want to see Montessori education and materials replace their textbooks, tests, practice tests, and classroom’s traditional materials. These corporations will never support public school Montessori education. I am a retired AMI public preschool teacher from the Denver area. After some years, the mandated testing and test materials eroded the Montessori curriculum, just as you stated. It grew into an intolerable work environment for me, doing the impossible. My training was in traditional teaching, so I can speak from both sides here. I taught in grades 1 through 8 for 15 years. Then I did a masters degree in education and a year long full time AMI course of study. My 12 years following that in the DPS system was in a Montessori primary classroom with thirty 3,4 and 5 year old students. It was great. But it couldn’t last, sorry to say. The teachers there now undoubtably do a great job . But I was losing my balance in the tightrope we were forced to walk. Enough said! I’m sure you get it! Susan.

    • Thank you. I will pass on your message to Ms. Huerta. So sorry to hear how difficult it is to make Montessori, such a wonderful educational system, mainstream.

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Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.

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