Montessori or Non-tessori?

Is your child’s Montessori school actually a Montessori school?

Rachel Rodriguez teaches a small-group lesson in her classroom at Hill Country Montessori in Boerne, Texas.
Rachel Rodriguez teaches a small-group lesson in her classroom at Hill Country Montessori in Boerne, Texas. Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

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

AUSTIN, Texas—Mallory Foster was relieved when she, her husband, and her stepson’s mother agreed that a local Montessori school would be the right fit for their 4-year-old. They weren’t specifically looking for a Montessori program, but that style of learning appealed to the three parents; it was a sort of added bonus to a school that advertised itself as a “Montessori garden” where kids would spend most of their time outside. Located in a south Austin home, the day care center boasted more than a half-acre of land for children to explore and on which they could grow vegetables in their own gardening plots. Inside, the living room was filled with wooden toys that Foster was told were Montessori supplies.

But after only a few months, Foster started to have concerns about the school’s safety and the quality of the education. Long emails from the director, the only adult on-site, came during the middle of the day while the children were awake. Foster wondered how the woman could monitor children while writing. And Foster’s stepson didn’t seem to be learning much. Around Christmas, he told Foster he was spending his days sitting alone in a room playing with puzzles while the other kids were outside. When Foster confronted the owner, she refused to let Foster into the school and wouldn’t sit down for a parent-teacher conference. The parents pulled their child out of the school. A few months later, they enrolled him in a public preschool program through their local school district. Within a year, and after multiple bad reviews on social media sites, the self-described Montessori school closed and the owner left town.

“This woman was not interested in Montessori education,” Foster said on a recent afternoon. “She was really just trying to exploit it.” Now, several years later, after pursuing a degree in psychology and taking courses in child development, Foster is more educated about Montessori education and realizes little about the “Montessori garden” actually adhered to Montessori practice. “It’s an attractive label to set your little private day care apart from the umpteen other ones that are within a mile radius of yours,” Foster said.

Foster’s experience in finding a “Montessori school” that didn’t actually adhere to Montessori ideals is not unique. 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. Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been impressed by the idea of Montessori, and recently dedicated $2 billion to a fund that will support, among other things, the creation of a Montessori-inspired chain of schools.

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 day cares 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. “We Montessorians call that ‘Monte-somethings,’ ” said Sandra Karnstadt, founder of Lake Hills Montessori, an American Montessori Society member school just west of Austin. “We don’t know what they are.”

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 Montessori’s key classroom tenets—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, 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.

Montessori materials sit on a shelf in a primary classroom at Hill Country Montessori.
Montessori materials sit on a shelf in a primary classroom at Hill Country Montessori. Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

For years, many parents have clamored for spots in private Montessori preschools. These programs, when done right, are led by specially trained teachers who preside over multi-age classrooms in which self-discipline is encouraged and 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 over their learning.

Supporters say the Montessori approach gives children the materials and time to learn independently and at their own pace. It strives to help children develop concentration and to learn without the promise of extrinsic rewards or grades. This approach helps children “develop a love of learning,” said Rachel Rodriguez, a certified Montessori teacher at Hill Country Montessori just north of San Antonio. “It honors each child’s interests and sparks that sense of wonder so learning sounds really good to them.”

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.

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.

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.

But 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).

“You can’t really call yourself a Montessori school unless you have trained teachers,” said MACTE President Rebecca Pelton.

Montessori classrooms are organized into several distinct work areas, each displaying unique Montessori materials. In the practical life area, students may learn how to sew, water a plant, arrange flowers, iron fabric and wash dishes. In the sensorial area, students match fabrics and sort materials by size or color. In the math area, students touch sandpaper numbers, group strings of colored beads to learn about numerals and the decimal system and learn multiplication using bars of beads attached to a wooden frame.

During a daily three-hour work session, students are encouraged to interact with whatever interests them. Materials are “self-correcting,” which means pieces fit together in a specific way, and children must discover the correct way to stack or replace materials in a box. Students receive individual or small-group lessons and can work individually or with peers, ideally staying with an activity for an extended period of time rather than moving quickly from one item to the next.

Although research has yet to isolate exactly what it is about the Montessori approach that may lead to student success, looking for schools that adhere closely to the main tenets of Montessori is likely to lead parents to a more authentic school.

Some advocates, like Tim Seldin, president of the Montessori Foundation, are less critical about the variance parents may see among Montessori schools and hesitate to use the word authentic, preferring “fully implemented” or “partially implemented” instead.

Montessori is “not a national franchise,” Seldin said. “What it is, is a set of ideas and strategies, and you’re going to see people interpreting it according to their personality and their taste and what they think their customers want.”

Seldin said he’s glad to see people trying to use elements of Montessori in different situations. And ultimately, he said, it’s important for parents to like the school, whether it’s a fully implemented Montessori or not. “Are you happy? Is your kid happy?” Seldin asked.

Parent Mallory Foster admits she was turned off to the idea of Montessori after her experience with the Montessori imposter. But she eventually gave Montessori another shot. When she was looking for child care for her younger son and daughter, she called a local Montessori school, took a tour, and checked that the school was affiliated with a school accreditation organization before enrolling her kids.

From the beginning, she said, she could tell that this school truly adhered to Montessori principles. “I could really see how different their approach is, and continues to be,” Foster said.

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.