Montessori: The Missing Voice in Educational Reform

The Roots of the Problem

Commentary on a 2012 Huffington Post Article: Montessori Education Debate

The words of Laura Flores Shaw are like music to my ears! Yes, Montessori needs to be looked at and deeply examined as the debate over American education rages on. Yes, many of the answers to seemingly intractable issues can be found in Montessori. Yes, it is a powerful means to re-instill dignity into our children’s educational experience and help them tap their potential. Yes, yes, yes!

The root of the problem goes way back to when Montessori first flourished in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. President Wilson’s daughter was enamored of Montessori. Alexander Graham Bell was the President of the Montessori society in the US and things looked rosy. But the educational establishment did not seem to care for the possibility of competition.

William Heard Kilpatrick, one of the Columbia University professors under Dewey’s leadership wrote a little pamphlet calling Montessori “100 years behind the times” and “downright dangerous.” I read it some years ago in the New York City Public Library. I laughed aloud when I read it. In those days the common phrase around Colombia was, “There is no God but Dewey and Kilpatrick are his prophets.” Well, a hundred years later we find that Montessori was far from behind the times. She was more like 100 years ahead of her time! And far from dangerous, Montessori has proven to be successful in nearly every nation on earth and many children are freed from all manner of learning problems with her materials and approach.

We may laugh at just how wrong Kilpatrick was, but the damage was done and Montessori was virtually shut out in the US for thirty years. It was only in the early 1950s when Dr. Nancy McCormack Rambusch and Dr. Elisabeth Caspari started little schools that Montessori came alive once again and has not stopped growing. Yet there is a bias against Montessori deeply entrenched in the American educational establishment and we have to expose it and move beyond it.

Our goal needs to always focus on the children—their needs, their education and their success. You may have read Joel Klein’s May 10, 2011 Wall Street Journal expose on teacher unions where he quoted the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, as saying, “When school children start paying union does, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” I was shocked when I read that. Such a blatant admission that the teachers come first! That is not the world Montessori teachers live in and that is certainly not the world that parents live in.

We can vote with our feet. We can go visit Montessori schools and see for ourselves. We can put our children in Montessori schools, start our own schools and work toward developing more Montessori charter schools so children can attend without having to pay tuition. We can pay attention to state laws that may inhibit the ability of Montessori schools to do their work. There are already hundreds of Montessori charters schools in most US states and more are being formed every year. Some states are supporting them, such as Louisiana, while some states continue to try and block them.

These schools are bringing joy to the hearts of children and their parents and they are bringing results. One of the Montessori secondary schools in Ohio was named the second best high school in the US by President Obama last year. Research conducted in Milwaukee public schools showed Montessori gave children a clear academic advantage over their public school peers. As Elisabeth Caspari used to say, “It works, it works, it works.” What more needs to be said?

More Blog Posts