With little else to parse, Montessori leaders pored over Mr. Bezos’ brief statement, which described the planned schools as “Montessori-inspired.” The term “Montessori” is not copyrighted, and any school can choose to describe itself as such.
Some research, however, shows that Montessori classrooms that hew closest to the original principles of the movement’s founder, Dr. Maria Montessori, are more effective at raising student achievement than programs with a looser approach.
Mr. Bezos attended a Montessori preschool in Albuquerque in the 1960s and is one of several tech industry leaders with personal ties to the method. The Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have attributed some of their success to their Montessori educations. Dr. Montessori’s reframing of child’s play as “work,” driven by the child’s choices and interests, is, in many ways, a natural fit for Silicon Valley’s culture of founder-driven entrepreneurship and innovation.
But the movement has always faced challenges in appealing to parents who desire a more traditional education for their children. In a classic Montessori school, teachers generally do not lecture in front of the classroom and instead impart lessons on phonics or counting by engaging students individually or in small groups. They may invite children to participate in an activity, but do not require them to do so.
That is counterintuitive for many traditionally trained educators. “Instead of having one lesson plan, you have 24 different lesson plans, one for each child in the classroom,” said Katie Kitchens, a Montessori specialist at a public school in Austin, Tex., and the vice president of Montessori for Social Justice, which seeks to expand the movement’s reach. “It’s a really humbling process. You’re no longer the center of that conversation anymore, the keeper of all the information. It’s this constant process of stepping back.”
Montessori has the image as “this cultish thing” for middle-class and wealthy families, Dr. Whitescarver acknowledged. But the movement has long tried to serve a more diverse group of children. In 1907, Dr. Montessori opened her school Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in a poor neighborhood in Rome.
The first Americans to embrace Montessori were in fact affluent, white suburbanites. But by the 1960s, black and Latino parents were opening Montessori schools in many cities, attracted by the idea that a child-centered education could combat racism. Those programs often had trouble winning the philanthropic support they needed to survive, according to Mira Debs, executive director of the education studies program at Yale.