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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired but Marginal (Part 3)

Who am I quoting here? Hint: Quotes come from person born in the 19th century.

If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?

The ancient superficial idea of the uniform and progressive growth of the human personality has remained unaltered, and the erroneous belief has persisted that it is the duty of the adult to fashion the child according to the pattern required by society.

If you guessed John Dewey, you were wrong. The quotes come from Maria Montessori (1870-1952).

Born in Italy, Montessori became a physician –one of few women to do so at the time. In 1906, she was appointed as head of the Casa Dei Bambini where she developed ideas, materials, and teaching practices for poor children in Rome that have since become known as the Montessori Method.

Montessori schools spread throughout Europe before and after World I, the Great Depression, and after World War II. Dr. Montessori came to the U.S. in 1913 and 1915 and schools –all private–sprung up throughout the U.S. 

Beginning in the 1970s, the private sector of Montessori schools slowly accommodated to the introduction of public Montessori schools. The first public Montessori opened in 1975 in Cincinnati (OH)–the city now has two Montessori high schools (see Laura Chapman’s comment below). The state of South Carolina has established nearly 50 public Montessori schools scattered across 20 districts. The Milwaukee school district has eight public Montessori schools enrolling nearly 3500 students, the most of any one district in the nation. Overall, there are 549 public and 2134 Montessori elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. Making Montessori schools public is another instance of a reform aimed at school organization, curriculum, and instruction succeeding in entering American schools. Those who say often and loudly that school reforms fail again and again have not only kindergartens, the age-graded schools,and small group teaching to consider but also charters and Montessori schools. All of these were reforms adopted by public schools that spread or resided in protected niches.

The Montessori Method:

When a child is given a little leeway, he will at once shout, ’I want to do it!’ But in our schools, which have an environment adapted to children’s needs, they say, ‘Help me to do it alone.’  Maria Montessori

The American Montessori Society sponsors teacher training, provides materials, and certifies schools and teachers as fully prepared in the Montessori Method. They describe their approach:

Montessori education is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment.

Within the community of a multi-age classroom—designed to create natural opportunities for independence, citizenship, and accountability—children embrace multi-sensory learning and passionate inquiry. Individual students follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals.

Given the freedom and support to question, probe deeply, and make connections, Montessori students grow up to be confident, enthusiastic, and self-directed learners and citizens, accountable to both themselves and their community. They think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly and with integrity. What better outcome could you wish for your children?

Montessori trained teachers, loads of specially designed materials and multi-aged groups of children characterize this approach to schooling.

In the past four decades of reform, then, public Montessori schools have appeared in more and more districts.

And what does research say about the Montessori Method and its outcomes for children? Two findings stand out. First, the Montessori Method is consistent with the bulk of human development literature on children’s growth and learning. Second, Montessori children, regardless of family finances, do well academically. Angeline Lillard, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, summarizes her research and findings in this YouTube video.

Yet in 2020, even with rave reviews for this approach to schooling and a sharp uptick in growth of public Montessori schools, Milwaukee (WI) has only eight public Montessori out of 154 schools. In New York City with 1700 public schools, there are three Montessori schools.

So an innovative approach to schooling founded by a woman doctor over a century ago has experienced erratic but constant growth both world-wide and in the U.S. initially in the private sector and since the 1970s, among U.S. public schools. Advocates among parents and teachers accompanied by a national infrastructure of support for training and certifying of teachers and materials help explain the growth of these public Montessori schools. Many districts, often accused to being hostile to school reform, adopted this innovative approach to school organization, curriculum, and instruction. 

Here again, then, is a persistent, admired brand of schooling that occupies a safe place in many districts across the nation yet remains marginal to whichever system it is in. Like International BaccalaureateCore Knowledgeproblem-based learning, and charter schools, Montessori remains an innovative approach to teaching and learning that has yet to break out of its shielded nook and spread to other schools in the system. 

How come? The final part of this series tries to answer that puzzling question.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...