Is Montessori the Future of American Education?

The number of innovative public Montessori schools is growing rapidly, and kids are learning in wild new ways.
Taking care of animals will be part of the daily routine at a new Montessori school in Connecticut. (Photo: Milk & Honey Creative)
Dec 18, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

Forget worksheets, droning videos, and texbooks.  Montessori schools—which encourage student independence and creativity—are starting to blossom in the United States. “There has been substantial growth over the past decade,” says Keith Whitescarver, the founding director for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. “A lot of people are upset with public schools and want an alternative. School districts are perking up because it appeals across social class and race lines.”

Why? Many parents are attracted to the child-based learning method, which encourages independence and imagination. The model allows for lots of variation when it comes to schools surroundings. How wild can things get? At a new Montessori magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut, students will actually be taught in a farm.

Yes, a farm, says Annie Fisher Montessori school principal John Freeman. “The environment,” Freeman says, “will be adapted to the students’ needs, so even [students with challenges] will flourish there.”

Kids will raise produce to sell to the Hartford Public School District, study pedagogy of place (learn about the surrounding landscape and history), and learn practices such as beekeeping.

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“Beekeeping is a microeconomy,” Freeman says. The students will buy the bees and build their boxes, then do all the financial planning and work with the public to sell the resulting products, such as honey and beeswax. The young beekeepers will also study the molecular makeup of honey, the anatomy of bees and learn about the history of beekeeping around the world. “They will do this all side by side with an adult who will act as their role model,” he says.

Although Italian educator Dr. Maria Montessori originally taught her vision of child-led education for free in the poorest neighborhoods of Rome, Montessori schools in the United States have mostly flourished in the private realm—for a hefty tuition. The numbers are a little shaky because not all schools labeled “Montessori” are actually accredited, but there are approximately 4,000 to 6,000 private Montessori schools in the nation. In the 1970s, a handful of public Montessori schools popped up, and in the 1980s, there were about 50 around the country. But Whitescarver says that the movement grew slowly until the past few years. “There are now about 500 public Montessori schools in existence—up from 300 ten years ago.”

These public Montessori schools range from single classroom programs in traditional public schools to large campuses, like Compass Montessori School in Golden, Colo., which goes from preschool through 12th grade. Most of the Montessori schools emphasize education indoors (classroom material) and outdoors (gardens and animal care), and the children learn practical skills as well as more advanced theories from the in-depth work they do.

Whitescarver says most districts are now open to trying Montessori—as are many parents. “The kids coming out of Montessori are high achievers, such as the [high visibility] Google founders,” he says. “I think people have a favorable opinion about Montessori right now even if they don’t know exactly what it is.”

“I think there is a real knowledge that Montessori is a great choice,” agrees Freeman, who says his Annie Fisher magnet school (which recently was the only public Montessori school in the country to receive the AMI Certificate of Recognition for excellent Montessori practices) will expand to high school in 2016.

Freeman says his school is often toured as an example for surrounding towns and cities. “We have a current crop of parents who are ready to act on education reform.” Is Montessori the answer to the country's education crises? Perhaps. At the very least, we're apt to see a surge of creative learning enviornments like the Annie Fisher farm that will give educators more data to examine.

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